BY Art Thiel 06:22PM 07/31/2019

Thiel: Mariners’ step-back gets 4 kids for 3 vets

The Mariners traded Mike Leake, Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland for not a lot in return. Too many tanking teams are drying up the market.

Starting pitcher Mike Leake got what he wished for — a trade home to Arizona. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Mike Leake, 31, nearly pitched a perfect game two starts ago for the Mariners against the Angels and their Terminator, Mike Trout. Such is the wackiness of MLB that his value at the trade deadline Wednesday was a mere high-A infielder.

Jose Caballero, 22, was hitting .268 in the Diamondbacks system. He has 28 stolen bases, so if he does make the majors, it appears he’s fast enough to keep the Mariners out of a few double plays. Incremental value, yes; but something.

For the longest time, it didn’t seem as if the Mariners would get anything for Leake, whose professed goal, after the club announced in October their T-ball plan for T-ball Park, was to be gone from a place that was self-immolating.

“I feel like I’ve been auditioning all year just because they were trying to trade me in the off-season for a little bit,” Leake told the Seattle Times a week ago. “I definitely think I’m on the radar.”

Despite the delays in determining his future, he sucked it up in his innings-eating, no-walks, fast-tempo manner. Playing for a deliberately crappy outfit with MLB’s worst defense, Leake was 9-8 with a 4.34 ERA in 22 starts, including Tuesday night, when he threw 89 pitches in 100-degree heat in Texas before succumbing to a four-run sixth inning. He thought he might be held out of the game because of a trade, but when no news came, he stepped into the blast furnace and did his professional best.

Because of the remaining portion of his five-year, $80 million contract he signed with St. Louis in 2016, Leake was financially toxic. But things changed Wednesday for the D-backs when they stunned baseball by trading their ace, Zach Greinke, to Houston for a haul of four prospects.

Because the D-backs were 54-54 entering Wednesday games, one of 10 National League teams within seven games of the final playoff spot, they still wanted to look like contenders. They knew that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto had knocked on the door for months peddling Leake. Finally, they were needy, offering up a modest prospect if the Mariners were willing to eat some of the contract, reported to be $10 million.

Because Leake lives in suburban Phoenix and pitched for Arizona State, he gets to go home. He is the numerical replacement in the rotation for Greinke, which is asking a lot, but he’s also playing for a team that wants to win.

He gets what he wanted, and Dipoto gets wanted he wanted: A fig leaf. Caballero isn’t much, but to come away from the season’s lone trade deadline with nothing for a guy who nearly pitched a perfect game, would have been embarrassing for the madcap dealmaker. He can thank Arizona GM Mike Hazen, who offered a bit of a snarky rejoinder for the day:


In pursuit of his twin goals of younger and cheaper, Dipoto in another deal Wednesday also unloaded another couple of 30-somethings, relievers Hunter Strickland (30) and Roenis Elias (31 Thursday), his two closers.

Believe it or not, the Washington Nationals had a more horrid bullpen than the Mariners, entering Wednesday with an MLB-worst ERA of 5.97 and 20 blown saves, tied for third most.

All you need to know is the Nats’ set-up reliever lately has been Fernando Rodney, 42, the stroke-inducing former Mariners closer who was cut earlier this season by Oakland. The A’s aspire to be a respectable team, which is not possible if Rodney and his imaginary quiver of arrows are on the roster. Presumably, Washington will think that way too.

Since the Nats entered Wednesday 56-51 and in a virtual three-way tie with the Phillies and Cubs for the NL’s two wild-card spots, they needed veteran help. The Nats gave up three pitching prospects: Lefty Taylor Guilbeau, 26; lefty Aaron Fletcher, 23, and righty Elvis Alvarado, 20.

At the beginning of the season, MLB Pipeline ranked Guilbeau the 15th-best prospect in the Nationals system and Fletcher 21st. Alvarado is unranked mostly because he’s converting from the outfield.

