BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 02/16/2021

Thiel: No rush? Paxton is about now for Mariners

GM Jerry Dipoto says the Mariners aren’t rushing; they’re in for the long game. Yet they signed old friend James Paxton for a year at $8.5M. Maybe Dipoto is ready to rush? Nah.

Pax is bax. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Infinity, by any definition, is a mysterious concept. Perhaps the only way for a non-mathematician to appreciate endlessness or boundlessness is to use an alternative term more understandable.

I suggest Marinerness — a time/space quality of being everywhere, but nowhere.

As Seattle fans this month enter their 44th year of the experience of baseball infinity, I doubt further explanation is necessary.

But if you need one, here was general manager Jerry Dipoto in his annual off-season media chat in January, this time via Zoom.

“We’re not in a rush,” he said. “We’re playing the long game with our roster.”

In the context of the here and now, I get it. But if you indulge me going galactic again: We couldn’t have known it at the time, but the 116 wins in the 2001 season turned out to be a black hole with such intense gravitational pull that nothing, not even future light (and post-seasons) ever could escape.

Well, OK, garlic fries got out. But no playoffs.

For 2o years, the Mariners have been playing the long game. There has never been a rush. They’ve had only seven winning records, two under Dipoto, in his sixth season as Seattle GM.

Compounding matters, last season, along with all MLB teams, the Mariners were reduced by the pandemic to a 60-game stump, made worse by the absence of all minor league games. That meant every prospect got a year older without making much progress in getting smarter or better. For teams like the Mariners that are loaded with prospects and almost no long-term veterans, the lost development time was more acute.

Also through no fault of their own, they are stuck in MLB’s cruel business cycle of tear-down/build-up. The methodology is always the worst for baseball, because it can take five to seven years to unload bad veteran contracts and develop kids to average or better major leaguers worthy of contention.

Among all the forces that are helping diminish the sport’s national relevance, the typical half-decade or more of slumming to get good is the most debilitating negative in the business.

But that is a column for another day. I digress.

As for 2021, it is year four of Dipoto’s step-back plan. When the tear-down was announced after the 2018 season, Dipoto talked aspirationally of a return to contention in by ’21. Here was his assessment as of last month.

“We have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field,” he said. “That’s a possibility for us and would be a goal . . . We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run to the top of the American League West. But I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot, and we’ll see how it goes if we take a step forward toward that in 2021.”

Then the Mariners this weekend did something of a bold thing, a deviation. They spent $8.5 million ($10 million with incentives) on a one-year deal for 32-year-old James Paxton, winner of 57 career games.

The one-time local hero pitched himself off the Mariners roster and into the big time with a good 2018 season that helped him get traded to the Yankees, as part of the tear-down. The Big Maple injured himself into free agency this winter by pitching only five games in 2020 after another in a string of health maladies, this time a strained flexor in his left forearm.

However, reports from his workouts, some seen by Dipoto, were good. So they made him the roster’s third-highest paid player, behind the $18.5 million owed to 3B Kyle Seager, 33, and the same amount to RHP Yusei Kikuchi, 30. (The fifth-highest paid player remains former 2B Robinson Cano, whom they owe $3.75 million even though he’s played for the Mets the past two seasons.)

The Mariners are also bringing back OF Mitch Haniger, 30, to see if he can still bring it after a dispiriting 1½ seasons of injuries, including the dastardly foul ball to his groin that still makes me cringe just typing it.

For a guy who has been a heavy shopper at baseball’s rehab bin, Dipoto has in Paxton and Haniger his new nominees for Bounce-Back Kings.

Paxton joins Wednesday at the spring training site in Arizona — full-team drills begin Monday — a six-man starting rotation that includes Kikuchi, ace LHP Marco Gonzales (30), young holdovers LHP Justus Sheffield (24), RHP Justin Dunn (25) and LHP Nick Margevicius (24), plus free agent newcomer Chris Flexen (23), who had 27 appearances and 68 innings in three years (8.07 ERA) with the Mets.

Based on what was seen in the 27-33 stump, Sheffield (acquired from the Yankees in the Paxton trade), Dunn and Margevicius have reasonable shots at being close to major league average. Gonzales and a healthy Paxton are proven winners.

Regarding position players, Dipoto, whose farm system was rated last week as the game’s second-best by Baseball America (they were last in 2018), is persuaded that winning talent is under contract.

“At every position on the field, we feel like we have the current and future best solution for the Mariners,” he said. “Now we have to find out how they progress. We weren’t in a position, headed into ’21, where we felt confident that we had seen enough in making that evaluation.

“Therefore, we weren’t going to go add to our roster beyond ’21 in ways that was going to limit the exposure for those young players.”

That’s why he stayed away from multi-year free agency, and why he wants roster room to see star prospects OF Jarred Kelenic and RHP Logan Gilbert by midseason.

It sounds good. Always does in February.

Whether this plan works to sneak up on the back of the playoff field is unknowable, because after nearly a generation has passed knowing nothing but the long game of infinity, it is hard to recognize what is finite.

Once established, Marinerness is a hard mathematical concept to disprove.


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YourThoughts

  • Mister Tacoma

    Let’s bring back the 84′ “Anything can Happen” slogan!

