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Larry Stone: The worst might be yet to come for Mariners. So when will things turn for the better?

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 14, 2019

Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto speaks at a media availability during the Major League Baseball general managers annual meetings, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Matt York / AP)
Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto speaks at a media availability during the Major League Baseball general managers annual meetings, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Matt York / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – You know it had to have killed Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to be a benign observer to the most active winter meetings in recent memory.

Dipoto is an inveterate trader and tinkerer, as we all know. Yet the fact the Mariners sat this one out entirely, save for the Rule 5 draft – and have made only a handful of relatively minor moves this offseason – should serve as a warning.

It’s going to be a rough go, again, in 2020.

If Seattle’s master plan works, the struggles will be worth it in the end, and the Mariners will turn the corner at some point in the year. I remain a proponent of their teardown strategy, and I think they finally have the nucleus of young players to give it a solid shot at success.

Eventually.

But looking at their likely roster for the upcoming season, it’s hard not to see anything but more short-term pain as they turn over the lineup and pitching staff to these promising kids.

There is admirable discipline in allowing the young players to experience the learning curve firsthand, with all the pitfalls and, with luck, breakthroughs. And this can even be rewarding for fans as they bond with players who are expected to stay around for the long haul, rather than seeing them constantly come and go these past few years. But there’s also a price to pay in giving on-the-job training at the major league level.

Speaking to USA Today earlier this week, Dipoto had a blunt assessment of the Mariners’ 94-loss 2019 season, the start of the ballclub’s ambitious but fraught step-back program:

“We were an awful team. We didn’t intend to be that bad. Honestly, we were terrible, especially after the first 15 games of the season.”

That’s not telling us anything we didn’t see with our own eyes, of course. I just hadn’t heard it expressed so honestly. In that spirit, you should brace yourself for more growing pains as the Mariners enact what they hope is the final stage of this process.

The infield will likely consist of a first baseman who has hasn’t been above Double-A except for four games at Tacoma (Evan White); a second baseman who has played 42 games at the major league level (Shed Long); a shortstop who doesn’t have a full season in the big leagues yet (J.P. Crawford); and a veteran third baseman whom they hope regained his lost stroke with a strong second half, because his contract makes him untradeable (Kyle Seager). The DH (Daniel Vogelbach) hit .187 over his last 100 games.

The proposed outfield is Mitch Haniger, coming off a season in which a series of injuries limited him to 63 games; Mallex Smith, who hit .227 last year and struggled so badly he was demoted to the minors in late April; and Kyle Lewis, who made a splashy major league debut with a record six homers in his first 10 games but has all of 71 big-league at-bats under his belt.

The catching core of Tom Murphy and Austin Nola was a pleasant surprises last year, but both had been let go by their previous organizations.

Meanwhile, the pitching staff beyond Marco Gonzales is filled with promising arms with minimal major league experience, or players who have had success in the past but for whatever reason – usually injury – had fallen from grace.

There’s lots of long-term upside, especially with potential stars like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert also on the way. But it’s hardly the recipe for anything close to a competitive team right now. Dipoto’s oft-stated hope is that by the second half of the season, the core will start to come together, and leave the Mariners poised for contention in 2021.

It’s a grand dream. Mariners’ fans should draw some encouragement from the winters of the Reds and White Sox, two teams that went through similarly painful rebuilds of their own. Both think they are finally ready to break through, and have been aggressive players on the trade and free-agent market.

I can envision Dipoto being fully unleashed next winter, when the Mariners will have the cash to spend to put what they hope will be the finishing touches on the rebuild.

For now, however, Dipoto is sticking to his plan and staying true to the vision. You might think that’s foolhardy, and after 18 playoff-free years in Seattle, you are more than entitled.

All it has to do now is work. If so, these two seasons will eventually be just a blip in the memory, like the Astros’ three 100-loss seasons before their current run of success, or the Cubs’ averaging 94 losses for four seasons prior to winning the World Series.

Meanwhile, the Mariners have reached the most difficult juncture of a rebuild. The initial excitement of obtaining top prospects has worn off. The payoff is at some undefined point in the distance. The cold, hard reality is that more suffering is ahead before you get there. Some level of faith is required.

That’s fairly easy to stomach in the context of a two-year project. It’s much harder in the context of a two-decade malaise. But in light of the fact it would have taken 96 wins for the Mariners to make the playoffs last year, it’s pretty clear they didn’t have much of a choice.

Dipoto said this week that he thinks it’s time for fans to look forward rather than wallow in the misery of the past. When you do so, you can see the outline of a viable future, like the island paradise that’s visible through binoculars as you gaze out from a rickety ship in turbulent seas.

The Mariners’ past is wretched, their future enticing. And the present? Buckle up, because it’s going to be turbulent as they try to find their way to paradise.

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