SEATTLE -- Jerry Dipoto might be as transparent as any MLB executive, but at this time of year, he can be selective with his words.
The Mariners’ president of baseball operations was among many club personnel to speak over a two-hour Spring Training preview at T-Mobile Park on Wednesday, a platform in which he is asked about realistic goals for the upcoming season. Two years ago, still in rebuild territory, Dipoto said “competing for a playoff spot” was realistic, then Seattle remained alive until the season’s final day. Last year, he targeted a Wild Card spot as legitimate, and the Mariners went on to get in and advance.
The next step? An American League West title, a goal that’s reached this territory only thrice and not since 2001, the iconic year that will perhaps be further distanced after the 2022 club ended the drought. Is the 2023 team, in Dipoto’s eyes, one that can hang that banner?
“We feel like that's a realistic goal,” Dipoto said. “And we're going to do the best we can. ... We've never been more convinced of this team's ability to do those things than we were at the end of last season. So I think that goes for all the players in the clubhouse, because for us in the front office, our staff, we do feel like we got meaningfully better this offseason. And we are a deeper, more complete team than we were at the end of last season.”
Claiming the AL West crown would require dethroning the Astros, who the Mariners played so tensely during a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series last October, including a season-ending loss in Game 3 that lasted 18 innings. Manager Scott Servais said that the Mariners were “probably one swing of the bat away from winning all three of those games,” reiterating how close the club was to a stunning upset.
But a best-of-five series is the inverse of the marathon regular season, where second-place Seattle was outpaced by 106-win Houston by 16 games.
The Astros are returning nearly everyone aside from Justin Verlander -- who leaves a big void, but in a rotation capable of filling it -- and they’ve upgraded at first base by adding 2020 AL MVP José Abreu. In Arlington, the Rangers’ strategy of spending their way to the top hasn’t worked, but they are objectively improved after bolstering their rotation with Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi. In Anaheim, the Angels haven’t been able to win with baseball’s two best players, but they’ve added established talent.
“We’re not the only team that’s gotten better,” Servais said. “Our division has gotten better. Everybody has made some moves to improve, so it’ll be very competitive.”
Seattle’s biggest additions were early -- corner outfielder Teoscar Hernández in a trade with Toronto and second baseman Kolten Wong in a deal with Milwaukee, both upgrades from their incumbents -- and it recently added outfielder AJ Pollock and infielder Tommy La Stella, veterans eyeing platoons. The roster’s nucleus now will likely remain into Opening Day.
“The start of the season isn't Game 162,” Dipoto said. “The start of the season is Game 1, and we'll take it from there, like we have in the last couple of years, where, whether it be from within our own system or players that join us from elsewhere, we are invested in continuing to get better, whatever that means. The goal is to win the division.”
Much of the front office’s calculus in 2023 roster construction -- especially as would-be free-agent targets signed elsewhere approaching $300 million -- has been, at the baseline, key contributors not just matching their ‘22 production, but taking another step, a logical strategy but one not without risk.
“What do we expect coming into '23? For them to take that next step like they have in almost every month of their Major League [careers],” Dipoto said. “We have so many guys that are still in the growth phase of their career, who are already good Major League players that have a chance to step forward and be better than good.”
On the heels of successive 90-win seasons, the Mariners also now have valuable postseason experience -- and they firmly intend to build on it in 2023.
“This is the deepest team we've had since I've been here,” Servais said. “From our starting pitching to the bullpen to the regular lineup to the guys on the bench, they can all play and they’ll play a huge role in allowing us to get back to the playoffs -- and hopefully, like I said, winning the division.”