Halfway into Jerry Dipoto’s initial season as Mariners general manager, it’s clear he’s not shy about making moves that will define his reputation for years to come.
What that reputation will be is uncertain. Is Dipoto the visionary whose determination to develop a cohesive philosophy about hitting and pitching – shared by everybody from the low minors to the big club – has converted a cacophony of dissimilar voices into one? Or is he the dumbo who traded Mark Trumbo?
While Dipoto contemplates trade possibilities before the Aug. 1 deadline – and there’s a chance he won’t do much of anything – here are five reasons the GM deserves an early thumbs up:
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▪ Hiring Scott Servais to replace Lloyd McClendon as manager. Nothing against McClendon, whose old-school gruffness could be charming (as long as you didn’t refer to him as “charming” within 50 feet of his office). But Servais is a better fit for a generation of players more apt to achieve their potential with positive reinforcement than negative feedback.
On the eve of a challenging road trip that ended up keeping the Mariners out of the 2014 playoffs, McClendon grumbled about the difficulty of making stops in three time zones. Servais grumbles about nothing. He emphasizes how much fun baseball should be for athletes paid to play a wonderful sport. Chartered flights, five-star hotels, catered buffets in the clubhouse: Appreciate the experience, says Servais, who looks back at his own major league career and regrets his inability to enjoy the ride while it lasted.
Servais’ attitude is pitch-perfect for an imperfect team awaiting the dog days of a six-month-long season.
▪ Getting Leonys Martin from the Rangers in a deal that cost, well, nothing. In exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen (reacquired off the waiver wire), outfielder Patrick Kivlehan (ditto) and outfielder James Jones (a spring-training roster cut), the Mariners picked up a superior defensive center fielder with more power than anticipated. Dipoto says he believes that veterans attempting to rebound from a down year can prove to be trade-market steals. Martin serves as Example A.
▪ Resolving the quandary behind the plate. Dipoto signed free agent Chris Iannetta as the Mariners’ primary catcher, with the idea of assigning last season’s starter, Mike Zunino, to finishing school in Tacoma. Iannetta has fulfilled every aspect of his role except hit better than .220, a concession any team will make for a reliable backstop. More important is that Dipoto has not deviated from his plan to keep Zunino in Triple-A for as long as necessary.
A Mariners general manager who says something and actually sticks to what he said? What’s that about?
▪ Identifying Edwin Diaz, a Double-A starting pitcher with miles to go before reaching the majors, as a back-of-the-bullpen dynamo in Seattle. At 22, Diaz doesn’t have the experience to close games, and his transition from starting every fifth day to pitching three or four times a week will require the Mariners to proceed with caution. But in a bullpen short on gas, he throws 100 mph. Dipoto’s call to convert Diaz has given the team a valuable reliever – and their presumptive closer of the future.
▪ The first-base platoon of left-handed hitting Adam Lind and right-handed hitting Dae-Ho Lee. If morphed into one player named, say, Adam Lee, this hoss would have reached the midsummer break with 25 homers and 76 RBIs. Those aren’t just All-Star numbers. Those are MVP numbers.
Because I don’t want to turn this into a “Jerry Dipoto As Third-Party Alternative For President” endorsement – and I am tempted – here are five reasons for a thumbs down:
▪ The Mark Trumbo trade. Because of my indifference to the deal that sent the slugging outfielder to the Orioles in exchange for backup catcher Steve Clevenger, it would be hypocritical of me to criticize the trade in retrospect. But, hey, if you can’t be hypocritical as a sports columnist, why bother?
Trumbo is leading the AL with 28 homers. There were indications his lessons with noted swing-whisperer Edgar Martinez were paying off – Trumbo hit seven homers last August – but he was a slowpoke who offered next to nothing on defense for a team Dipoto wished to make more athletic.
Trumbo and his 28 knocks for a backup catcher with four extra-base hits? If it’s not the worst trade in Mariners history, it’s in a conversation I regret I didn’t start.
▪ The signing of outfielder Nori Aoki to a $5.5 million contract. Touted as a speedster who could lead off and create havoc on the basepaths, Aoki revealed the kind of fundamental flaws that find a high-school player sitting on the bench. Before his demotion to Triple-A, he was caught stealing seven times in 11 attempts. Routes on deep-drive fly balls seemingly were taken with a blindfold.
On the bright side of Aoki’s otherwise futile first half, there was that homer he hit.
▪ The trade with Boston for starting pitcher Wade Miley. Assuming Hisashi Iwakuma was out of the picture after agreeing to a deal with the Dodgers, Dipoto needed a replacement and got Miley in exchange for hard-throwing reliever Carson Smith and starter Roenis Elias. Aside from one complete-game shutout, Miley has distinguished himself only for his ability to keep his poise while getting shelled.
No matter that the Red Sox barely got a glimpse of Smith before he went on the shelf in need of Tommy John surgery. A 25-year-old who owned serious stuff and a bargain-basement contract should have returned more in a trade than a fifth starter with a 5.44 ERA.
▪ The trade with Tampa Bay for starting pitcher Nathan Karns. Noticing a trend here? Sending shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and reliever Danny Farquhar to the Rays in exchange for Karns and two prospects wasn’t as bad a deal as the one Dipoto made with the Red Sox. It just undersold Miller, who’s hit 14 homers. He’s an E-6 waiting to happen as a shortstop, and we all know he’s not an outfielder, so what is he?
Miller is a power hitter with speed, the kind of trade chip Dipoto wishes he didn’t spend for a spot starter looking like a long reliever.
▪ Filling out the bullpen with old guys whose sole competitive edge is that they’ve been around the block. Joel Peralta, 40, was giving up more than a hit per inning before he was released on June 6. Joaquin Benoit, 38, is giving up slightly less than a hit per inning, but his ERA is 5.47. No late-inning lead is safe with him.
So there you have it, Dipoto’s work nutshell: five thumbs up, five thumbs down.
As the thumbs up strike me to be more emphatic than the thumbs down, I’ll grade his first semester with a solid B.
Had I been given a report card with a B average in high school, I would’ve participated in a robust exchange of high-fives. Ah, but I was a C-minus student, and the high-five was sort of like a Nathan Karns complete game.
It had yet to be invented.