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Did Mariners have to change their 2021 plan? Not in the way you may expect

Justin Dunn will aim to join Yusei Kikuchi in the Mariners' six-man rotation this season. (Getty)

What about the plan? Ah, the plan.

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A popular topic of interest for many Mariners fans from day 1 of the current offseason. If 2021 was targeted to be the year of return to contention – and let’s be clear that contending for the postseason and actually advancing to the postseason are two different things – were the Mariners on track?

When Seattle’s rebuild plan was laid out in the offseason of 2018, many expected that meant they would see the Mariners target a number of impact players this winter. Sometimes the best laid plans encounter global pandemics, however, and in general manager Jerry Dipoto’s press conference Tuesday morning, he acknowledged that the Coronavirus-shortened season did have an impact in what they felt they were able to do this offseason, but maybe not in the way you anticipated.

“Economically no, frankly,” he said. “Our program was set up to develop these young players.”

Development took a hit in 2020. With the season limited to 60 games, hitters received at best 248 plate appearances and starters pitched between 40 and 69 innings. While the Mariners for the large part were thrilled with what they saw, the reality was that for young players getting their first extended taste of the big leagues, they didn’t see enough.

“It’s a little bit of a nuance but it had nothing to do for us with the revenues or economic issues clubs may have experienced in 2020; it had everything to do with the model we were creating,” Dipoto said. “Sixty games just didn’t give us enough time to answer a lot of the questions we needed to answer and we don’t want to go out and falsely fill spots that we could perhaps have the answer to already here, that we just need to give them playing time.”

According to Dipoto, this doesn’t necessarily mean the postseason in 2021 is off the table.

“Young teams tend to gel quicker than you might think,” he pointed out. “We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run through the top of the American League West, but I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot and we will see how it goes. If we take a step toward that in 2021, I think that would be a great achievement for our organization.”

Winning while developing certainly can be part of the plan, and it doesn’t hurt to have a little help if that is the goal. Dipoto has added to the roster this winter, most notably in the bullpen. Games should be in steadier hands from opening day when turned over to the pen, and Dipoto believes they can be leaned on early as the hitters get their legs under them.

“I think you can press very hard on the pen if they are healthy,” he said.

And the rotation? If all goes well, the starters can produce as they are being taken care of by the utilization of a six-man rotation, something Dipoto believes is essential for where the majority of his starters are.

“The six-man rotation allows for two bullpen days, it allows for two work days between (starts), and when your pitchers are young, those days are really important,” he said. “It allows for pitch development and pitch shaping. It allows for training on delivery refinement and command. It’s not just about getting out and performing. It’s very much still a development program. We feel like that’s a huge advantage for such a young staff.”

With Dipoto “open to” adding another starter, development could also be helped with added competition. Marco Gonzalez, Justus Sheffield, Yusei Kikuchi and free agent signing Chris Flexen have four of the spots. The other two will be up for competition and the field is not 100 percent clear as of yet.

“We feel like there is something to still add in that space. We will not go in short,” said Dipoto. “We feel confident in the group that we have today and we were excited about some of the development of guys like Nick Margevicius, Ljay Newsome and what we saw, while it was sometimes turbulent, the fact that Justin Dunn got through his first season and learned a lot.”

Of interest is that along with Dunn, Margevicius and Newsome, Dipoto mentioned Logan Gilbert’s name for the first time as someone who could compete for a spot out of spring training. Should a veteran be added – either inked into the rotation or to compete – that could level up the competition or simply give Dunn or Margevicius more time for work in the minors if deemed necessary. Sometimes development is aided by additions, and it would seem there is help available should the Mariners chose to go in this direction.

The young players the Mariners have invested in should and will remain the priority in 2021. Around the All-Star break, key young players will have a year’s worth of at-bats or innings split between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. If Seattle is indeed back on track in terms of “the plan,” that timing will not be terrible with the trade deadline on the near horizon and an opportunity to make moves that are not comfortable right now.

Follow Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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