Jerry Dipoto is ready. Jerry Dipoto is always ready. You get the feeling the Seattle Mariners general manager sleeps with his cellphone under his pillow, assuming he actually does sleep; hey, you never know when you may get a trade offer.
So the Mariners are definitely ready to make their pitch to Shohei Ohtani.
“We have spent most of the past year preparing for this moment,” Dipoto said a few days ago on the debut edition of his podcast on the Mariners team site. “Whether it’s written presentations, something aesthetic for him to touch and feel ... we’ve put together a film on the merits of Seattle and the Mariners. And we’re hopeful at some point we get to sit down in the same room.”
Dipoto was the first general manager to publicly say he’d be willing to use Ohtani as a two-way player, with Nelson Cruz sliding to the outfield to let Ohtani DH a few times a week if he signs with Seattle. Dipoto scouted Ohtani in person in September and said he’s willing to fly again to Japan if that helps -- with Ken Griffey Jr. in tow.
This is a different kind of deal for Dipoto, one that could alter the course of the franchise that has the longest playoff drought in the majors. His usual deal-making involves another team. Since he was hired as Mariners GM in late September 2015, Dipoto has made 60 trades, easily most in the majors, more than two per month on average.
Indeed, while the rest of the majors have been silent so far this offseason, Dipoto has swung three trades, acquiring first baseman Ryon Healy from the A’s, reliever Nick Rumbelow from the Yankees and sending reliever Thyago Vieira to the White Sox for some international bonus money that can be used to help sign Ohtani.
The question looms, however: Has Dipoto’s hyperactivity made the Mariners better?
He inherited a team that had gone 76-86 in 2015 and had finished below .500 in nine of 12 seasons since reeling off four straight 90-win seasons from 2000 to 2003. In 2016, the club went 86-76, missing the wild card by three games. The 2017 squad fell back to 78-84 as a slew of injuries wrecked the rotation, with the projecting Opening Day rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo combining for just 68 starts. Not a single Mariners pitcher qualified for the ERA title, as they were forced to use 17 different starting pitchers.
Meanwhile, as the Mariners watched the playoffs from home again, an ex-Mariner was one of the stars of October. If there’s one of those 60 trades Dipoto would like to have back, it’s the June 2016 deal that sent infielder Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for pitcher Zach Lee. Taylor reinvented himself as a center fielder and posted a 4.8-WAR season for the Dodgers. Lee never even appeared in a game for the Mariners before he was placed on waivers.
With that trade in mind, let’s take a look at the value gained and lost in Dipoto’s trades (some minor trades and lesser prospects not listed):
In this accounting, Dipoto has lost so far. The Taylor trade has hurt, as has the Dan Vogelbach-Mike Montgomery deal. Vogelbach, while still on the 40-man roster, looks like a fringe major leaguer at best, while Montgomery has turned into a valuable swingman for the Cubs. Logan Morrison had a big 2017 for the Rays (4.1 WAR), while Nate Karns and Boog Powell, the two players acquired in that deal, are no longer with the Mariners (Karns was traded for Jarrod Dyson and Powell for Yonder Alonso, both now free agents).
Obviously, the WAR totals will change through the years, but the numbers above don’t even consider the potential future value of all the prospects the Mariners traded.
As Eric Longenhagen, the prospect expert at FanGraphs put it in a recent chat, “They’re trading away legitimate prospects whose value is artificially low because of their proximity to the majors ([Carlos] Vargas, [Juan] de Paula, [Alexander] Campos, [Juan] Then, [Aneurys] Zabala, [Brayan] Hernandez) for fringe big leaguers. It’s shortsighted. Their system is bad even though they have good scouts and it’s a huge bummer.”
The best prospect Dipoto traded was pitcher Luiz Gohara, an enormous Brazilian lefty who was part of the three-way deal that brought the Mariners Smyly. Gohara hadn’t advanced past low A in four seasons in the Seattle system, and he still appeared a few years away and a likely candidate to end up in the bullpen. With the Braves, he advanced all the way from Class A to the majors, making five starts for Atlanta while establishing himself as a rotation candidate for 2018. Smyly, meanwhile, was injured in spring training and eventually had Tommy John surgery.
To understand Dipoto’s trades, however, we have to understand the state of the franchise he inherited. The Mariners were not only a bad team in 2015, but outside of a strong core of five players -- Robinson Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager, Hernandez and Iwakuma -- the 40-man roster was pathetic with a complete lack of depth. A series of bad drafts and poor player development under former GM Jack Zduriencik had left a barren farm system, with no talent at the upper levels except Edwin Diaz. To make matters worse, Cano, Hernandez and Seager were in the midst of $100 million-plus contracts ($240 million in Cano’s case), so there wasn’t much payroll flexibility.
So Dipoto had no depth, no farm system and not much money to spend.
Given those circumstances and the ages of his core players, Dipoto embarked on a plan to somehow contend while his big five core was still good. Primarily, he improved the depth of the 40-man roster with a bunch of small upgrades. It worked pretty well in 2016 as the team won 86 games and improved its run differential by 129 runs. The injuries hurt in 2017, but something else happened. The big five wasn’t as good:
In 2015, that core accounted for 71 percent of the Mariners’ overall WAR. The group was even better in 2016 -- Cano had 7.3 WAR and Seager 6.9 WAR -- and the rest of the roster was much improved as well (look at the big improvement in the below replacement level value). But in 2017, the big five was worth half as much as in 2016 and just 33 percent of the team’s WAR -- Cano and Seager were nowhere near as good and Felix and Iwakuma battled injuries. If that group had produced close to what it had the season before, the Mariners make the playoffs.
That’s the big concern for the 2018 Mariners. That group is now another year older. Cruz will be playing his age-37 season. Cano will be 35 and Seager 30. Hernandez is no longer an ace, even if healthy, and Iwakuma just signed a minor league contract as he tries to return from shoulder surgery. They’ll need better seasons from Cano and Seager and 30 starts from Hernandez, even if he’s a No. 3 or 4 starter these days.
What Dipoto hasn’t managed to do with all his trades is find his own Chris Taylor. Maybe Mitch Haniger is that guy. He was worth 3.0 WAR in just 96 games in his rookie season. Incremental upgrades, however, aren’t going to push this team to its first playoff appearance since 2001.
No, what the Mariners need is a big star. They need Shohei Ohtani.