New general manager Jerry Dipoto comes to the Mariners with a wheeler-dealer reputation from his recent three-plus years in charge of the Los Angeles Angels.
Dipoto faces a daunting challenge in the coming months to revamp a roster that possesses an enviable number of proven and promising impact players but remains substandard in an alarming number of areas.
“The foundation here is fantastic,” Dipoto declared Tuesday in his introductory news conference at Safeco Field. “Our job…will be to surround that group with as good a foundational core as we can.”
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The initial steps in that effort must occur while Dipoto simultaneously sifts through his inherited staff, which also figures to undergo significant changes in coming days.
The Mariners are in their current mess because their farm system failed to produce the requisite flow of major league-quality players require to build and sustain a contender.
That suggests changes are coming in scouting and player development. Industry insiders believe it’s only a matter of time before Dipoto lures one of his former top lieutenants, Scott Servais, away from the Angels.
Whatever happens in those areas figures to happen quickly.
Most contracts in those departments expire on Oct. 31, and Dipoto has already said he wants the key elements of this staff in place before baseball swings into its offseason schedule after the World Series.
Similarly, Dipoto figures to make a quick determination regarding manager Lloyd McClendon and the major league staff. McClendon has one year remaining on his contract.
“There will be areas where we improve quickly,” Dipoto said. “There will be other areas where it will require some time. Minor league player development takes a little bit of time. That’s a slow build.”
The major league roster requires immediate attention, and Dipoto has already identified his priorities.
“The team has to better represent a team that fits this ballpark (Safeco Field),” he said. “We’ve got to be more athletic. Depth has to happen. I think every organization sees depth in a different way.
“Depth, to me, is setting up a Plan A and having guys in back of Plan A. So in the inevitable case of something in Plan A not working, Plan B can step up and provide a productive solution rather than just a crash and burn.”
Dipoto contends much of this can be addressed “through hard work and good scouting and the use of proper analytics.” This much is clear: The Mariners, under Dipoto, will be far more attuned to analytics.
“You can turn over a couple of rocks and find a guy here and there,” he said. “You can create depth in a roster that allows you to be competitive quickly.”
One of Dipoto’s stated goals is to lengthen the rotation, which positions veteran right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma at or near the top of any offseason checklist.
Iwakuma, 34, is one of three pending free agents on the Mariners’ 40-man roster. (Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez and lefty reliever Joe Beimel are the others.)
Negotiations with Iwakuma should be a simple matter of finding middle ground. His strong preference is to stay in Seattle. The Mariners want to keep him and have exclusive negotiating rights until the World Series ends.
Iwakuma figures to attract significant interest on the free-agent market as a second-tier option behind David Price, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto.
But unless Iwakuma suddenly becomes intransigent, the Mariners have only themselves to blame if they fail to reach agreement before other clubs get to make their pitch.
Without Iwakuma, the Mariners must look for a reliable addition to their rotation. With him, any search is likely to focus on organizational depth.
In contrast, the relief corps presents multiple challenges.
“The bullpen needs more layers,” Dipoto said. “The bullpen in 2014 was one of the best units I’ve ever encountered. It was remarkable to see how well that group did.
“Unfortunately, the bullpen can often be unpredictable and volatile — as I can tell you (as a former reliever) from personal experience. That needs to be addressed.”
The first issue is determining whether the Mariners want to ride with Tom Wilhelmsen as their closer. McClendon previously indicated a willingness to do so. If Dipoto agrees, the primarily need will be for a situational lefty.
Charlie Furbush filled that role in recent years, but he is recovering from a slight tear in his rotator cuff. The Mariners need one of Dipoto’s Plan B options if Furbush doesn’t return to form.
Building a more athletic roster means jettisoning many — not all, but many — of plodding sluggers so favored by former general manager Jack Zduriencik in favor of speed, particularly in the outfield.
“What they need is a Carlos Gomez type for center field,” one opposing scout said. “An athletic, toolsy guy who can run down the ball.
“If you’re going to play (Nelson) Cruz in right, you’ve got to have a center fielder who can cover ground.”
That’s easier said than done. Gomez is an All-Star who is under contract through next year at Houston. The free-agent market is thin, too, although possibilities include Denard Span, Dexter Fowler and, yes, Austin Jackson.
“If you’re looking to contend,” another rival scout said, “you can’t go into next year with Brad Miller as your center fielder. He might be able to do it. He’s an athletic kid. But that would be a (heck) of a gamble.”
The Mariners appear set next year at only four positions: Robinson Cano at second base, Ketel Marte at shortstop, Kyle Seager at third base and Cruz in right field.
They have several in-house candidates at first base in Mark Trumbo, Logan Morrison and Jesus Montero. While Trumbo looms as the preferred option, he is also the one most likely to net a legitimate return in a trade.
