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Analysis: Three areas the Mariners must look at before the 2024 season

Seattle’s Cal Raleigh, left, and Luis Castillo talk during a Sept. 13 game against the Los Angeles Angels at T-Mobile Park.  (Getty Images)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – An offseason that started earlier than expected for the Seattle Mariners and their fans brought a feeling of disappointment and second-guessing of how it all went so wrong.

That lasted less than 48 hours.

By the time Mariners leadership – president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, general manager Justin Hollander and manager Scott Servais – had finished the end-of-season news conference, well, sentiment surrounding the organization devolved into anger and disgust.

It wasn’t just one specific thing said by Dipoto that ignited the ire, though there were specific comments that resonated more than others. Rather, it was the culmination of all that was said along with a general air of condescension and dance with accountability that left fans incensed.

Two days later, he offered up a sort of apology to quell the indignation. But it was met with eye rolls and collective meh. There was no putting that pine tar back in the tube.

What was said at T-Mobile Park two days after the regular-season finale won’t soon be forgotten and will offer a frame of criticism for everything that Dipoto and the Mariners do or don’t do this offseason.

But will it have real or lasting effects on these three key aspects?

The offseason plan

While Dipoto admitted that he was “generally embarrassed” by how some of his comments were received, it’s clear that he isn’t going to deviate from his overall strategy about building the organization to have sustained success.

“I just completely whiffed in my attempt to paint a big-picture baseline of what obviously makes more sense to me than our fans and media,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to be mediocre, our goal is to win championships, and then to play at a high level for a long time. And that’s what I was trying to convey, but it just obviously, it didn’t help. I wish I could hit reset and try it again. But that moment is gone.”

The moment may be gone, but the thinking behind it remains.

It would be illogical for the Mariners’ front-office leader to completely change his planning or thinking to compensate for his remarks or fan distrust. If you believe you are on a path to increased success, traipsing off into a completely different direction seems at best reactionary and at worst a sign of panic.

Dipoto isn’t wired to think that way. He’s been resolute in his strategy since starting this rebuilding process after the 2018 season.

“I don’t spend a lot of my time looking back because it’s not productive,” he said. “You’ll make too many mistakes trying to make up for too many mistakes. You have to make the best decisions can make.”

It’s why he wasn’t necessarily sorry for saying it’s a goal to win 54% of the games over a 10-year period and not discussing the immediate success of 2024.

“Again, I apologize if people didn’t understand where I was trying to go,” he said. “The goal is to consistently put as big of talent as we can out on the field because we feel like the foundation of this team is entering the peak of its potential. We’re not doing it for a year. We want to do this for many years. We want to win championships over time.”

The leadership labeled the last three seasons as “a floor” for the team’s expected success, noting the 90-win seasons in 2021 and 2022, ending the postseason drought and flirting for the division title and a return to the playoffs in 2023 before being eliminated in Game No. 161.

“We’ve built methodically in a way that I think the narrative has been that we’re pushing the patience of a fan base or of our support,” Dipoto said. “We’ve turned this around about 2½ years, and we have now been a contending club for the last three years that made it to the postseason.”

The strategy of “draft, develop and trade” has been mentioned often, particularly this past offseason when the organization was widely criticized for the underwhelming free-agent signings. While he can’t say it publicly and won’t offer it privately, it’s a strategy heavily defined by the payroll budget or lack thereof handed to him by Mariners ownership.

“The question of, ‘Are you all-in?’ We’re always all-in,” Dipoto said. “We’re just trying to be all-in, in a thoughtful way that is going to allow this to be sustained over decades, not just over a 162-game season.”

The current Mariners players

After the 6-1 drubbing by the Rangers in the penultimate game of the regular season and helplessly watching the Houston Astros eliminate them from postseason with a win in Arizona about a half-hour later, the Mariners’ clubhouse was subdued and frustrated.

Catcher Cal Raleigh, who took on an increased level of a leadership, was blunt in his assessment.

