Takeaways: Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto talks Félix, prospects and how Canó trade pushed rebuild forward
Feb 26, 2019, 1:40 PM | Updated: 3:43 pm
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto sat down with 710 ESPN Seattle’s Brock and Salk at spring training Tuesday morning, and there was a lot to get to.
First of all, there was the Mariners’ rebuild – or ‘re-imagination,’ as he likes to call it – that has dominated the headlines since the end of the 2018 season. Then there’s Félix Hernández, former Seattle ace now at a crossroads. And what about the influx of exciting prospects this spring?
Dipoto discussed that and much more in the interview, which you can download here. So let’s break down five takeaways from Tuesday’s conversation.
The Robinson Canó trade pushed the Mariners’ rebuild forward
The centerpiece of the Mariners’ offseason of change was the blockbuster trade that sent All-Stars Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz to the New York Mets for a hefty return that included top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn. Not that Dipoto was dead-set on trading Canó before the 2019 season.
“At the end of the day, every contract can be traded,” Dipoto said. “We really didn’t have an expectation that we would be able to find a deal we were comfortable with because Robinson’s still a great player and we wanted a real return.”
Enter the Mets, who provided Dipoto and the Mariners an opportunity to kick their rebuild into high gear.
“Once we moved Robbie, that accelerated the rest of what we did,” Dipoto said. “… With our team, Robbie was a voice of experience. He had, for lack of a better way to put it, a cool factor to him that generally stabilized a group, but at the end of the day the big thing was just having the financial flexibility in the years beyond 2019 as this young group starts to gel, and when we believe that they will. There’s a lot of young pieces in place right now.”
As for the rebuild itself, an exercise within the front office made it clear how important making changes would be for the Mariners.
“We had a number of discussions internally with our baseball operations group and came up with the word re-imagination … (which) was in reference to an exercise that we went through with our front office group. I handed everybody a blank roster, a 25-space roster with no payroll, with no fixed person on the roster, and I said, ‘Re-imagine what you want the Mariners to look like in 2019 and beyond,’ and 16 people took part in the exercise, myself included, and 16 out of 16 had some form of a rebuild. Some were more drastic than others, but at that point we understood that common sense was we were not in a position with the roster we had to make another run at this in any meaningful way.”
‘The best version’ of Scott Servais
Dipoto and Mariners manager Scott Servais have a long history together, one that includes on-field battles and a period where Servais served as Dipoto’s assistant general manager in Anaheim. Servais also has a background in player development, and that’s something that is standing out to Dipoto this spring with so many new, young players in camp with Seattle.
“This is the best version of Scott that I’ve ever seen. He’s in his element,” Dipoto said. “Scott does wonderfully well with young players, developing programs, building a bond in a clubhouse with a team, and the creative ideas that we’re seeing in this camp are really a byproduct of the combination of a manager who loves to manage young energetic players and a group who wants to learn.”
Dipoto pointed out that Servais is essentially a teacher, which is especially coming in handy.
“At his root he’s a teacher. He comes from a lineage of coaches, either baseball or football. This is what he was always wired to do, and in Scott’s salad days as a director of player development with the Texas Rangers, this is where he thrived. It was coming up with the one turn of the screw or the one program or the one creative idea that was going to set them apart, and then being willing to go outwork the others with a group of young players and make sure they get their touches. Just like in any other sport, make sure that they’re getting their reps, and right now I feel like he’s thriving as a result.”
No added pressure for Félix
A lot of eyes are on Hernández right now, who will turn 33 in April and is coming off arguably his worst MLB season (8-14, 5.55 ERA in 2018). So what does Dipoto expect out of him?
“Just like he did in the first outing, I expect him to show up and compete,” Dipoto said. “Félix is at a crossroads in his career, has been for a couple years now. He appears to be in a pretty good place emotionally, and you know the one thing I know about Félix is that he does care about his legacy. He came in, we saw a little bit more velocity in that first spring game, which is encouraging. He is going to get the ball every fifth day and my hope is that we start seeing a little bit more consistency, even if it just resembles something more like the 2016 version than what we saw last year.”
Above all, consistency and dependability is what the Mariners hope to get out of the one-time Cy Young Award winner. But they’re also being realistic about what that means for a pitcher with 14 years of MLB experience on his arm.
“What is realistic is that he takes the ball and starts 33 games,” Dipoto said. “I guess I would urge, and if we’ve learned nothing over these last three years, is don’t worry about trying to predict what he will do; help him become the best that he can become. Félix has an outstanding curveball, he has an outstanding changeup. The velocity is not what it was in his salad days and he has really thought himself for the last three years to find his identity. And when he finds that identity he still has all the weapons and gile to be a productive pitcher in this league.”
(Bonus takeaway: Considering the amount of times Dipoto used the term ‘salad days’ on Tuesday, there’s a reasonable chance he’s seen the classic Coen Brothers movie “Raising Arizona” a few times. There is the off-chance he’s also up on his Shakespeare, but that’s less fun.)
Plenty to like from the prospects
Dipoto is the guy who acquired or drafted pretty much all of the Mariners’ top prospects, and there was plenty for him to rave about considering how well the early portion of the Cactus League schedule has gone for many of them. Here are a few things he had to say about Seattle’s younger players.
• “Justus Sheffield’s first outing and his bullpen work up to that first outing have been notable. He has tremendous stuff, he has three above- to well-above-average pitches that we think are starting to mature. That’s been a stand out.”
• “Gerson Bautista, who was one of the players that came back in the Mets deal, 98-99 with a good slider and throwing strikes in his first outing, that was exciting.”
• “Evan White, in his first big-league camp, has been just lasering balls to right field. I haven’t seen him pull a ball yet, he’s leaning on line drives to right field. He has really played well when given the opportunity.”
• “Shed (Long) has really been an igniter at the top of the lineup. He’s shown power, he’s shown contact, he’s shown patience and he’s shown defensive versatility. We’re going to try to develop him in that role, where he’s moving around the field. He’s played third, he’s played left, he’s played second. It’s a really interesting skillset. … I equate it more to a Tony Phillips, maybe the very best version of Mark McLemore. Guys who were super athletic, talented, they could play offense, but they had something they brought to the table.”
Shed Long yesterday: "My hittin' tool is my best tool, so you can expect to see a lot of bangin' goin around."
Shed Long today: Bangin'
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) February 23, 2019
Why Gonzales and Haniger weren’t part of overhaul
The Mariners’ offseason roster overhaul saw a ton of big names go elsewhere, and not all of them were veterans in their 30s. All-Star closer Edwin Díaz is only 24 and he was sent to the Mets, and 27-year-old catcher Mike Zunino was traded to the Rays for a return that included outfielder Mallex Smith. So why did left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales and All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger stay put?
“We were pretty open about our want to build around them,” Dipoto said about Gonzales and Haniger, “… but there were more than a few teams that inquired and a couple of teams who suggested that they might be willing to to go beyond what would be a normal return. But you have to be built on something and we wanted those two guys to serve as the foundation for the start of what we were doing.”
The ages of the two players and the steps forward they took in 2018 made it an easy decision.
“They’re excellent players, they were both coming off of what we think were breakout seasons. In Marco’s case he was 26 years old to finish last season and Mitch was 27, and baseball common sense tells you that a player’s prime years are typically from ages 26 to 32. And we felt like what we wanted to accomplish in 2019 and beyond was to build around a group that had a chance to crest when the rest of the American League was starting to ebb.”