The calls and text messages kept pinging Jerry Dipoto’s phone in the days leading up to the 2020 MLB trade deadline. Each time he responded the same way to San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller:

No. No. No.

“I must’ve told A.J. ‘no’ 10 times,” Dipoto remembered this week.

That is the origin of the best trade Dipoto has made — and probably will ever make — as the Seattle Mariners general manager. It wasn’t his idea, and he did not want to do it at first.

That’s how much both sides valued Austin Nola.

At the time, the Mariners had identified Nola, a 30-year-old catcher, as a trusted leader who could help the team’s emerging young core navigate the ups and downs of a rebuild. Plus, Nola was having a breakthrough offensively to open the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, hitting .303 with a .903 OPS in the first 29 games.

“We loved Austin,” Dipoto said.

Preller did too, and the Padres were desperate to fill a hole at catcher while hoping to end an agonizing playoff drought of their own.

Advertising

A couple days before the deadline, Preller called Dipoto again.

“Tell me what it’s going to take,” Preller told him. “We are willing to do something that will shock you.”

Preller’s persistence wore down Dipoto, paving the way for a layered nine-player deal that, two years later, is as important as any single move in the Mariners’ pursuit of their first postseason berth since 2001.

“It’s really tough to say that it wasn’t the most transformational part of our rebuild,” Dipoto said.

***

The tap on Ty France’s shoulder came in the middle of the sixth round of the Padres’ team fantasy football draft.

It was a Sunday evening, Aug. 30, 2020, and Padres players were huddled in a conference room at the team hotel in Denver. A few hours earlier, the Padres had wrapped up a 13-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field; France had one hit and one walk in what would turn out to be his final game in a Padres uniform.

As he crossed off names of NFL players selected in the fantasy draft on a packet of papers, France ignored the first tap on his shoulder. A second tap from then-Padres manager Jayce Tingler finally got France’s attention. That’s when France knew something was up.

Advertising

France and Luis Torrens followed Tingler up to the manager’s room, and from there they called Preller, who delivered the news: France and Torrens had been traded to the Mariners.

Over the next 24 hours, the full shape of the trade-deadline deal came to light, with the Mariners sending Nola and three right-handed relief pitchers (Austin Adams, Dan Altavilla and Taylor Williams) to the Padres for five players: France, Torrens, outfield prospect Taylor Trammell and two young relief pitchers, Andrés Muñoz and Matt Brash.

“A wild experience,” France said. “The hard part was actually going back down and having to finish the (fantasy) draft.”

France co-managed that fantasy team with teammates Greg Garcia and Trent Grisham. The move to Seattle meant France was, in effect, traded off two teams — the Padres and the fantasy team.

France had been a part-time player for the Padres, blocked at third base by Manny Machado and at first base by Eric Hosmer. The Padres will tell you they adored France — a Los Angeles-area native who attended San Diego State and had a feel-good rise through the minors after the Padres took him in the 34th round of the 2015 draft — but there just wasn’t a regular role for him in their lineup at the time.

Over the previous couple years, the Mariners analytics department had regularly flagged France as a prospect to watch, and Dipoto has said the front office worked through a number of in-house iterations of potential trades for France.

Advertising

Now this was their chance. And after the initial shock of the trade, France said he recognized that this was his chance to earn a full-time major league job. 

“It’s been a blessing to be here and get that everyday opportunity,” France said.

France, 28, has been the Mariners starting first baseman the past two seasons and was an All-Star for the first time this summer.

“A foundational player for us,” Dipoto called him.

With 20 games left in the season, the Mariners (80-62) have a 99.7% chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Assuming they do make it, France, no doubt, will play first and bat second in the club’s first postseason game in 21 years.

And he is under club control for four more seasons.

***

It was a deal that perhaps only these two madcap general managers could have conjured up. They are as active as any executives in baseball, and Preller proved that again this summer in a historic trade that brought Juan Soto to San Diego.

“I do have a great relationship with A.J.,” Dipoto said. “We’re a very aggressive group. They are a very aggressive group. … For us, that was a relationship deal. We knew what they were trying to do, and they knew the position we were in.”

Sponsored

In their talks, Preller pretty quickly agreed to include France and Trammell, a top-100 prospect at the time. Torrens soon entered the picture, a catcher the Mariners saw as a potential replacement for Nola.

Negotiations stalled when the Mariners asked for Muñoz, then a 21-year-old right-hander who had a 103 mph fastball but was five months into his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Eventually, Preller agreed on Muñoz, a piece Dipoto felt strongly at the time could make this a “home run” trade for the Mariners.

When he was notified of the trade, Muñoz was at his apartment in Peoria, Arizona, where he had been working with Padres trainers on his post-surgery rehab. The Mariners and Padres share a spring-training facility in Peoria, and Mariners staffers helped Muñoz move his stuff from one side of the complex to the other.