Two points to consider: Dipoto traded Trumbo in the past, from the Angels to Arizona after the 2013 season. And Dipoto views trades as generally being a preferred option to free agency.
“The trade market is always my first alternative,” he said. “You draft, scout and develop. You trade. To me, free agents augment the roster that you have.”
Accordingly, the Mariners figure to shop veteran outfielder Seth Smith, who will make $6.75 million next year with a $250,000 buyout on a $7 million option for 2017.
The Mariners seem a good bet to retain Gutierrez and are hopeful that Ramon Flores, a left-handed hitter, will be recovered from ankle surgery in time for spring training.
Flores, 23, is out of options but batted .423 in 14 games at Triple-A Tacoma after arriving in the July 30 trade that sent Dustin Ackley to the New York Yankees.
That leaves the glaring hole at catcher.
Club officials remain hopeful Mike Zunino can develop into a reliable regular, but the lack of a viable alternative — a Plan B — was one of the key factors that led to Zduriencik’s dismissal.
The ideal candidate, one club official said, is a veteran who projects to start 60 games but is capable of playing 100, without hurting the club, if needs arise.
Dipoto acquired just such a catcher in November 2011 as one of his first moves after becoming the Angels’ general manager; he got Chris Iannetta from Colorado for pitcher Tyler Chatwood.
Interestingly, perhaps, Iannetta will be a free agent this winter — although he is now 32 and having a poor season.
If nothing else, the Mariners figure to have a busy winter. So buckle up. Dipoto vows immediate and ongoing action.
“I can’t promise that we’ll be ready to run at full steam by Nov. 11,” he said. “But come April of next year, May of next year, September of next year, you’re going to see steady improvement, steady development depth.
“And we are going to get to the point where we are versatile, flexible and sustainable. There’s no doubt.”
FRIDAY: Oakland (RHP Aaron Brooks: 2-4, 7.26 ERA) at Seattle (RHP Hisashi Iwakuma: 9-5, 3.67), 7:10 p.m., Root Sports, 1030-AM, 710-AM
BASEBALL’S KEY DATES
First day after completion of World Series: Eligible players automatically become free agents at 6 a.m. Pacific time.
Fifth day after completion of World Series: Last day for a club to tender a qualifying offer to a pending free agent. (Club must make a qualifying offer in order to receive a compensatory draft pick if the player signs elsewhere.)
Sixth day after completion of World Series: First day that free agents can sign with a new club.
12th day after completion of World Series: Last day for free agents to accept a qualifying offer from their former club.
Nov. 9-12: General managers’ meetings in Boca Raton, Florida.
Nov. 20: Deadline for submitting reserve lists (i.e., players eligible for Rule 5 draft must be added to 40-man roster in order to be protected).
Dec. 2: Deadline for offering contracts to unsigned players on the 40-man roster. (This is the tender deadline; those players not offered contracts — i.e., nontendered — become free agents.)
Dec. 7-10: Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dec. 10: Rule 5 draft in Nashville, Tennessee.
2016 CONTRACT STATUS FOR MARINERS’ 40-MAN ROSTER
Under contract (6)
2B Robinson Cano (through 2023)
OF Nelson Cruz (through 2018)
RHP Felix Hernandez (through 2019)
LHP Danny Hultzen (through 2016)
3B Kyle Seager (through 2021 with option for 2022)
OF Seth Smith (through 2016 with option for 2017)
Pending free agents (3)
LHP Joe Beimel
OF Franklin Gutierrez
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma
Eligible for arbitration (5)
LHP Charlie Furbush (second of three years)
RHP Logan Kensing (second of three years)
1B Logan Morrison (third of three years)
1B/OF Mark Trumbo (third of three years)
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen (second of three years)
Under club control (27)
C Steve Baron
LHP Roenis Elias
RHP Danny Farquhar
OF Ramon Flores
RHP Mayckol Guaipe
C John Hicks
OF James Jones
SS Ketel Marte
UTL Brad Miller
1B Jesus Montero
LHP Mike Montgomery
LHP Vidal Nuno
LHP Edgar Olmos
LHP Tyler Olson
UTL Shawn O’Malley
LHP James Paxton
RHP JC Ramirez
RHP Jose Ramirez
LHP Rob Rasmussen
LHP David Rollins
OF Stefen Romero
RHP Carson Smith
C Jesus Sucre
SS Chris Taylor
RHP Taijuan Walker
C Mike Zunino
RHP Tony Zych
Out of options for 2016 season (7)
OF Ramon Flores
LHP Danny Hultzen
1B Jesus Montero
LHP Mike Montgomery
LHP Edgar Olmos
RHP JC Ramirez
RHP Jose Ramirez