Drayer: After big trades, Mariners’ farm no longer woefully understocked
The heavy lifting of the Mariners’ offseason is most likely done.
At least according to general manager Jerry Dipoto, as he said in his conference call with the media following a pair of blockbuster trades with the Mets and Phillies Monday afternoon. And although he will always listen to offers, Dipoto said things should be relatively quiet until baseball’s winter meetings next week, when his focus will be “back-filling” the Mariners’ remaining roster needs, especially in the bullpen.
To date, Dipoto has traded four relievers from the Mariners’ big league roster, most notably of course being closer Edwin Díaz. The result, in large part due to the trade sending Díaz and Robinson Canó to the Mets, is a farm system that had been ranked last by a number of publications all of the sudden looking very different at the top.
Just take a look at MLB Pipeline rankings of the Mariners’ top prospects from January of each of the past three years, as well as just before and after Monday’s trades.
MLB Pipeline top 10 Mariners prospect rankings
What you see there in the most recent rankings is the Mariners’ hope for the future. The first six names are all first-round picks. including Kelenic and Dunn, who were heavily scouted pre-draft by the Mariners. Dipoto had big eyes for Kelenic in particular.
“We thought Jarred was the best player in the (2018) draft,” Dipoto said. “We did bring him into Safeco for a workout. It was impressive to say the least. We got to know him very well. We had it narrowed down to he and (2018 Mariners first-round pick) Logan Gilbert and we didn’t believe either was going to get to us, and we were fortunate that one did. Now we are fortunate to get the other as well.”
Following the six first-round picks is Julio Rodriguez, 17-year old outfielder and a top 10 international signing from the Dominican Republic. Rodriguez has not been shy about putting the word out that he has his sights on being the next big thing in the game, telling The Athletic his goal is “to break baseball.”
Clearly a talent upgrade since the start of the offseason, and that is not limited to the top 10. Erik Swanson, a starter acquired in the James Paxton trade who should see the big leagues this year, comes in at No. 11, followed by his trade partner Dom Thompson-Williams, an outfielder who checks in at 16. Ricardo Sanchez, who the Mariners sent cash to Atlanta for, is now the 23rd-ranked prospect in the organization, outfielder Jake Fraley (acquired from Tampa Bay in the Mike Zunino deal) is 27th, and reliever Gerson Bautista, the final piece in the Mets trade, is 28th.
Where Dipoto took from a woefully stocked farm system in his first three offseasons with the Mariners, in the last month he has paid it back with considerable interest – perhaps more interest than he originally thought he would.
“We really didn’t anticipate moving Robinson Canó, as a result we really didn’t anticipate moving Edwin. The rest of it is much by design,” he said.
Dipoto said he approached the deal with the Mets as two trades: Canó and dollars for Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, and Díaz for Kelenic, Dunn and Bautista. He engaged with other clubs to determine Díaz’s value on his own versus what they would get by trading him with Canó, and he came away with a perhaps surprising conclusion.
“At the end of the day, four years (under team control) as a reliever, as much as we value the reliever in today’s game, the going rate on the trade market is what it is,” said Dipoto. “This was probably our favorite deal, every bit as good and probably a little better than what we were able to access with other clubs.”
And so Díaz is gone and three young players from the Mets added to the organization. The core at the big league level would appear to consist of Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, Mallex Smith, Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford. And if all goes according to plan, they should be joined sooner rather than later by a number of players from that top 10 list.
“The only player that we have acquired in the last month who might be pressed to get on the front side of that window (debuting in 2020 or 2021) is Jarred Kelenic,” Dipoto said, going on to indicate that he expected most of the other members of the top 10 in the majors by midseason 2020.
Prospects are prospects, though, and there are absolutely no guarantees with any of them at the major league level. But getting them to the bigs? With the list above, I see a couple of waves of possible future cores, with Evan White, Kyle Lewis and Dunn (who will start the season in Double-A but is expected to move quickly) likely to be among the first to advance. Swanson could be hot on their heels. Further behind but also with a chance to move quickly are Josh Stowers and Gilbert. The most exciting prospects, Kelenic and Rodriguez, will come last, with the Mariners hoping they will be joining a team back on track and competing year in and year out for the playoffs.
A lot of ifs there, but it is hard to argue for the alternative of taking one more shot in a highly competitive league with an aging core.
“We could continue to try and build around those four guys (Canó, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Félix Hernández), but in doing that we had to make up so much ground on the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, that it was highly unlikely we were going to be able to do that via free agency,” Dipoto said. “We really didn’t have the capital to get to that point without robbing our system really for a decade to come.
“We built around that group for three years, we were highly competitive, we had a couple of near misses. We felt if we waited one year and tried one more year with that core, we might have been in a position that we were unable to do any of what we were doing now and effectively stave off a 10-year rebuild for what we think can be a much shorter reset.”
As it stands, they are out from under what would have been an increasingly burdensome contract of Canó. And while with most rebuilds you see a dramatic drop in payroll, that won’t happen right away for the Mariners, who are expected to have a payroll in the $140 million range in 2019. That should drop off dramatically in the years that follow, and with that will come flexibility, according to Dipoto.
“The payroll we have been able to pull back can better be re-purposed once we get to our open window,” he said. “We didn’t really make the ‘19 team considerably cheaper, we made the ’21, ‘22 teams considerably more flexible with these deals. And that is part of the idea is to put ourselves in position that when our young players are out on the field, that team can be augmented by using the free agent market for what we would view the free agent market as, which is to finish a team rather than to build one.”
In the end, the choice was to build around youth. With youth comes bumps, and 2019 almost undoubtedly will be rough in the terms of wins and losses, but the focus will be on moving forward and developing players. It’s a different path that will have a different look, with perhaps the most welcome look being talent coming up from a stocked minor league system – not to fill in, but to stay. While we have yet to see new organizational rankings, many believe the Mariners will make the leap to the top half with the recent moves.
Dipoto is bullish on this group.
“We feel like we just went from somewhere in the bottom five to somewhere in the top 10. We are very much looking forward to the next year’s draft and the international market and and even the idea of turning veteran players into young players. This is the road we have opted for and we are excited to watch them play.”