First of all, if you are thirsting for a hot take, I like the hire. I might even love the hire. Kevin Mather said he wanted a GM with experience that would not waste what remains of the Felix-Cano-Cruz prime. That makes good sense, though the task seemed awfully tall.
I saw only two experienced GMs that would be available and worth hiring: Dave Dombrowski, who the Red Sox swooped in and hired in a rather stunning move, and Jerry Dipoto. Maybe Ben Cherington too, once Dombrowski was hired by the Red Sox, but I prefer Dipoto to Cherington. While Ben has one World Series championship to his credit, and what appears to be a strong Boston farm system, the up-and-down massive roster fluctuations that he orchestrated in Boston seem unhealthy to me. He does not look to me like the kind of GM that would succeed in Seattle without blowing up the roster. Mather made it clear the roster wasn't going to be blown up, so at the very least Dipoto is the better fit.
Dipoto's background is intriguing, especially given his reputation as an analytics guy. He issued an ultimatum to Angels owner Arte Moreno because Mike Scioscia would not adopt some of Dipoto's data-driven suggestions. Dipoto resigned over the struggles, so he has some conviction in his beliefs.
What is unclear to me is exactly where and why Jerry Dipoto became an analytics guy. He broke into the majors as a relief pitcher in 1993 and carved out a modest MLB career that ended in 2000. He was with the Rockies at the time and immediately transitioned into their front office as a scout. Dipoto silently went about his business as a scout with the Rockies from 2001-2002, and then he scouted for the Red Sox in 2003 and 2004. He probably picked up his analytics bend in Boston, given that he scouted for them at the height of the Theo Epstein era. 2004 is when the Red Sox broke their long-standing curse. However, that's just a guess on my part.
Dipoto returned to Colorado as their director of player personnel in 2005 and then jumped to the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he held leadership roles in their player personnel/player development department from 2006 through 2011. He gained a reputation as GM material during his time in Arizona, probably thanks in part to how their farm system performed while he held a key leadership role. Here are some notable Diamondbacks draft picks while Jerry Dipoto worked for them in player development:
- 2006: RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Brett Anderson, LHP Clay Zavada
- 2007: RHP Jarrod Parker, RHP Josh Collmenter, RHP Evan Scribner, OF Golden Tate*
- 2008: LHP Daniel Schlereth, LHP Wade Miley, RHP Bryan Shaw, OF Collin Cowgill, LHP Danny Hultzen (!)**
- 2009: CF AJ Pollock, 3B Matt Davidson, SS Chris Owings, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, RHP Chase Anderson
- 2010: CF Adam Eaton
- 2011: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Jed Bradley, LHP Andrew Chafin
* Yes, the same Golden Tate that currently catches passes for the Lions. Fun fact!
**Hultzen didn't sign with the Diamondbacks, hence why he became a high M's draft pick later
That is quality and quantity by MLB draft standards. It intrigued the Angels enough to name Dipoto their GM after the 2011 season ended.
I will not say as much about the Dipoto Era in LA of A as this Halos Heaven recap (very much worth reading), but I will summarize the Halos Heaven work. Long story short, there was a power struggle between Dipoto and Scioscia from day one. This was further complicated by the blockbuster signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, both of which were largely negotiated by Angels owner Arte Moreno no matter the wishes of Dipoto or Scioscia.
Dipoto had some power in LA of A, but only so much. His payroll got engulfed by massive contracts he had no say in, so his trades had to focus on supporting pieces with an eye towards cost control. Supporting pieces, basically by definition, have strengths and deficiencies as players. If they had no blemishes then they would be stars. Dipoto had to find these players that he valued within a world where his manager had different values. The tension eventually boiled over and Dipoto left.
So, this is my long way of saying a few things. First of all, I am not convinced that Jerry Dipoto is an analytics guy. He certainly does not have the usual analytics background. For instance, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow worked for McKinsey and Company (a business consulting firm) and was COO of Archetype Solutions (his own consulting firm) before stepping foot in a baseball front office. Theo Epstein has an undergraduate degree from Yale and a juris doctorate (JD) from the University of San Diego that he earned while he was an intern with the Padres. These are the kinds of backgrounds that analytics guys tend to have. Dipoto's background is classic old-school: the former player who continues his life in baseball by going into the front office.
Moreover, Dipoto rose to front office leadership roles in places not exactly noted for their love of analytics. The Diamondbacks could have offered their vacant GM position to Dipoto in 2011 (he served as interim GM to finish out the 2010 season) but instead opted for Kevin Towers. He famously traded Justin Upton in 2013 and publicly stated that Upton wasn't "gritty" enough for the D'Backs. Towers also ditched Trevor Bauer in a curious deal that clearly boiled down to personality differences much more than performance.
