The Seattle Mariners are in the early stages of what’s likely to be a lengthy rebuild. Already this winter general manager Jerry Dipoto has traded ace James Paxton, second baseman Robinson Cano, shortstop Jean Segura, closer Edwin Diaz, and a number of other talented relievers. Dipoto is certain to continue dismantling the Mariners over the coming months, enhancing the possibility that he’ll be the only constant in Seattle baseball over the next three to five years.
To be clear: Dipoto was in a tough spot coming into the offseason. The Mariners overachieved in 2018, winning 89 games despite a run differential befitting a 77-win club. Their core was old and their farm system bad, leaving them without room to improve internally. Ownership appeared unwilling to support a payroll nearing $200 million, leaving Dipoto without a means to improve other than through challenge trades. , but a full-fledged rebuild in Seattle was defensible, understandable, and inevitable.
Let’s be clear about something else, too: Dipoto is benefiting more from the rebuild than just about anyone else — and it’s because hitting reset has become the easiest way for general managers to gain job security.
In three full seasons at the helm, Dipoto pulled off countless trades to remake the organization to his liking. He’s authored 16 deals since last November, including a number of “win-now” moves for Dee Gordon, Ryon Healy, Denard Span and Alex Colome, and so on. Despite the velocity of the moves, it’s unclear if the Mariners were in a better position before the tear-down started than when Dipoto was hired after the 2015 season. For that reason and others — the industry was buzzing about perceived disharmony within the Mariners front office well a recently dismissed Mariners team employee levied allegations of racial discrimination against the team’s leadership — it’s possible Dipoto would have been dismissed had the Mariners suffered through another losing season. They didn’t; instead, they started off hot and Dipoto signed a multiyear extension in July.
Now, Dipoto is in a somewhat enviable position: He doesn’t have to show results to keep his job. The old saying was teams had to sell fans on wins or hope. In this post-“Process” era, fans seem more open than ever to buying hope — that their organizations can build a so-called sustainable winner that has many shots at a championship rather than one or two. Not coincidentally, the sustainable strategy aligns with the best business practices from an owner’s perspective.
Rebuilding teams are less likely to spend on the big-league roster — all the good players will be traded or will be too early in their careers to make significant coin. The spending caps on amateur talent ensure that teams can still secure top prospects without entering massive bidding wars. If and when those prospects develop into good players, they’ll have to wade through six seasons before they can make their market’s worth; again, a positive for owners’ wallets. And heck, the revenue model has even shifted in favor of rebuilds as smart business. Teams don’t have to worry about coercing fans through the turnstiles to make a dime — they can bank on billion-dollar television deals paying out whether they win 102 or lose 102.
That the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have won two of the past three World Series after going scorched earth makes the whole scheme easier to sell. But success — let alone great success — isn’t guaranteed from racking up high draft picks. Just look at the Mariners, who haven’t reached the postseason since 2001, as evidence. Along the way, they’ve drafted in the top-10 five times. Those players — Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen, and Mike Zunino — have combined to make zero All-Star Game appearances. The Mariners will probably fare better heading forward, if only because it’d be hard to do worse.
Dipoto isn’t the first GM to reverse course after coming up short at winning, either. A.J. Preller went all-in his first winter running the San Diego Padres, then retreated into what’s likely to prove as a highly-successful rebuild. Rick Hahn couldn’t buttress a good, cost-efficient core with enough role players to reach the postseason, so he cashed in his chits and is trying again with the Chicago White Sox. Both still have their jobs, years after beginning the retooling process. The same benefit of the doubt will likely be given to Dipoto for at least a couple of years to come.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Mariners rebuild is that it’s already clear the intent isn’t to compile as much of the best young talent as they possibly can. If that were the case, Dipoto wouldn’t have attached perceived albatrosses to quality players, the way he did with both the Diaz and Segura trades, and Kyle Seager deal. The more money one asks another team to inherit, the less prospect capital one will receive in return.Everyone knows that. So what motivation does Dipoto have for proceeding the way he has other than to curry favor with ownership by slashing costs?
The Mariners seem to be proceeding with one eye on the future and another on the ledger. That’s seldom a successful formula for a rebuild for anyone outside of ownership and management, but that’s also how baseball works in the modern era.