Jerry Dipoto appeared in 390 games as a reliever for the Indians, Mets and Rockies, pitching parts of eight seasons in the Majors. But his biggest impact on the game may still be yet to come.
The 48-year-old has embarked on a front-office career that has taken him through Colorado, Boston, Arizona, Anaheim and now Seattle, where he just started his second season as the Mariners' general manager.
MLB.com sat down with Dipoto in his office at the Peoria Sports Complex during the final days of Spring Training to discuss his path to Seattle, Mike Trout's contract, how the Mariners can catch the Seahawks and why more players haven't gone the front-office route.
MLB.com: You played for the Indians, Mets and Rockies from 1993-2000. How hard was it to hang up the uniform?
Dipoto: Terribly hard. Like with most players, you know when it's your time to walk away. For me, fortunately, injury made it almost impossible for me to come back and play again. My saving grace was that I was with an organization for the previous four years and I had developed relationships with many people in that organization, including Dan O'Dowd, over the course of a baseball life. I almost immediately transitioned into a front-office support position and carved out a career that I think I'm a little better at than the former. (Laughs.)
MLB.com: Looking at the landscape of GMs, you seem to be the exception these days in terms of actually having played in the big leagues. Why do you think more players haven't gone that route?
Dipoto: I guess the easiest answer to that question is the game has changed significantly from a financial perspective. I talked about it with some former players when I first got into scouting; you play a lengthy career -- I played a dozen years, eight in the big leagues -- I was fortunate enough that the generation before me gave us much greater earning power. In the generation since, it's gotten even more significant. You really have to love the game, you really have to enjoy the grind and you really have to be intellectually curious about how the pieces come together to make it worth your while.
These front-office jobs -- scouting and player development particularly -- they are not get-rich-quick jobs; they are give-back jobs. They are give to the game, mentor a player, find satisfaction in watching something come together, much more so than it is about a career choice for the get-rich-quick. Most players, when they see what's on the other side, it's hard to go from making a lot of zeros to looking at a job where as a starter you're going to make $40,000 or $50,000 and you're going to have to climb through the food chain. I didn't mind that. It worked out perfectly well for me. I love the game and I wanted to do what I'm doing now.
Through the course of time, I think I gravitated more toward the executive roles than the on-field positions, and it's benefited me. We try over the course of time -- whether it's guys like Mike Hampton, Scott Servais, Rico Brogna, Kevin Jarvis, Jeff Cirillo ... I could name a dozen guys over the course of the last 16 years or so that we've brought along and given them an avenue by which to contribute in the game. Some of them find it as addicting as playing, and they jump after it and turn it into careers, like Scott, Mike and Jeff have done. To me, the more players that stay in the game, the better the game will be. But we also have to understand that that's not the end-all, be-all. There are a lot of ways to slice the atom.
MLB.com: After joining Josh Byrnes and the D-backs as director of scouting and player personnel, you were later named interim GM when Josh was dismissed. Was there any disappointment that you didn't get the full-time job?
Dipoto: I was disappointed when I didn't get the job, but I wasn't so disappointed that I left the organization. I had the opportunity to work with Kevin Towers in 2011; K.T. taught me quite a bit, but it was a different type of education. Some of what I learned coming through the Rockies and Red Sox chains, learning along the way those first five years with the D-backs, I then learned how not to get so invested in your mistakes. That was K.T.'s greatest lesson to me; when you see something isn't working, when you see a player sinking, when you see the Draft pick or the trade that just isn't going right, don't compound the error -- solve the problem.
Whether that be sending the player back to the Minor Leagues and letting him breathe a little bit or whether that means go find another alternative, it could be any number of things. K.T. taught me that the job won't allow you to sit and watch the player sink; you will lose the player. You have to do the right thing for the human on the other end of things. K.T. was human, and like humans, we make good decisions and bad, but he taught me how not to compound it by watching it fail.
MLB.com: You signed Mike Trout to a $144.5 million contract before the 2014 season, despite the fact that he wasn't even arbitration-eligible yet. Given the deals that have been signed since then -- and the numbers already being thrown around for that '18 free-agent class with guys like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado -- does Trout's contract seem like a bargain now?
Dipoto: Oddly enough, we felt like it was a bargain then. It was a big number, and Arte Moreno and the Angels organization allowed us to be aggressive with a player with lower service. Typically, the extensions done with players in his service class were probably more a third of that size, but he's an exceptional player. You were talking about a different element.
If you want to buy free-agent years of the best player in the game -- when we signed him to that contract, he had already finished top-two in the MVP [Award race] on multiple occasions, and it was made abundantly clear that he was one of the best players in the game. He changed our world; he made the offense so much more dynamic, he made the defense so much more blanket-like in its coverage, he changed our world on the bases. He affected the game in so many ways and was wildly popular with the fan base; it was kind of a no-brainer. We were thankful after we got it done that he was interested in staying with the Angels and playing in Southern California.
