For Dealin' Dipoto, method is hardly madness

Mariners GM interested in 'big-picture result' of dizzying number of trades

February 9th, 2017

If Jerry Dipoto had his way, he would love to do this business as Seattle's general manager organically, drafting and developing a roster of homegrown superstars who have Mariners baseball in their blood.

But that's not the roster Dipoto inherited. And in his estimation, if this club is going to have any chance of ending the game's longest postseason drought in 2017, it had to be this way, with a dizzying series of swaps that made Dealin' Jerry Dipoto the Most Interesting -- or at least Most Active -- Man in Baseball this Hot Stove season, the GM who kept the transaction wire buzzing even when things were at their slowest.

Every club preparing for Spring Training with own vision

"This roster-building exercise," Dipoto says, "is how modern baseball teams are built … though it's fair to say that we are double-timing it."

Double-timing, indeed. Dipoto has co-orchestrated 13 trades involving 36 players this offseason. Go back to when he arrived in Seattle at the tail end of the 2015 season, and it's 37 swaps involving 95 players.

There are only eight players remaining from the 40-man roster he inherited from Jack Zduriencik. Eight.

Dipoto's restlessness stems from the basic concept of wanting to capitalize on the remaining productivity of Seattle's core four of , , and . But it's also borne out of more advanced means of player evaluation. It remains to be seen if the dramatic overhaul has left the Mariners with a playoff-caliber ballclub, but at least it profiles as one that will be more athletic, more defensively dependable and perhaps a little deeper in the pitching department than the 2016 model, which itself posted a 10-game improvement over '15.

"In reality," Dipoto says, "I look at the teams that win and realize that striking on all areas of procurement is important, none more so than trades."

The latest Fall Classic presents pretty compelling backing to that point.

The World Series champion Cubs' Game 7 triumph began with trade acquisition 's leadoff home run and ended with trade acquisition Mike Montgomery's final out. , , , , , , , , and were all brought in via trade. For the American League pennant-winning Indians, , , , , , , Zach McAllister, and all fit that same category.

So there is a method to Dealin' Dipoto's madness. He trades not with the mindset of an addict in need of a fix, not with the pipe dream that he's going to win every deal -- even if he did entertain illusions of invincibility, Mark Trumbo-for-Steve Clevenger would have long ago erased them.

Rather, it's the desire to do right by Seattle's fan base (which has waited through 15 straight seasons that ended without a postseason entry) and the rather rational notion that sometimes players fit better on one particular roster than they do on another that has compelled Dipoto's maze of maneuvers.


Rewind to Sept. 28, 2015, the day Dipoto got the job. The Mariners, who had come agonizingly close to securing an AL Wild Card berth a year earlier, were wrapping up the disappointing 76-win season that cost Zduriencik his job. Remove the prospective free agents from the 40-man roster, and there were 36 players, nine of whom were out of options and had not yet established themselves as viable big leaguers and 15 of whom were coming off a season in which they posted negative Wins Above Replacement mark, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.

That's 24 unproductive spots out of 36. For added perspective, the only center fielder on the 40-man roster was , who can now be found in the Rangers' organization, as a pitcher.

Were the goal of the game to acquire as many bat-only first baseman, designated hitters and right fielders, the Mariners at that time were ahead of the curve. But in real life, this was not a sustainable model, especially not in a pitcher-friendly home park like Safeco Field.

"We needed to reimagine the roster," Dipoto says.

Scott Servais was brought aboard as the rookie manager with both the Major League playing background and the embrace of analytics. In an effort to improve the outfield athleticism, Dipoto targeted in a trade, signed rangy Cuban import and, late in the year, traded for Ben Gamel. In the infield, the Mariners bought into the defensive-shift methodology, with third-base coach Manny Acta spearheading the synthesis between front-office input and player adaptation.

While the end result wasn't exactly elite (minus-22 defensive runs saved above average), it was a marked increase over 2015 (minus-51), and Seattle actually tied for the AL lead in runs saved via the shift, per Baseball Info Solutions.

At the plate and on the mound, the Mariners instituted an organization-wide mantra -- "C the Z," or control the zone. Offensively, Seattle more closely approximated the playing days of hitting coach Edgar Martinez, jumping from 11th in the AL in OBP in 2015 (.311) to fifth (.326). The pitching staff went from ranking 11th in the AL in percentage of pitches in the strike zone (47.0) to fourth (48.7), per FanGraphs. What it all amounted to was a rise in run production (from 13th in the AL in runs per game to third) and run prevention (from 11th in runs allowed per game to sixth).

Was it enough? No. The Mariners finished three games out of an AL Wild Card spot.

And that set Dealin' Dipoto on his next round of exchange adventures.

"We circled back to the areas we wanted to improve the previous offseason but were unable to complete," Dipoto says. "We focused our 2017 roster-building efforts in the same direction -- athleticism, outfield defense, versatility, diversity, depth and more youth."


In his second offseason in Seattle, Dipoto has dealt for , Chris Heston, Drew Smyly, and to pad the rotation depth, for the bullpen, the speedy for the outfield, Danny Valencia as a potential Dan Vogelbach platoon-mate at first base and veteran as the backup to Mike Zunino behind the dish.

Dipoto has made several other moves that affect the fringes of the roster, moves that fall in the category of, as he puts it, "three yards and a cloud of dust … but progress nonetheless." On average, Dipoto made a trade every 7 1/2 days from the start of November to the end of January, though he is guilty of padding his stats with a Jan. 11 two-fer in which he acquired intriguing young outfielder (along with Simmons) from the Braves for all of about 45 minutes before flipping him to the Rays in the Smyly swap.

The trade that best represented the emphasis being placed upon the present tense was the one that punted on the upside of 24-year-old starter and 23-year-old shortstop in order to get a more-established shortstop in , as well as a 26-year-old outfielder with power, plate discipline and defensive value in Mitch Haniger and Minor League lefty .

"It's tough to say how many of our trades were initiated by an outgoing or an incoming phone call," Dipoto says. "As a rule, I'd say most were borne of simple 'check-in' texts or calls, intended to identify a club's willingness to discuss various players on their rosters."

It was suggested to Dipoto that amid this mass of trades, a stinker or two -- perhaps not one as jarring as the Trumbo trade but nonetheless a net negative -- is bound to reveal itself. He's unafraid.

"We are not driven to 'win' trades, we are driven to create a winning roster model," Dipoto says. "We work in an industry of very smart front offices with well-run teams. We're not looking to outsmart or embarrass anyone with our magic trading abilities but rather prefer to remain focused on the big-picture result, which is the health, usability and sustainability of our roster."

That roster looks quite a bit different than it did at the end of 2016 and certainly at the end of '15. But its core remains the same, and the moves that were made to support that core have had the effect of invigorating a collaborative front office in which people come to work and know their opinions will be valued.

Dipoto was traded twice himself during his eight years as a big league reliever, and in those moments, he focused on the positives of being wanted somewhere new rather than the negative of being dealt away. Those experiences have informed his approach as an executive, first as an interim GM with the D-backs, then as the GM of the Angels and now in this role.

Dipoto's pragmatism has inspired action without undue emotion. He does not drag his feet or fear the unknown; he embraces the possibility of pursuit. And though, without naming names, Dipoto admits there is one specific case in which he rubbed a rival GM the wrong way, he doesn't feel he's established a reputation among his peers as a perpetual pest with his persistent trade banter.

"Though given time," Dipoto jokes, "I'm sure anything is achievable."

For now, the Mariners embark upon a new season with a reshaped roster, looking to achieve that elusive postseason entry. And if they make it, they'll have Dealin' Dipoto and his winter wizardry to thank.