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The End Days of the Mariners’ Empire That Never Was

When Jerry Dipoto took over in Seattle, he vowed to turn the team into a contender. Just three years later, the Mariners are undergoing a full-scale rebuild. Given the state of the farm system that prior regimes left behind, could it have gone any other way?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jerry Dipoto told everyone exactly what was going to happen the day he was introduced as general manager of the Mariners. In his introductory press conference, in September 2015, Dipoto explained how he was going to turn Seattle, which was putting the final bow on a 76-86 season, into a contender.

“Through hard work and good scouting and the use of proper analytics, you can turn over a couple of rocks and find a guy here and there,” Dipoto said, foreshadowing three years of frenetic roster shake-ups. “You can create depth in a roster that allows you to be competitive quickly.”

Dipoto’s Mariners were competitive quickly, finishing an aggregate 10 games over .500 in his tenure so far. But despite Dipoto’s red paper clip approach to roster construction, the Mariners never made the leap from competitive to actually making the playoffs. Now, after three attempts at stringing together enough incremental improvements to make the playoffs, the Mariners are knocking over the entire structure and starting over. Six weeks into the offseason, Dipoto has dismantled the roster he’s chipped away at since arriving in Seattle, downshifting into a full rebuild.

In the past two weeks, among other moves, Seattle has traded its top starter, left-hander James Paxton, to the Yankees, All-Star closer Edwin Díaz and potential Hall of Fame second baseman Robinson Canó to the Mets, and All-Star shortstop Jean Segura to the Phillies. One imagines Dipoto’s quote about turning over rocks inscribed on some remote, lonely stone, like the cenotaph in Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Nothing beside remains.

Through trade or free agency, the Mariners have divested themselves of their best starting pitcher from 2018, three of their four best relievers last year by ERA+ (minimum 40 IP), and six of the 10 position players who batted 300 times for them last year. In exchange, the Mariners received young big leaguers, prospects, salary relief, and the hope of returning to competitiveness at some distant point in the future.

And last month, Seattle’s former director of high performance, Lorena Martin, accused Dipoto, manager Scott Servais, and director of player development Andy McKay of making racist comments about Latin American ballplayers and discriminating against her because of her race, as well as firing trainers because of their race. The Mariners denied that Dipoto, Servais, or McKay made those comments, or that they fired any trainers, calling Martin’s story “outrageous, false claims.” Nevertheless, MLB is investigating the matter, which will continue to hang over the Mariners organization, no matter how strident the club’s denial.

In every respect, these are unhappy times for the Mariners and their fans, but it’s hard to separate their current situation from their recent history. Seattle is rebuilding because of moves made long before Dipoto took over, and the Mariners might not field another playoff team until after his tenure ends.

Developing prospects into a contender sounds like a great idea—it allows a general manager to showcase his own drafting and scouting mettle, and saves ownership money, since prospects and amateur players are cheaper than established veterans. The Cubs and Astros just won titles with mostly (if not entirely) homegrown cores, and both teams have cultivated solid competitive rosters that figure to keep the team contending for years to come. “Sustainability” was another big theme of Dipoto’s early rhetoric, and nothing builds sustained success like a stable of homegrown, cost-controlled young stars.

The problem is that doing a full teardown and rebuild takes forever, particularly in baseball. The top pick in the NFL draft will start from day one, while an 18-year-old high school draftee or a 16-year-old Dominican free agent will take five years or more to reach the majors, and even longer to enter his prime. Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez, for instance, who just turned 26 and isn’t even arbitration-eligible yet, signed with the Yankees all the way back in 2009.

Dipoto’s efforts to contend were continuously hamstrung by the Mariners’ lack of prospects. Seattle has run competitive payrolls under Dipoto, spending in the neighborhood of $160 million to $170 million each year, but they were never able to make a big win-now trade, like the Justin Verlander deal that put Houston over the top in 2017, because they just didn’t have the prospects. And that’s because the past three Mariners GMs—Bill Bavasi, Jack Zduriencik, and Dipoto—have been bafflingly unproductive with their top draft picks.

