- Jerry Dipoto has an earned reputation of being one of baseball's most aggressive general managers. Now, he's got the team he was looking for all along.
Since taking over as the Mariners’ general manager on Sept. 28, 2015, Jerry Dipoto has made 71 trades. Over the last 32 months, 152 players, ranging from veteran All-Stars to career minor leaguers, have been welcomed to Seattle or said goodbye to it. Dipoto dealt three of those players away only to end up reacquiring them later. By the end of 2015, he’d already made 10 trades involving 31 separate players, and in one afternoon in January 2017, he nabbed outfielder Mallex Smith from Atlanta, then moved him to Tampa in a package for lefty Drew Smyly roughly an hour later. By Dipoto’s rough count, of the 40-man roster he inherited just over two years ago, maybe seven or eight are left—a staggering turnover rate.
Dipoto’s Mariners, in other words, are a regular entry in MLB’s daily transaction logs. So it was somewhat of a surprise this past winter when the league’s most prolific salesman completed only six trades between the end of the World Series and the beginning of spring training. Considering that Dipoto once swung six separate deals in November 2016 alone, that offseason total felt paltry. It’s not a sign, though, that Dipoto plans on stashing his phone and leaving the trader life behind.
“God knows I enjoy reading it, listening to everybody tell me what an idiot I am,” he says with a laugh.
Instead, Dipoto’s slowdown was intentional—a realization and bet that, after two seasons of churning through dozens of players, he’d finally arrived at the roster that was capable of ending the Mariners’ long playoff drought. So far, that looks prescient: At 46–29, Seattle has the fourth-best record in the AL, is seven games clear of the Angels for the second wild card, and is only three games back of defending champion Houston in the AL West. Since the beginning of May, the Mariners are 30–18, and on the season, they have the best record in one-run games in the majors at 23–10. And they’ve done most of this without the help of star second baseman Robinson Cano, first injured then suspended for a PED violation. Since his ban was announced on May 15, Seattle is 23–12.
Even Dipoto admits to being surprised at what his hand-picked team has accomplished. “I can’t say that we expected to be playing .630 ball in the middle of June,” he says, before adding, “But at the same time, it’s very believable that it happened.”
What’s notable is how the Mariners arrived here: through those many trades (as well as several waiver claims and a few free-agent signings), stitched together to build the first true contender of Dipoto’s tenure. A good chunk of Seattle’s success can be attributed to a core of All-Star–caliber players who were already in the organization when he took over and whom he’s built around: Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and James Paxton. But plenty belongs to those added in Dipoto’s incessant wheeling and dealing: Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, Dee Gordon, Ryon Healy. Segura and Haniger are first and second, respectively, in Wins Above Replacement on the team at 2.8 and 2.7.
“We had the current core of what we thought was a really good club,” Dipoto says. “We just had to figure out how to expand and enhance it.”
In most cases, that would involve swapping top prospects for impact major leaguers. But for Dipoto, his moves were geared toward filling out the margins. “When we got here in 2015, there wasn’t a terrifically deep roster, and we were a little bit thin at the upper levels of our minor league system,” he says. “A lot of those trades came through the lens of if you’re going to contend, you have to be able to tap into some depth that maybe we were years from having.”
So began a seemingly endless parade of middle relievers, fourth outfielders, utility infielders, and minor league arms and bats through both Seattle and its Triple A affiliate. Some stuck, while most contributed only a handful of innings or plate appearances before moving on, but the goal for all was the same: Be a supporting cast for that star core and keep things afloat over the course of a year. “It requires a lot of volume to build the 40-50 players it takes to get through the marathon of a contending season,” Dipoto says. “This year especially, we’re starting to reap the benefits of some of that.”
