Jerry Dipoto of the Mariners and Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s are the only MLB general managers who were major league players. I don’t know whether that is bad or good.
What I will say is that they, more than their colleagues who came to the top via the sport’s analytics side without ever fouling a ball off an instep, are viscerally experienced in the vital baseball art of failing fast and moving on faster.
More than any other sport, the next pitch, the next inning, the next game, the next season, always seems immediately upon the baseball lifer. The relentlessness can be withering. It’s part of why a hitter is a success after failing seven times in 10, and why pitchers with career earned run averages over five a game keep getting hired.
The pressure is the same for GMs charged with improving rosters. Can’t step away from the next trade because the last one was a bust.
No one in baseball has has gotten after it like Dipoto, who has cocked many an eyebrow in the industry’s personnel crowd, as well as in the media, for his perpetual churn, which has included moving several newly acquired players before they had a chance to put on an upside-down-trident ballcap.
“When you’re trading in volume, you’re going to make flops,” Dipoto said Friday. Since he was newly wrapped in the security of a multi-year contract extension granted by his bosses, it was a little easier to be candid.
But Dipoto always has been candid, which by dint of personality or changed business culture or both, has been refreshing. And now that he’s also successful — the Mariners entered Friday night’s game against Colorado with MLB’s fourth-best record at 56-32 despite some noteworthy injuries and an 80-game suspension for their best player — he’s free to say to those who have dwelled on his flops: Nee-ner, nee-ner, nee-ner.
Unfortunately, he chose to pass publicly on the opportunity. The roster, however, can speak for him.
In his two and a half seasons in Seattle, he’s traded for Ryon Healy, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, Denard Span, Alex Colome, James Pazos, Nick Vincent, Erasmo Ramirez and Roenis Elias.
Besides the astonishing record the group has produced, Dipoto, who is in the final year of a three-year deal after succeeding in 2015 the fired Jack Zduriencik, was thrilled with clubhouse vibe.
“I’ve been in big-league clubhouses for 25 years, and I’ve never experienced a group that energetic,” he said. “I’ve been with teams that won the World Series, and this group has had more energy, more belief in themselves.
“You get to the last third of a game with this group, and they believe they’re going to beat you. That’s how they’re doing it. There are other teams as talented or more talented, but I don’t know that there’s anyone that believes (so much) in themselves, and the process and what they’re capable of.”
What these masters of the one-run outcome are capable of is the playoffs, which are already plausible with almost three months remaining in the regular season. The gulf between the top teams and the rest of the American League is big enough to rate its own time zone. That doesn’t mean a collapse can’t happen, but Dipoto has frequently demonstrated a resourcefulness for countermoves.
With an ownership under CEO John Stanton that makes field success the first, second and third priorities, the Mariners figure to be active as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches. Another veteran starting pitcher, such as the Rangers’ Cole Hamels, 34, or the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, 35, would be vital to survive injuries. To bring an end to the playoff drought at a nationally embarrassing 16 years, money should be no object.
On the field, a more immediate goal would be to do for manager Scott Servais what has just been done for Dipoto.
“Without question,” Dipoto said of a contract extension. “He’s been my partner for far longer than here. You don’t win close games without the right guy pushing the buttons.”
A long-term consequence of all the trades for veteran talent is the drain on the farm system. But that is secondary to the prime directive of making the playoffs, which has come together dramatically in Dipoto’s third season.
We had a really good team last year, we were just on the wrong side of injury,” he said. “Some of (this year’s success) comes from individuals, some comes from the culmination of three years of doing this together, and starting to trust and believe. It’s the work ethic and focus of Mitch Haniger, the energy and enthusiasm of Dee Gordon, the workman-like attitude of Wade LeBlanc. It’s simple, and it’s 25 guys deep.
“When Jean Segura goes down (with a forearm infection) that looks like a human head growing out of it, and Andrew Romine steps in and gets five hits in two days — that’s what good teams do. When we needed starters to step in, we get a scoreless outing from Christian Bergman and a competitive day from Ariel Miranda.”
Dipoto didn’t quite say that 2018 is karmic payback for the wounds of 2017, which included needing 40 pitchers, tying the major league record. He had his own term for it.
“This is what happens when good teams have special seasons,” he said. “To this point, we’re having special season.”
A good chunk of the special-ness is due to a giving room and resources to a bold decision-maker who is able to rally from a bad one, just as as his team rallies from a bad inning. As baseball immortal Satchel Paige put it: Never look back.