Long before your first spring-training stretching session, your general manager says that this is going to be a “step back” season for your team. He wants fans to know that the roster overhaul is going to make 2019 a slog, but that it was necessary for success in future years.
This is understandable. Baseball teams do this all the time. Still, when you’re in the middle of it — when you’ve lost 30 of your last 41, as the Mariners have done — can you really accept that your last-place standing is all just part of the plan? And might it be even harder when you have no idea if you’ll be part of the step forward?
This is what I asked several veterans in the Mariners’ clubhouse Monday. Their responses varied in tone and perspective. Some didn’t really want to talk about it. Others said they didn’t think about it much. And then there was starting pitcher Mike Leake, who was as candid as can be.
“I mean, if that’s your approach, and you have an idea of what you’re doing, and it’s an idea that’s moving in a positive direction, then I guess it’s all right,” said Leake when asked about GM Jerry Dipoto’s “step back” plan. ” But being a part of it from my point of view, it’s tough. I mean, there’s days where you wonder, if I’m not part of it, should you trade me to someone who wants me more? Or do you want — “what do you want here?” is kind of the question, but I don’t know.”
Leake, 31, has a five-year, $80 million contract that runs through 2020. Given where the younger players are in their development, it seems unlikely Seattle will blossom into a playoff contender by then.
Boo hoo for the vets? Of course not. They’re all getting massive amounts to play a game, which Leake understands. Still, a will to win is part of the reason MLB players rise to the levels they do, which is why some Mariners might feel trapped.
“I think it’s a matter of just putting your head down and continuing to do the work and if they ask you for things you give and take a little bit,” Leake said. “When they announce that they’re going to go full rebuild and then we’re in the situation we’re in — it definitely is not a situation that’s good for both sides, I guess you could say.”
It’s hard to know if Leake is speaking for anybody beyond himself. Nobody else I talked with Monday gave answers resembling his. Most essentially said the same thing — that a GM’s approach has no bearing on their mindset.
“What are we going to come in here and say, ‘OK guys, this is a step-back year, we’re just gonna take it easy?’ I don’t think that’s the case at all,” said outfielder/first baseman Jay Bruce. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to it honestly. You could spend energy on it, or feel bad about it, or be mad about it, or have a chip on your shoulder about it, but it doesn’t do you any good.”
“It’s baseball. Struggling is a part of it,” added center fielder Mallex Smith. “I pay little to no mind to what the front office says about what the year is supposed to be. All I know is we got 25-plus guys in here grinding our tails off.”
Infielder Tim Beckham was particularly succinct: “When you play some winning baseball, losing is not fun. I mean, all the other stuff, the front office controls it. I can’t control it.”
Fellow infielder Ryon Healy didn’t dive too deep, either. “I don’t have many thoughts on that, quite frankly. As a player, you gotta have a simple mindset. Prepare to win. That’s our goal every single day. I don’t think it’s our job to have the business mentality of what we’re doing.”
This was the consensus response around the clubhouse Monday, but it also was the expected response. It’s possible that Leake’s thoughts do echo that of other Mariners.
There wasn’t malice in his voice. He didn’t seem as though he has been punching a lot of inanimate objects lately. He just felt like the filter-less approach to these questions was the best approach.
Is this a topic of conversation among other veterans on the team?
“Um, I mean, we’re not happy” Leake said. “It’s tough when you work to get, you work to try and establish a career, but when team goals are different than that, or they’re against that grain, it’s difficult to establish yourself and become a professional and have a career.”
When you say guys aren’t happy, do you mean with how you’re playing or…
“How you’re playing,” he said. “It usually makes it worse. It magnifies it. That’s why it’s never good to go on streaks that we’re going on. Maybe we could get back to what we were at the beginning but it’s tough to say, especially where we’re at today. But when you’re kind of veterans left in the dark, it’s tough to know how to lead.”
Hey, Dipoto warned of this months ago. This had the potential to be a long season.
Longer for some, it seems, than others.