Wade LeBlanc is a perfect example of both Dipoto’s constant search for depth and how it can pay off. The 33-year-old is the Platonic ideal of the journeyman lefty, having played for seven different teams in his 10-year career. (Fittingly, this is his second stint with the Dipoto Mariners: He was acquired from Toronto in June 2016 and made 11 appearances over two months, then got sent to Pittsburgh that September.) A free-agent signing after being released by the Yankees at the end of spring training, LeBlanc’s role was long relief until an injury bumped him into the rotation in May. Not much was to be expected from a guy who tops out at 88 mph and had a career ERA of 4.40 entering 2018. Yet six weeks later, he’s posted a 2.06 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 48 innings across nine starts.
“There was some other interest,” LeBlanc says. “But since I was here a couple of years ago, the familiarity was there. For someone like me, that’s huge. It allows you to feel more settled than you have in the past and be able to go out there and focus on the process rather than the results.”
Every GM and team digs for diamonds, and every one of them can point to a LeBlanc-like success story. What separates the Mariners is the sheer amount of sifting they do. That can backfire: Making a lot of moves requires the surrender of a fair amount of talent, and some of Dipoto’s moves haven’t worked out either at the time or in retrospect. (“You can’t get wrapped up in the post-trade analysis,” he says. “We’re grading ourselves more in aggregate.”)
At the same time, a big enough hit can make up for a dozen duds. Take Haniger, for example, who came over with Segura from Arizona in November 2016. Dipoto and his front office identified the outfielder, then a minor leaguer, as a “sneaky five-tool player” who seemed to be surplus in the Diamondbacks’ organization, so when building a trade for Segura, the Mariners asked to expand the deal to include him. The results weren’t fully there last year—Haniger’s rate stats were good, including a 126 OPS+, but he managed only 96 games due to various injuries—but he’s broken out this season, hitting .265/.352/.504 with 16 homers and a 137 OPS+ while playing in 73 of Seattle’s 74 contests.
There is another risk in flipping through players so quickly, though its effect is less easily quantifiable. Trades are a common hazard for baseball players at all levels, and they know to expect them at any time. But a franchise that cycles through too many players risks building a team with no cohesion. The value of chemistry is elusive and subjective, but as a former player, Dipoto knows it means something, and that at a certain point, you have to stop tinkering and let your creation grow. That, too, was part of his decision to “slow the motor a little bit” this winter.
“We want to be really aware of what we’re doing in our clubhouse, because this group plays well together and has a joy about them that we don’t want to disrupt,” Dipoto says. “The thing I’ve learned most about chemistry is that it’s pretty easy to figure out when you’re getting it right. This group has made it easy to figure out that we’re getting it right.”
“There’s no factions or cliques in this clubhouse,” LeBlanc says. “There’s nobody sitting with their heads buried in their locker. That’s not a normal occurrence to have 1 through 25 on a roster get along as well as we do in this clubhouse.”
One of those new 25, first baseman Healy, notes that when he was traded from Oakland—the only organization he’d ever known—to Seattle last November, he got a message on social media from veteran slugger Cruz. The two exchanged numbers and talked on the phone the same day he’d been dealt. “That made me feel like I was part of this team immediately,” Healy says. “It’s just been special to see how everyone’s meshed together and how the veterans set the tone in the clubhouse for welcoming guys.”
Since the season started, Dipoto has swung just four trades, only two of which involved players on the 25-man roster and in which no established major leaguers were dealt away. Instead, they were about—and here’s that word again—depth: lefty reliever Roenis Elias (a former Mariners farmhand) picked up from Boston, and veteran backup outfielder Denard Span and ex-closer Alex Colome acquired from Tampa Bay. With the team happy and productive, there’s no real incentive to make seismic moves. “I know we have needs, but this team has done what they can do to allow us to watch this unfold before we add anything,” Dipoto says. “They might not need the help.”
It’s a strange possibility: a trade deadline unfolding without Dipoto pulling off multiple deals and lighting up the phones of his fellow GMs. July is typically a busy month for him and the Mariners. Instead, he’ll watch and wait. There will be trades, but Jerry Dipoto might not be on either end—and for once, he may not have to be.