“The only emotion I had at the time was surprise,” he said through interpreter Freddy Llanos. “I didn’t expect someone would trade me during rehab.”

Now in his first full season with the Mariners, Muñoz has indeed been a home run, emerging as one of the best relievers in the majors this season, with a fastball that’s touched 103 and a slider that might be the best pitch in the game.

Advertising

Muñoz struck out two Padres in the ninth inning on Wednesday to wrap up a 6-1 victory at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners beat the Padres three out of four games this season.

The Padres did make the postseason in 2020 — ending a 14-year drought — and they are in the hunt again in the National League wild-card chase, with Nola as their part-time catcher.

***

The Mariners had no clue what they were getting in Brash.

The Padres didn’t know what they were giving up, either.

That component of the trade was technically a separate transaction — Brash was the player to be named later for Williams — but they were borne out of the same conversations. Preller had asked for Williams as part of the Nola package, but Dipoto balked.

Preller called back the next day, Aug. 31, about 30 minutes before the trade deadline. He told Dipoto he had to have Williams, a 29-year-old journeyman reliever whom the Mariners had claimed off waivers six months earlier.

Advertising

So Dipoto huddled with his baseball operations team, poured through data they had on Padres’ prospects and then threw a few names at Preller. Preller said no to the first three. That’s when Joel Firman, the Mariners director of baseball analytics, suggested Brash, whose spin-rate data looked at least a little intriguing.

Problem was, the Mariners had very little information on the pitcher. A 2019 fourth-round pick from tiny Niagara University in New York, Brash had thrown just 71 pitches as a professional for San Diego’s rookie and Low-A teams in 2019, before he was shut down with a sore arm. Brash did not throw a competitive pitch at any level in 2020. He was a mystery.

Preller signed off on Brash just a few minutes before the deadline. The Mariners didn’t even have a chance to check on his medical evaluations before completing the deal.

“Our thought was, ‘Let’s shoot for a lottery ticket we could maybe hit on,’” Dipoto said.

Brash spent much of 2020 back on campus at Niagara, living with his former teammates while completing the final five credits for his undergraduate degree in sports management.

“I was confused at first,” Brash said. “But once I got to the Mariners, I saw it was a great opportunity. It was like a reset for me. It was almost like a tryout my first year. They weren’t really sure what I was going to be, and I was trying to prove myself. But I feel like that was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”

Advertising

Brash was enamored with the data the Mariners presented him on the shape and spin of pitches.

“Matt was an unbelievable student,” Dipoto said. “His aptitude to pick up how his pitches moved, what they did, how we were going to reshape them — he bought into all of that immediately.”

Brash is now one of the best swing-and-miss pitchers out of the Mariners’ bullpen — another young arm who could be a real factor in the postseason, and beyond.

The trade just keep getting better.

“Sometimes,” Dipoto said, “you gotta get lucky.”

***

This means WAR

All five players the Mariners acquired from San Diego at the 2020 trade deadline have contributed to the Mariners’ playoff pursuit this season. Only one of the four players the M’s sent to San Diego is still on the Padres’ active roster. A look at the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value of each player since the start of the 2021 season:

Mariners

Ty France, 1B (7.0 WAR): The centerpiece of the deal coming back to Seattle, France was a first-time All-Star this season and has been a mainstay in the middle of the lineup.

Andrés Muñoz, RP (1.1 WAR): One of the most electric arms in baseball, Munoz has been a revelation out of Seattle’s bullpen.

Advertising

Luis Torrens, C (0.6 WAR): After a breakthrough 2021, Torrens struggled with the M’s this season and was sent down to Class AAA Tacoma in August.

Matt Brash, RHP (0.2 WAR): The wild card in the trade, Brash has emerged as a dependable swing-and-miss arm out of the M’s bullpen, posting a 1.52 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 23.2 innings since July 9.

Taylor Trammell, OF (0.1 WAR): A top-100 prospect at the time of the trade, the 25-year-old has bounced between Seattle and Tacoma the past year while battling through a hamstring injury earlier this season.

Total WAR: 9.0

Padres

Austin Nola, C (2.1 WAR): The 32-year-old catcher has battled injuries the past two seasons but remains a productive part-time starter behind the plate for a San Diego team in the playoff hunt.

Austin Adams, RP (0.3 WAR): A steady presence in the San Diego bullpen last year, Adams is now recovering from surgery on his right forearm.

Dan Altavilla, RP (0.2 WAR): The 30-year-old Altavilla pitched just 10 innings for the Padres in 2020-21 before having Tommy John surgery in June 2021. Boston signed him to a minor-league deal in March.

Taylor Williams, RP (0.2 WAR): The 30-year-old Camas native is back in the Mariners organization, after appearing in just six games for San Diego.

Total WAR: 2.8

Note: WAR calculations via Baseball Reference.