SEATTLE -- Since he signed on as general manager of the Mariners at the end of the 2015 season, Jerry Dipoto has made one thing abundantly clear. He's not afraid to trade.
In his first year on the job, Dipoto made 25 swaps involving 60 players among 12 other Major League clubs. Since the start of this offseason, his second with the Mariners, Dipoto has engineered seven more trades involving 20 players with seven different teams.
That's 32 trades in a 14-month span. And while many of the moves have been relatively minor deals, looking for players who better fit the new regime's system and philosophies, the boldest came last month when Dipoto dealt promising young right-hander Taijuan Walker and starting shortstop Ketel Marte to the D-backs for All-Star shortstop Jean Segura, outfield prospect Mitch Haniger and lefty reliever Zac Curtis.
Dipoto is still shopping this winter, looking now to add a starting pitcher who can replace Walker in the rotation, in his never-ending quest to find the right pieces to the puzzle. The GM's moves led to a 10-win improvement over 2015, with the Mariners in contention for the postseason until late this past season.
"To me, the way you build a team, first you focus on draft and development," Dipoto said. "Then you focus on trades. And then you focus on free agency. Any one of those three has the potential to bear fruit, but in the end, we're open to any way we can add players to make us a better team."
While some fans wonder why not just spend money in free agency instead of giving up players to get others in a trade, Dipoto notes that trades offer the ability to get younger players with more years of team control and flexibility.
"All you have to do is look at every step of the way, you get a little older and less controllable," he said. "At the younger stage, you bring them to the big leagues and the expectation is their best years lie ahead. Sometimes they play out and sometimes they fall short."
The Mariners already had big-name and big-money veterans anchoring their roster when Dipoto took the job. Even now, Robinson Cano still has seven years and $168 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million deal he signed with previous GM Jack Zduriencik.
Felix Hernandez has three years at $80 million still remaining on a seven-year, $175 million extension signed in '13. Kyle Seager has five years and $85 million to go on a seven-year, $100 million extension he agreed to in Zduriencik's final season, while Nelson Cruz has two years at $28 million still left on a four-year, $57 million deal he signed that same year.
That's a lot of guaranteed money already booked for a franchise whose payroll reached a record high $150 million at the end of last season, so Dipoto has worked hard to upgrade around that nucleus mostly by trades and smaller free-agent signings such as relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Casey Fien now and Steve Cishek, Norichika Aoki and Chris Iannetta last offseason.
While Dipoto says "it's hard to make trades in this league," given the need to convince other clubs to match up the right fits and ultimately say yes to one offer vs. others they're pondering, he sticks by his belief that it is the best way to upgrade in the shorter term.
Dipoto has shown a penchant for identifying his needs and moving quickly to fill them, which is easier to do in trades than on the free-agent market, where players control the timing and outcome.
"With trades, you're acquiring players that fit your roster," he said. "It gives you the ability to fit a puzzle piece in with some degree of precision, because you identify the pieces and move forward. With free agents, you're in the market competing with 29 other teams. You have to fit the puzzle piece, but also sell your team, stadium, manager, city, the money. Each step gets more complicated."
Dipoto doesn't expect as many trades in 2017 now that he's established more of a foundation. He made 12 during the previous offseason and 13 during the '16 season. Drafting and developing will remain a priority, with the Mariners high on their No. 1 pick from this past June, outfielder Kyle Lewis, and some of their acquired young talent.
And Dipoto likely will dip into free agency in the coming weeks to add another bullpen piece. But the wheeling and dealing won't ever stop.
"As you've seen by my volume of trades, what we've been doing is trying to navigate our way to what we talked about in my opening press conference last year [when he was first hired]," Dipoto said. "How we wanted to situate the roster and build the team. Be more athletic, be more aggressive on the bases, to control the zone, throw strikes and fit well to our ballpark. This is just the ongoing evolution."
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Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.