“We’ve been right at this 90-game (win) mark for a few years now,” Raleigh said. “We’ve just got to become better. Something’s got to change. I don’t think by any means we’re a bad team this year, but it’s not where we want to be. We want to be getting to the World Series; we want to be making the playoffs every single year. In order to do that, some things have to change, and it starts with the players here in the clubhouse.”

He also wasn’t afraid to admit that adding impact – “big-time” as he called them – players to the clubhouse was just as vital as internal improvement.

“You look over at the other locker room right there, and they’ve added more (in free agency) than anybody else, and you saw where it got them this year,” Raleigh said. “We have to do that to keep up. We’ve done a great job of growing some players here within the farm system, but sometimes you’ve got to go out and you have to buy. That’s just the name of the game.”

While Raleigh apologized before the season finale about how his comments might have portrayed teammates or coaches, he refused to apologize for his desire to win and his comments about it being a priority.

His teammates, including established players like J.P. Crawford, Ty France and Logan Gilbert, didn’t think the catcher should apologize for anything.

“I think Cal had some great comments,” Crawford said. “… I know there was a big controversy about that earlier this morning. I’m with him on that. I think we need to go out there and really make a move to help this team win. And however it means doing that, they’ve just got to do it. And you just got to get better.”

That “foundation” of players that Dipoto spoke about has grown increasingly more vocal, at times critical and more unified over the past few seasons, perhaps taking note from players no longer in the organization and trying to influence decisions ahead.

There has always been some level of distrust and disconnect between players and upper levels of the front office/ownership in every organization. The business nature of professional sports continually fertilizes that feeling. But with former president Kevin Mather’s infamous Zoom meeting before the 2021 season, the trades of Kendall Graveman and Paul Sewald and years of constant roster churn, it has seemed more pronounced at times. Hollander has worked hard to change that edginess.

While Crawford planned to discuss his concerns and thoughts with Dipoto and possibly ownership, others were taking a guarded approach. They won’t allow themselves to feel disappointed by unmet expectations. It’s out of their control.

“It’s their team,” Dipoto said. “They should ask questions about the future.”

Potential free agents

The comments from Dipoto at the news conference didn’t just go viral on social media. They went baseball viral, getting discussed and debated on national platforms including MLB Network.

While most players try to unplug from outside noise, those close to them, specifically their agents, hear and see everything.

Do those comments hurt the Mariners’ reputation in the free-agent market? Well, they don’t help. But they likely won’t be determinant in a player’s decision to sign.

It starts with dollars. Paying over market value can offset certain detractors like location and travel, park factors, organizational reputation, and a lack of sustained success.

Whether they admit or not, the Mariners understand they’ll have to overpay to persuade top free agents, particularly hitters, to sign with Seattle.

They did it with Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. It’s a matter of ownership greenlighting deals that might exceed yearly and long-term budget structure.

Dipoto has said often they have payroll freedom to add the right player, while outside MLB sources have noted he’s been hamstrung in the past few offseasons, being given payroll limits that were lower than expected.

“Would I love to stumble into the biggest stars in the universe that are happy to come play in Seattle? Sure,” Dipoto said. “But acquiring a big star from outside is also contingent on the big star. I can’t tell Cal or J.P., ‘We will deliver that to you.’ Because there are two roads and there are two people involved in that decision.”

A thin class of free-agent hitters is highlighted by Shohei Ohtani, who is in a class by himself, with players like Matt Chapman and Teoscar Hernandez the best of the next level.

“It’s not as robust a class as has been the case in the last couple of years,” Dipoto said. “The pitching on the free-agent market is as good it ever is. It’s a good group.”

But Ohtani is the right player for almost any organization. The Mariners are expected to make a serious attempt at signing him again, although most people feel like the Dodgers will persuade him to remain in Southern California.

“I can’t tell you that we’re going to go sign the greatest free agent that’s ever lived because I don’t know if that person is willing to be here,” Dipoto said. “Every street has two ways.”