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Mariners make an expensive move to bolster their rotation

Mike Leake delivers for the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of the Little League Classic baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa., Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. The Cardinals traded Leake to the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
Mike Leake delivers for the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of the Little League Classic baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa., Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. The Cardinals traded Leake to the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

Can Mike Leake plug a hole in the Mariners’ rotation? Not only now but for years to come?

Mired in a four-game skid that threatens their postseason aspirations, the Mariners acquired Leake on Wednesday from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for minor-league infielder Rayder Ascanio.

Leake, a 29-year-old right-hander, is 7-12 with a 4.21 ERA this season in 26 starts and currently battling to escape his own slump: 0-4 with an 8.31 ERA in his last six starts.

Even so, he represents an upgrade for a Mariners rotation that remains a patchwork mess while awaiting the return of James Paxton and Felix Hernandez from the disabled list.

“Mike gives us an experienced starter that will help us as we navigate our way towards a playoff spot this season,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “As one of the most durable starters over most of the last decade, he’ll be a valuable addition for not just the near future, but for seasons to come.”

Paxton and Hernandez are scheduled to begin bullpen workouts later this week, which points to a mid-September return as a best-case scenario. Paxton is recovering from a strained pectoral muscle, while Hernandez has bursitis in his shoulder.

The Mariners received $17 million from the Cardinals to help defray Leake’s contract, which runs through 2020, and $750,000 in international slot money in the deal, but it still represents an expensive gamble.

Leake is making $15 million this season and is under contract for three more years at a guaranteed $48 million with a mutual option for $18 million in 2021 that includes a $5 million buyout.

That means the Mariners are on the hook for roughly $38 million through 2020 even if they exercise the buyout. Leake signed a five-year deal with St. Louis for $80 million as a free agent on Dec. 22, 2015.

“The way we viewed it,” Dipoto said, “if Mike Leake is a 30-year-old free agent (in the coming offseason), and we were able to achieve this deal with him, we would be comfortable signing him to that contract.”

The Mariners showed interest in Leake before he signed with the Cardinals and, apparently, still like his upside potential. He is is healthy, still relatively young and, before his current slide, had a 3.20 ERA through 20 starts.

Leake is also on pace to reach 30 starts for a sixth straight season. He is 80-76 with a 4.02 ERA in 233 games over an eight-year career with Cincinnati, San Francisco and St. Louis. His recent slide wasn’t a deal-breaker.

“There’s enough history with Mike in this league to believe he’s just fine,” Dipoto said. “Nothing has changed significantly. He’s a ground-ball pitcher. He pitches to contact and generally has done a good job of keeping it in the ballpark.

“He’s an excellent athlete. Knock on wood for us, he’s been durable. He’s tracking his sixth consecutive 30-plus starts season. Mike gives you a chance to win games.”

The timing of the trade means Leake will be eligible for the Mariners’ postseason roster should they succeed in gaining a wild-card berth. Players must be in the organization prior to Sept. 1 in order to play in postseason.

The Mariners entered Wednesday’s game at Baltimore at 66-67 and trailing Minnesota by three games in the race for the American League’s final wild-card berth. They had 29 games remaining.

“We’ve always been pushing,” Dipoto said. “We’re trying to help. From ownership to the front office to staff in the clubhouse to the players, everybody here wants to wind up in the postseason.

“The American League, especially those wild-card positions, is wild open. There are eight teams within 3 1/2 games of those slots, and there’s a full month-plus left to play. Obviously, we’re one of them.

“Hopefully, Mike Leake helps push us in that direction.”

Leake’s last start was Aug. 26, which positions him to enter the Mariners’ rotation as soon as Friday’s series opener against Oakland at Safeco Field. Dipoto only confirmed Leake is tentatively scheduled to start at some point in the series.

Ascanio, 21, is a switch-hitting middle infielder whom the Mariners signed in 2012 as an international free agent. He is currently playing for Hi-A Modesto after opening the season at Lo-A Clinton and has a .217 average in 111 games.

This marks the second time in just over a month that the Mariners made a trade with St. Louis in an effort to bolster their rotation. They acquired lefty Marco Gonzales in a July 21 deal for minor-league outfielder Tyler O’Neill.

Gonzales is 0-1 with a 7.41 ERA in five starts since his Aug. 5 promotion from Triple-A Tacoma.