Jerry Dipoto Has Successfully Extended the Mariners’ Playoff Window

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 11: Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto watches batting practice before a game between the Texas Rangers and the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on June 11, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Rangers won the game 2-1 in eleven innings. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 11: Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto watches batting practice before a game between the Texas Rangers and the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on June 11, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Rangers won the game 2-1 in eleven innings. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) /

In the 2015 offseason, the Mariners were at a crossroads. The roster in place had experienced some success but was dishearteningly top-heavy, and a new general manager was on the way following the canning of previous GM Jack Zduriencik. Assets could have been cashed in to try to kickstart a rebuild, but clearly, owners had a different plan. Enter Jerry Dipoto.

The task was simple: build around existing stars to stay competitive and to extend the playoff window. But don’t just burn money and don’t trade away too much talent because, well, the Mariners don’ttoo much, to begin with.

Okay, so the task wasn’t simple at all.

Some gambles ended up biting the Mariners in the behind. Some lower-risk moves managed to do the same. But the influx of controllable talent to the major league squad since 2015 and its impact on the Mariners’ near future cannot be understated.

With King Felix declining swiftly and Hisashi Iwakuma riddled with injuries in recent years, the outlook of the Mariners’ rotation would seem mighty bleak if not for the floor-raising acquisitions of Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, and Wade LeBlanc.

Prior attempts to add starting pitching did not work out well for the Mariners, but Jerry Dipoto finally hit his mark with this trio of pitchers. Given that James Paxton also has looked more like a frontline starter, a recently questionable rotation now has a greater sense of stability.

Though his acquisition raised some eyebrows at the time, Marco Gonzales has been a revelation for the Mariners in 2018.

His command has seemingly improved all year, as he has refined his approach and chipped away at a high BABIP. He has kept his walks and home runs well under control too, and he continues to generate an above average amount of groundballs, helping him post a 3.38 ERA that tops the rotation.

While he will be under scrutiny as he further pushes into an uncharted innings-pitched territory, Gonzales is shaping up to be a key component of the Mariners’ rotation for years to come — a reality that notable former SP prospects would still be dreaming about.

After only James Paxton, Ariel Miranda, and Yovani Gallardo started 20+ games for the Mariners during a disastrous 2017 season, being able to consistently call on Marco Gonzales in addition to trade acquisition Mike Leake, who has never pitched fewer than 167.2 IP in a full season, and newly-extended waiver claim Wade LeBlanc, who has hit the DL just once in his career, is huge.

While Leake and LeBlanc might provide “just” 190 IP and 150 IP, respectively, at their best, Mariners’ starting pitchers have logged 22 player seasons of at least 150 IP since 2010.

That is an ok number, but eight of those seasons came from Felix Hernandez and among the other pitchers to accomplish this, only ‘Kuma and Roenis Elias are still/again with the team.

This is fairly typical — I hardly expect any player to remain on the same team for several years — but it underscores the value of eating innings year in and year out. And this year, all five primary starters have a shot at 150+ IP.

While Dipoto may have lucked into LeBlanc, the average-ish innings that he and Leake provide are simply paramount to the team’s success considering its lack of quality starting depth.

It must be said that because LeBlanc has not thrown more than 80 IP in a season since 2010 (the last year he was a full-time starter), he does carry some uncertainty about him as he pushes his workload, but he is a flexible piece that could find a home elsewhere on the pitching staff if an upgrade is available.

It wasn’t long ago that the Mariners rotation was clinging onto shimmers of hope.

There was hope that Felix wasn’t declining, that Iwakuma’s Dodgers-rejected shoulder would hold up a little longer, and that Paxton and Taijuan Walker would take the next step toward becoming top-of-the-rotation pitchers.

Now, the Mariners rotation is riding on much greater promise.

Paxton has taken that next step, Marco Gonzales has been better than Paxton, and Mike Leake has provided a solid, inning-eating presence. If you’re confident, you can even count Wade LeBlanc in as a lesser pillar of the rotation.

And unless LeBlanc’s 2020 option isn’t picked up, these guys are all sticking around at least two more seasons, making Felix’s decline less consequential.

It’s not a sexy squad, but it’s the best rotation put together since Hernandez was truly “King Felix,” and it was built from Tyler O’Neill, some scratch, and little else.

