New Mariners players JP Crawford (left), Mallex Smith (center) and Justus Sheffield meet the media during the team’s annual pre-spring training event on Jan. 24, 2019 in Seattle. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

New Mariners players JP Crawford (left), Mallex Smith (center) and Justus Sheffield meet the media during the team’s annual pre-spring training event on Jan. 24, 2019 in Seattle. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Patterson: Credit GM Dipoto for embracing M’s rebuild

Seattle needed to take this step for the long-term health of the franchise.

When I arrived at the Seattle Mariners’ pre-spring training media luncheon Thursday morning at T-Mobile Park, I was armed with only one question for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto:

Given the trades the team made this offseason, what did he envision as the timeline for the franchise being a contender?

I never got a chance to ask it. When Dipoto took the podium, he addressed that very issue prior to taking any questions from the gathered media.

“We view 2021 as that championship-type window,” Dipoto said. “That’s if we did this the right way, building around a group that from an age perspective is in a window that allows us to crest in 2021.”

Full credit to Dipoto. He’s owning the rebuild.

Spring training is fast approaching, with Mariners pitchers and catchers officially reporting on Feb. 11, and Dipoto is publicly acknowledging that getting the franchise into a healthy position is going to take time.

Seattle is coming off a surprise 89-win season, which was the team’s best since 2003, but not enough to prevent the franchise’s playoff drought from reaching 17 years. Many expressed the sentiment that it was time for the Mariners to bite the bullet and begin the rebuilding process in full. Seattle had an old team, and the Mariners’ minus-34 run differential suggested the team wasn’t really as good as its record. With the farm system depleted there was no one ready to fill any cracks. A step back in 2019 seemed inevitable, regardless of whether things were torn down.

So Dipoto took a deep breath, pinched his nose and jumped into the deep end. The offseason saw Seattle trade away a large chunk of its productive veterans, including James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Jean Segura and Mike Zunino. The Mariners acquired a slew of talented prospects in Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn, Jarred Kelenic and JP Crawford.

“We had to take a new look at ourselves and whether that core of players and building around it was the right tack,” Dipoto said. “Obviously by what we’ve opted to do we determined that wasn’t the case, we’ve moved in a different direction.

“What we were able to do was put a group in place that we feel like makes us a very interesting, fun and athletic team to watch in 2019, while we watch our pitching grow, and by midseason 2020 a really far more robust farm system has a chance to crest and make us what we think is a really interesting team in the second half of 2020 as we move into 2021,” Dipoto added. “Along the way we became more flexible from a roster perspective, we became more flexible from a payroll perspective, and we reduced our average age by about a year-and-a-half.”

It’s an exchange that’s going to hurt this year, and perhaps beyond. But this puts the Mariners in a more sustainable situation. Seattle’s farm system, which was ranked dead last in Major League Baseball a year ago by Baseball America, is back to being respectable. Gazing into the crystal ball of the Mariners’ future is no longer a case of staring into the purgatory of irrelevance.

In the past the Mariners have been loathe to go through the rebuilding process, perhaps spooked by the local fan base’s reputation for being fickle about losing teams. Dipoto spoke toward those concerns, too, and that was when he broke from the rebuilding message, pumping up this year’s team and likening it to the 2018 Oakland A’s, who shocked the league by winning 97 games. He said the team was “not going out there with the intention to lose.”

Maybe Dipoto actually believes the Mariners are better than most predict. Maybe it was a general manager saying the words he needed to say for PR purposes.

One can also question whether Dipoto’s timeline is unrealistically aggressive. The Houston Astros have become the dominating force in the American League West, winning 100 games in back-to-back seasons and claiming the World Series title in 2017. But Astros fans had to suffer through three consecutive 100-loss seasons during Houston’s rebuild from 2011-13 before the organization’s efforts bore fruit. Expecting the Mariners to be able to accelerate the process and be contenders by 2021 might be wishful thinking. While the trades replenished Seattle’s minor-league system, they didn’t turn it into a juggernaut.

But no one can accuse Dipoto of only paying lip service to the rebuilding process this offseason, and Dipoto believes the fan base is accepting of the need for a rebuild — along with the growing pains that accompany it.

“Judging by the number of times I’ve been stopped on the street or in the airport the last two or three months, many of our fans are looking forward to what’s to come,” Dipoto said. “Young players are exciting.”

It’s a good thing the feedback has been supportive. The Mariners needed to take this step for the long-term health of the franchise, and Dipoto deserves credit for embracing it.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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