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Larry Stone: With the Mariners’ unsurprising fire sale in full swing, the front office must soon open its wallet

UPDATED: Sat., June 22, 2019, 7:21 p.m.

Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto stands on the field before a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto stands on the field before a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The Mariners have reached the sell-off stage of this step-back voyage, and what a grim ride it’s been so far. Ignoring the fact it’s going to get worse before it gets better (so buckle up, and buck up), let’s address the elephant in the room.

First, if you’re somehow surprised that the Mariners dumped Jay Bruce and especially American League home-run leader Edwin Encarnacion, then you weren’t paying attention when Robinson Cano, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz and Jean Segura were booted out the door during the offseason.

And you were also tuning out when general manager Jerry Dipoto was explaining his long-range plan. Like it, hate it, but this was the obvious objective from the moment they acquired those two veterans, doing so not out of need but necessity. Bruce and Encarnacion are decorated major leaguers but ill-fitted to the 2019 Mariners.

More to the point, the major consternation seems to be over the Mariners’ return, which can only be termed minimal. You’d better wrap your head around that, too, because their remaining trade chips aren’t going to yield blue-chip prospects, either. Teams are guarding those like Fort Knox gold, and they’re not going to loosen their grip for what the Mariners have to offer.

What the Mariners have received instead, and may get to a lesser measure for the likes of Mike Leake and Dee Gordon, is some form of payroll relief to go with the boom-or-bust minor leaguer. And here’s my thought on that:

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with shedding payroll in the middle of an already-disastrous season. You could argue that, at this point, the Mariners are much better served going for the highest draft pick they can obtain, which won’t be easy in the morass of bad teams that are polluting the MLB standings.

Every rebuilding team strives to dump as many bloated contracts as it can. The success of that endeavor often dictates, to some extent, the success of the rebuild.

But now it’s incumbent on Mariners ownership to actually reinvest the money in players who will hasten the turnaround. If the saved dollars just go in their pockets – already bulging from the $50 million windfall each MLB team received in 2018 from the sale of MLB Advanced Media, not to mention the $135 million of taxpayer funds the Metropolitan King County Council approved last September to fix ballpark wear and tear – then they deserve to be loudly and roundly ripped.

The Mariners have already obtained about $135 million in payroll relief via the Cano, Segura, Bruce and Encarnacion deals, with that figure potentially going higher before the year is out. They have $65.5 million in contract obligations for 2020, $41.5 million for 2021 … and zero for 2022. That is a great jumping-off point, provided that management provides a big push.

Dipoto has gone on record as saying the Mariners’ “competitive window” will begin to open midway through 2020. That’s next year, folks. It’s hard to look at this year’s team and see any window opening that soon, except perhaps one for defenestration by frustrated fans.

That’s not to say the Mariners’ situation is necessarily as hopeless as it appears now. While nothing has happened yet to show that Dipoto’s master plan is going to work, nothing has happened to show that it won’t. It’s still going to be largely dependent on the hidden work being done in the minor leagues and the unknowable progress of their top prospects.

They’ve had some setbacks, such as the struggles of top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, the inconsistency of free-agent signee Yusei Kikuchi, and the injury to Mitch Haniger.

But it’s now possible to envision a near-term infield of Evan White (on a torrid hitting streak in Class AA), Shed Long, J.P. Crawford and Kyle Seager, with the Omar Narvaez/Tom Murphy combo (second-most productive in the American League) behind the plate and breakout slugger Daniel Vogelbach at DH.

The outfield is bulging with future candidates, two of whom, Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, have unlimited upside. There’s also Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop to push for jobs.

Who knows how many of the youngsters will develop into productive major leaguers? That is always unpredictable. But with the outfielders already on hand – Haniger, Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana – that gives the Mariners some potential trade chips to go along with their payroll flexibility. And they’ll need it because of the dire state of Mariner pitching. The only team in the majors with a worse earned-run average than Seattle’s 5.35 is Baltimore’s 5.72 – and the Orioles are on a pace for 116 losses.

That’s why the Mariners loaded up on college pitchers in the recent draft, but that’s not going to be a quick fix. Besides Marco Gonzales, Logan Gilbert, Justin Dunn, Sheffield and Kikuchi, there’s not much arm talent in the upper levels of the system to hang their future on. If this rebuild is going to meet its timetable, the Mariners are going to need a little outside help.

Lucky for them, they have a little mad money.

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