    • Kevin Lynch

      ’84 was also the year the Giants brought out the quizzical phrase ‘Hum, babe’. Hum babe!? Whazzat? I believe the Giants made the playoffs that year so maybe it worked. Maybe the M’s just need to hum, babe.

      • woofer

        The front office is sticking with “Refuse to lose.” But they have subtly shifted to its secondary meaning as a noun rather than a verb. It is now “refuse” in the sense of “garbage.”

        • Mister Tacoma

          How about “Two outs, oh well.”

          • art thiel

            “Two outs . . . is not three.”

          • Husky73

            Two outs, so what.

        • art thiel

          Tasteless, but a nice play, woofer.

          • woofer

            Thank you, sir. In the Age of Post-Trump it’s not easy to be tasteless.

      • art thiel

        That was manager Roger Craig’s favorite expression — Humm Baby! I like it better than Neuheisel’s Scoreboard, Baby!

    • art thiel

      I forgot about that one. Brutal.

      • Husky73

        Chicks dig the ground ball.

  • Kevin Lynch

    The Mariners have adored reclamation projects for many years now. A guy misses most or all of the prior season with injuries and the M’s come calling with what amounts to a full contract offer. If Paxton makes $9 or $10 million, the likely final figure with incentives earned, you are basically signing him with an expectation he’s going 12-5 with a 2.98. That was the old Paxton. But are the odds good for a TOTAL bounce-back? Maybe they have not gotten past the Beltre history. He missed most of a year with an injury while paid $10 mill but the Mariners let him go and he recovered and finished a HOF career elsewhere. Granted, he wanted, and had earned, a multi-year deal.

    • art thiel

      All clubs below the premium franchises bet on bounce-back guys. It works sometimes. Drew Smyly was good for Atlanta last season.

      They should have traded Beltre before his contract ran out. But I don’t think he wanted to stay here, for non-cash reasons.

  • Brent Hannon

    Step back, step forward, re-imagine the roster, ponder infinity, peer into the past, try to see the future . . . still murky . . . wait . . . control the zone . . . it’s getting clearer . . . yes! I can see it now! the future contains . . . another losing season.

    • art thiel

      I’ll put you down as an “L”.

      • Brent Hannon

        I’d like to be proved wrong, but I have history on my side. unfortunately.

        • art thiel

          As the kids say, true dat.

  • jafabian

    Glad to see Big Maple back though I’m wondering if he might just be trade bait for later like how Taijuan Walker was last year. But this isn’t too bad a rotation if he can regain his form of two seasons ago.

    I’m impressed at how Dipoto has rebuilt the farm but the real test will be to see how players transition to the bigs. That was the challenge when Dipoto came on.

    • art thiel

      You’re right — if Paxton is solid through July, he’ll be traded. That’s when Gilbert steps in.

      That challenge is the same for all MLB teams. What might be different here is whether, in the event of contention, Dipoto is permitted by ownership to contend by adding salary in another fan-free season.

      • jafabian

        In the past ten years the M’s have had highly regarded players fall short in their development. I really thought Dustin Ackley was going to be something special and it didn’t happen. Same with Jesus Montero. Mike Zunino should be much a much better hitter than he is. ( Though Edgar got him to reach a .251 BA.) Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak became All Stars and Chris Taylor NLCS MVP after they were traded. All were high up the chain and by all rights should have at least been viable contributors to the club. That’s what I’d like to see stop.

        • Archangelo Spumoni

          Mr. Jafabian
          Gee thanks, sir. (sarcasm ON).
          Ackley, Zunino, Smoak, Taylor, Montero, et al. I had equally high hopes for 100% of these. Maybe I would just settle for Alvin Davis for a change.

          • jafabian

            IMO Ackley, Montero and Smoak should have been All Stars as M’s. Yeah, I get that sometimes it doesn’t happen but all three were rated so high nationally that it seemed like they’d become at least one time All Stars as M’s. I forgot that Justin became an All Star in Toronto. Both Bill Bavasi and Jack Z rushed prospects up to save their jobs as GM and those moves failed miserably .

      • Will Ganschow

        My bet would be that Paxton will be on the (what’s the new term for DL?) by July, making room for Gilbert.

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    Seattle probably leads the nation in the recycling of discarded items, such as cans, bottles plastics and of course discarded baseball players. This franchise has been so poorly run for so long that nobody should believe anything that comes out of the mouths of anyone associated with the Mariner baseball franchise. Howard Lincoln once said, remember Uncle Howie? There’s more to baseball than winning games, we strive to give our fans the “true fan experience.” Such as bobble heads, bark in the park and hydro races, but winning a World Series…. or heck, how about just appearing in one. Crickets. Howie is gone, but is he really gone?

    Hope springs eternal for the 44th year in a row.

    • art thiel

      Lincoln is long retired, but I can see his legacy is eternal. That’s why John Stanton doesn’t say much publicly.

    • Husky73

      I’m still hoping for the Mariners’ “Big Three”……James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen.

      • Elizabeth Bowlby

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  • Husky73

    Assuming there will be a 162 game season (a big assumption), the Mariners are set for another 78-84 campaign.

    • art thiel

      What if they call up Kelenic and Gilbert early? That’s gotta be worth 82-80.

      • Husky73

        They won’t use up a year of Club control.

    • jafabian

      I’m thinking they’ll be in the .500 neighborhood. Especially if they can bring in an Endy Chavez/Stan Javier kind of veteran presence.