How The Mariners Farm System Went From Worst To First In Five Years
When Jerry Dipoto took over as the Mariners’ general manager in September 2015, the franchise’s talent pipeline had already dried from a slew of drafting and development failures under the previous regime.
And over the next three seasons, in an attempt to supplement the big league club’s aging core and push toward ending the longest playoff drought in the four major sports, Dipoto made a number of trades that further depleted Seattle’s farm system.
By 2018, the Mariners’ farm system had plummeted to dead last in Baseball America’s organization talent rankings.
“Everybody kept reminding me that we were probably 35th in baseball out of 30 teams,” Mariners scouting director Scott Hunter said.
Since then, the tides have turned dramatically in the Pacific Northwest.
After changing course and launching a franchise rebuild following the 2018 season, the Mariners have undergone a worst-to-first transformation in the span of five seasons, while restocking their farm system with young talent.
Seattle has the No. 1 minor league system in baseball heading into 2022. It is the first time the franchise has topped the organization talent rankings in the 39 years BA has ranked farm systems.
And in a testament to the depth of their talent pool, the Mariners have the top system even after graduating four of their top eight prospects last year: outfielder Jarred Kelenic, righthander Logan Gilbert, outfielder Taylor Trammell and catcher Cal Raleigh.
“We started a flow,” Dipoto told 710 ESPN Seattle last year. “The waves of talent are coming. And now if we’re doing our jobs well, those waves won’t really stop.”
Tim Kissner, the Mariners’ former international scouting director, still remembers the phone call he received from Eddy Toledo back in 2015.
Toledo, then the Mariners’ scouting supervisor in the Dominican Republic, had signed the likes of Nelson Cruz, Jose Reyes and Carlos Gomez in his lengthy career.
So when Kissner heard what Toledo had to say about a young Dominican slugger named Julio Rodriguez, he knew the kid was special.
“I remember him calling me up saying, ‘I don’t know how much our (bonus) pool money’s gonna be, but I want to give Julio every dime we have in it,’ ” Kissner said.
“And that was completely unlike Eddy. For a guy who’s been scouting that long who’s as conservative financially as anybody I’ve ever been around, for him to make a comment like that was an eye-opener.”
The Mariners were instantly enamored of Rodriguez’s tantalizing combination of power, athleticism and hitting prowess—as well as his larger-than-life personality.
“When a talent like Julio presents himself, it’s pretty obvious,” Kissner said.
Rodriguez, of course, had other suitors in the 2017 international signing class. But that year, Seattle benefited from the implementation of a hard cap to international bonus pools, according to Hunter.
“Once those rules hit, the music stopped and there were not too many chairs (left),” said Hunter, in reference to teams committing bonus dollars to international players a year—or more—in advance of the signing period. “. . . And Julio was still out there.”
On July 2, 2017, Rodriguez signed with the Mariners for $1.75 million. A big factor for the outfielder and his family was Seattle’s promise of continued education and overall development at the organization’s Dominican academy.
The Mariners then signed another top Dominican prospect in 2018: shortstop Noelvi Marte for $1.55 million.
Like Rodriguez, Marte wowed the Mariners’ scouts.
“When it came time to make a decision and pay up,” Kissner said, “it was a no-brainer.”
After a dominating run through Double-A last year, Rodriguez is now the No. 2 overall prospect in baseball. Marte hit his way to High-A and ranks No. 18 overall. Both are potential franchise cornerstones.
As significant as those two marquee signings were, it was going to take a lot more to ultimately change the Mariners’ future trajectory.
Dipoto spent his first three seasons in Seattle trying to make incremental improvements around the inherited veteran core of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez.
The Mariners posted a .521 winning percentage from 2016 to 2018, bookended by 86-win and 89-win seasons. But it wasn’t enough to get Seattle back to October for the first time since it won an MLB-record 116 games in 2001.
Despite winning 89 games in 2018, Seattle finished eight games out of the second wild card. And the club’s minus-34 run differential suggested they were further from truly contending than their record implied.
With such a sparse farm system, Dipoto simply lacked the trade chips to make the types of win-now deals that would vault Seattle into serious contention with the American League’s juggernauts.
And that aging core? It was only getting older.
Following the 2018 season, Seattle chose to dive into a rebuild.