On the other end of the ballgame, the Mariners’ bullpen similarly has solid pieces in place, and there could be more to come from the minor leagues.

Right now, Edwin Diaz is carrying the current group of relievers to an average-to-pretty-good bottom line. Behind him though, there are several quality arms on the roster and in the pipeline.

Not all that talent has translated into success — *cough cough* Juan Nicasio *cough cough* — but between Diaz, James Pazos, Alex Colome, and yes, Juan Nicasio, there is no shortage of “stuff” here. Add in currently-injured project Dan Altavilla and four hard-throwing relief prospects and the Mariners potentially have a wealth of bullpen talent.

James Pazos has successfully done his best Jake McGee impression so far this year. He has earned a 2.45 ERA by tossing fastballs almost exclusively and was quite reliable last year.

Lately, Alex Colome has quietly started returning to form, pitching to a 2.53 ERA over his last 10.2IP (46 batters faced) with a 26.1% K% and has been one of the better relievers in the game since 2015.

Nicasio does not have as impressive a track record as Colome and might be in the midst of a lost season, but his strong strikeout, walk, and home run numbers suggest he could rebound and be a positive presence going forward.

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And Dan Altavilla might have better stuff than any of these three guys. He gets his fastball up into the high-90s and has a wipeout slider. Poor control is a monumental roadblock for him, but despite a boatload of walks, Altavilla was able to limit his ERA to 2.61 before being placed on the DL with an ever-worrying UCL sprain in his throwing arm.

These guys round out the most impressive relief talents on the major league roster and other than Nicasio, they too will be around for at least two more years. Even if Altavilla becomes a non-factor, Diaz, Colome, and Pazos give the Mariners a solid trio to build off of after Nicasio’s departure, and there are four relief prospects waiting to snatch up any open spots.

Despite a thin farm system overall, one thing the Mariners do have is a collection of high-octane relief prospects.

Sure, relief pitching prospects are tough to get excited about. As a whole, their tools and upside are limited relative to starters and position players, but that doesn’t mean these guys can’t make significant impacts as non-elite arms (see: James Pazos).

Matt Festa

Matt Festa is a power arm. He runs his fastball into the mid-90s and couples that with a devasting slider. A curveball and changeup round out a starter’s repertoire.

Prior to this season, Baseball America ranked him our 7th best prospect and touted his slider and control as the best in the organization.

He was called up briefly after the All-Star Break and made his major league debut against the Rockies. He has since returned to AA where all he has done this year is striking out 31.1% of batters while walking just 6.0% over 34.2 IP in 30 appearances. He has a solid 45.6% GB% and he sports a 2.86 ERA despite a .382 BABIP.

Wyatt Mills

A side-arming fastball/slider guy, Wyatt Mills is built in the mold of relievers like Steve Cishek, so he essentially has a niche carved out for him in the bigs already — he just has to get there first. 

As it stands, he is well on his way to doing just that. He is marinating in High-A Modesto at the moment and simply dominating.

Like Festa, Mills is impressing with a combination of strikeout stuff and free pass avoidance, striking out 28.7% of batters and walking 6.0%. But more than that, he has given up just one single home run over 59.2 IP and has just a 2.06 ERA and 2.67 FIP this year.

That minuscule HR rate probably won’t last, but with a GB% over 50%, Mills isn’t just getting lucky. 

Seth Elledge

Hardly being outdone, Seth Elledge only recently yielded the second home run of his professional career, spanning 61.1 IP.

In a review of the Mariners’ top prospects, FanGraphs’s  called Elledge a “quick moving relief prospect” due to a mid-90s fastball and an “average slider that flashes above.”

Although his command is not as refined as that of Festa or Mills, Elledge is walking a not terrible 10.6% of batters this year while striking out a whopping 36.9%. All told he has a 0.99 ERA and 2.58 FIP this year.

Art Warren

Art Warren is the wild card of the group. He could be the best of the bunch or the worst.

Warren’s raw stuff is impressive and like Festa, he also has a starter’s background and can throw 4 pitches (although his changeup is hardly even an afterthought if he still throws it at all).

In some Spring Training scouting notes, FanGraphs (or rather Eric Longenhagen again) praised Warren’s raw ability:

"Mariners RHP prospect Art Warren sat 95-98 with a plus slider at 86-88 and an average curveball at 80 mph. His slider has two-plane movement but most of the action is vertical and it bites really late. He located it in the zone and in the dirt, to his glove side, to hitters of both hands. He looks like a near-ready, late-inning arm."

