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Seattle Mariners

How Scott Servais helped stabilize a turbulent Mariners offseason

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais poses for a portrait during photo day on Friday in Peoria, Ariz. Above from left are Mariners Cal Raleigh, Logan Gilbert, Luis Castillo, Julio Rodriguez, JP Crawford and Ty France.  (Getty Images)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – Much as he’d like to, Scott Servais can’t escape the TV dad vibes that seem to emanate from him as the manager of the Mariners.

His kids tease him about it. Players chuckle when it’s mentioned. And fans can’t help but see it in his comments and actions.

“It’s even better when he tries to not act like it,” said a player that didn’t want to be named for obvious reasons. “And you want to be like, ‘OK, Dad.’ ”

Whether it’s Ward Cleaver or Jason Seaver, or perhaps a little Mike Brady or a sprinkling of Phil Dunphy, Servais has learned to embrace the perception of the dad manager.

It’s not an act. It’s who he is and he’s learned to embrace it … sort of.

But sometimes the dad, er, manager is forced to deal with the growing pains in the modern family that is a Major League Baseball team.

Servais’ fatherly mindset kicked in when he saw a serious situation developing early in the offseason that would leave his best players, many of whom had already voiced their concerns with ownership and the direction of the team, frustrated and angry.

He knew when the team started to implement its unexpected offseason plan, trading away key players and cutting salary, he had to act. Wanting to avoid disillusion within the team, Servais identified key team leaders to meet with and discuss their concerns and the Mariners’ strategy to improve.

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When the 2023 season ended without a return trip to the postseason, the disappointment surrounding the organization was palpable.

Players voiced their frustrations, fans lamented the uninspiring roster additions and the goodwill from ending the playoff drought in 2022 had faded. It got worse when Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners president of baseball operations, infuriated fans with several comments and a casual less-than-contrite tone that didn’t mirror their disappointment.

A few weeks later, the offseason sank to its nadir when Mariners ownership decided to scrap the initial offseason plan of supplementing the roster with an increased payroll. With concerns about financial viability and the future of ROOT Sports, a key revenue generator for the organization, there would be a minimal increase to the team’s payroll budget.

For Dipoto to make improvements to the roster, he first needed to create space in the essentially maxed-out budget. He did it by trading Eugenio Suarez to Arizona for a backup catcher and unproven reliever.

“What the hell are we doing? This makes no sense,” texted one player after the Suarez trade.

A day before the winter meetings officially started, Seattle traded outfielder Jarred Kelenic, first baseman Evan White and veteran pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Braves in exchange for a reliever making the MLB minimum and a minor-league pitcher who had missed the season due to elbow surgery. It was an obvious deal to dump salary.

It left fans and players wondering what was going on with an organization that had promised do what it takes to compete for a division title and World Series after going through a four-year rebuilding process.

The organization wasn’t adding key players, it was getting rid of them.

Sources would later confirm the Mariners need to create “payroll flexibility” and the reasons why.

Servais decided to be proactive instead of letting social media speculation run rampant.

He’d always preached to his players about taking ownership in the team’s performance by holding each other accountable to their daily preparation and improvement. It would be unreasonable to leave them guessing about the team’s intentions.

“It’s their team and I say that all the time,” Servais said.

Servais selected catcher Cal Raleigh, pitcher Logan Gilbert, shortstop J.P. Crawford, first baseman Ty France, superstar center fielder Julio Rodriguez and pitcher Luis Castillo for those meetings. They were all obvious choices given their standing on the team.

“I thought it was important because we have guys who I have never had those kind of conversations with before,” he said. “These guys are starting to grow into your core group.”

Servais had already been planning to visit Castillo in his native Dominican Republic. He had also wanted to see Rodriguez’s workout regimen in Tampa Bay and visit the pitching lab in Clearwater where Logan Gilbert had been training since he was an even skinnier and ganglier teenager. Those visits would now have multiple purposes.

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He started with a call to his catcher, whose toughness and burning desire to win had vaulted him into a team leader. With Raleigh in the process of moving to Arizona, Servais couldn’t have the face-to-face meeting right away.

