Dee Gordon contacted Scott Sevais for a video call this week while the Seattle Mariners were huddled in Las Vegas as part of MLB’s winter meetings.
What could be so urgent?
“He wanted me to see his room and his new big screen TV,” Servais said. “I don’t think he knew I was here.”
That’s just been Gordon’s nature this offseason, seemingly contacting Servais every couple of days to check in. It reminded Servais of a conversation they had just recently after the Mariners had traded James Paxton to the Yankees and Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia to the Rays last month.
“He called me and said, ‘Skip, it looks like we are going younger.’ I was like, ‘Very perceptive, Dee. You are on it,’” Servais laughed when talking to reporters Tuesday. “He said that maybe we should take a few of these young guys under our wings. I said, ‘Like, be a mentor?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
That’s just the response the Mariners are hoping for out of their remaining veteran players on the roster. Paxton, Zunino, Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz and Alex Colome are among those gone via trades, but the Mariners still have 32-year-old Felix Hernandez, 31-year-old Kyle Seager and the 30-year-old Gordon, among others.
As the Mariners step back, they need some of their veterans to act as guides for helping the team, specifically their influx of young talent, eventually take its steps forward.
“(Gordon) had people early on in his career, and all players who have been in the league for a while had people help them earlier in their careers,” Servais said. “I think when you give a little bit more it’s amazing how much you get, and Dee understands that.”
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has stressed that the last thing they want to do in this step-back 2019 season and going forward is rush their prospects to the big leagues before they are ready.
They brought 23-year-old J.P. Crawford over from the Phillies in exchange for Segura, and the shortstop job is his out of spring training. But Dipoto said they’d still like to look for a veteran shortstop to act as a safety net for Crawford in case he struggles in spring.
“That would be ideal,” Dipoto told reporters Tuesday. “If we could find that veteran, versatile player who has experience at shortstop it would be huge for us. We don’t naturally want to block J.P., but we do need to provide ourselves some insurance and give him the time he needs. And if he makes it an impossible decision for us in a good way, then we’ll make that decision.”
Same goes for 26-year-old Omar Narvaez, the catcher the Mariners acquired for Colome from the White Sox. Narvaez hit .275/.366/.429 in 97 games last season, but the Mariners’ depth behind him at this point consists of David Freitas and recently-signed Austin Nola, who will likely start the season with Triple-A Tacoma.
“We would like to add one more (catcher) for sure,” Dipoto said. “We did also sign Jose Lobaton who is a veteran and been around the league who gives us that steady hand, backup type. And we do like some of your young catching in the system, particularly Cal Raleigh (the Mariners’ third-round draft pick out of Florida State this year). So we’ll see how they do between now and January. But we’d like to add to the top and push our depth down.”
He also said they’d like to add a right-handed hitting outfielder.
But Dipoto said they plan to invite more of their prospects to big-league camp in spring training than they typically have. Not all the invites have been announced yet, but Dipoto said they’ll likely have about 60 players in big-league camp, including first base prospect Evan White, outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams (acquired in the Paxton trade from the Yankees), outfielder Jake Fraley (acquired in Zunino trade from the Rays) and right-hander Justin Dunn (acquired in Cano/Diaz trade from the Mets). He did not mention 19-year-old outfielder Jarred Kelenic.
“We want to get them in front of our people,” Dipoto said. “That’s not something we’ve done in the past couple of years because it was so critical for us to develop that depth in the back of the major league. Our spring trainings were built around guys like Rob Whalen or Max Povse, Dillon Overton. That’s not the case this year.”
But he’s also leaving room on the big-league roster for young players to blow them away, particularly with pitchers Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, who were acquired from the Yankees. Both will have a shot to earn a spot in the starting rotation
The Mariners just don’t want to make the same mistakes as past regimes in bringing Zunino to the big leagues before he was ready, or like they did with Dustin Ackley. It also didn’t work out so well with Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero.
“What we don’t want to do is bring a player to the big leagues when we don’t feel they are ready to be in the big leagues,” Dipoto said. “When the players’ performance shows and it’s their time, then it’s their time. When you’re making this type of transition to a younger roster and when you make higher-profile trades like trading James Paxton and Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, you don’t want to naturally take those players you got back and say, ‘There you go,’ on Opening Day.
“But, if they come into spring training and they look mature and ready to go and their time in the minors is done – it’s hard for me to imagine that Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson and Justin Dunn, Dunn almost certainly starts the year in Double-A, but it’s hard for me to imagine that one of the pitchers we acquired won’t wind up on our Opening Day roster. We’re open-minded to it.”
Dipoto compared this construction of the Mariners to some of the teams he played on with the Cleveland Indians as a reliever from 1993-94. Additions of players such as Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez he said were integral to getting the Indians out of the mire and winning 100 games and reaching the World Series in 1995, and heading to the playoffs six of the next seven years.
“Those players were guides, saying this is how you do it,” Dipoto said. “You have to have players who are example players, keep the stability in the clubhouse and give you a reference point, so it’s not just a bunch of super-talented 25-year-olds running around in circles.
“Guys like Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales and how they go about their business and how Dee Gordon brings the energy will be a huge component for this group.”
They admit there’s no secret formula to this sort of rebuild. Dipoto and Servais took over before the 2016 season with a core of Hernandez, Cano and Seager already established.
“We’re going through a transition right now,” Servais said. “I know when Jerry got the job and I came on board, our core was pretty defined already. We tried to add to the group with guys like Dee Gordon and a number of other guys we brought in to help get that group to the playoffs. It didn’t happen. Pulling back the number of players we acquired, they are certainly younger and at certain times more athletic, and it gives you more flexibility to build your roster.
“We have a specific style of play we want to play and that’s controlling the strike zone. Some of the guys we brought in do that very well and others need to continue to work on that. But because they’re young and inexperienced we have to be patient with it, and that’s what we’ll be this year.
“Our goal is to get to the playoffs and win the World Series. It’s not to come in sixth, seventh or eighth place. Sometimes that just takes time.”