After general manager Jerry Dipoto oversaw a future-driven retooling of the Mariners’ roster over the winter, there was little expectation they’d break their 17-year playoff drought in 2019. The club then got off to a sizzling 13-2 start this season, perhaps creating a glimmer of hope that it would enjoy a Cinderella campaign. Two and a half months later, though, it’s clear this will indeed go down as another lean year for the Mariners. They’ve lost 45 of 69 games since they came bursting out of the gates and now own the majors’ eighth-worst record at 37-47.
The trajectory of the Mariners’ season surely hasn’t gone to their liking, but the franchise isn’t discouraged. Quite the contrary, Mariners owner John Stanton recently told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times in an in-depth interview that’s worth checking out in full (interview links: 1, 2). We’ll take a look at a few of the highlights.
Stanton’s of the belief the Mariners are executing their plan properly, saying: “I think we’ve done exactly what we’ve set out to do. I try to resist the temptation to take a snapshot of a movie — even the midpoint of the movie. I view us as on a journey to have a sustainable, championship-caliber team as soon as we can.”
In the Mariners’ estimation, they’ve done a great deal to improve their long-term outlook dating back to the winter, even though it has come at the expense of immediate success.
“We’ve gotten younger,” Stanton offered. “And I don’t really like the word controlled, but from a contractual point of view they are players we know will be here for a longer period of time. We’ve gone from being one of the oldest teams in baseball to being middle of the pack in age”
Pricey 30-somethings such as Robinson Cano, Jay Bruce (originally acquired as part of the Cano deal) and Edwin Encarnacion (also acquired in the offseason) are gone. Their departures opened up varying degrees of financial flexibility for the Mariners. Meanwhile, shipping out the likes of James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino and Alex Colome during the winter went a long way toward adding capable younger players to the organization – including shortstop J.P. Crawford, center fielder Mallex Smith and catcher Omar Narvaez at the MLB level.
Reflecting on the December blockbuster that sent Cano and Diaz to the Mets, Stanton told Divish, “I personally love Robbie Cano, but having a 40-year old second baseman or probably DH by that time isn’t ideal, and even though I think Robbie will be better than any other 40-year-old at that time, we needed to do something.”
It does appear the Mariners got the better end of that deal thus far. Cano, who will earn $24MM per annum through 2023, is having a brutal season at the age of 36. Diaz has been good, on the other hand, though not the game-ending buzzsaw he was in 2018. And the centerpieces of the Mariners’ return – 19-year-old High-A outfielder Jarred Kelenic and 23-year-old Double-A righty Justin Dunn – are their top two prospects. More than that, Kelenic and Dunn are a pair of the game’s best prospects in general.
At the beginning of June, six months after the trade with the Mets brought Bruce to Seattle, the Mariners flipped him to Philadelphia for minor league infielder Jake Scheiner. However, the Mariners had to pay the Phillies $18MM of Bruce’s remaining $21.6MM salary to take him off their hands. Similarly, the Mariners paid the Yankees in mid-June to take the more valuable Encarnacion, who has about $16MM in guarantees left on his contract. They and the Yankees are essentially splitting the money, which may have driven down the Mariners’ return for Encarnacion. The M’s only acquired 19-year-old Low-A pitching prospect Juan Then, whom Dipoto once traded away.
Stanton defended the Encarnacion trade, saying: “I will tell you categorically that situation was not about the money. It was about the pitching prospect we got. He was a guy that we felt really good about and were really excited to get back. We wanted that kid back.”
The fact that the Mariners are paying Bruce and Encarnacion to play elsewhere is “fine” with Stanton because “the value of our flexibility is greater than the dollars that we have to pay.” Stanton continued: “We bunched up some salary dollars now and probably overpaid some salary dollars in some respects, but then we’ve freed ourselves up so that we if he need another starting pitcher — and I’m not saying we will — but if we need an additional starting pitcher in 2021 then we are giving Jerry the budget to be able to get the best guy he can.”
Stanton mentioned 2021-22 as a potential time frame for the Mariners to return to contention, in part because AL West juggernaut “Houston has a lot of their really becoming free agents” then. At the same time, though, Stanton’s “resistant to being too specific on it. I think the intent is for us to get better and be more in control of players. There will be signs that we believe it’s time when you’ll see us step up on a free agent to fill a gap. That’s a pretty good indication.”
For now, the Mariners’ win-loss record “isn’t, for me, the important metric on how we are doing,” insists Stanton, who’s instead focused on the growth of their young players in the majors and minors. In Stanton’s view, the team’s “exceeding expectations overall in terms of the quality of guys that we have added.”