As a youngster in Tacoma, Washington, about 45 minutes south of the Kingdome, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester grew up rooting for Hall of Fame center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. even more than the Mariners teams Griffey played on.
Griffey’s trade request and subsequent deal to the Reds before the 2000 season helped prepare Lester for the unsettling realities of the business of baseball – realities that Mariners fans continue to experience under current general manager Jerry Dipoto.
“As a kid, when your favorite player goes to another team, he’s still your favorite player but it’s not the same,” said Lester, who faces the Mariners on Wednesday in the finale of a two-game series. “Now that I’ve gotten older in this game and understand this, it’s easier to look back and see why guys leave, why guys stay or get traded. But as a fan, you’re heartbroken when it happens.”
Some Cubs fans might view management as loyal to a fault with some of its first-round picks who haven’t fulfilled their promise. But that faith beats the alternative of what Mariners followers have witnessed the past three seasons with a revolving roster.
In 2017, the Mariners used 61 players, including 40 pitchers and 17 who started at least one game. That activity was partly explained by 22 disabled-list transactions, but the whirlwind pace continued after a 2018 season in which the Mariners won 89 games – their most in 15 seasons.
In a six-week span from Nov. 8 to Dec. 21, the Mariners made eight trades. The deals included sending All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano and prized reliever Edwin Diaz to the Mets, pitcher James Paxton to the Yankees, shortstop Jean Segura to the Phillies and catcher and former first-round pick Mike Zunino to the Rays.
Dipoto and his staff have performed a constant high-wire act to try to compete in the American League West, which includes the two-time defending division champion Astros.
To Dipoto’s credit, some of his moves have paid off handsomely, such as acquiring All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger from the Diamondbacks and left fielder Domingo Santana from the Brewers. Receiving left-hander Marco Gonzales from the Cardinals (for outfielder Tyler O’Neill) and designated hitter Dan Vogelbach (whose path at first base was blocked by Anthony Rizzo) from the Cubs has provided timely help.
“It’s pretty amazing what they’re doing,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who pointed out that the Mariners (18-13) have succeeded despite the free-agent departure of Nelson Cruz, who hit 163 home runs and drove in 414 runs in four seasons in Seattle.
Outfielder Jarrod Dyson was happy just to get a chance to play for the Mariners in 2017 after getting squeezed out of playing time with the Royals.
“They make moves to better their team, and sometimes it works,” said Dyson, now in his second season with the Diamondbacks. “Sometimes it can bite you. But it’s baseball. It’s a business.”
The constant turnover can be unsettling for players. But the Mariners have learned to accept the transient nature, according to Dyson, who stole 28 bases and batted .251 in 111 games in 2017 before missing most of the final six weeks because of a right groin injury.
“You can’t get caught up in what the manager or GM thinks because you never know,” Dyson said.
After a hot start, the Mariners have lost 11 of 16 to slip behind the Astros and toward the rebuilding mode they embarked on after missing the playoffs for a 17th consecutive season.
“I don’t know if you ever know you’re going to be somewhere for a while,” said Lester, whom the Red Sox traded in mid-2014 to the Athletics before he signed a six-year deal with the Cubs. “You sign a deal, and even then, you can get traded out. When I got here, it was a push to win. So you knew for the most part guys were going to be here.
“It helps, especially for a young player knowing as long as they don’t screw up, they’re most likely going to be there. That continuity of having the same faces helps, not only for the players but the front office. You know what you’re going to get every year, as opposed to trading for new pieces or signing new pieces all the time when you don’t really know what that guy is going to bring to the table.”
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