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Dipoto explains why Mariners aren’t worried about rotation, farm system

Jerry Dipoto pushed back on the Mariners' farm system being ranked baseball's worst. (AP)

Last week Baseball America weighed in on the state of the Mariners’ farm system, noting in their post about Seattle’s  top 10 prospects that they rank the organization dead last in baseball. This and a couple of other hot topics were tackled at the Mariners’ pre-spring training press conference and luncheon Thursday morning.

Not surprisingly, the view from the offices on the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way is a little different.

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“Subjective rankings are what they are,” said Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. “I respect Baseball America. We are a little more bullish on our group than they are. Our prospect system has been the most productive prospect system in baseball for the last two (seasons).”

Dipoto was quick with the list of players who were either graduated from the minors to the majors or traded for big league talent.

“We have produced a 25-homer, everyday first baseman. An everyday shortstop. Three everyday outfielders who have some degree of impact in a large degree of roles. We have finished off what we think is the development of one of the best catchers in MLB. We have developed a 24-year-old closer who is among the best in the league. The five guys sitting next to him can pitch the sixth, seventh and eighth innings on any given night. … That’s a lot of productivity for the farm system the last two years.”

Farm director Andy McKay said that while he respects Baseball America, the prospect label is not what he is concerned with as he sees every player as prospect. To do so otherwise, he believes, would be limiting to the player. To him the numbers mean little.

“Our players in our program are highly coveted by other organizations,” said McKay. “We are producing players who other teams want. In the trades that we have made we obviously have players that other teams are asking for. We look at that as the real measure of what we are doing.”

While acknowledging that the number of trades involving minor league players he has made has put a dent in the farm system, Dipoto pointed to other factors that influenced the ranking.

“You’re not going to make too many advancements in prospect rankings when you graduate 475 innings pitched in the big leagues, which is what our rookies did last year,” he said. “Two-hundred fifty games pitched, 1,522 plate appearances. That is the most innings pitched by rookies, the most games pitched by rookies, the second most plate appearances taken by rookies in the American League. We transitioned a lot of young players to the big league roster last year and they are no longer eligible for the prospect list. That doesn’t make them less than good young players.”

Dipoto inherited a poorly-ranked farm system when he arrived in Seattle yet still managed to make a large number of trades involving minor leaguers, many of which produced players who have contributed in the big leagues. Something out of Baseball America’s nothing, so to speak. If anything, he has shown there is value beyond what most can see.

Still, it is hard to see the Mariners competing for premium players with what they currently have in the minor leagues. That is where they sit today.

“You have to look at all of the detail and I am very comfortable with what we have done organizationally and how we set up,” said Dipoto. “Now it’s on us moving forward to make sure that we are no longer toward the end and we start to move north. I can’t criticize them for choosing to put us in that position, all I can do is take the challenge and we as an organization will try to make that better.”

As for the big league club, Dipoto is standing by his starting rotation. While conceding that the Houston Astros are at the top of the class when it comes to the starting five, Dipoto believes the Mariners’ rotation could hang in there with the majority of the rest.

“I don’t think there is another team in the AL West that outpaces us in the starting rotation,” he said. “Frankly I’m not sure if with the exception of last year’s playoff teams, Cleveland, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, I don’t think there is another team in the AL that can say their rotation is better than ours.”

Dipoto pointed to James Paxton (“among the top 10 or 12 best in the league in any metric you look at”) and Mike Leake (“one of but 33 pitchers in MLB by Fangraphs’ WAR to have 3 or more WAR”) as anchors of the rotation. As for the bottom of the rotation, he believes it will be better than most think.

The lynchpin of the group will be Felix Hernandez.

“It comes down to how Felix comes into spring training,” he said. “If he can give us the 25 starts or more like he did in 2016, we are going to be a good team. If Felix gives us 16 or less, we are going to have to answer a lot of questions.”

One question – one big question – is why not add to the starting rotation now? What is preventing him from making a move on one of the available free agents?

“Because you can only fit so many on a roster,” answered Dipoto.

“Philosophically you always want to maintain some kind of young element or cost-effective element in your rotation,” he went on to explain. “You have to create innings for those guys to show us what they can do, because if you can get one of those guys to step forward truly the way that we believe they can pitch, and do what they have done (to this point) now you have young affordable starting pitching that you can grow with. And you just won’t know if you are going off of 35 innings in a comeback season from Tommy John (Marco Gonzales) or or the first 50 innings of a career that took you from Oregon State to the big leagues in under two seasons (Andrew Moore).”

Dipoto indicated that not dipping into the free agent starting pitching market is not a money issue, but rather a philosophy/options/development issue with Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez out of minor league options. And the Mariners want to see Gonzales start at the big league level.

“We are doing the best we can to develop our system, not clog it,” he said. “Could we go out and sign a free agent that would be better than our No. 5 starter? Absolutely. Would that be the best thing for the present of the Mariners? Maybe. Would it be the best thing through the wider lens for the present and future of the Mariners? Probably not. We will be able to address that as we go along because the one thing we have not had to deal with here is lack of resources.”

This may be a bit of a roll of the dice, but if even one of Gonzales, Moore or Ariel Miranda take that step forward now, then a huge future need is filled. The Mariners would then go into next offseason better situated, with a better free agent market to shop from on the pitching side. For now, Dipoto believes he has his bases covered.

“I know there are flaws and I know there are things we could do to make it better, but the things that you could do is separate the wants, the needs and the reality, and some of what we need is we need some young players to step up, and some of what we need is the fortune of good health,” he said.

“Hopefully we answered our offseason rotation-building (by acquiring Leake, Ramirez and  Gonzales) last summer. It was our goal, we understood what we were doing when we did it and we think it will be a good group. If it’s not, hopefully you have seen from me (that) we probably won’t watch without trying to help. We will try to help in some way.”

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