ORLANDO, Fla. – To the world, he is Trader Jerry, the whirling dervish of transactions. Barely a conversation goes by when someone doesn’t tease him about when his next deal is going to come.
Asked if that freewheeling-dealing reputation amuses or annoys him, Jerry Dipoto says mostly the former – except when he feels that his M.O. is being misunderstood.
Here’s what Dipoto wants people to know about the 65 or so deals involving more than 125 players he has made in the 26½ months since he became the Mariners’ general manager (including two more during the just-completed winter meetings): He’s not trading just for the sake of trading. And he’s not mortgaging the future to win now.
“We have not emptied the farm system to go acquire veteran players to make a run at a postseason,” he said. “We have gone out, and we have effectively moved players around the league to acquire players that are in their prime who are under team control, almost all of whom are in their 20s.”
Sometimes, in fact, Dipoto doesn’t think people recognize the transformation that has been made, to a team that has a much younger core. The presence of second baseman Robinson Cano and designated hitter Nelson Cruz, both in their mid-30s, as Seattle’s most prominent players has created a false impression, he believes.
“I think what we’ve done, while people were looking for one result, we were rebuilding the way the organization is set up,” he said.
Dipoto has a wealth of statistics to prove that point. The Mariners are now the second-youngest team in the A.L. West, behind only the perpetually retooling A’s. They have just three pending free agents – Cruz, and relievers Marc Rzepczynski and David Phelps. Whereas the team he inherited had just 11 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) generated by all the players beyond the top five in payroll, last year that same demographic generated close to 21 WAR.
To those people who look at the Mariners’ playoff drought and say the ballclub should just tear it up and start over, Dipoto has a secret: he kind of has, with a twist. Dipoto kept the core of Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez and then went crazy rebuilding around them by virtue of his frantic deal-making.
“I guess the right way to term it, there are more ways to rebuild than ripping it down to the studs,” he said. “Have you ever watched HGTV? You can go into a house that generally has a structure and re-do the house, and walk out thinking that it doesn’t quite look like the same house. That’s effectively what we’ve done. The rip down to the studs doesn’t always work. We’re hopeful that we’ve what done, we’ve reloaded our club. We’ve done it in, I think, a productive way.”
What the Mariners also have done is largely eschew free agency, except for what Dipoto calls “accents.” That might irk fans who want them to go after the big-name, big-salary, long-term stars on the market (which they did with Robinson Cano before the 2014 season under a different regime and which they could do now, but don’t seem at all inclined to, with a prominent pitcher).
Part of that decision was inheriting the four veteran players previously mentioned, who were soaking up a huge amount of the payroll. The idea was to try to contend and rebuild simultaneously.
“We weren’t going to build around them by doubling payroll,” he said. “We were going to build around them by find the accent players, or support players, that could prop them up. Along the way, I think what we did is we added to the core.”
Mostly, though, Dipoto has a philosophical belief that trades and homegrown prospects are the best way to build the star power that fuels contenders. Another number Dipoto points to, as a point of pride, is that the Mariners have won 164 games over the past two years while accounting for only one percent of the money the industry has spent on free agency.
“So we’re not adding long-term risk to the roster,” he said.
Of course, I can hear fans screaming, well, you should be. To which Dipoto shrugs and says, “You can’t please all the people all the time. You learn lessons over time in the game, and while I do think there’s a time, I’ve said this in exactly this way: You accent your club in free agency. If you build your club in free agency, you are going down a very long and dark hallway.”
You can go into a house that generally has a structure and re-do the house, and walk out thinking that it doesn’t quite look like the same house. That’s effectively what we’ve done.” – Jerry Dipoto So, is it all working? One scathing quote last season from an anonymous executive in a Ken Rosenthal article on FOX Sports said of Dipoto, “I’ve never gotten it. It feels like he has made 348 trades to turn a .500 team into a .500 team.”
Dipoto says he’s thick-skinned and doesn’t let criticism bother him. He relishes explaining how and why he’s doing things the way he has. He readily admits that some of his trades have been clunkers, and that there are aspects of the roster that are problematic.
“I understand we’re imperfect,” he said. “We’re trying to make as many good decisions as we can. Along the way, we’re going to flub one. Part of being a member of the world-wide critics’ association, you get the benefit of hindsight, I suppose. We don’t.”
As for the sentiment of the unnamed executive, he says, “We weren’t a .500 team, I guess, is my answer to that.”
Indeed, the Mariners were 76-86 the year before Dipoto’s arrival and had a moribund minor-league system. He rattled off some more numbers that were on the tip of his tongue: 15 of the 39 players on the 40-man roster he inherited had a negative WAR the year before. Nine were out of options. The Mariners had nine left-handed relievers.
“So there were some things we needed to solve, and we came up with this aggressive plan,” he said.
In Dipoto’s first year, the Mariners were more than a .500 team, going 86-76 and staying in contention for the wild card until the final days of the season. Last year, riddled by injuries, they went 78-84, but Dipoto sees that as over-achievement.
“We should have been a hundred-loss team with what we dealt with,” he said. “We won considerably more games than any team that has ever been through anything like that in terms of pitching usage.”
Dipoto thinks the Mariners are poised for a breakthrough, even if others don’t see it. Few outside the organization view them as strong contenders this year. He points out that recent World Series teams such as the Astros, Cubs and Indians were built on the same general blueprint (perhaps with a bit more intentional tanking to horde high draft picks and top prospects along the way). But he also knows that on the surface, it doesn’t look that way.
“If you spin around our club, it’s not grossly different in its makeup than most of the playoff teams,” he said. “We’re off. Whether it’s our talent is not good enough or that our fortune isn’t good enough in terms of health. But I think we’re doing the right thing. We have a belief internally we’ve made great progress. If that doesn’t please everybody, I can’t help that.”