Unfortunately, Warren hasn’t displayed the command that could make him a quick-rising arm during the regular season, as he’s walked 20.3% of batters he’s faced this year in AA. But a .182 BAA vs. a .303 BABIP has culminated in a 1.72 ERA in spite of all the walks.

There is still some reason for pause here though.

Obviously, these guys are relatively untested and still pretty raw. There is no guarantee that any of them will be successful. However, as the landscape of the game evolves, bullpens are receiving more and more attention and any of these four pitchers could make a sudden and significant impact once they are deemed ready for the big leagues.

Like Diaz and Altavilla before him, Matt Festa already made the jump from AA to the majors (albeit very briefly) and Mills, Elledge, and Warren could all do the same though Mills and Elledge are still in High-A for now.

Raw numbers show that the number of innings that relievers have thrown has increased each of the last 4 years, including this year, and has generally been trending up since about the turn of the decade. Additionally, the previous two years were the first times ever that relievers had collectively posted over 100 fWAR. The game is becoming increasingly dominated by relievers, and that could play well into the Mariners’ hands, especially if they can use in-house improvements to better allocate limited resources to other areas of need.

Turning toward position players, we really start to see Dipoto’s vision shaping up.

According to Baseball Reference, here is a list of every Mariners’ position player currently on the 25-man roster who is not controlled through the 2020 season:

Nelson Cruz, Denard Span, Andrew Romine.

That’s it.

The vision of a younger, controllable roster has come to fruition. While the core may not exactly be young, the team has started to spread the responsibility to meet its high expectations away from over-30s veterans like Nelson Cruz and toward under-30s stars like Jean Segura.

With Robinson Cano preparing to play mostly first base when he returns this season, it is possible that he could stick there and the Mariners infield would be set for at least the next two years with Mike Zunino at catcher, Cano at first base, Dee Gordon at second base, Jean Segura at shortstop, and Kyle Seager at third base.

Due to Ryon Healy’s struggles, that is a tantalizing arrangement and possibly the best defensive configuration you can make with the infielders currently on the roster.

With Mitch Haniger firmly entrenched in right field, that leaves leftfield, center field, and DH as pressing positional needs assuming both Cano and Gordon stay on the infield.

However, Ben Gamel has improved offensively and Guillermo Heredia is the best defensive outfielder on the roster. Between the two of them, they can cover a decent portion of the LF/CF duties, and it’s entirely possible that Nelson Cruz is brought back as the DH — though his continued elite production as he nears 40 is dubious.

Cano could also still return to second base full-time next year and push Dee back to center field, but then questions about center field defense and production from first base just resurface.

There may not be an obvious answer to what lineup works best or what holes would be easiest to fill. The front office will have to think critically about what is optimal for the team moving forward, but the amount of starting-quality players and useful role players already on the roster makes things that much simpler.

The Mariners are currently in a position that felt somewhat far-fetched when Jerry Dipoto was first hired.

Following 2015, it appeared as if the playoff window was waning, and unrest over inconsistent winning and lackluster rosters kept bubbling up. The Mariners needed a clear directive and Dipoto helped put that in place.

While his heavy lifting didn’t quell every concern about the roster over the years, the 2016 product was promising and the teams’ 2017 effort was admirable in the face of so much adversity (read: injuries).

Now in 2018, the Mariners are still clearly a step or three behind the game’s elite teams, but they are in the thick of the playoff hunt and there is plenty in place to justify mid-season additions as well as the intention to field a competitive roster in the coming years.

In that sense, Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners have succeeded with flying colors.

What was once a closing playoff window has been propped open for 3 years and stands to stay open for 2 more.

With his contract extended, Dipoto can now really oversee the development of the franchise according to his vision — that of building a winning club without rebuilding it from the ground up.

Although things have worked out well so far, there are still underwhelming components on the roster and with key players like Paxton and Zunino and possibly Gordon and Leake set to leave following the 2020 season and Nelson Cruz before then, Dipoto and the Mariners might only have those 2 more years to show their plan can work long term.

Next: The 10 Worst Mariners Since 2001

All stats referenced prior to games on 07/23/18