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Matt Calkins: The Mariners’ future is in Jerry Dipoto’s hands, but this team’s ceiling will be determined by how much it spends

Seattle Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, left, greets general manager Jerry Dipoto, right, as Mariners owner John Stanton prepares to present Kikuchi with his jersey from the MLB All-Star Game during a ceremony before a game against the Oakland Athletics on July 22 in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The man of the hour was Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners general manager who agreed to a multiyear extension.

His vision, mixed with the way the team has overperformed this season, was enough to convince the brass that he should stick around to see the rebuild through.

But perhaps the most integral man in the M’s’ playoff hopes was the one standing next to him Wednesday – Mariners chairman John Stanton. Because even if one has the greatest vision in the world, it’s borderline irrelevant if the money isn’t there to back it up.

They are 10 games above .500 and 3½ games out of the wild-card race after Wednesday’s 1-0 win against the Astros. Anyone predicting that would be the case four months ago would likely be dismissed.

Dipoto, who has been promoted to president of baseball operations, undersold the Mariners at the beginning of the season, and perhaps the team’s minus-57 run differential speaks to the modest expectations he set. And yet, here they are, playing meaningful games in the final month of the regular season.

Their 72-62 record is noteworthy for several reasons. One is their lack of premier talent (Ty France is their leader in WAR at 3.6, and nobody else is above 2.8). Another is the number of injuries they’ve amassed, from Marco Gonzales to Kyle Lewis to Evan White to Jake Fraley to James Paxton. No team stays completely healthy, but the number of ailing Mariners this season has taken a toll.

But then there’s this: The Mariners’ $80,000,000 payroll in 2021, according to Spotrac, is 25th in MLB. This doesn’t inherently mean that Seattle has been cheap. It could just as easily mean that the front office has been waiting for the right moment to open up its checkbook. But ultimately it is the ownership group that decides when to become generous with its finances, and the dough-shelling hasn’t come yet.

To Stanton’s credit, he has said before that he and the rest of the group have been waiting for the right opportunity. Spending just to spend is a formula for regression, not progress. Still, with all of Wednesday’s talk about becoming a championship organization, I had to ask Stanton: When might we see you guys land a whale or two?

Said the chairman: That’s basically up to Dipoto.

“Jerry’s a baseball expert. And I rely on Jerry to make baseball decisions,” Stanton said. “He has our confidence and will continue to have the resources necessary to execute and achieve the goal.”

That might not have been the rah-rah endorsement that some fans were hoping for. I imagine there are a few who wanted Stanton to say, “Those whales are coming!” But those words were still encouraging for anyone worried the Mariners are going to be stingy going forward. It sounded like Stanton said, “If Jerry wants a guy, I’m getting out of the way.”

Dipoto was asked a similar question – whether he has received assurances that he can invest in the big league club as opposed to racking up prospects.

“We always knew that was going to be the case,” Dipoto said. “Part of this was trading out veteran players for young players that we can build with and around, understanding that through salary arbitration and with the payroll flexibility we were creating, we were going to have a chance to augment that team in smart ways once we identified where the needs were. And over these last 2½ years, going on three, think we’ve done a better job of identifying.”

That sounds even more encouraging. Dipoto is basically saying that once the team knows who it needs to spend on, it’ll be willing to do so. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get their desired target, but he worded his response in a way that suggested they would at least try.

Then again, they are just words. Think of Dipoto as the starting pitcher of the Mariners’ front office. He’s the guy they’re leaning on. He’s the guy whose performance is going to keep them in the game.

If he drops the ball, the team has no chance. At the same time, think of Stanton and the ownership group as the closer. No matter how smart and savvy Dipoto and his staff might be, they’re not getting anywhere without strong financial backing from their bosses.

Stanton decided that he was going to put the Mariners’ immediate future in Dipoto’s hands. But it’s where he puts his money that will dictate how good this team can be.