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Mariners playoff contention ‘a possibility,’ but player development remains top priority, GM Jerry Dipoto says

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 19, 2021

In this Jan. 23, 2020 photo, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto speaks in Seattle. For a number of rebuilding teams, the 2020 baseball season was supposed to be another step in the progression of their top prospects eventually reaching the big leagues. By the time June rolled around, Dipoto expected former first-round pick Logan Gilbert to be pitching on the mound at T-Mobile Park.  (Ted S. Warren)
In this Jan. 23, 2020 photo, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto speaks in Seattle. For a number of rebuilding teams, the 2020 baseball season was supposed to be another step in the progression of their top prospects eventually reaching the big leagues. By the time June rolled around, Dipoto expected former first-round pick Logan Gilbert to be pitching on the mound at T-Mobile Park. (Ted S. Warren)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – With what has transpired over the past 360-plus days, the look and feel had to be different.

The Mariners’ annual training luncheon before spring — a half-day of media availability in group and individual sessions at T-Mobile Park — couldn’t happen in typical fashion. The socially distanced world we live in due to the COVID-19 pandemic made it an obvious impossibility.

The Mariners replaced it with a two-week “virtual baseball bash” of Zoom calls that have become a part of our daily existence.

They made general manager Jerry Dipoto available on the first day. Speaking from the media room at T-Mobile Park, he was verbose, answering myriad questions.

The most pertinent question: Because everything in the past year has been altered, does it change the organization’s expectations during its “step-back” rebuilding plan?

The answer was yes, but also no.

A year ago, when asked about expectations for a season yet to be derailed by the pandemic, Dipoto said: “We don’t think we’re likely to threaten for a playoff position this year. We will measure our season based on the development of our young players.”

Following a 60-game season in which the Mariners were 27-33, Dipoto and manager Scott Servais said the 2021 club, with the right roster additions, should vie for a postseason spot.

But with only a handful of roster additions, Dipoto and Servais recently seemed to temper those expectations.

Asked Tuesday about his 2021 expectations, Dipoto gave this answer:

“Right where we were at the end of the season. We feel like the next steps for this team are to continue to integrate the young players to this roster. We feel like there are another handful who are not far off. … And first and foremost, it is to gain that experience, to continue to grow the base … and then introduce the next group with the idea that if things break well for us, we get into midsummer and we stay close in this thing and we do have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field. That’s a possibility for us and would be a goal.”

But it was the next part of his answer that encapsulated expectations.

“We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run to the top of the American League West, but I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot,” Dipoto said.

Dipoto always has been careful to say “compete for a playoff spot” instead of setting a goal to make the postseason for the first time since 2001, which would end the longest active playoff drought among MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL teams.

The regression of the powerhouse Astros, the Angels’ discombobulated roster/farm system, the A’s payroll deficiencies and the Rangers’ plan to rebuild should help the Mariners in the AL West.

But the M’s haven’t operated like an organization on the verge of success. They’ve made a handful of low-cost moves this offseason — signing starting pitcher Chris Flexen and reliever Keynan Middleton and trading for reliever Rafael Montero.

“It has been a slow-to-develop offseason market, particularly at the top of free agency, but that hasn’t really been a focus for us,” Dipoto said. “… You’re starting to see a lot of players with recognizable names coming off the board, especially in the bullpen. Those are generally names where we’ve been connected.”

Though the roster is filled with club-controlled potential talent, there are question marks. Only No. 1 starter Marco Gonzales, third baseman Kyle Seager and, to some extent, right-handed pitcher Kendall Graveman are proven long-term MLB performers.

“We continue to be connected to free agents we think can make us better, and specifically we would like to add a little bit more depth to that bullpen, if that’s possible,” Dipoto said.

The use of “if that’s possible” would hint to a limitation besides roster fit and player interest. Multiple MLB sources have indicated that Mariners ownership is limiting this season’s payroll more than expected with an eye toward spending in next offseason’s loaded free-agent class. It might speak to why Dipoto hasn’t been his normally aggressive self.

The Mariners’ 2021 payroll projects to roughly $80 million — about $70 million less than in 2018 — with only $19 million in committed MLB salary for 2022. Their 2020 revenue losses and 2021 expected losses are not publicly known.

Dipoto said offseason moves haven’t been affected by the COVID-19 losses or payroll restrictions.

“Economically, no, frankly,” he said. “Our program was set up to develop these young players. Where there is a little bit of ambiguity, is that if we would have had the full season in 2020 … that may have given us greater clarity on where our primary needs were for 2022 and beyond.”

Essentially, the Mariners remain in the process of evaluating key pieces of their rebuild after playing only 60 games in 2020, instead of a typical 162-game season.

“That affects the way we go out and spend our future payroll dollars,” Dipoto said. “We still need to find out about our young players, and where we need the help.”

“… We weren’t in a position headed into ’21 where we felt confident that we had seen enough in making that evaluation. Therefore, we weren’t going to go add to our roster beyond ’21 in ways that would limit the exposure for those young players. …

“We don’t want to go out and falsely fill spots that we probably or could perhaps have the answer already here, and we just need to give them playing time.”

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