It was Raleigh who was the first to speak up about the talent gap between the Mariners and the Rangers and Astros. When Seattle was eliminated from the postseason race after Game No. 161, he lamented the failures to return to the postseason, the trade of Paul Sewald and the free-agent additions made by the Rangers. He talked about the need to add “big-time players” to the roster. They were comments that Gilbert, Crawford and France all echoed and stood by.

It was an extensive phone call. Raleigh didn’t necessarily like the initial information, but he respected being told about it.

“It’s important in any kind of relationship, whether it’s team to player, boyfriend to girlfriend, whatever it is, you got to have a good relationship, you have to communicate,” Raleigh said. “With him doing that, it’s a level of trust. It’s a little more comforting knowing that.”

Servais promised Raleigh that the communication line would remain open for the rest of the offseason. He would be informed and his input would be valued.

“Whatever they need from us, we are willing to give,” Raleigh said. “At the end of the day, it’s not our job to do that. They do a good job of putting a roster together. But it’s nice to be in that loop and the back and forth communication with them. Not every (organization) would do that.”

Servais made the short drive to Kent to see France during his first assessment day at Driveline’s massive training facility. He knew Crawford would also be in attendance since he’d convinced France to go there for help.

But instead of meeting with the often inseparable duo together, he wanted to meet with them separately to hear their own individual opinions and input.

“It meant a lot,” France said. “He didn’t have to do that. The open communication like that, and kind of letting us know the route they’re going and the moves that they were making, it helped clear up any questions I would have had.”

Crawford met with Servais a few days later over lunch, ready to ask so many questions. He has been the emotional leader of the team, but Suarez, who played next to him in the infield and had a locker next to him, offered an upbeat consistency when the anger of failure would consume Crawford.

“There was a lot going through my mind, to be honest,” he said. “Like what does this mean, you’re getting rid of what we thought were key pieces to our team. It was a tough pill to swallow for sure. I had a bunch of questions. But at the end of the day, it was, ‘What are we doing?’ ”

Trust doesn’t come easy for Crawford. His time coming up through the Phillies organization as a first-round draft pick, his failures to live up to prospect hype and the way his situation was handled, left him broken and ready to quit the game. The infamous comments from Dipoto about winning 54% of the games over 10 years and other snippets from the season-ending news conference left him wary.

“How could you not hear about it?,” he said. “It was something that shouldn’t have been said. It sounds right, obviously, in some people’s heads. But to the public, they want to hear that we are trying to win the World Series every year. And we do, too. That’s our main job the moment we step foot in here is to win the World Series. Hearing that comment, it was shocking to me. I thought our window was now. I thought we were trying to go all-in now. To hear that, I was disappointed. But you kind of get it.”

Then the initial trades came, leaving Crawford even more confused. The meeting with Servais made him feel better, if not completely inspired.

“He gave me the lowdown,” Crawford said. “He gave me an idea of what they wanted to do.”

Later in the offseason, Servais made his trip east to visit Castillo, Rodriguez and Gilbert. Due to travel logistics, he started with a flight to the Dominican Republic.

Admittedly, Castillo was surprised when Servais and pitching coach Pete Woodworth arrived in his hometown of Bani for a visit and a fishing trip on his new boat dubbed “La Piedra.”

“It’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in my career,” Castillo said through interpreter Freddy Llanos. “It showed me that I’m always on their mind and they’re thinking of me and I think that’s what impressed me about the trip. From now on, they’re always welcome in my house.”

Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh, left, and starting pitcher Luis Castillo share a moment against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 7 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.  (Tribune News Service)
Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh, left, and starting pitcher Luis Castillo share a moment against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 7 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Tribune News Service)

The trip produced more than a few red snappers, plenty of laughs, a look into the life of Castillo away from the field and conversations about the direction of the team.

Servais wanted to make sure that Castillo understood why they traded away his close friend in Suarez and how they still planned to make the team better.

“It was kind of a sad conversation because I’ve basically played with Geno my whole career,” Castillo said. “It’s the business. There are situations that sometimes I can’t control, but I just hope that this decision that we made is for the good of the team and we start showing those results.”

