Dipoto to let the kids 'run with it' in 2020

September 30th, 2019

SEATTLE -- After finishing what general manager Jerry Dipoto called their “stepback” season, the Mariners are ready to turn the page to a new direction for 2020. And while Dipoto didn’t hang any labels on the upcoming campaign in his season-ending chat with reporters, it’s apparent that the MLB theme of “let the kids play” will be particularly applicable in Seattle next year.

Instead of bringing in veteran placeholders like , and again to fill in the gaps while the prospects develop, next season figures to be the time to turn the keys over on a full-time basis to the promising youngsters.

The Mariners expect starting pitchers and Justin Dunn, outfielders Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley and second baseman/outfielder Shed Long to be integral parts of next year's plans. And they’ll give long looks to first baseman Evan White, catcher Cal Raleigh, outfielder Jarred Kelenic and starter Logan Gilbert, with the expectation they’ll be part of an incoming wave at some point in the season as well.

“We’re looking at our young group and wanting to let them run with it,” Dipoto said. “That's our team and we're going to let them play and provide opportunity for the young guys and see where it takes us.”

Sheffield, Dunn, Lewis, Fraley and Long got considerable playing time in September, and though Fraley was shut down with a sprained right thumb, the other four showed they were ready to be part of the immediate future.

More surprising, perhaps, is Dipoto’s belief that White could be a legitimate contender for the first-base job by next spring, with and in place as fallback options. The club would prefer to keep Vogelbach in a designated-hitter role and he’ll need to bounce back from a second-half swoon that took the luster off an All-Star first half, while Nola can also catch and play second base if White lands the first-base job.

“Evan White had a terrific Double-A season, and he's a really mature kid, and we're going to give him an opportunity in Spring Training and see where he goes,” Dipoto said. “We have enough depth with Vogey and Nola to believe that if it's Evan's time, we're going to give him the chance to make it his time.”

Even the 20-year-old Kelenic isn’t being ruled out of an opportunity to make the jump from Double-A after an eye-opening season in which he advanced three levels and kept producing at a high rate after being acquired from the Mets in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Díaz deal.

“We don't want to hold him back,” Dipoto said. “That being said, at 20 years old with a month’s worth of experience in Double-A, it'd be aggressive to say that he's in our Opening Day plans. But we don't want to shut the door on the possibility that he shows up, because I do think he has the potential to grow into an All-Star-type player. And those guys generally tend to tell you when they're ready rather than vice-versa.”

The Mariners won’t be totally bereft of veteran presence, however. Dipoto and manager Scott Servais were both pleased with how third baseman has embraced a leadership role with the younger group, and he's also rebounded strongly from the left hand injury that wiped out the start of his season.

They’ll also return atop the rotation, and have solidified the catching position, figures in the outfield mix and has cemented his role as part of the young core.

While Long might be the second baseman of the future and Dipoto fully expects him to be somewhere in the lineup and likely leading off at the start of next season, remains under contract for another year at $13.8 million if he’s not moved in the winter.

Gordon and right fielder -- who made $1.9 million last year and has two seasons of arbitration eligibility remaining -- appear the most-likely trade chips for Dipoto to bring in more prospects.

“I will make those decisions as the offseason comes,” Dipoto said. “With both guys, they're under our control and in Dee's case he has a guaranteed contract. He's getting paid. In Domingo's case, we'll see. It was a very difficult finish to his season, both physically and performance-wise. And that's an area where we're particularly deep. So if I'm being honest, I don't have a definitive answer for you on Domingo.

“Dee's case is a little bit different. He's a veteran player, he does fit with this group. If there is a young group starting to build around him, his versatility is going to come in handy.”

As for the rotation, with Félix Hernández and headed to free agency and the Mariners not expected to extend a $5 million team option to , Dipoto says he’ll look to bring in a back-end starter or two to bolster a group that will definitely include Gonzalez, Sheffield, and possibly Dunn. The bullpen also figures to be an offseason target.

But by and large, the Mariners are ready to take off the training wheels and see how their youth movement plays rather than make a flurry of further moves.

“We think we have the foundation of what we wanted to create already in place,” Dipoto said. “It's been really rewarding to watch the young guys make the progress that they've made, and we want to continue to see that happen.”