“We had to take a new look at ourselves and whether that core of players and building around it was the right tact,” Dipoto said in 2019. “Obviously by what we’ve opted to do, we determined that that wasn’t the case. We moved in a different direction.”
In the fall of 2018, the Mariners kickstarted their rebuild with a series of trades that swapped key veterans for young talent and prospects.
They sent ace James Paxton to the Yankees for a package that included hard-throwing lefthander Justus Sheffield, who went on to earn a spot in Seattle’s rotation.
They traded all-star shortstop Jean Segura to the Phillies as part of a deal that landed J.P. Crawford, who became Seattle’s shortstop and won a Gold Glove in 2020.
And of course, there was the blockbuster.
On Dec. 3, 2018, the Mariners dealt second baseman Robinson Cano to the Mets, along with all-star closer Edwin Diaz and $20 million to cover part of Cano’s remaining contract. In return, Seattle received a package that included Kelenic, a high school outfielder from Wisconsin whom the Mets had drafted No. 6 overall that summer, and righthander Justin Dunn.
By trading the 36-year-old Cano, the Mariners freed themselves from the remaining five years of his 10-year, $240 million contract. It meant parting ways with Diaz, a talented closer who was coming off a spectacular season.
But that was offset by landing Kelenic, who was the top player on the Mariners’ draft board in 2018, according to Hunter. Prior to the draft, they even flew Kelenic to Safeco Field for a workout. Hunter remembers watching alongside Dipoto as Kelenic took batting practice.
“The first swing, he laces one into the left-center field gap and Jerry looks at me wide-eyed,” Hunter said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I told you he could hit.’ ”
Kelenic ultimately ended up with the Mariners, though it required a brief detour. And last season, he reached the majors with Seattle at age 21.
On Seattle’s 2018 draft board, the player right behind Kelenic was Gilbert.
Gilbert, a 6-foot-6 Stetson righthander, had elevated himself to potential top-five pick status after dominating the previous summer’s Cape Cod League. At that point, the Mariners didn’t think they had a chance of getting him at pick No. 14, according to Hunter.
But during his 2018 junior season at Stetson, Gilbert’s draft stock dropped as his velocity declined.
Trusting the work of their longtime scout Rob Mummau, the Mariners stuck with Gilbert and made the tall righty their first-round pick.
Though it wasn’t known at the time, a bout with mononucleosis was a possible cause of Gilbert’s velocity dip. After recovering, he regained his velocity and advanced to Double-A during an exceptional first pro season in 2019.
By last May, Gilbert had debuted in Seattle’s rotation.
“It really was the work that Rob Mummau did behind the scenes that made me comfortable with taking the person and banking on that what we saw in the Cape would come back,” Hunter said.
Gilbert is part of a recent trend of Seattle draft success.
That success includes a pair of first-round picks who have already won MLB awards. Outfielder Kyle Lewis, a 2016 first-rounder, was the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year. First baseman Evan White, a 2017 first-rounder, earned a Gold Glove as a rookie in 2020.
That success also includes a run on pitchers that has resulted in a stockpile of talented arms.
After picking Gilbert the previous year, the Mariners took a pitcher in each of the first three rounds of the 2019 draft: Righthander George Kirby in the first, lefthander Brandon Williamson in the second and righthander Levi Stoudt in the third.
Kirby, an elite strike-thrower who touches 99 mph, is the No. 12 overall prospect in baseball. Williamson, a strikeout machine who was part of the trade in which the Mariners acquired Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez from the Reds, is the No. 83 overall prospect.
Hunter said the Mariners’ pitching-heavy 2019 draft was a product of the draft being relatively thin on hitting that year, as well as the organization being a bit thin on arms at the time.
“Jerry said if all things are equal and it’s . . . pitching versus a position player, go with the pitching,” Hunter said. “And that’s what we did.”
Seattle bolstered its pitching depth further in 2020, drafting righties Emerson Hancock and Connor Phillips in the first two rounds.
In just a few years, the Mariners have compiled one of the best collections of arms in the minors.
Over the course of its rebuilding process, Seattle has borne the fruit of the organization-wide scouting and player development system it’s created under Dipoto.
Club officials say it’s a system rooted in information, regardless of whether that information comes from an analyst parsing TrackMan data or a scout breaking down a pitcher’s delivery.
