Continuing their trend of building toward the future, the Seattle Mariners have moved three of their more experienced pitchers to National League teams ahead of Wednesday’s MLB trade deadline.
Roenis Elias, who has acted as the Mariners’ closer for much of the season, and Hunter Strickland, who was the club’s projected closer before an injury derailed him for nearly four months, are both headed to the Nationals. And, at long last, after rumors have been swirling for months, the Mariners are sending starter Mike Leake and cash considerations to the Diamondbacks.
“It’s rare that you get a chance to fill in a lot of prospect depth in the system in one day,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said during a conference call. “And to do it at so many different levels, we’re pretty fired up about being able to do that.”
“We continued to transition our roster, picking up younger players — players that can play a part in our future going forward,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters in Arlington ahead of Wednesday’s series finale against Texas.
Elias and Strickland have more than 600 innings of major league experience and nearly 550 strikeouts between them, and could stabilize the back end of a Nationals bullpen that is, somehow, worse than Seattle’s with a 5.99 ERA that is the highest in baseball.
Leake, after a possible trade with Arizona earlier this season fell through, waived his full no-trade clause to join a Diamondbacks rotation contending for one of the NL’s two Wild Card spots. He had been one of Seattle’s most consistent starters since joining the club in 2017.
“It’s one team I’d definitely want to say yes to above Seattle,” Leake told reporters in Arlington. “I grew up a Mariners fan, so that’s in my heart, but going home to Arizona is definitely a chance.”
All together, Seattle, in an already lost season, opted to give up a combined 22 years of major league experience between the three pitchers Wednesday, placing an even bigger value on its future.
None of the prospects they received in return — not the three pitchers from Washington, nor the infielder from Arizona — have ever played a game in the majors. None of them are older than 26 either, fitting into the Mariners’ plan of building a playoff contender somewhere in the 2021-2022 window.
“I think we’ve done what we said we were going to do,” Dipoto said. “We identified young players, we went out (and got them). I can’t overstate enough how much I think we’ve improved our farm system, both through the draft and international signings, and obviously a lot of these trades. We’ve refocused what we’re doing and I think it’s making a difference.”
Dipoto said the Mariners received a regular amount of calls in the days leading up to the deadline, but everything ramped up in the final two hours Wednesday.
The Mariners had trade talks with Arizona as far back as May regarding Leake, Dipoto said, but Seattle’s ownership ultimately nixed that deal. It wasn’t seriously revisited until about 20 minutes before the deadline. It was finalized with 68 seconds remaining.
Seattle has been shopping Leake, who has somewhat of a turbulent relationship with the club’s leadership and is in the fourth year of a five-year, $80 million contract, for nearly a year.
Two of Leake’s past three starts — during which he took a perfect game into the ninth inning against the Angels, and allowed a combined three earned runs in 16 innings — likely boosted his trade value. The 31-year-old is 9-8 with a 4.40 ERA in 22 starts with the Mariners this season, and has two complete games, which is tied for the MLB lead with four other pitchers.
Leake, who lives in the Phoenix area during the offseason, waived his no-trade clause to join the Diamondbacks. He will fill a rotation spot left by Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke, who was sent to the Astros moments before his own deal was announced.
“I didn’t really know until about 15 minutes before the deadline,” Leake said. “It kind of came back up through the grapevine, I guess. Once they were able to get rid of Greinke, I guess it opened some things up.”
Leake said after Tuesday night’s start he didn’t expect to be traded, but the full-time living situation in Arizona would be beneficial for his family. He said he has made contact with the Diamondbacks since the trade.
“You get fuzzy in the mind a little bit,” Leake said of the days leading up to the deadline. “You don’t know if you’re going to go anywhere or not. You’re told maybe you’re going to go some places, and things don’t happen. Other than that, you’ve still got to throw the ball and try to throw nine innings every time.”
Leake’s next scheduled start for the Mariners would have been Tuesday — Seattle has off days Thursday and Monday — in theory giving the club six days to decided how to replace him in the rotation.
Prospects Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield were mentioned as possible candidates to eventual fill that slot, but Dipoto said the Mariners will hold off on any decisions for now, given that they have four off days between now and the end of the month.
“We’ll start having discussions now as to what we’ll do,” Dipoto said. “We’ve already gauged when we want the young guys to arrive, and are trying to determine in our schedule when that fits. The off days in August really help us.
“What we don’t want to do is upset the rhythm and flow for Marco (Gonzales) and (Yusei) Kikuchi and the way we’ve got things going with Tommy (Milone) and Wade (LeBlanc). That being said, when it’s time to fold Justus and Justin in there, we will do it. It’s more likely toward the end of August than today, but we’ve already started to eyeball when that might take place.”
Dipoto also said the Mariners are likely to hold off on Dunn, specifically, until at least the beginning of September so they don’t risk burning an option by having to send him back to the minors. Sheffield has already appeared in a game in relief with Seattle this season.
How the two pitchers are performing with players of their age level with Double-A Arkansas is also a factor.