Dipoto said Guilbeau will report to AAA Tacoma and may be called up this season. Fletcher is likely destined for AA and Alvarado to the Arizona rookie league.

Obviously, none of the four youngsters acquired by Seattle were highly rated by scouts, but their profiles generally fit Dipoto’s plan for system depth.

Nationally, aside from two large deals including the Greinke trade, the midseason market didn’t create much change compared previous years, mostly because of the unintended consequence of so many teams joining the Mariners in deliberately tanking. The pool of younger, cheaper talent has been picked over.

In a recent piece, longtime Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell excoriated MLB for the trend, calling the practice “fan abuse.” Just because the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs followed the formula to World Series titles doesn’t mean it’s sustainable for many teams at all times.

Boswell has watched the nearby Baltimore Orioles for decades, and saw that the declaration of a period for rebuilding doesn’t mean winning will happen:

In 1987-88, the Birds lost 202 games. Full rebuild mode. In the 31 seasons since, the Orioles have won 90 games just three times. At one point, they had 14 straight losing seasons. Why did D.C. get a team? Because the Orioles devalued their brand so much that there was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.

Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

The Mariners ”horror era” has yet to finish year one. None of the off-loading of talent Wednesday suggested that the payback on a return is a moment closer.

Then again, I have yet to channel my Dipoto spirit animal.


  • Kevin Lynch

    The more things change the more they stay the same. You’re going to live and die with pitching. Seattle has Marco. Anyone else who can cover 175 innings at 4.25 ERA?

    • art thiel

      Look around baseball, and you might find 10 guys who hit that standard. But you’re right, the Mariners have developed few pitchers, and then they send Paxton and Diaz away. Still have Felix, though . . .

      • Kevin Lynch

        Uh…actually the Astros have 4 pitchers who are on target for 175+ innings and 3.00 or below. Counting Greinke. Something tells me the other 29 teams can come up with more than 6. Just sayin’…

        • art thiel

          Whatever the number, it’s a low percentage. Dipoto has tried to gather a lot of pitchers in the mayhem with at least a glimmer of a high ceiling, but skepticism prevails until they can get and keep another talent like Diaz.

      • Kevin Lynch

        And the Dodgers have 4 more under 4.25 who are on target for 175 innings.

  • 1coolguy

    Art, come on – the horror era started in 2002. This is the start of the Nightmare Era. The people that are standing by Griffey’s statue lighting C-notes are the people who STILL buy season tickets to this disaster. We all knew the plan was to rebuild, but this simply allows me to “praise the Lord” for the Dawgs and Hawks seasons that are beginning.

    • art thiel

      But it’s still a nice place to spend an evening. And soon to get quieter.

      • 1coolguy

        So with Jake’s gone, where to people go for their pint of Guinness?

        • art thiel

          Fado, First Ave.

          (did you mean McRory’s?)

          • 1coolguy

            Yes – Thinking back to Jake’s after Sonic games! Fado it is. To draw on this yet another area of your acclaimed expertise, where to enjoy that pint after a Husky game?

          • Guy K. Browne

            U-Village is drunk (loaded) with places to enjoy a beverage after Husky games. Or, do what the locals do, tailgate in the parking lot until it’s dark.

          • art thiel

            Since I don’t get done working the 8p kickoffs until the bars are closed, I have no idea.

      • coug73

        Going to Sunday’s game? The Blue Angels will do a fly by for sure. Best viewed out on the 3rd concourse. Been there, done that.

        • art thiel

          Look at you, helping M’s sell tickets. Glad to hear you’ll be there.

    • Chuck Henry

      I really hope things do go well eventually or they’ll have to put up a statue of Chone Figgins to reflect the true nature of the franchise.

  • Guy K. Browne

    Mariners’ “step back”:

  • Guy K. Browne
    • art thiel

      And look what happened to him.