This trend dates back to at least 2005, when the Mariners had the third overall pick in a loaded draft that included Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Zimmerman, and Jacoby Ellsbury. That year, the Mariners were linked to Tulowitzki up until the last few days before the draft before picking Southern Cal catcher Jeff Clement instead. Clement hit .218/.277/.371 in a 152-game big league career.

Bavasi did inherit some good prospects from Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick, like 2003 first-rounder Adam Jones, but that farm system quickly entered a cycle of being strip-mined and not replenished, eventually leading to the predicament the Mariners find themselves in now. In February 2008, Bavasi traded Jones, along with fellow future All-Stars Chris Tillman and George Sherrill, to Baltimore for left-hander Erik Bedard.

A decade ago, the Mariners replaced Bavasi with Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik, who promised a blend of old-school scouting expertise and forward-looking sabermetric thinking, presenting the Mariners with a job application full of advanced statistical analysis.

In 2013, Tony Blengino, who worked under Zduriencik in both Milwaukee and Seattle, told the Seattle Times that the whole thing had been a fiction, authored by Blengino on Zduriencik’s behalf, and that Zduriencik had misrepresented himself in his interviews with the Mariners.

“Jack portrayed himself as a scouting/stats hybrid because that’s what he needed to get the job,” Blengino told the Times. “But Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door.”

In seven years at the helm, Zduriencik had some successes. His front office picked All-Stars Kyle Seager and Díaz in the third round in 2009 and 2012, respectively. They also nabbed Paxton in the fourth round in 2010. Zduriencik also signed veteran sluggers Canó (129 OPS+ with the Mariners) and Nelson Cruz (148 OPS+) to very successful free-agent contracts and acquired Cliff Lee from the Phillies for three prospects—Tyson Gillies, J.C. Ramírez, and Phillippe Aumont—who amounted to very little in the big leagues.

Zduriencik sent the Mariners into an organizational tailspin from which they’ve yet to fully recover. Not only was he one of the last analytics-averse GMs in baseball, but Zduriencik sank Seattle’s farm system without achieving much of anything at the big league level. Zduriencik was the GM from October 2008 to September 2015, which is when the best teams in baseball today acquired the amateur players who grew into 100-win cores. In that time span, the Yankees drafted Aaron Judge and signed Sánchez, Luis Severino, and Miguel Andújar. The Red Sox drafted Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and signed Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The Dodgers drafted Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, and Walker Buehler, and signed Yasiel Puig and Julio Urías. The Astros drafted George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman. And the Mariners fell behind.

Seattle had the second pick in the 2011 draft, which was the most loaded American amateur crop since that 2005 class. Zduriencik went with Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, a polished, safe college pitcher who was supposed to reach the big leagues quickly. Hultzen developed shoulder problems and never reached the big leagues at all.

This too represented a last-minute change of heart from the Seattle brass, because days before the draft they were expected to use the second pick on either Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon or Puerto Rican high school shortstop Francisco Lindor. And the next five pitchers off the board after Hultzen that year were Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley, Taylor Jungmann, and José Fernández. Three years later, the Mariners had the sixth overall pick and eschewed the safe college arm, LSU’s Aaron Nola, instead choosing high school catcher and outfielder Alex Jackson, who, like Hultzen, has yet to appear in a big league game.

Every team misses on draft picks, but what really killed the Mariners farm system was a string of player development failures. Seattle’s track record with safe, high-floor prospects under Zduriencik was nothing short of astonishing, either the result of systemic failure or an indication that Zduriencik is the unluckiest man alive. A year after taking Hultzen second overall, the Mariners picked Mike Zunino, a polished college catcher out of Florida, with the no. 3 overall pick. Zunino was inconsistent over his six-year Mariners tenure, posting three 20-homer seasons and good framing numbers, but appalling strikeout and on-base numbers.

In 2011, homegrown right-hander Michael Pineda made the All-Star team as a 22-year-old rookie. That offseason, Zduriencik traded him to the Yankees for catching prospect Jesús Montero. It was a bold, fascinating trade that made sense for both sides at the time. Montero appeared in the top 10 on Baseball Prospectus’s top prospect list three times, because while his big frame raised questions about his long-term fit at catcher, he looked like a lock to hit. Turns out, he did neither, posting a .247/.285/.383 line over four big league seasons in Seattle. While Pineda struggled to stay healthy as a Yankee, the most memorable moment in Montero’s Mariners career came during a minor league game in 2014. Mariners cross-checker Butch Baccala heckled Montero about his weight from the stands, ordering an ice cream sandwich to be sent to the dugout. This prompted Montero to threaten Baccala with a baseball bat.

