Who’s running my team: Seattle Mariners

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Today, we look at the Seattle Mariners.

Seattle Mariners

  • Managing Partner: John Stanton
  • Executive Vice President and General Manager: Jerry DiPoto

DiPoto is in many ways a remnant of a dying breed. It wasn’t all that long ago when former players were common in front-office leadership positions. As recently as 2000, five front offices were headed by former players. Today, in a position populated by guys holding Ivy League MBAs, DiPoto is one of just two former players … and that’s counting Billy Beane, whose Oakland Athletics are co-run by David Forst.

DiPoto is also a throwback to an era when general managers were deal-makers. In a previous era, he would have been Frank Lane, Bing Devine, Jack McKeon, Harry Dalton or Jim Bowden, each frenetically abhorrent of inaction.

Today’s general managers measure the smallest transactions by their impact on draft position or international signing money, executing every move with detached intent. That is not DiPoto’s style. He is into churn.

Since taking over in the Northwest following the 2015 season, he has traded for, purchased or claimed by waiver 94 players who subsequently wore a Seattle uniform…that’s 23.5 per season. Throw in 44 free agent pickups, then consider the 37 major leaguers he traded away and the 19 he let walk via free agency and it adds up to 194 players who have come or gone (or both) from Seattle at DiPoto’s behest.

That’s not abnormal; that’s the way Jerry rolls. During previous GM stops at Arizona and Anaheim, he acquired a reputation as a dealer that has only been enhanced with Seattle. In fact with the release this winter of Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager is the only major league player wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform when DiPoto arrived who has not since been released, traded, waived or allowed to leave via free agency.

Unfortunately, to describe DiPoto’s approach as frenetic is not necessary to describe it as successful. He has had his moments, peaking at 98 wins with the 2014 Angels. Yet across nine seasons running the D-Backs, Angels, and Mariners, the annual net impact of his moves on his teams – as measured by Wins Above Average — works out to -5.06 games*.

In 2016, DiPoto inherited a Seattle team that had finished 10 games under .500 and proceeded to blow it up. A total of 22 players arrived in transactions with other teams, 10 departed In those deals, 15 free agents were signed, two Mariners free agents walked out, and six rookies were called up.

In terms of effort expended, it ranked as close to monumental. In terms of productivity, not so much. The entirety of DiPoto’s moves cost the Mariners 4.6 games in the standings in 2016. The Mariners finished second in the AL West, three games out of the second wild-card spot. Oops.

DiPoto is fortunate to have the leash to run the Mariners pretty much at his discretion. The ownership group’s chairman, John Stanton, made his money in telecommunications before leading an investors group that purchased the team in 2016. Two years ago Stanton gave DiPoto a contract extension whose length and terms have not been made public.

The Seattle Mariners are a mid-market team. Forbes values them at $1.58 billion, ranking 15th but slightly below the $1.78 billion average. The 3.7 million person metropolitan Seattle area is the game’s 16th largest market.

Through thin and thin — Seattle hasn’t played a post-season game since 2001 — that market has treated the Mariners with patience bordering on saintliness. The team pulled in $320 million in revenues in 2019, 14th best, and did so at a $60 cost per attending fan (the 11th highest figure).

In 2019, however, signs of unease could be discerned. Attendance, which had not dipped below 2 million since 2013, fell a half million to 1.79 million. The team did realize $31 million in pre-tax operating profits – recovering from a $2.4 million pre-tax loss in 2018 – but some of that was attributable to a $10 million reduction in opening-day payroll.

The locals expect that payroll to be slashed again this season, probably under $100 million. If so that will be a franchise-low since 2014. The experts, of course, also almost unanimously expect the Mariners to repeat their 2019 last-place finish in the AL West. Whether the reduced payroll is a cause or product of the performance decline is one of those chicken-egg questions.

Since the Seattle Mariners derive only $477 million from the sport in revenue sharing funds – that’s 25th in baseball, well below the $532 million average distribution – they are pretty much left to make it on their own. This they accomplish through a strikingly balanced revenue mixture. Among the 30 teams, they rank 13th in market revenue, 15th in stadium revenue and 15th in brand-derived revenue…almost precisely where the 15th most valuable team playing in the 16th largest market ought to be.

Going forward, the question will be whether the eddying churn that has surrounded the Mariners since DiPoto’s arrival will soon produce positive results. That nearly happened in 2018 when the M’s finished 89-73 and eight games behind the wild card Athletics.

In the wake of that relatively close miss, however, DiPoto launched into another of his sprees, acquiring 23 major leaguers by trade or purchase, dispatching 19, signing 27 others on the open market and turning seven loose onto that market.  The net impact on the Mariners’ 2019 showing? It was a loss of 3.7 games.

Considering that the Seattle Mariners gave up 21 games in the standings between 2018 and 2019, the 3.7 games DiPoto cost his club represented only a small portion of the falloff. But it didn’t help, which is sort of the point of his job.

*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.

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