  • Steve Buckholdt

    “Fan abuse” is a good description. I am continually amazed that people pay good money for tickets and the privilege to drop $13 or whatever for a beer. The Mariners must put something in the beer to make fans believe that giving away all your good players for a bag of shells, otherwise known as “prospects”, is a plan. My prediction is that Dipoto will be fired sometime in 2021 and we will witness the hiring of yet another GM. The process of “rebuilding” will start over once more.

    • art thiel

      As I’ve said, a summer night at the ballpark in Seattle, regardless of quality of play, is a magnet for tourists and locals. A five-state monopoly is a wonderful thing.

      • Tman

        The Sheriff could save enough games to get us back in contention.

  • Guy K. Browne

    I must say, it’s difficult to see, even imagine the end of this debacle. Since 2001 (up until the point that Stanton took over) the franchise has been managed purely on the basis of cash flow and profit/loss. Baseball people were not enabled to make baseball decisions up until full on crisis mode hit, it’s the only explanation there was for the Cano signing. The farm is gutted, the so-called step back method of [_reconstruction -> contention_] is now yesterday’s news, too many clubs attempting the same method and of all of them, the Mariners seem to have very little that other teams might want (see, farm gutted).
    Like “Moneyball”, a franchise has to be on the leading edge of a new idea for the new idea to work. The Mariners have never been that franchise. I don’t blame the current regime, they bought what they bought; a 73 Pinto with one missing hub cap, purchased for Ferrari $$.
    For the Mariners to contend again, they need to invent/write the next chapter in baseball team building methodology. Maybe the “everything old is new again” model, going out and buying pieces to build a contending team? What they’re doing now has no chance of working for the foreseeable future.

    • Tian Biao

      ‘a franchise has to be on the leading edge of a new idea for the new idea to work.’ brilliant. I also like ‘trading old expensive mediocre for young inexpensive mediocre probably leaves you worse off . . .’

    • art thiel

      Good analysis, Guy. I will say in partial defense that Dipoto has cleared a huge amount of salary, or at least will, after they burn off the money owed to players no longer here. That is a step. The question is whether young players acquired can be developed into MLB average or better. Dipoto doesn’t have much of a record here or with the Angels in doing so.

      Good point about Moneyball under Beane working until everyone else copied him. Given how thoroughly analytics are applied throughout MLB, college ball and internationally, it’s difficult to find an unobserved talent.

      • Guy K. Browne

        For sure Art, and at least for now, my issue is not necessarily with Dipoto or Stanton, they bought into a hand full of deuces and jokers and are now tasked with playing the hand their dealt (wait, the ghost of ground Chuck is calling). But, it is plain to see that using the same ploy as everyone else when you have a weak hand is not bearing much fruit. Your point about clearing salary is what I was thinking about when I wrote about buying pieces to assemble a team. Maybe that’s untenable given today’s salaries, but holey cheese nearly 20 years of horrible baseball with no solution in sight is a tough ask for the fans.

        • art thiel

          That was my original point in October when Dipoto disclosed the step-back plan: Step back from what?

          • Tman

            Was it you that named it T Ball Park?

          • art thiel

            If you’re looking to hand out awards, yes.

  • Chuck Henry

    So much is beyond Dipoto’s control here. The assumption that you can be a World Series Contender by 2021 would have to factor in that suddenly the Astros (clearly a dynasty) will somehow fall apart, that the A’s are a flash in the pan, and that that Mike Trout will suddenly retire to become a fisherman in Alaska. It can happen, but you have to have some amazing superstars come out of nowhere in your farm system or in the draft, or like Altuve be seen on a youth baseball field and signed undrafted. Lots of variables. I really don’t believe the Mariners have good scouting.

  • 1coolguy

    One must wonder whether T-Mobile has an “out” clause in their sponsorship of the stadium.
    No corporation wants to be associated with a loser, and the M’s do not show any real signs of improvement.

  • Husky73

    Stroke-inducing relievers— we’ve had so many. “This is the big one, I’m dying! Elizabeth, I’m comin’ to join you!” (Fred Sanford)