Months after trading for Lee in late 2009, the Mariners fell out of contention and flipped the left-hander to Texas in a six-player deal. This trade is now most notorious for the inclusion of right-hander Josh Lueke, who had served 42 days in jail after being charged with felony rape and pleading no contest to the reduced charge of false imprisonment with violence. Zduriencik claimed at the time not to have known about Lueke’s past, and said that after the trade was done there was nothing he could do to reverse it; both claims were refuted in a 2010 Seattle Times article.

Seattle’s primary target in the Lee trade was not Lueke, but Justin Smoak, a polished college hitter who’d drawn comparisons to Mark Teixeira when the Rangers picked him 11th overall in 2008. But in five seasons in Seattle, Smoak was worth just 0.9 bWAR and posted an OPS+ of 97. It wasn’t until 2017, three years after he’d left for the Blue Jays, that Smoak developed into an All-Star.

But the most astonishing case of a can’t-miss prospect missing was Seager’s college teammate, Dustin Ackley. In 2009, the Mariners spent the second overall pick in the draft on Ackley, who hit at least .400 in each of his three seasons at North Carolina, including .417/.517/.763 as a junior. There might not have been a safer college position player prospect in any draft since. But after posting a 120 OPS+ in 90 games as a rookie in 2011, Ackley posted an OBP below .300 in three of his final four seasons with the Mariners, who shipped him to the Yankees in mid-2015. Ackley hasn’t appeared in a major league game in more than two years.

Every team makes bad draft picks, and every team has the occasional safe prospect burn out, but the Mariners did both with alarming frequency under Bavasi and Zduriencik. As a result, the cupboard was bare when Dipoto took over. In Dipoto’s first offseason, 2015-16, BP ranked the Mariners farm system 28th in baseball, describing the organization’s 2015 as a “turd sandwich.” Not great news for a team that also finished 10 games under .500 at the major league level in 2015. But the Mariners have also had their share of missteps with prospects under Dipoto.

In 2017, the Mariners sold low on hard-throwing Brazilian left-hander Luiz Gohara, their third-best prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, shipping him to Atlanta for relief pitcher Shae Simmons and outfielder Mallex Smith. The same day, they sent Smith, lefty Ryan Yarborough, and a minor league infielder to Tampa Bay for lefty Drew Smyly.

Smyly got hurt and never threw a regular-season pitch for Seattle, while Simmons got hurt and threw just 120 pitches over nine appearances for the Mariners, in which he posted a 7.04 ERA. Gohara bounced back in 2017 and by last offseason was the no. 62 prospect on the BP top 101, a list that didn’t include a single Mariner. Yarborough posted a 106 ERA+ in 147 1/3 innings for Tampa Bay and finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Smith posted a .367 OBP, stole 40 bases, and led the AL in triples, and the Mariners just traded Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer to reacquire him.

Seattle also continued to make strange selections in the first round of the draft, using the no. 17 overall pick on Evan White, a right-handed hitting first baseman from the University of Kentucky. First basemen are notoriously bad investments at or near the top of the draft, particularly college first basemen, and particularly right-handed-hitting college first basemen. There are exceptions, like Paul Goldschmidt and Rhys Hoskins, but White isn’t a beefy masher—his best tool is his glove. For a franchise that hasn’t had a first-rounder pan out in a Mariners uniform since Gil Meche, it was a curious choice to spend a high pick on someone whose best-case scenario is prime James Loney.

With that said, not all of Seattle’s underperformance in the draft is the result of incompetence. Hultzen’s shoulder injury was unforeseeable, while Smoak struggled to cope with the death of his father, who’d coached and supported him throughout his amateur career. “It wasn’t easy,” Smoak told Sportsnet’s Dan Robson. “For me, baseball really didn’t matter anymore.” In 2016, Dipoto pounced on Golden Spikes winner Kyle Lewis, perhaps the best college hitter in the class, when the Mercer outfielder fell into Seattle’s lap at no. 11. Lewis tore his ACL a month later. And in 2018, Dipoto spent his first-rounder on Stetson right-hander Logan Gilbert—other right-handers out of Stetson include Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber—only to watch Gilbert contract mononucleosis and miss the entire season.

