The biggest headline in the Seattle Mariners' season came May 15, when second baseman Robinson Cano received an 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's joint drug agreement. General manager Jerry Dipoto has been around long enough, as both a player and an executive, to understand the impact a setback of that magnitude can have on a team's season.
"I thought it would go one of two ways," Dipoto said. "We would either slide, or it would be a galvanizing moment. To the credit of people in that clubhouse, and [manager] Scott Servais and the coaching staff, they all pulled together and took the situation and made the best of it. In the three years I've been here -- and the faces have changed quite a bit -- this team plays together as well as any team I've been with."
The Mariners are 42-24 and making an early run at their first postseason appearance since 2001, thanks in part to resourcefulness and a knack for winning the close ones. Their plus-22 run differential is 12th-best in the majors, but they have the third-best record because they're 21-9 in one-run games and 6-0 in extra innings.
The Mariners are competing with Houston for first place in the American League West even though Cano is out, third base man Kyle Seager is hitting 225 with a .277 on-base percentage and longtime ace Felix Hernandez has a 5.70 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP in 14 starts. They're benefiting from several moves authored by Dipoto, who has earned a reputation as one of the most active and aggressive traders in the game.
With the Mariners entering a pivotal stretch of 13 consecutive games against the Angels, Red Sox and Yankees, Dipoto took a breath and shared his thought process on five transactions that have helped the Mariners emerge as one of baseball's 2018 feel-good stories.
The impact: Segura leads MLB shortstops with 91 hits. He ranks second with 18 doubles and 14 stolen bases and is fourth at the position with 2.4 WAR. Haniger has a .263/.345/.488 slash line and a 1.9 WAR, and he ranks among MLB's top right fielders with a plus-6 defensive runs saved.
Marte is hitting .238 with a .687 OPS for the Diamondbacks. Walker will miss the rest of this season and a significant portion of next year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April.
Dipoto's take: "One of the things we talked about a lot in 2016 was the need to get younger and more athletic and do things differently than our competitors to create something of a competitive advantage. If we all go buy the same bats, who's going to hit better? We determined that we wanted to build to a more athletic team, stressing outfield defense and athleticism, and we were looking for hitters first and power second. That led us to a lot of decisions we made through a two-year evolution of our roster. We did make a ton of trades, and some worked out better than others.
"In the case of Haniger and Segura, we were gearing toward, 'Let's try to load up the bullpen as best we can, control the strike zone on the pitcher's mound and win games with an athletic group of players.' Jean and Mitch both fit that criteria.
"Jean was terrific with the Diamondbacks in 2016, and our guys were sold. We believed he could move back to shortstop, which was his career-long position. I had the added benefit of having had Jean in the minor leagues in Anaheim, so I knew the person a little bit. He's a really good athlete, and he takes his job seriously and he cares. I think we put him in an environment that's good for him, with people around him who've brought the best out of Jean, and vice versa. He has blossomed not just on the field -- which I think began before he came to Seattle -- but in the clubhouse. He's evolved personally.
"Mitch has always had the ability to impact a game. The people who had him in Arizona, and the coaches who were around him, all saw that quality. But when you have an outfield as talented as theirs was at the time, he really didn't have a spot, and that allowed for a little gap for us to come in and maybe sneak him out.
"What always resonates with me is something I was taught very early in my executive and scouting career. John Hart was my general manager when I first came to the big leagues with the Indians in the '90s. When I finished up as a player and I was working in scouting with the Rockies and Red Sox, John told me, 'I'm going to give you one bit of advice. When you go out and you're watching players who aren't rising to the top of the prospect food chain but have a first or second round next to their draft status, look twice. Even if that player is struggling, look twice, because somebody along the way saw a quality in this player to believe he was one of best 50-60 players in the country.' A lot of the players we've acquired fit in that category. It's a wise baseball thought.
"Mitch is a pro in everything he does. It's the way he prepares every day. It's the way he plays defense and runs the bases. He knows how to play the game. I don't know if we could have expected him to be as good as he's been, but since he's been with the Mariners, he's put up about an .850 OPS and been a five-tool guy for us in every way. Maybe most importantly, he's driving in runs, and they're big runs. Mitch has had a knack for getting big hits for us ever since we got him."
The impact: Gordon began the season playing a new position in center field, then returned to second base when Cano went on the suspended list. He's slumped in June after a fast start and his on-base percentage has dropped to .296, but he leads the majors with 19 stolen bases.
Dipoto's take: "Dee is only 30 years old, and he's a young 30. He's a live-bodied guy and one of best runners in the league. He turned himself into a Gold Glove winner at second base after a position shift there. All we did in center field was move him further back, but he's seeing the ball at the same angles. Our initial thought was, 'Let's bet on the athlete and what we know to be a really strong work ethic, and the fact that maybe he's invigorated by playing on what we think is a pretty good team.'
"He's given us much more than we bargained for. The person has impacted our team as much as any trade we've made. He's just a terrific guy who's very high-energy. He cares about teammates and he works hard, and he creates such an electric feel to the game every time he steps on the field. I think our fans have embraced him. He's very popular in the clubhouse, and the coaching staff loves him. Very quickly he became not just a catalyst for our lineup, but sort of a catalyst for our team. His energy level has taken what I think was a very good group of guys and brought them to the next level.