“We do want to let that group compete for a championship,” Dipoto said. “It’s hard to compete for a championship if you take away all the aces, so to speak. Right now Justus and Justin and Logan Gilbert, specifically, are pitching very well. But, we do want them to make progress in their development toward the big leagues.”
The Mariners will receive minor league infielder Jose Caballero in return for Leake. Caballero is slashing at .268/.388/.396 with High-A Visalia this season, and has 28 steals in 43 games. He was recently cleared to play after a wrist injury landed him on the injured list in May, and will rehab with the Arizona League Mariners beginning Thursday before, hopefully, joining High-A Modesto in the next week.
“Oddly enough he was the guy we were discussing with (the Diamondbacks earlier in the season),” Dipoto said. “We like Caballero. He’s an athletic guy, plays a good shortstop, gets on base and has hit at all the levels to this point.”
About two hours before the deadline, reports started flowing in about the five-player deal between the Mariners and Nationals.
“Really excited about all three of those arms,” Dipoto said of Seattle’s prospect return for Elias and Strickland.
Elias, who is 30 years old, was reportedly the first of the two relievers to be moved after posting a 4.40 ERA in 45 relief appearances with the Mariners this season, striking out 45 while walking 17, and notching 14 saves in 16 opportunities.
Strickland, also 30, was later looped into the deal. He made just four relief appearances with Seattle, earned two saves, and struck out three while allowing three earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings. A Grade 2 lat strain sent the right-hander to an extended stay on the injured list at the end of March. He returned to the bullpen last week.
For those two, Seattle got three minor league relievers in left-handers Taylor Guilbeau and Aaron Fletcher, and right-hander Elvis Alvarado. Guilbeau is the No. 15 prospect in the Nationals’ organization, while Fletcher is No. 21.
Guilbeau, who has been with Triple-A Fresno since June, has the best chance of the the three to make a quick impact for the Mariners.
“We feel like Taylor’s close to the big leagues,” Dipoto said. “He will pitch for us, barring anything unforeseen, at some point before the end of the 2019 season, whether that be in August or September.
“We’re going to let him get his feet on the ground in Tacoma and see where he is, but it’s a really good arm and it’s an explosive fastball.”
The 26-year-old has allowed five earned runs in seven appearances in the hitter-friendly PCL since being promoted to Triple-A Fresno three weeks ago with six strikeouts and five walks. He started the season in Double-A, and had a 2.57 ERA in 27 outings with 44 strikeouts to 10 walks.
Fletcher, who will report to Arkansas, could factor into Seattle’s big league roster in the next season or two after flying through Washington’s ranks in just his second season of professional baseball. He started this season in Low-A, was promoted to High-A less than two months later, and called up to Double-A Harrisburg two weeks ago.
Between the three levels this season, the 23-year-old has a 1.79 ERA in 32 outings and 69 strikeouts to just 15 walks. Dipoto said Fletcher will likely remain a multi-inning bullpen arm, but could be stretched back into a starter if needed.
Alvarado, who is 20, was originally signed by the Nationals as an outfielder, but has been converted into a relief pitcher, and has a 6.00 ERA with 19 strikeouts and 16 walks through seven games of rookie ball this season. He has a fastball that reaches 100 mph, and routinely touches 97-98 mph, Dipoto said. He will join the AZL Mariners for the remainder of 2019.
“He’s been pitching for a little over a year, I think, and he doesn’t yet have command of his weapons, but the weapons are significant,” Dipoto said. “We feel like he’s young enough, he’s athletic enough for us to really make a difference.”
Seattle opted not to use an opener ahead of LeBlanc for Wednesday night’s series finale against Texas after dealing a pair of relievers on the same day.
The Mariners did promote right-hander Zac Grotz from Double-A Arkansas. The 26-year-old has a 2.51 ERA in 26 games (six starts) with the Travelers, and 69 strikeouts to 11 walks. He will make his MLB debut with his first appearance, and could become the 60th player the Mariners use this season.
Gerson Bautista was also recalled from Tacoma to help fill out the bullpen. Seattle’s 40-man roster is at 37 players with the moves.
Dipoto said the Mariners had discussions about a “variety of players” leading up to the deadline, including some they did not trade.
Mariners outfielder Domingo Santana, now appearing exclusively as a designated hitter after aggravating his right elbow last week, reportedly had interest from both Cleveland and Tampa Bay in the past two days, but no deal for him came to fruition.
The only other trade Seattle made ahead of the deadline was to deal Kristopher Negron — who appeared in just 10 games with the Mariners this season after losing the utility battle to rookie Dylan Moore in the spring — to the Dodgers late Sunday. The Mariners received minor league infielder Daniel Castro, now with Triple-A Tacoma, in return. Negron homered in his first at-bat with L.A. Tuesday night.
As Dipoto reflected on the series of moves the Mariners have made in the past year to rebuild their farm system and eventually build a contender, he was confident in what’s to come.
“We understood that this is going to be a two-year process,” he said. “We’re almost halfway home and we feel like we’ve made great progress in laying a foundation. And, now we have a lot of work to do in continuing to develop these guys and identify where our needs are as we move forward, but we’re really happy with where it’s gone so far.”