Scouting and player development are a risky, probabilistic business—a team can get lucky and have Mike Trout or Mookie Betts drop out of the sky, or it can do everything right and still have a player who looked like a sure thing flame out in Double-A. The best teams are both good and lucky when it comes to their minor league system, while the Mariners have been both bad and unbelievably unlucky for going on 15 years now.

Any analysis of Dipoto’s tenure has to account for how unproductive Seattle’s farm system has been, and they’ve been so bad for so long that it’s frankly a difficult concept to communicate. So consider the following table. Since Gillick left the team in 2003, the Mariners have conducted 15 drafts under Bavasi, Zduriencik, and Dipoto. Here are the top 10 players selected by the Mariners from those 15 drafts, by bWAR, along with how much of that big league production has come in a Mariners uniform.

Top 10 Mariners Draft Selections Since 2003

Player Year Round bWAR bWAR for Seattle
Player Year Round bWAR bWAR for Seattle
Kyle Seager 2009 3 27.9 27.9
Doug Fister 2006 7 19.7 4.4
Lance Lynn 2005 6 14.7 0
Brandon Morrow 2006 1 11.4 2.1
James Paxton 2010 4 10.9 10.9
Chris Taylor 2012 5 9.5 0.7
Chris Tillman 2006 2 9.3 0
Dustin Ackley** 2009 1 8.1 8.3
Mike Zunino 2012 1 6.9 6.9
Brad Miller 2011 2 6.2 3.8
*Lynn didn’t sign and went to Ole Miss, and the Cardinals drafted him 39th overall in 2008. **Ackley was below replacement level during his time with the Yankees.

It’s not quite accurate to say that the Mariners have gotten nothing out of the draft over the past 15 years—Seager alone was a huge win, and this list doesn’t feature Díaz, Taijuan Walker, or any of Dipoto’s picks who might pan out in years to come. But it’s about as close to nothing as an MLB franchise can get from the draft over a 15-year period. The Mariners have spent almost their entire 17-year postseason drought trying to compete with an entire talent pipeline turned off, and not just any talent pipeline, but a pipeline that ought to deliver cheap talent in abundance. That deficiency determines everything about the rebuild the Mariners are undertaking now.

Over the past three seasons, just about every contending team has needed to make use of its minor league depth, either by calling up key contributors from within its own ranks, like the Yankees’ Judge or the Astros’ Bregman, or trading those prospects for pieces to help the team win now, like the Astros did when they dealt Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez, and Jake Rogers for Verlander in 2017, or the Dodgers when they traded five prospects for Manny Machado this past July. If Dipoto had inherited even an average farm system, he could have done the same, and finessed either the 86-win Mariners of 2016 or the 89-win Mariners of 2018 across the finish line.

Instead, he’s had to turn over rocks looking for talent, or make a series of incremental improvements through trades and below-the-radar free agents. More than anything, he’s had to take risks. On balance, he hasn’t done a bad job with these deals. Dipoto’s best deal was trading Walker and Ketel Marte to Arizona for Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger, who was Seattle’s best player last year. Journeyman lefty Wade LeBlanc has been a great addition to a rotation that needed depth, and the Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales challenge trade with St. Louis has worked out nicely for Seattle. But turning a red paper clip into a house means upgrading on every trade, and that’s just about impossible to do—the Dee Gordon deal last offseason was a misfire, and Dipoto got absolutely smoked on the Gohara-for-Smith-for-Smyly exchange.

Two offseasons ago, the Chicago White Sox also sold off the best players on a disappointing also-ran team and transformed their farm system from top to bottom. What the Mariners have done (or are in the process of doing, if you believe Haniger is still to be traded), is being pitched as the same kind of rebuild, which is only true on a superficial level.

