SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer: How the Mariners’ ‘step back’ after 2018 got them here

Oct 26, 2022, 11:45 AM | Updated: 11:54 am
Mariners Dipoto Servais...
Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais look on during Mariners batting practice at T-Mobile Park on Sept. 29. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

In 12 or fewer days. the World Series will be wrapped up, the not-so-offseason will officially have begun, and the focus of what happened with the 2022 Mariners will fully turn to what happens next – all eyes on the future.

What the gap between Mariners and Astros is, how M’s can close it

In this “quiet” time, it’s worth a look back not just at the Mariners’ 2022 season, but what has evolved over the last four years starting on Oct. 1, 2018. Where on the first of October this year the Mariners might have woken up a bit bleary eyed following a rowdy clinch celebration, the scene exactly four years earlier on Oct. 1 was very different.

Rather than pushing forward with postseason plans on Oct. 1, 2018, Jerry Dipoto (the Mariners’ general manager at the time, not yet president of baseball operations) was facing the media alongside manager Scott Servais in the end-of-the-year press conference held in the Ellis Pavilion at T-Mobile Park. The team had finished 89-73, its best record since 2003, but only good enough for third in the AL West.

These press conferences often give insight into what is to come next for the club as the offseason unfolds. Many believed that would be a winter to spend to push the club to the next level. A few believed it was time to rip the whole thing down and embark on a lengthy and painful rebuild (see the Astros’ back-to-back-to-back 100-loss seasons). Which way would the Mariners go?

Servais’ first comment hit at the heart of the matter.

“We failed to reach the goal,” Servais answered when he and Dipoto were asked how they evaluated the 89-win season. “That’s how I look at it.”

It became apparent that coming into the 2018 season, the belief was that 89 wins should be enough to put the team into October games. Ever the master with numbers, Dipoto pointed out numerous times throughout the hour that the team in his tenure had put up the fifth-most wins in the American League. If this sounded like spin, it wasn’t. It was reality. For Dipoto, eye-opening reality.

“We are trapped behind four teams that have had extraordinary success. We have not been able to get over that last hump,” he admitted.

If 89 wins looked like a step in the right direction to some, how they got there would suggest otherwise. The team with the highest payroll in Mariners history spent 10 days in early June in first place, held second until Aug. 1, and then watched the Oakland A’s blow by them behind a 42-23 second half. While Dipoto mused that perhaps he could take some comfort in knowing it would have taken 98 wins to make the postseason that year, he focused instead on the reality of the situation and the shifting direction in the American League.

When asked if holes in the roster could be filled through free agency, Dipoto indicated that another direction was necessary.

“I don’t think that makes a whole lot of sense because the four teams ahead of us are not ahead of us by a little,” he said. “We are not a piece away from making that type of move, and frankly as we sit here we have to assess where we are in terms of our age, our win curve and what makes the most sense for us.”

In order to do that, he had to look into the future. Not just for his team, but others in the American League.

“We do need to reassess where this roster is and take a look at not just 2019 and how we catch the teams ahead of us, because quite frankly I don’t think the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox or Indians are going anywhere, and the A’s and the the Rays just showed they are real and we have to consider that.”

The 2018 team had a core of established veteran players. Robinson Canó. Nelson Cruz. Kyle Seager. Mitch Haniger. Jean Segura. Questions about adding to this core were met with answers that pointed to the direction the team would go in hopes of joining the group of teams atop the American League. Asked if they felt they had found the core they were looking for, Servais gave three different – and perhaps unexpected in the moment – names.

Mitch Haniger. Marco Gonzales. Edwin Díaz.

Dipoto concurred.

“A lot of our direction is going to be based on the core group that Scott mentioned. We do have a nice group of young, controllable players that we do intend to continue build around. It’s just a matter of where that happens, when it happens and how it happens over the next six months.”

With just three names mentioned, the prospect of a lengthy rebuild was at hand. At the time, successful rebuilds could take from five to seven years. “Tear down” were the last words any fan wanted to hear. It was not a term Dipoto wanted associated with the Mariners.

“We have to consider all things,” he said. “The likelihood of ever really truly considering a ‘tear it down’ – everyone get out, we’re starting over – model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. That being said, there are a lot of alternatives to tear downs.”

Dipoto was asked about perhaps embarking on a “step back,” instead. Something more along the lines of a couple years out. This seemed to be more in line with his vision.

“Our goal is to win the World Series as soon as we can,” he answered. “If we’re not going to win it in 2018, then our goal is to determine what our best timeline is. You don’t see a lot of teams win championships with a group of players that are far north of age of the center or far south. Most of the guys are usually between 25 and 30 years old. That’s the line for us. We are looking at that 25- to 30-year-old group and trying to determine how many of them form a championship team and then looking at the teams around us, how realistic is it we can build a team around that group to compete around the teams ahead of us. It has to be a consideration.”

The direction quickly became clear with the trade of catcher Mike Zunino to the Rays just over a month later, kicking off one of the most eventful offseasons in club history.

