Jerry Dipoto wasn’t going to wait for the question to be asked. Instead, he went straight on the offensive.
The Seattle Mariners held their annual pre-spring training media luncheon Thursday morning at Safeco Field, and Dipoto, Seattle’s general manager, knew he was going to be asked about the state of the Mariners’ farm system. Just six days earlier Baseball America released its list of Seattle’s top 10 prospects for the 2018 season, and in the process described the Mariners as having “baseball’s worst farm system.”
So before fielding any questions, Dipoto launched into a vigorous four-minute defense of Seattle’s much-maligned minor leagues.
”I respect Baseball America,” Dipoto insisted. “We are a little bit more bullish on our group than they are.”
The Mariners are about the only ones bullish on their system.
For the past 15 years Seattle has struggled to develop its own prospects into impact major leaguers. This is particularly true of hitters, as Kyle Seager is the only homegrown player who’s established himself over a period of years as an impact bat for Seattle since Edgar Martinez retired in 2004. The inability of the Mariners to develop their own stars is a big part of why Seattle hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, which is now the longest postseason drought among North America’s four major sports leagues.
Most of that can’t be blamed on Dipoto, who only arrived a little over two years ago. But where Dipoto hasn’t helped the cause is in trading away the organization’s best prospects. In the past 12 months Dipoto traded away, according to Baseball American’s 2017 rankings, the Nos. 2 (outfielder Tyler O’Neill), 3 (pitcher Luiz Gohara), 4 (pitcher Nick Neidert) and 7 (shortstop Drew Jackson) prospects in the system. Dipoto has traded away just about every viable starting pitching prospect. This would be fine if those trade brought back difference makers, but so far the returns have been marginal.
Seattle is left with just one prospect, outfielder Kyle Lewis at No. 67, who Baseball America deemed worthy of being ranked in its top 100. Of the Mariners’ top four prospects, three played sparingly in the minors in 2017 because of injuries — Lewis is still trying to fully recover from the devastating knee injury suffered in 2016 while playing for the Everett AquaSox, while first baseman Evan White (quadriceps) and pitcher Sam Carlson (arm) were shut down after brief periods on the field. The fourth, outfielder Julio Rodriguez, has yet to play a professional game.
It may look bleak, but Dipoto was having none of that.
“Our prospect system has been the most productive prospect system in baseball for the last two years,” he said. “We’ve produced a 25-homer everyday first baseman (Ryon Healy, acquired in a trade for prospects), a .300-hitting everyday shortstop (Jean Segura, acquired in a trade for Mariners-developed young major leaguers), three everyday outfielders who have some degree of impact in a large degree of ways (Mitch Haniger, acquired in the same deal with Segura; Ben Gamel, acquired in a trade for prospects; Guillermo Heredia, who came up in the Mariners system after signing from Cuba). We’ve finished off the development of what we think is one of the best catchers in the Major League Baseball (Mike Zunino). We developed a 24-year-old closer (Edwin Diaz) who’s among the best in the league, have five guys who sit next to him and pitch the sixth, seventh and eighth innings on any given nights (trade acquisitions James Pazos, David Phelps and Nick Rumbelow, homegrown product Dan Altavilla), and 60 percent of our starting rotation (Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales, acquired for prospects, and homegrown Adam Moore). That’s a lot of productivity from a farm system in two years.”
While Dipoto may have taken a few liberties — Leake was largely a salary dump by the St. Louis Cardinals, Gonzales and Moore are not guaranteed spots in the rotation, etc. — there’s some truth to what he said.
“It also goes, hopefully without saying, that you’re not going to make too many advances in prospect rankings when you graduate 475 innings pitched to the big leagues, which is what our rookies did last year,” Dipoto continued. “Two-hundred-fifty games pitched, which is what our rookies did last year, 1,522 plate appearances. That is the most innings pitched by rookies, the most games pitched by rookies and the second-most plate appearances taken by rookies in the American League. It’s the most in each of those categories in the history of the Mariners. … So look at all the detail and I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done organizationally and how we set up.
“I can’t criticize (Baseball America) for choosing to put us in that position. All I can do is take up the challenge, and we as an organization will try to make that better.”
It was an impassioned speech by Dipoto. But speeches don’t win games, players do. And given the current state of Seattle’s farm system, it’s a legitimate question where those players are going to come from in the future.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.