SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – As media members crowded around Jerry Dipoto in the Tuesday afternoon sunshine, as the small chaos that was American League media availability at the GM meetings started, there were no mentions about winning 54% of the time or questions referring to his regrettable comments at the Mariners end-of-season news conference.
While it remains rightful fodder, particularly on social media, for fans frustrated with last season’s results and suboptimal explanation from the Mariners president of baseball operations, the business of baseball and speculation surrounding where baseball’s biggest star – Shohei Ohtani – will end up in free agency dominated all conversations.
But Dipoto, like the other American League executives, wouldn’t offer up much on Ohtani and the most anticipated signing in recent memory.
“Nah, I won’t go there,” he said. “Thirty teams have interest in figuring out how he fits.”
Rangers GM Chris Young followed a similar path, saying: “I won’t discuss free agents.”
Asked about the fans chanting “Come to Seattle!” at the All-Star break, Dipoto replied: “I’m sure there are 30 teams that would love to see him come to their market.”
Dipoto wouldn’t confirm whether he’s been in contact with Ohtani’s agent Nez Balelo.
“We won’t talk about any single free agent,” Dipoto said. “We will take care of our business and tend to our garden and try to do it pretty quietly.”
This is much different from the first time the Mariners courted Ohtani in November 2017 when Dipoto discussed their presentation and desire to sign him at length on the debut episode of his Wheelhouse Podcast.
Did he learn anything about Ohtani from that past experience that might help them?
“I don’t know,” he said.
It got even more interesting as it moved into hypotheticals and non-name usage.
Reporter: Speaking theoretically, how difficult is it to set a value or salary for a player as a unique as the one that you don’t want to talk about?
“I don’t know,” Dipoto replied.
Reporter: “Well you will have to figure that out, won’t you?”
“Presumably,” Dipoto said.
But Dipoto did speak on the general difference of this situation compared to the last time – there is a salary that can be negotiated. When Ohtani came over from Japan, it was as a nondrafted international free agent. He could only receive bonus money from a team’s international signing pool. Now, he will likely receive the highest yearly salary of any player in MLB history.
“It’s uncertain, but I think that’s in any free-agent courtship,” Dipoto said. “It’s the one time in a baseball player’s life that you are recruiting like a college coach. You’re trying to sell your city, you’re trying to sell your vision, you’re trying to sell your people. And it’s not just the one free agent. That’s the way you treat free agency.
“Hopefully, some of the story is told when players who are in the league, as opposed to those who aren’t, kind of see what you’re doing, and they get an up close and personal.”
Dipoto believes the organization is in a better position to recruit free agents.
“We are more mature, and we are more built out as a group,” Dipoto said, mentioning the pitching and hitting programs to aid development and the stability under manager Scott Servais. “We’ve been together a long time. I think we have one of the best and most connected coaching staffs in the league. They’re young, they’re energetic. And we have a really fun, young team that has proven over three years to be pretty competitive. I think any free agent would look at us and say, this is interesting.”
But is it interesting enough for Ohtani to turn down what are expected to be massive offers from the Dodgers, Giants and Rangers? The prevailing thought among insiders is that the size or length of contract isn’t Ohtani’s priority. It’s about fit and flexibility. The Mariners could presumably offer both while paying a higher yearly salary with less of a yearly commitment.
But it’s not something that Dipoto will discuss publicly. He knew he was going to be asked about Ohtani in a variety of ways, but he wasn’t going to provide any information on their intentions.
“We won’t talk about any free agent,” he said. “We’ve never done that and we never will. It’s not the right way to conduct yourself. Whether it’s the right or wrong way to do it, we’re not really looking to just like blaze across the sky and create an interest in what we’re doing. We just want to go to do it.”
Here are a few other takeaways from Dipoto’s media session:
• Asked about the decision to not extend Teoscar Hernandez the qualifying offer, Dipoto mentioned the team’s strikeout issues last season.
“We wanted to make sure we can address some of the flaws that exist in our team,” Dipoto said. “Despite the fact he didn’t have a great start to his season, he put up his numbers and he contributed down the stretch as much as any player we had. But we felt like this was an opportunity to kind of take a new look at the way our team is built. If there was a reason why we were sitting home in the postseason, we felt like it was probably the inability to consistently make contact.”
Seattle hitters struck out 1,603 times, second most in MLB. Hernandez struck out 211 times in 2023, which was just behind Eugenio Suarez’s 214 strikeouts.
“And I don’t fault Teoscar in that, nor do I fault any other individual hitter in our lineup,” Dipoto said. “But if we’re going to address that, you have to start somewhere. We did have a contact issue from time to time. And we felt like we needed to remain flexible in the immediate now, to try to address those things.”
• The Mariners will add a backup catcher to pair with Cal Raleigh, but will it be Tom Murphy, who is now a free agent?
“It’s not something that we have full control over,” Dipoto said. “We’ve expressed our desire to have Murph back. He’s made a big investment in the Mariners, and I think vice versa. He knows what we’re about. And there’s high value in that, in knowing and trusting the people.”
The Mariners had talked about getting an extension done in the final months of the season. But it didn’t materialize.
“It’s like any negotiation, there will be a right place and right time, apparently was not the right place and time,” Dipoto said. “While we maintain interest in Murphy, and I’m sure that he maintains interest in us, we’ll see what comes with it. Again, there’ll be a time and a place.”
• The Mariners anticipated losing bullpen coach Stephen Vogt to a managerial job either this season or next season. They had made a shift in their coaching roles prior to Vogt being named the manager of the Guardians.
Vogt was set to assume bench coach duties with hitting coach Tony Arnerich shifting to the bullpen coach.
“The inevitable happened much sooner than later,” Dipoto said. “We are looking to add a hitting coach more than adding a bench coach. We are likely to add two major league coaches and our primary focus is to add another hitting coach to join Jarret DeHart.”