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'Step-back season' for Mariners? Not so fast

New acquisitions Smith, Crawford, Sheffield not conceding anything in 2019
January 25, 2019

SEATTLE -- Jerry Dipoto has been upfront all offseason about his expectations for the coming season, acknowledging his flurry of roster moves have been pointed toward more-realistic playoff contention in 2020 and beyond.Dipoto introduced the term "step-back season" for 2019, as opposed to a teardown or complete rebuild, noting the

SEATTLE -- Jerry Dipoto has been upfront all offseason about his expectations for the coming season, acknowledging his flurry of roster moves have been pointed toward more-realistic playoff contention in 2020 and beyond.
Dipoto introduced the term "step-back season" for 2019, as opposed to a teardown or complete rebuild, noting the club wasn't starting over from scratch, but was exchanging much of its veteran core for younger players and prospects with lengthy club control who could come together in a year or two and make a sustained push.
But the players being brought in to execute that plan? Understandably, they aren't about to punt on the upcoming season as they prepare to gather in Peoria, Ariz., next month.
"That's something you all brought up," new center fielder Mallex Smith said at Thursday's pre-Spring Training media luncheon at T-Mobile Park. "Personally, I can't look to 2020 when 2019 is ahead. Every moment, every opportunity we get in 2019, we're going to maximize."
Smith was acquired from the Rays for catcher Mike Zunino and figures to be at the center of the makeover as a 25-year-old who posted a .296/.367/.406 line with 40 stolen bases last year.
He was flanked at Thursday's luncheon by two other prominent newcomers -- top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield from the Yankees and young shortstop J.P. Crawford from the Phillies.
"The statement may be a step back, but I don't think Justus or J.P. or myself plan on taking a step back for the 2019 season," Smith said. "We'll put our best foot forward and see where that takes us. And more than anything, piggyback off of 2019 into 2020. But we're not worried about 2020; 2019 is here and that's what we're going to focus on."
Crawford, a 24-year-old former first-round Draft pick of the Phillies, is looking to jump-start his Major League career after a broken hand and arm injury derailed his 2018 campaign. He's looking to move forward along with his new team.
"I can't stand losing," Crawford said. "So the whole step-back thing, I don't think these guys like it, either. They know we have the talent to shock a lot of people. If everyone gains a little bit of momentum going forward and plays together hard and takes a step forward, we could surprise a lot of people. I'm excited to get going with this young group. I think we're going to take a step forward."

Dipoto loves the youthful energy and optimism and certainly isn't ruling out a postseason run this year. He's looking big picture, understanding some of his new prize prospects won't be Major League ready until midseason of 2020 or '21. But he also knows that teams sometimes surprise.
"I didn't think the Oakland A's were going to contend in 2018, and then they went off and won 97 games," Dipoto said. "We're not built largely different than that. … We have a chance to grow into something special and we're going to watch that happen. While we couldn't tell you definitively that we're going to win 100 games, I can tell you we're going to try to win every single one that we play."
Manager Scott Servais understands and embraces the makeover, knowing time was running out on the veterans who'd led the charge the past three years. He says this season will be about making "steady progress" and is eager to push the reset button with a new group.
"Young players are very hungry. There's something to be said for that," he said. "They want to prove themselves. This is their opportunity. Young players bring a lot of energy. I enjoy that.
"You can bring on some of these guys and that's the beauty of baseball. How good can we be? We're going to find out. We're going to find out about a lot of these guys because we're going to give them a chance."

Sheffield, a 22-year-old who'll likely open the season at Triple-A Tacoma, figures to be one of those getting his opportunity soon. He was the Yankees' top pitching prospect and now changes coasts and uniforms, but not his postseason dreams.
"We're going out there to handle business and not worry about any step back or whatever you want to call it for this next year," Sheffield said. "We know what we want to accomplish personally and when we get together as a team, we'll know what we want to accomplish as a goal.
"Once we get there, we'll have a room full of people with that mindset. And the step-back season, we won't even think about. We'll just do what we need to do."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.