"I don't want to short-sell what he's doing on the field. He gets on base. He's leading the league in steals. He's going to hit .300. That's what he does. But it's more the quality of what he's done overall. For a guy who doesn't have gaudy power, every time he's coming around in the order you get a sense the other team knows where he is. Whether he's two hitters away or on deck, there's an understanding that if Dee winds up on first base, it can really change the way the game goes. It's similar to what the biggest sluggers will do just by hitting the ball over the fence. He creates such a distraction for the opponent, and I think it's an advantage for us as a result.
"We wanted to push the envelope and play more that old National League style, where we moved the ball and we could run and get on base and effectively set up our sluggers in the middle of our lineup. It's been fun to watch because it is a little different than what the norm has become. We don't have a lot of guys who go up there and grind out walks, but we do have guys who go up there and hit. They put the ball in play and move it around the field. We're generally a tougher team to shift against, and we really didn't give up a lot of power to do that."
The impact: Gonzales, who underwent an elbow reconstruction in April 2016, returned last August and logged a 5.40 ERA in 10 appearances. In 13 starts this season, he's 7-3 with a 3.28 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP and a 1.5 WAR.
O'Neill appeared in 16 games for St. Louis earlier this season. He homered in three straight games in May before striking out 13 times in a stretch of 19 at-bats. The Cardinals optioned him to Triple-A Memphis on May 31.
Dipoto's take: "We've tracked Marco for years -- since he was in high school, through the draft and at Gonzaga. When you talk about guys who are accomplished, this guy was the best high school pitcher in the state of Colorado. He was a four-time state champion. He was a winner. He did all the things you could do. He went on to college and he was one of the best pitchers in the country. He was an All-American and a two-way player. He blew through the minors in about 150 innings and he got to the big leagues and was pitching in the postseason at 22 years old. And then due to reasons outside of his control, he winds up injured and has a Tommy John.
"Marco never struggled in his life. He just got hurt. He always carried a strikeout rate above 8. For all of I've heard of Marco Gonzalez as a 'soft tosser,' he generally pitches at 90-91 and he'll hit 93-94 at times. He's athletic, he has a full pitch menu and he's always thrown strikes. For us, the only roll of the dice was, 'Is he going to return to full health?'
"The biggest thing with Marco -- like we talked about with Dee Gordon and Mitch Haniger -- is the makeup. He's the son of a coach and he grew up in professional ball, so to speak. It's about as good a pedigree as you can get in a young pitcher; Marco generally stays composed. He's gonna have bad days like everybody else has, but he gets back up off the mat. I don't know if Marco is an All-Star or if he's going to contend for a Cy Young. But I do know that winning teams have guys like Marco Gonzales helping them across the bridge."
The deal: On March 25, the Mariners signed pitcher Wade LeBlanc to a $650,000 major league contract after he was released by the New York Yankees. It was the third time Dipoto has acquired LeBlanc in a transaction during his tenure as a big-league GM.
The impact: LeBlanc doesn't pitch very deep into games, but the Mariners won six of his first eight starts after inserting him into the rotation May 3. As Dipoto points out, LeBlanc has posted an 11-3 record, a 3.83 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.49-1 in the majors dating back to 2014.
Dipoto's take: "At the end of the spring, we were looking for that versatile swing guy in our bullpen who might be able to step in as the sixth starter. Wade is a mature pitcher who knows who he is. He doesn't try to do more than he's capable of, and he gives you a chance to win almost every time he's out there.
"He's actually been quite good dating back to 2014, but because he doesn't throw hard, he generally flies under the radar. I know the media here have a history with guys like this because of Jamie Moyer. There's an argument to be made that Wade has generally been this good for quite some time. He just has a tough time staying on a roster, because nobody truly buys in because of the velocity. We kind of embrace it. He's an easy guy to root for."
The deal: On May 25, the Mariners used the $11 million in salary that they saved from Cano's suspension to acquire outfielder Denard Span and reliever Alex Colome from the Tampa Bay Rays for pitchers Andrew Moore and Tommy Romero.
The impact: Span logged a .316/.366/.526 slash line in his first 11 games with Seattle. Colome threw four shutout innings as a Mariner before looking shaky in a weekend series at Tampa Bay.
Dipoto's take: "It's one of those 'when life gives you lemons' type of deals. You try to make lemonade. We had a lot of internal meetings, and a couple of our young analysts came up with a variety of scenarios in which we may be able to answer two questions on our roster in one deal. That was our goal going in. We were going to try to maximize our returns and effectively repurpose the payroll wisely.
"Most people thought we might gear ourselves toward adding a second baseman or a starting pitcher, but we thought the way to make the greatest impact was to add another high-end arm to the bullpen and bring some versatility to our lineup. Denard is so experienced all over the field, and the makeup is so well-regarded. When you're playing well, you want to make sure you maintain a strong clubhouse balance, and Denard is fantastic in the room.
"The high appeal in the trade for us was picking up Colome -- not just for this year, but for the next two as well. We have what we think are two of the best closers in the American League pitching the eighth and ninth inning for us. We're not asking our starters to give us seven-eight innings every night, and now we know we can shorten the game and make them better. It's a very short sample size, but so far the trade is working just like we hoped it would.
"Metrics matter, and we look at them in every single thing we do. But the first and last thing we talk about is the person. Does this person fit in our clubhouse? While we're certainly willing to give guys a second chance and take some risk in what we're putting into the clubhouse, now is not that time. We have a really good group of guys who are pulling together in a way that good teams pull together, and we don't want to be disruptive. They all fit so well together, we don't want to throw a rock in the pond. We want to give them every advantage we possibly can."