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Drayer: Jerry Dipoto explains how focus on 2020-21 gives Mariners better shot at AL’s elite teams

The Houston Astros have been tough for the Mariners to catch in the AL West. (AP)

The roster-go-round appears to be coming to a halt as Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto admitted at the team’s pre-spring training press conference Thursday that he was largely done making moves this winter.

Takeaways: Mariners to have more fluid lineup this year

While he is still open to moving veterans for younger players if the opportunity should arise, Dipoto has the team he wants for the moment. What does he see with the group he has put together, and what exactly has he meant throughout the offseason when he mentioned targeting the 2020 and 2021 seasons to return to contention? At the media gathering at T-Mobile Park we got a better, fuller picture of just what has happened this offseason and what the team’s hopes and expectations are going forward.

“This offseason saw a lot of change, some of which we expected and some of which came as what I would call a pleasant surprise,” Dipoto said. “We have seen a lot of movement both at the major and minor league levels and we feel like this has been about as effective an offseason as we could imagine, which was to re-situate our team focus on the long-term rather than try to build around the core group we talked about so often over these last three years.”

They had a choice. They could have chosen to continue to add to the aging core group for the fourth season in a row in hopes of building enough to get them to the postseason. Could they realistically do enough, however, when you consider that Dipoto felt they took a good shot at it each of the previous three years?

“We fell short of that goal,” Dipoto said of the playoffs. “We performed fairly well on the field, fifth-best record in the American League over that time, and that wasn’t enough to get us to a single postseason and we had to take a look at ourselves.”

With the Nov. 8 trade of catcher Mike Zunino to Tampa Bay, it became clear what direction the Mariners had chosen to go. They weren’t adding, they were subtracting.

Servais: With younger roster, M’s will add more structure and discipline

Throughout the offseason, Dipoto spoke of a “step back” or “re-imagining” of the roster. It was not, he insisted, a “tear down to the studs,” and it certainly wasn’t an effort to “tank.” For many, “re-imagining” was a hard sell with players like Zunino, James Paxton, Robinson Canó, Alex Colomé, and perhaps the toughest hit of all, Edwin Díaz, heading out the door. That was only half of the picture, however. There were players that came back the other way, all part of a carefully thought-out plan to change course and target 2020-21, according to Dipoto.

“We identified a number of young players, young players and prospects we felt were ready or potentially ready to crest at that time (2020-21). Targeted them and started to made moves. Along the way we found opportunity where we weren’t expecting, particularly as it pertained to the deal we did with the New York Mets involving Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz. And we found a lot of those players we determined we wanted to access, we were able to get them. Some of them we fell short, others we were surprisingly able to acquire players we didn’t think we had a chance to.”

The result?

“We believe that we have gotten younger, we’ve gotten more sustainable,” Dipoto said, “and while we wouldn’t anticipate that we are a threat to win the World Series in 2019 we do feel like we are better situated to do this come 2020, 2021.”

There is a lot of wiggle room in this statement. Saying the Mariners should be better situated to be a threat to win is by no means saying that they will win or even be in the postseason or World Series. The intent in changing direction, however, is to be considerably more competitive than the past three years, and as Dipoto pointed out the Mariners had the fifth-most wins in the AL over that times – not terrible, but not enough to get to the postseason, either. One reason for that is the competition around them. While the Mariners are changing, so will those other teams, and that played a big part in formulating the current plan.

“We especially use 2021 as a target date just looking at the league around us and how their rosters are built,” Dipoto said. “Looking at the Houston Astros specifically, the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, we felt that by 2021 either by free agency, age, or looking at their systems, that was the time on the calendar where maybe they would be more susceptible to being caught than they are right now. Because these are elite-level teams that are playing at an elite level. They are winning 100-plus games a season. That put us as in a fairly difficult position to try to catch up.

“We view 2021 as that championship-type window if we did this the right way. Building around a group that was from an age perspective in a window that allowed us to crest in 2021.”

There should be considerable building around the new group Dipoto believes will be the core of that 2021 team. Moving salaries of high-paid veterans was not by any means cheap. With the Mariners taking on a number of bigger but shorter contracts this winter, their current Opening Day payroll sits just under $143 million, only $13 million under where they started the 2018 season. The picture for the future changes quickly, however, with just $88 million on the books in 2020 and $44 million in 2021. Those figures do not represent arbitration bumps, but the Mariners will have plenty to spend.

In the meantime we will see what happens. Not every piece that has been acquired will work out and Dipoto has acknowledged that. Prospects have to continue to develop, games have to be played. Bumps in the road are expected, but those bumps come with a purpose and plan behind them.

“What we were able to do was put a core group in place that we feel like makes us a very interesting, fun athletic team to watch in 2019 while we watch our pitching grow,” Dipoto said, “and by midseason 2020 a new and far more robust farm system has a chance to crest and make us what we think is a really interesting team in the second half of 2020 as we move into 2021.

“This has a chance to be something exciting for us, that has a chance to last much longer than what we were trying to do these last three years – and even longer than that.”

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