And they say it’s a system that’s removed the traditional barriers between scouting, player development and other departments.
“The walls of scouting, PD, analysts, HP (high performance)—we’ve kind of broken those down,” Hunter said. “It doesn’t matter where the information comes from, as long as we’re getting it and it helps us make a better decision.”
Dipoto’s first major hire was Andy McKay as farm director. McKay, a former successful coach at Sacramento City College, had spent the previous three seasons in a sports psychologist role with the Rockies.
It was an outside-the-box hire that helped create both a holistic and focused approach to player development.
Among McKay’s innovations are an offseason high performance camp that has helped players transform their bodies and an annual “Gas Camp” to help pitchers increase velocity.
Perhaps most importantly, McKay has helped oversee a collaborative player development process that centers on individualized plans for how each player can improve.
“The entire group is there in the same room, sitting at the same table, talking about, ‘How do we get this player better? Where does he need to get better? What are his real opportunities for growth?’ ” McKay said.
“And it’s not just the hitting coach. It’s the strength coach. It’s the trainer. It’s the data analyst. It’s the mental skills coach. It’s the entire group.”
The individualized player plans are presented to each player during spring training. Each player then has a monthly meeting throughout the season to check on their progress.
At the heart of it all? Truth.
“If the player is carrying a strikeout rate that’s just not gonna work, we tell them,” McKay said. “If the player has a chase rate that’s not gonna work, we tell them.
“We tell them the truth as we understand it, and then give them a plan to move forward.”
Ultimately, the goal is to provide a clear focus on what players should be working on.
“You have to be focused on the right things to actually get better at them, and you can’t do that unless you actually know what they are,” McKay said. “. . . And fairly often, when players actually know what they need to do, they’re actually pretty good at doing it.”
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One of Seattle’s more significant scouting and player development successes involves a player no longer with the organization.
When the Mariners signed 28-year-old utilityman Austin Nola to a minor league contract in November 2018, it drew little attention. Nola, a 2012 fifth-round pick, had never reached the majors.
But in Seattle’s system, Nola thrived.
Nola broke through to MLB in 2019. He then filled in as the Mariners’ regular catcher for the first half of the shortened 2020 season. That attracted the attention of the Padres, who were seeking help for their playoff push.
That summer, Seattle made Nola the focal point of a deal that brought back a massive haul of young talent from San Diego. The Mariners received second baseman Ty France, outfielder Taylor Trammell, catcher Luis Torrens and hard-throwing reliever prospect Andres Muñoz.
France excelled for Seattle last season. Torrens also was a key bat in the Mariners’ lineup. Trammell made his MLB debut. And after recovering from Tommy John surgery, Muñoz touched 101 mph in Seattle’s season finale.
And ultimately, it all stemmed from the signing and development of an unheralded minor league free agent.
“That can be an organization-changing trade,” one club official said.
“. . . That could end up being one of the most important things that has happened here.”
After the trade, Dipoto said the Mariners had long been interested in France and Trammell.
“As many phone calls as (Padres general manager A.J. Preller) made to me this past week about Austin Nola, I have made as many to him over the last couple years regarding Ty France,” Dipoto said.
In another 2020 deadline deal with the Padres, Seattle acquired righthander Matt Brash for reliever Taylor Williams. Brash, a 2019 fourth-round pick, was one of the breakthrough stars of the minor leagues last year and has skyrocketed to No. 45 in the overall prospect rankings.
Seattle then further strengthened the top of its farm system last year, drafting high school catcher Harry Ford in the first round and signing young Venezuelan outfielder Gabriel Gonzalez. Both are now Top 10 Prospects for Seattle.
Coming off a surprising 90-win campaign last year that fell just two games short of a wild card berth, the Mariners are poised for a sustained run of contention.
Seattle significantly enhanced its roster this offseason, signing reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray and trading parts of its minor league talent surplus for second baseman Adam Frazier, outfielder Winker and third baseman Suarez.
And with a top-ranked farm system that features an abundance of promising prospects, waves of young talent should roll into the Emerald City for the foreseeable future.
It all adds up to the brightest outlook in a long time for this franchise. After two decades of misery, the Mariners are in prime position to end their 21-year playoff drought and take aim at their first World Series.
“There’s nothing but excitement,” McKay said last October, “about where the Mariners are positioned right now for the next five years or so.”