The three big pieces the White Sox moved were pitcher Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals in the winter of 2016, and pitcher José Quintana to the Cubs the following July. One could quibble with Segura’s value versus Eaton’s, or how highly to regard a closer like Díaz, but it’s reasonable to say that all three of the players the White Sox traded away were better than any of the four players the Mariners traded away. Moreover, all three players were on extraordinarily team-friendly contracts.

Compare that to Canó, who’s on the back end of a $240 million contract; Paxton, who’s 30 years old and two seasons from free agency; and Segura, who turns 29 in March and, at about $60 million over the next four years, is on a fair contract, if not a cheap one. Díaz, who’s at the top of his game as a pre-arbitration 24-year-old, is the only one who represents a significant bargain.

Perhaps for that reason, none of Chicago’s rebuilding trades featured salary relief as a key component. The Mariners took substantial money back in the Canó and Segura deals, absorbing the contracts of Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, and Carlos Santana in the bargain, as well as sending $20 million in cash to the Mets. But they also depressed Díaz’s value on the trade market by tying him to Canó’s deal—if nothing else, more teams would be interested in a knockout pre-arbitration closer on his own than if he comes with a portion of Canó’s price tag—and offloaded Juan Nicasio’s $9.25 million salary to the Phillies in the Segura deal. In addition to the guaranteed contracts of Canó, Segura, and Nicasio, the Mariners offloaded three players who are due mid-to-high seven-figure salaries in arbitration—Zunino, Paxton, and reliever Alex Colomé—without taking back a single arbitration-eligible player in return. All told, Seattle’s trades since the beginning of the offseason will net the team a savings of more than $100 million in salary.

The difference between what the White Sox got back and what the Mariners got back reflects the fact the White Sox were trading better players with fewer financial strings attached. For Sale, Quintana, and Eaton, Chicago received three top-10 prospects on BP’s 2017 top 101 (Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, and Lucas Giolito), plus two others in the top 36 (Reynaldo López and Michael Kopech).

Contrast that to the players Seattle is getting back. Former Mets outfielder Jarred Kelenic is a potential five-tool center fielder who went sixth overall last year because he showed a lot of polish for a player who faced relatively weak high school competition in Wisconsin. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that 22-year-old lefty Justus Sheffield will be better over the next two years than Paxton. J.P. Crawford, the 23-year-old shortstop acquired for Segura, had a bumpy past couple of seasons in Philadelphia after suffering a couple of inconvenient injuries and getting moved all over the diamond, but he retains the elite on-base and defensive talents that made him a top-10 prospect two years ago.

Crawford is no longer rookie-eligible, but Kelenic and Sheffield are Seattle’s two best prospects now. Justin Dunn, the former Boston College right-hander who also came over in the Canó-Díaz deal, is probably in their top five. But there’s not a top-10 or even top-30 global prospect in the bunch, and given how little young talent Seattle had going into this offseason, Dipoto’s essentially starting this rebuild from scratch. Even a big return from a potential Haniger trade would probably only bring the Mariners farm system up to about average, with little depth beyond the top few prospects.

Still, it’s something to build with, and that’s more than can be said for the Mariners farm systems from earlier this decade. The question now is how much longer Mariners fans will have to wait to see their team return to even the fringe contender status of the past five years. Seattle’s already gone a league-high 17 seasons without a playoff berth, and the team’s ownership group, led by telecom billionaire John Stanton, is taking tens of millions of dollars a year out of the club by running the kind of depressed payrolls we’ve seen the Cubs, Astros, and Phillies run during their own scorched-earth rebuilds.

For that reason, Dipoto deserves some credit for at least trying to turn the roster he inherited into a contender. Too frequently these days, middle-of-the-pack clubs with an outside shot at a playoff berth throw up their hands and sell off their best players rather than even attempting to contend in the short term.

The Mariners tried, but unfortunately, it didn’t work. Now they’re staring down precisely the kind of long-term rebuild they were hoping to avoid. The same broken talent pipeline that made it hard for Dipoto to go all in means that even though Seattle is selling off its best players now rather than rolling it all back and trying again for another couple of years, there’s only so much big league talent to cash in for prospects, and almost no minor league talent to take over in the short or medium term. The Mariners are going to be bad for the foreseeable future, in large part because of mistakes dating back to the distant past.