How did we get here?
Photo: Jon Wells
Will Jerry Dipoto's remake of the Mariners succeed?
December 5, 2018
It's not exactly standard procedure for a team that won 89 games to go straight into a massive rebuild. When you just barely miss the postseason, you typically look to improve on one or two areas that could put you over the top, not declare defeat and look to try again in three years. So WTF, you might ask of the Mariners, why are they blowing up the team?
Well, a reckoning has come due.
Since Pat Gillick left the team as General Manager after the 2003 season, the M's have been trying to recapture the former glory they last enjoyed in 2001 and they have not been patient or smart about it.
Gillick created the 116-win 2001 squad largely through free-agent signings; building around key holdover pieces Edgar Martínez, Dan Wilson, Jamie Moyer, and five players brought in by the earlier big trades of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr., every other notable player on the '01 team was signed as a free agent. John Olerud? Free agent. Aaron Sele? Free agent. Bret Boone, Mark McLemore, David Bell? Free agents all. Even Ichiro and Kazuhiro Sasaki were technically free agents by way of the Japanese leagues' posting system. All in all, 15 Mariners from 2001 were free agent acquisitions or re-signings. Pat Gillick, though, is a smart dude and signed his free agents with an eye toward the whole of the team rather than big-name/big-splash-type signings. He had a brand-new stadium that was selling out nearly every game and relatively deep pockets, and his predecessor, Woody Woodward, hadn't exactly done well with stocking the farm. It was a reasonable approach to take under the circumstances.
Gillick's successors, Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik, tried to replicate Gillick's methods, but, alas, they were not smart dudes. Bavasi in particular hamstrung the Mariner franchise with not only astonishingly bad free agent deals, but poor evaluations of talent in drafting and in trades with other clubs—so he blew up the budget and decimated the somewhat improved farm system simultaneously, digging a hole that would take years to climb out of. He was basically the Pakled of GMs.
A list of Bavasi's greatest hits would include these free-agent signings (remember, this is 2004-2008 era money):
- Scott Spiezio, two years, $6M (.198/.272/.324 in 141 games, released before end of contract)
- Rich Aurilia, one year, $3.2M (.241/.304/.337 in 73 games, offloaded to San Diego after four months for no return)
- Richie Sexson, four years, $50M (.244/.334/.474 in 509 games, released before end of contract)
- Adrian Beltre, five years, $64M (.266/.317/.442 in 715 games, left as a free agent)
- Pokey Reese, one year, $900k (did not play, never played in the Majors again)
- Jarrod Washburn, four years, $47M (31-49, 4.17 ERA, 1.329 WHIP in 109 starts, traded to Detroit during year four)
- Carl Everett, one year, $3.4M (.227/.297/.360 in 92 games, released before end of contract)
- Miguel Batista, three years, $25M (27-29, 4.84 ERA, 1.650 WHIP in 133 games, left as a free agent)
- Jeff Weaver, one year, $8.5M (7-13, 6.20 ERA, 1.534 WHIP in 27 starts, left as a free agent)
- Carlos Silva, two years, $20.5M (5-18, 6.81 ERA, 1.617 WHIP in 34 starts, traded to Chicago Cubs in year two in swap of bad contracts)
- Brad Wilkerson, one year, $3M (.232/.348/.304 in 19 games, released after one month)
And that doesn't cover the atrocious trades, capped with giving what remained in the farm to the Orioles in a misguided trade for Erik Bedard that Bavasi did no research for.
When Zduriencik came aboard, much of the bleeding was stopped, but the team-building strategy stayed largely the same; not necessarily by design, but because the new regime was bad at player development. Zduriencik's free-agent deals were expensive, but not as absurd—Robinson Canó was his, and everyone in the world knew ten years was an overly long offer, but at least Canó was a solid player; Nelson Cruz may be the best free agent the Mariners have ever signed; Chone Figgins was a massive disappointment, but at the time it seemed like a solid deal.
But even though Jack Z wasn't the incompetent buffoon Bavasi was, he still wasn't exactly bright. His drafts were mostly busts, either because his information was bad or because his regime rushed position players up the ladder before they were ready (Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, James Jones, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, etc.). He did draft James Paxton, Kyle Seager, and Edwin Díaz, so they weren't all mistakes, but Zduriencik's teams were never, well, teams. Individual players were often OK, but things like balancing a roster or teaching fundamentals were foreign concepts.
Jack Z's biggest problem was a fetish for home runs, and if big, beefy, power-hitting sluggers were available, Jack would go after them just like Bavasi did, whether they fit into the roster or not. And since he couldn't seem to develop his draftees, he always seemed to think there was an immediate need for MORE POWER in our alleged pitcher's park and so Seattle fans got to see the likes of Russell Branyan (twice), Jack Cust, Jesús Montero, Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales (twice), Corey Hart, and Mark Trumbo, none of whom could play adequate defense at any position, and there's but one DH spot in a lineup (Cruz played a lot of outfield when Jack Z was here).
So the hole Zduriencik inherited from Bavasi was exacerbated by more huge free-agent contracts (some awful, some not) and, more importantly, gross mismanagement of the farm, with prospects either traded away for MORE POWER or rushed to the bigs at breakneck speed and thus set up to fail.
Dipoto was not given a great situation when he took over, but he tried the tweak-it-don't-tear-it-down approach too for a couple of years and, after seeing last season's brutal second-half collapse, took off the blinders and decided to try something new. The Gillick approach had morphed into utter disaster under Bavasi and a mix-and-match philosophy with poor vision under Zduriencik, and it is now simply time to get out from under the resulting mess of competing agendas from all of that history. Get rid of the remaining huge contracts, restock the barren farm, start, more or less, fresh, with a focused strategy of building a team of balanced strengths.
So here we are. If it were possible, Dipoto would likely start 2019 with a Major League roster devoid of large contracts, period, in order to give the 2020-2023 teams the ability to tweak his own hand-built team with a free agent here or there, where necessary to complete the vision. All currently contracted veterans would be swapped for prospects that fit the Dipoto model and developed in the high minors or given on-the-job training in the big leagues with an eye to that future window. The return Dipoto got in trades for Mike Zunino (and outfielder Guillermo Heredia), James Paxton, and Canó (and closer Edwin Díaz) is promising, and though the money element of the trade of Jean Segura was weird, young shortstop J.P. Crawford has real potential.
Of course, it won't be practical to rid the M's of all big contracts and since Bill Bavasi is not running another team these days, there's no sucker GM out there that will give an inexpensive return for Jay Bruce or Kyle Seager. We'll probably have to endure a year or two of Bruce and/or Carlos Santana as the price for getting all that 2020+ money off the books. That's frustrating, but it's still possible Dipoto can get creative enough to unload at least one of those two before we get past the 2019 trading deadline.
We'll see. We've been conditioned for 15 years to distrust the people designated as the Mariners' braintrust, so there's a lot of pessimism out there for next year and beyond. But at least Jerry Dipoto is trying something different, and maybe—just maybe—the new Dipoto model will recall the successes of the Gillick years.
Who's next to go?
Which Mariner will get traded next?