Then there was the lengthy struggle with Mike Scioscia that has already been referenced a few times in this post. Reports surfaced that Dipoto could not get Scioscia to use scouting reports. This is pretty easy to believe based off of anecdotal evidence.
I have no doubt that Jerry Dipoto was at the forefront of analytics in his contexts. However, his most significant experience is with organizations that are noteworthy for their obvious disregard of analytics. I will believe the advanced analytics when I see evidence of them, which should pop up in Seattle if they exist in Dipoto's ethos.
So what is Jerry Dipoto going to do with the Mariners?
I think one of the most interesting questions is what Dipoto will do with Lloyd McClendon. Popular thinking suggests that he butted heads with old-school Mike Scioscia, so a similarly old-school manager like McClendon is obviously toast. I don't think the answer is that straightforward. Again, Dipoto's background suggests more than a splash of "old-school" pumping through his veins. Also, McClendon isn't a godfather-like figure in Seattle like Mike Scioscia was (and remains) in LA of A. The power dynamic in Seattle is very different, and that cannot be overlooked. If I had to guess I would say that McClendon gets fired, but I put that odds at something like 55-60% - far from a foregone conclusion.
What might make the difference with the McClendon decision is how willingly he starts players where Dipoto wants them to go. Dipoto is already on record saying that Safeco demands athletic fielders, which is a breath of fresh air for this blogger. That almost certainly means Nelson Cruz is a full-time DH in Dipoto's plan. Does that work for McClendon?
Dipoto's position would also suggest that Mark Trumbo is a first baseman or possibly traded. Again, is this fine with McClendon? It is hard to tell.
McClendon played both Cruz and Trumbo in the outfield extensively, but he also had few other options with the personnel Zduriencik put together. How much of that is a result of Z, and how much of that is a result of McClendon? Dipoto has to find that answer for himself, sooner rather than later. Maybe he already has the answer.
By the way, Fangraphs estimates that Cruz and Trumbo's outfield defense were 25.1 runs below replacement level. Just playing them at positions they can capably defend would squeeze over 2 more wins out of them, provided that Jerry Dipoto can find replacement-level defenders in the outfield.
In general, I would anticipate that Dipoto makes a ton of small, seemingly inconsequential moves that (hopefully) add up to magic. The Mariners had 6 players log at least 100 at-bats in 2015 with negative WARs. If Dipoto can find replacement-level players for all these at-bats that's worth another 3 wins right there.
When I say replacement level I am talking minor league free agents. The Shawn O'Malleys of the world. Willie Bloomquist in his "prime." Heaven forbid Dipoto even finds someone who contributes positive value! Replacement level players are not supposed to be hard to find, though Zduriencik sure struggled to find them in the back half of his tenure with the Mariners.
If you are keeping tally, between paying attention to defensive shortcomings and replenishing a scrap heap of replacement level players, Dipoto could improve the talent level of the Mariners by 5 wins. Then, suppose that Cano, Seager, and Felix bounce back and recover at least half of the value they slipped by in 2015. That's another 3 or 4 wins. Throw in two or three replacement level relievers that absorb some of the whopping 262 relief appearances logged by relievers with negative WAR and there are another 2 or 3 wins.
Add up all the wins and that's an 11-13 WAR improvement without signing a significant free agent or assuming a guy like Brad Miller, Ketel Marte, Taijuan Walker, or James Paxton blossoms into something more than they are now. Add 11 to 13 wins to the 2015 Mariners and they make the playoffs, so this is hardly a trivial improvement.
So settle in for the MLB equivalent of dumpster diving, or at least hope for it. That will be the first sign that Jerry Dipoto is doing his job well. It won't be sexy or headline-grabbing, but it's needed and relatively easy. He is going to find one or two lanky outfielders with no power but legs and a knack for running great routes as they track down fly balls. He will sign a handful of journeyman catchers that may or may not have a little bit of juice left in the tank. One or two of them will stick on the opening day roster. He almost certainly will bring in a few fly-ball prone pitchers, in particular ones with horrible home run luck in 2015. I haven't scanned the numbers yet to make a list of who these pitchers might be, but those are the kind of guys Dipoto should be able to get for nothing and he understands that Safeco - especially a Safeco with good defense - can hide the sins of fly ball pitchers.
Let the Jerry Dipoto era begin. Kevin Mather probably does not hire Dipoto unless Dipoto convinced Mather that he can make the Mariners a winner as quickly as 2016. Dipoto took some risks with the Angels, for better and for worse, so he was almost assuredly make some bad moves with the Mariners. However, he also built up some solid depth at the MLB level with the Angels, which the Mariners desperately need. Also, if Dipoto is as much of an analytics guy as many say he is, then he is quite open-minded to new thinking and ideas, especially given his background as a ballplayer. He had no qualms placing his stamp on the Angels when he was hired and he will likely do the same with the Mariners. I, for one, welcome his stamp and look forward to seeing what it looks like.