On Nov. 19, following the trade of James Paxton to the Yankees, Dipoto spoke of new acquisitions Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson setting the Mariners up for what “hopefully would become an exciting group as we enter 2020, 21.”

Was this a timeline?

“We’ve opted that 2019 be a year that we take a step back, hoping to take two forward,” answered Dipoto. “When I say 2020 and 2021, it is simply gauging the ages of the players that we are building around here. Couple that with Edwin Díaz, Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger, and we start to build a really exciting group that should be all starting to perform at the major league level in that ’20, ’21 window.”

The commitment at that point? An “exciting” team in 2020, 2021. Two months later, following the unexpected trade of Robinson Canó – and $100 million of the $120 million remaining on his contract – Dipoto shared a bigger picture of the plan in his 5 1/2-minute opening statement at Seattle’s pre-spring training press conference.

“What we were able to do was put in place that we feel like makes us a very interesting, fun and athletic team to watch in 2019 while we watch our pitching grow. And by midseason 2020, a new and really 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.”

Dipoto continued: “We especially use 2021 as a target date just looking at the league around us, the way their rosters are built. We viewed 2021 as that competition-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.”

Dipoto was focused specifically on Houston, Boston and Cleveland, believing that in 2021 due to attrition those teams would be more “susceptible to being caught.” As it turned out, the Red Sox, Guardians, Rays and even Yankees indeed were. The Astros, a different story. In 2019, however, the Astros and others were not a concern.

“The goal of 2019 is to position ourselves for that midseason 2020, 2021. We won’t do anything that harms the long-term outlook of the Mariners for a short-term gain,” he asserted.

And with that, “the plan” was set.

In a 2020 preseason press conference, Dipoto outlined the season to be one for player development at the big league level. As it turned out, development at the big league level was shortened and completely wiped out at the minor league level due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, in that eventual two-month season, much was gained.

“It’s exciting to think about moving forward with this group, knowing that this is the group in the clubhouse that is largely the group that is going to come back and form our foundation next year, and didn’t take a step backward in a year that easily could have been disruptive,” Dipoto said on Sept. 28, 2020.

With the events taking place in the world, disruptive was putting it mildly. It was clear, however, that the Mariners bonded in this time of adversity. A culture was being set. The 2020 season also saw one of the most consequential trades of the step back: the deal that sent Austin Nola, a player who Dipoto signed as a minor league free agent, to the Padres in return for Ty France, Andrés Muñoz, Taylor Trammell and Luis Torrens. The deal sparked another within 24 hours with San Diego that landed Matt Brash with the Mariners, as well.

The 2020 season was a springboard of sorts, one that would lead to twists and turns but ultimately would land in the right spot. The performances of Kyle Lewis, Evan White and Justus Sheffield were among those that had Dipoto excited for what could come. The bullpen was targeted as an area of need to hit heavily in the offseason, and to that end Keynan Middleton, Rafael Montero and Ken Giles (a move for 2022 as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery) were added. Heading into the 2021 season, the expectations were different.

“We feel like the next steps are to continue to integrate young players onto the roster. Gain that experience, grow that base, then introduce the next group with the idea if things break well for us and we get into midsummer and we stay close in this thing and we do have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field, that’s a possibility for us and would be a goal,” Dipoto said Jan. 19, 2021.

Eight months later, the Mariners found themselves on the doorstep to the postseason – only to see that door slammed shut while they were still on the field in front of a sold-out house on the final day of regular season play. If the goal was contention, they were right there.

“We think we’re good and we think we are closer than we have ever been,” Dipoto said days later. “This was always our plan – 2019, 2020 provide our players with extended auditions, give them opportunity to gain experience. We thought we would turn a corner right about now and we think we did that. We achieved that goal, now it is incumbent on us to go add where we can add and improve where we can improve.”

In 2022, a new goal emerged, and it came from the clubhouse. Breaking the drought and a postseason appearance were not enough. This team truly believed they had enough to win the World Series.

With the return to the postseason, it is probably safe to close the door on the “step back” portion of the plan that was laid out four years ago. Many moves were made, some successful, some not so much, but in the end they got to where they needed to be.

Another part of that plan was to sustain winning, which included locking up young players. We have seen that with the extensions of Julio Rodríguez, Luis Castillo, J.P. Crawford and Evan White. The biggest goal remains the World Series, and 2022 gave the Mariners a better look at what they were up against. While the thought from the onset was that the Astros would provide a window of sorts around this time, it is clear that window will not be opened for them any time soon. They will have to break it down.

A daunting task indeed, as was the task at hand four years ago.

More on the Mariners

Why Mariners should pursue franchise-changing move for Aaron Judge
Dipoto: Ty France’s second half, biggest moments from Mariners’ season
Dipoto: Mariners’ plan for outfield, not a ‘slam dunk’ Haniger returns
Mariners’ Dipoto: What caused Winker’s down year, why he can rebound
Drayer’s Notebook: Mariners detail injuries, free agency and roster plans

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