After a few days in the Dominican Republic, which also included a visit with Nelson Cruz, Servais traveled to Tampa to see his star center fielder.

Servais marveled at the intensity that his young center fielder attacked each workout, seeing the motivation to have an even better season in 2024.

“It’s a different level,” Servais said.

Rodriguez liked that Servais made it a priority to see him train in person.

“It means a lot,” Rodriguez said. “He knows now what I’m doing. He knows now that I’m not just fooling around in Tampa, that I’m not just hanging at the beach. He knows where I’m working, how I’m working and how am I approaching my work. He respected it. I appreciate that he came and saw it because I can say whatever, but unless you go there and see it, then you’re not going to understand it.”

A post-workout meal and discussion followed with Servais looking for feedback from the team’s most important player and franchise cornerstone.

“I understood everything and where he was coming from and how they were approaching things, and why they had to do what they did,” Rodriguez said. “You never want to see people go. It’s tough. But it happens everywhere and it’s part of the game.”

Even at age 22 and with only two years of MLB experience, Servais knew that Rodriguez had to be a part of the conversations. His maturity level and commitment to the organization made it mandatory. Rodriguez felt encouraged by it.

“It’s cool that they kind of kept us involved and be open with how they are doing things,” he said. “Even though sometimes we might disagree, but at the same time, they’ve been upfront with it. You’d rather have the conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable.”

Servais closed out the trip by heading to Orlando to see Gilbert.

“It means a lot,” Gilbert said. “I think you see that investment especially during the offseason. Everybody’s got their own time. It’s basically the farthest flight you can get from Seattle. It means a lot that he’s trying to understand and be invested in his players.”

Servais sat down with Gilbert over a post-workout lunch and had a frank conversation about the team, its plan and the right-hander’s growing role.

“There was a little bit of confusion at first,” Gilbert said of the offseason. “It wasn’t really just a ton of frustration. It was more like everybody wanting to know the direction that the team is going in. … He gave a little light to the direction the team is going in.”

Servais wanted to provide the depth and clarity and back-and-forth interaction that might have been lacking in the phone call.

“I remember Logan made the comment, ‘Man, you’ve never talked to me this way before,’” Servais said with a chuckle.

For Gilbert, it was enlightening.

“I see it like, they don’t really owe me anything,” he said. “I think some organizations might be run that way, but it seems like especially right now that Skip, the front office, the players, everybody’s trying to get tied in together on the same page and getting in the same direction.”

· · ·

There’s no way to measure whether those meetings and phone conversations will lead to success on the field. But Servais believes it strengthened the bond among those players and gave them more investment into the team.

“They’re a big part of what we’re doing here,” he said. “I thought it was good for those guys. It made them think a little bit. … And it gave them the chance to ask questions.”

The conversations were all different with some similar sentiments.

“There was some frustration,” he said. “I think everybody felt it, myself, the fan base, certainly everybody’s like, ‘What are we doing?’ You try to explain it the best you can and I still don’t think they quite understood it right away. Any time you have a locker next to somebody and you develop that relationship then all of a sudden that guy’s ripped out of the locker room for different reasons, it’s like, ‘Why are we doing that?’ There’s the human tie that really makes our team special, in my opinion, because we do care about each other. When you take part of that away, it hurts.”

The meetings would have been pointless if they didn’t deliver on roster additions and improvements.

The Mariners brought back Mitch Haniger, signed Mitch Garver, added Jorge Polanco and Luke Raley in trades and avoided trading away Bryce Miller or Bryan Woo.

“Early on, everybody was upset or whatever when we were subtracting,” Raleigh said. “But the offseason is more than just October, November, December. I thought we made some really good moves.”

“With every trade or acquisition, I got more excited,” Gilbert said. “I think the front office was really creative in how they did it. I was like everybody else trying to guess on my couch at home what we’re going to do and it was not at all what I guessed, but I think it was even way better.”

Servais’ message had clearly gotten through.

“You want them to trust that it’s all going to work out in the end,” Servais said. “That when we get to spring training that we’re going to have a good team, that we’re going to try to keep our core group intact and try to add to it. I think we have.”