NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A smile and little energy broke through the seemingly perpetual weary look that Jerry Dipoto has worn since arriving at the MLB baseball winter meetings on Sunday and likely the days before.
Asked about finding a work-life balance and if it even exists for top executives in baseball, Dipoto was able to talk about something other than his team.
“Not in the last 10 days it hasn’t,” he said. “But generally speaking, we talk about that quite a lot, and I think our group does a pretty good job of establishing a line in that work-life balance.”
For Dipoto, that line for his personal life comes when he’s cooking meals at home – a passionate hobby – at night or attending a Kraken game as a season-ticket holder.
Those recharging moments have been lacking over the past 10 days.
Instead, he’s spent that time trying to develop a plan to build a roster for the 2024 season despite having a smaller-than-expected budget. To generate payroll flexibility and the ability to add players to the roster, he had to engineer two trades that removed third baseman Eugenio Suarez, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, pitcher Marco Gonzales and infielder Evan White – and the roughly $30 million they were owed in money this season, getting three players making the MLB minimum salary and a prospect on a minor-league contract in return.
The offseason activity, which also includes a cash-considerations payment of $4.5 million to the Braves as part of those trades, and the acquisition of Luis Urias, has freed up roughly $20 million extra dollars to spend on players.
Will there be more salary shedding?
“We did what we needed to do to create the framework from which to build the team we envisioned,” Dipoto said in Tuesday’s media availability for the top decision-makers from each 30 teams. “Our goal is to go get better.”
While Dipoto can’t or won’t speak to why the team’s ownership gave him a smaller budget than anticipated when the season ended, the reasons stem from uncertainties surrounding their regional sports network – Root Sports NW.
When Xfinity, the largest cable provider in the Pacific Northwest, announced it was moving Root to its highest-tier channel package, resulting in an increase of almost $20 a month for customers, the Mariners grew concerned with subscriber retention and decreased viewership. It led to a minimal increase from last season’s ending payroll of $140 million.
The Mariners aren’t alone in having their RSN affecting their overall payroll. For many years, the TV rights packages for a baseball season paid for by regional sports network was a key piece in subsidizing a team’s payroll.
With Diamond Sports Group, the owner of Bally Sports Networks, filing for bankruptcy last March, the TV rights deals signed by 14 teams were put at risk of not receiving agreed upon payment. The Diamondbacks and Padres were the first two franchises to lose their deals, with MLB taking over their broadcasts. The Twins’ deal with DSG expired after the season and they are without a network. The Guardians and World Series champion Rangers could lose their TV deals in the coming months based on more bankruptcy court rulings.
While the league has promised to recoup up to 80% of the money teams were expected to receive from Diamond Sports, it’s still forcing teams to trim payrolls.
Asked about the uncertainty with Root and his payroll budget, Dipoto replied: “I’m just going to focus on the baseball part of it. We’re here to try to build the best 26-man roster we can build with the short and long. And I’m not going to ever talk about our budget.”
But both he and manager Scott Servais have been more willing to talk around it, offering hints of the situation forced upon them.
Following the 2020-22 seasons, Mariners ownership set the payroll budget for the following season that was lower than expected. It has been a frustrating process for Dipoto and Mariners fans, considering the 2021 team won 90 games, the 2022 team won 90 games and made a return to the postseason for the first time in 21 years and the 2023 team won 88 games and was eliminated after Game No. 161.
For a team to have to remove current contracts of contributing players to have any sort of hope of adding viable and proven performers to their roster after three successful seasons isn’t a typical process, well, unless you are Tampa Bay or Oakland.
“I would have told you I’d be surprised, 12 months ago, to stand here now and have gone through some of the alterations we’ve made in just this year,” Dipoto said. “I’m really disappointed that we didn’t make it to the postseason, disappointed this step in our growth wasn’t as effective as maybe we all envisioned it would be. I still think we have a really good team with a chance to be a great team.”
If the Mariners had made the postseason in 2023, perhaps by investing more in a roster that had just made the postseason and won a wild-card series, would they be in this position of operating with a limited budget? Dipoto answered with an anecdote of talking to Rangers GM Chris Young at the GM meetings in November.
After Dipoto congratulated Young on a great season and postseason run that ended with a World Series title, Young told Dipoto: “You guys had a great season too, and it could’ve been you at the end.”
Dipoto’s response: “Believe me, I thought about that every moment I was watching the postseason.”
But they didn’t. And instead of home playoff games at T-Mobile Park, they were spectators like so many seasons past.
“I don’t know if we would have been in a different situation right now, were we to have made the postseason because we always think broadly and we’re constantly trying to balance the present and the future,” Dipoto said. “And we’ll always think that way.”
So with the created payroll flexibility, the Mariners hope to add multiple hitters to a lineup that lost Suarez, Kelenic and Teoscar Hernandez.
“We would like to add, I would call it, ‘1½ corner outfielders’ with the half being of someone at least capable of platooning with the idea that Dom Canzone could fill the other side of it, or Cade Marlowe or Taylor Trammell,” Dipoto said. “And then, we would like to find someone who is just a presence, more of a middle-of-the-lineup type, and if that means a primary DH, if it means some part of a corner position and DH, that’s a possibility, but we’d like to add bats that can make our offense better.”
When they will add those bats is uncertain. The transaction market has largely been put on hold as the baseball world awaits the decision on where Shohei Ohtani will sign. From there, players like Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman and J.D. Martinez can assess their markets. It could also push a completion of a Juan Soto trade and other moves.
“We continue to meet with clubs and we’ve met with numerous agencies, talking about players and normal offseason roster building,” Dipoto said. “It’s been a very quiet couple of days at the winter meetings, and it’s been a pretty quiet offseason to date. You can go in with an aggressive mentality, and the industry is telling you it’s going to require some patience.”