Dipoto previews '21 season at Virtual Bash

January 20th, 2021

SEATTLE -- The Mariners on Tuesday kicked off their Virtual Baseball Bash, a 60-event initiative over the next two weeks in place of their annual FanFest that will feature access to 60 players and personnel.

Among those is general manager Jerry Dipoto, who previewed the 2021 season for nearly an hour with the local media. Here are three takeaways from that session:

1) The kids are coming -- and soon
Fans clamoring to see the future will have some of those wishes fulfilled in 2021. Citing the uncertainty of a Minor League season after the 2020 campaign was canceled, as well as their development to this point, Dipoto said right-hander Logan Gilbert (Mariners No. 4 prospect), catcher Cal Raleigh (No. 8 prospect) and outfielders Jarred Kelenic (No. 1 prospect) and Taylor Trammell (No. 5 prospect) will all enter Spring Training vying for Major League playing time.

“Those four stand out as the next notable wave that's coming. ... We expect that those guys will have every opportunity to make their Major League debuts in '21, and then put them in position to get reps just as we did with the group that came before,” Dipoto said. “They're super talented players, and my guess is that they'll hit the ground running when given the opportunity.”

Gilbert, 23, is the “closest to Major League preparedness” of the four, and he will likely be needed most, too. Beyond and , the Mariners’ rotation is comprised of promising but limited talent in terms of workload and consistency. Gilbert was poised to make his MLB debut in 2020 before the shutdown, following a ’19 in which he went 10-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 165 strikeouts over 135 innings across three Minor League levels.

Left field has been in limbo this offseason, perhaps purposefully in anticipation of Kelenic taking over. Along with fellow outfielder Julio Rodriguez, Kelenic has the most upside of any Mariners prospect in the Dipoto era (since 2016). He oozes with bat speed, defensive agility, and above all, confidence -- and he knocked on the Major League door last summer.

Raleigh has moved up to the No. 3 catcher behind and , who the Mariners plan to split 55-45. But Dipoto noted that the brunt demands of the position will likely necessitate Raleigh taking on some of the load. And Trammell is a player the Mariners “are still learning a lot about” after coming over in a Trade Deadline deal with the Padres, but one who has a track record of four Minor League seasons.

2) Contending is the goal for 2021
Dipoto has long listed 2021 as the ballpark for when Seattle might return to postseason relevancy. He reiterated those ambitions after the club finished two games shy of a playoff berth last year, albeit in a shortened season, and he maintained that stance on Tuesday -- but with some cushion. The success of '21, in the club's eyes, will hinge on tangible development from its core of young players, a la Kelenic, Rodriguez, Gilbert, , and so on.

“We feel like the next steps for this team are to continue to integrate the young players to this roster,” Dipoto said. “We feel like there are another handful who are not far off. We'll see once we get down to Peoria, [Arizona] and as we progress into the season, but a handful of our more polished or advanced prospects will have an opportunity in ‘21. First and foremost is to gain that experience, to continue to grow the base … and then introduce the next group with the idea that if things break well for us and we get into midsummer and we stay close to this thing and we do have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field, that's a possibility for us and would be a goal.”

As of now, MLB is returning to a 10-team postseason format in 2021, with three division winners and two Wild Card clubs from each league. In both 2018 and ’19, the lowest seeded American League playoff team won at least 96 games. A lot would have to go the Mariners’ way to reach October -- a much-improved bullpen, huge steps forward by their young prospects, possible external acquisitions, and health -- but Dipoto contends that “young teams tend to jell quicker than you might think.”

“We can't go in expecting that we're going to run to the top of the American League West, but I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot, and we'll see how it goes. If we take a step toward that in 2021, I think that will be a great achievement for our organization.”

3) Seattle still has notable roster needs
The saying is that you can never have enough pitching. That is especially true for the Mariners in 2021, as they attempt to sustain a six-man rotation with a mostly green group that will be on workload limitations and improve a bullpen that posted an AL-worst 5.92 ERA in ’20.

After acquiring Rangers closer , bringing back and signing , Dipoto said the priority has shifted to adding an innings-eating starting pitcher and left-handed bat that could slot into left field or second base to round out a righty-heavy lineup.

“Right now, those are the least secure positions we have with a returning player or veteran, and we have the benefit of the versatility of a player like a Dylan Moore or Ty France or Sam Haggerty that allows us to be able to address needs based on the best fit for the team, and then adjust as we go,” Dipoto said.

The Mariners have a projected payroll of $64 million, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, and only four non-arbitration players on the books for 2022. Dipoto said again Tuesday that the club isn’t yet in the market to spend at the top of free agency, but that it is “open” to addressing a few additional needs externally.