He's a terrific player, and if you look back at that deal even now, you go, "Wow. That's working for everybody." It's a heck of a lot easier to sign deals that work for everybody when you're signing great players at young ages. Odd as it is, it would be so far out of the norm in the history of baseball, he may not have had his best years yet -- and his career has already basically emulated those of the greatest players in history, and he's not even to what the normal prime years of a player would be. That's fascinating.
MLB.com: Do you think Statcast™ is making fans look at the game differently?
Dipoto: If it hasn't, it will. I didn't think we've even really scratched the surface of what Statcast™ is capable of. Statcast™, even in the last two years, has changed the way that I or we look at building a Major League roster. I don't think that's going to go away. I think Statcast™ is going to enhance the way we watch the game on TV, just as a viewing pleasure much like an NFL game on Sunday or like we've seen in the postseason.
We see pitch tracker, not just that shows you velocity, but pitch tracker that's showing you horizontal and vertical break on a pitch. Pitch tracker that's showing you six pitches in a sequence leave a pitcher's hand and go in different directions. I find that wildly interesting. The visuals that they're able to create on TV with the ground coverage in the outfield, now you watch MLB Network coverage at the end of the game and they'll show you three different routes or angles that an outfielder took to a ball and how significant it was that the player was able to get there or not get there.
It's magical stuff, and I think we've only scratched the surface. We have now hired multiple people whose job is to sift through all the Statcast™ data, because it is mountains of information that we're still trying to fully understand.
MLB.com: It's been 16 years since the Mariners were in the playoffs, though Seattle has seen the Seahawks reach the playoffs 11 times, play in three Super Bowls and win one in that stretch. How important is it for the Mariners to get back to the postseason?
Dipoto: It's definitely important. We've been gone for too long. We talk about it frequently with the group down there that we can only control the controllables, but this is our time. We have some pf the greatest players in the game; we have a core that the middle of our lineup should stand up to just about any. The additions of guys like [Jarrod] Dyson and [Jean] Segura should put the top of our lineup in a position where it can stand up to just about any. The experiences and track records with our five starters give us something to look forward to, and we've built some depth in back of it. In the World Baseball Classic, our young closer [Edwin Diaz was] just about as exciting as anybody's. We've built a group in the bullpen that we think is versatile and sustainable. We're better defensively, we're faster, we're more athletic.
Anything can go wrong in a given moment; not every player we acquired is going to hit on the return -- the ROI (return of investment), so to speak. Some are going to exceed our expectations and some are going to fall short, but the power of the pack is with the wolf and vice versa. We're going to find a way to make sure that the group isn't just 25, but 45 or 55 players that can come together and contribute at the right time. But understanding that the core group of 10 or 12 guys that sit at the epicenter of the action, they're the guys that we rely on every day. That is a championship group. Now it's our job to put together a group of players around them that can make it easier for them to do their job.
MLB.com: If my count is correct, you've made 39 trades since you took over after the 2015 season, including 14 this offseason alone. There are only eight players remaining on your 40-man roster from when you took over 18 months ago. Why do you think you have been able to pull off more deals than anybody else? And do you ever turn off your phone?
Dipoto: No, I never turn off the phone. I think now we're at 41 or 42 trades in total. I suppose it's Jedi mind tricks; we're talking the other team into dealing. For the most part, we know who the core of our team is. We're running out a $150 million-plus payroll. We're not a cheap team; we are among the 10 highest payrolls in baseball. We have core players like [Robinson] Cano, [Kyle] Seager, [Nelson] Cruz and [Felix] Hernandez who are paid accordingly for what they provide. This is a team that needed to be augmented on the periphery, and the easiest way to do that is to target trades.
To target a trade allows us the ability to fit a puzzle piece perfectly rather than taking the best available free agent who might fit your payroll dynamic, plug him in and hope it fits. Last year, not wanting to blow up a Minor League system before we were truly able to evaluate who they were -- and I'm more prone to taking some time with that than others -- we took a year. We assessed what we had in the Minors, traded some from the low Minors to augment our 2016 roster, and went out and got a lot of one-year fits. Guys that were in their 30s that we knew were creating a bridge to get to a roster that was deeper; guys like Adam Lind, Chris Iannetta, Dae-Ho Lee, Norichika Aoki, Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez. It worked for us.
We had a very enjoyable year, and I think we were a fun team to watch. Over the course of that time, we were able to dial in to targets that fit us better and were able to better evaluate the players that we ultimately traded to get to those players.
MLB.com: What's your assessment on the current state of the American League West?
Dipoto: Really good division. If you can figure out who is going to win the AL West with any degree of certainty, let me know. I've been in the division for a while, and I can't remember the last time the preseason favorite actually won the division. Maybe this will be that year. I hope not. (Laughs.)
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.