The M’s Should Sell Brandon League Soon

Dave · May 11, 2012 at 11:02 am · Filed Under Mariners 

The Mariners are going to be sellers this year – that’s been obvious since day one. They’re rebuilding around young players, and they aren’t legitimate contenders, so guys who aren’t going to be part of the long term future here probably won’t spend the whole year in Seattle. The team has two obvious trading chips that other teams would likely be willing to give up something of value to obtain – Brandon League and Jason Vargas.

Vargas is pitching well and likely has helped his stock a little bit with his strong early performances, but at the same time, the Mariners aren’t really in a position where they should be looking to punt one of their two quality starting pitchers. Besides Felix, Vargas is the only guy in the rotation that isn’t a significant risk for a disaster start, and the team doesn’t have anyone who could step in and take his place without making the team significantly worse. Holding onto Vargas for another month or two in order to give Hultzen and Paxton more time to get their command in order is probably in everyone’s best interests, and another 5-10 strong starts could continue to help contenders see Vargas as a legitimate quality starter for the stretch run.

However, with Brandon League, the situation is quite a bit different. While his 2.25 ERA and 8 saves have retained his shiny Proven Closer label, he isn’t throwing the ball all that well right now. His trademark two-seam fastball last year averaged 96.4 MPH, and he regularly topped out between 96-98 with it. This year, his sinker is averaging 95.1 MPH, and he’s rarely cracking 96. As Felix is currently demonstrating, velocity isn’t everything, but League doesn’t have Felix’s off-speed stuff. He needs his fastball to help him get ahead of hitters so he can put them away with a splitter in the dirt, and he relies on the power sinker in order to generate a lot of ground balls.

Right now, League’s fastball isn’t helping him do either of those things. His GB% stands at just 46.8%, well below last year’s 57.1% mark and even further from his career 60.7% ground ball rate. He’s not trading grounders for swinging strikes, either, as opposing batters are making contact 83.2 percent of the time they swing, well above his 77.6 percent career rate. He hasn’t posted a contact rate this high since 2008 – the year he spent half the season in Triple-A and only threw 33 innings in the big leagues.

It’s still early, and we’re only dealing with 231 pitches, so all of this could just be a short blip that requires a small adjustment and League could get right back on track. However, League hasn’t had the kind of high profile meltdown that can come with these kinds of struggles and quickly erase a pitcher’s reputation for being a shutdown ninth inning guy. Within the first month of the season, we’ve already seen Heath Bell, Carlos Marmol, and Javy Guerra demoted from the closer’s role, and a bunch of other teams are hunting for bullpen reinforcements because of the struggles of their own ninth inning guys. The line between being a Proven Closer and a heart-attack-waiting-to-happen is smaller than people are willing to admit. It wouldn’t take much for League to move from one category to the other, and with the way he’s throwing right now, it’s more likely than the Mariners should be comfortable with.

There’s a market for relief pitchers right now. Very few are for sale, and pretty much every contending club in baseball is shopping for bullpen help. The Padres just flipped Ernesto Frieri – an extreme flyball setup man who had made his living in the best pitcher’s park on the planet – for a couple of interesting pieces, and he’s not seen as an elite caliber reliever. If the Mariners made League available right now, they’d have significant leverage, and could probably garner a pretty solid return even without waiting until the July trading frenzy.

The other part of this coin is that, for the Mariners, League is easily expendable. Tom Wilhelmsen has been terrific in the 8th inning role, and he has both closer stuff and a legitimate future in this organization. Meanwhile, Steve Delbar has been a surprising revelation as a power setup man, running up a 20/3 K/BB ratio in 16 inning so far this season. Likewise, Shawn Kelley has looked strong since giving up the HR to Yoenis Cespedes in Japan, and his fastball is back in the 92-94 range, a good sign for his ability to handle the seventh or eighth inning if needed.

And, down on the farm, the Mariners have several power bullpen arms knocking on the door. Earlier in the week, they promoted Stephen Pryor from Jackson to Tacoma after he ran a 24/5 K/BB ratio in Double-A, and he’s whiffed five of the first 11 batters he’s faced in Triple-A since being challenged with better competition. Pryor’s fastball has been clocked in the 99-100 MPH range multiple times, and like Delebar and Wilhelmsen, his power fastball sets up hitters and he can put them away with a strong breaking ball. Pryor could easily step into the 6th-7th inning role while he gets his feet wet in the majors, and his stuff should allow him to transition to the big leagues with ease. Back in Jackson, 2011 third round pick Carter Capps is still blowing hitters away as well, and he could easily spend the second half of the year in Seattle.

Put simply, the Mariners don’t need Brandon League. Their bullpen will be just fine without him, and he’s a piece that they could extract a real return for, especially when other teams are shopping for bullpen help and few teams are selling. With League throwing in a way that suggests that he might not be able to keep getting easy saves against better opponents, it makes sense to move League sooner than later rather than risking a meltdown that could put his Proven Closer label at risk.

If I’m Jack Z, I’m making Brandon League available right now, and telling prospective bidders that I’m going to be aggressive in making a deal, so they should bring an offer that allows a deal to be completed in the next 3-5 days. The Mariners should strike while the iron is hot. The time to move League is now.


69 Responses to “The M’s Should Sell Brandon League Soon”

  1. G-Man on May 11th, 2012 3:32 pm

    Totally agree on trading League. Closers are overvalued and the bullpen players Dave named are solid.

    Paul D said a lot that I agree with:

    “As to Vargas, there’s less of a hurry since he is arb eligible next year and isn’t a free agent until 2014.

    I’m not sure I’d be looking to trade him this year unless someone made an offer that couldn’t be refused.”

    We have to have some semblance of a starting rotation, or pretty soon they’ll only be able to sell tickets on Felix Day. If they get nothing more in quality that the guys they got for Fister, it isn’t worth it. And don’t tell me that the Three Arms Of The Future are all going to be in the rotation next April.

    “Part of that is my hope that the Mariners can compete for a wild card spot next year.”

    Well, we can hope for that. The Mariners need to field a team that has some chance at it, or thousands more will become Sounders fans instead.

  2. Adam S on May 11th, 2012 4:09 pm

    In addition to the risk of blowing up and losing the proven closer tag, League loses value even if he pitches well. Unless he somehow pitches lights out insane.

    League is worth about .05 W/week (point is the same even if you think he’s worth more). Every week that goes by the team acquiring him is getting a little bit less.

    Move him now, tell the fans you want to give Luetge, Wilhelmsen, and Delabar in an expanded role. The fans won’t care.

  3. Johnny Slick on May 11th, 2012 4:49 pm

    While true, Adam, I’m not sure that teams think that way. They’re just as likely to worry about whether or not they’re signing a guy to help them contend in a year where they aren’t actually going to contend. I mean, if I were the Angels that would be the first thing on my mind. Granted, the Angels have not proven to be the brightest light of reason in the major leagues recently.

  4. MrZDevotee on May 11th, 2012 6:13 pm

    “At least I was only ‘acting pretentious,’ which seems better than actually being pretentious.” -TheMedia, May 11, 2012

    “We mainly criticize in others what we dislike about ourselves…” – chuang tzu, circa 300 B.C.

  5. MrZDevotee on May 11th, 2012 6:15 pm

    Dave said:
    “Besides Felix, Vargas is the only guy in the rotation that isn’t a significant risk for a disaster start”

    Whoops, Webster’s lists that very same sentence as the first definiton of “jinx”. (Crosses fingers)

  6. ppl on May 12th, 2012 12:27 am

    I agree with trade League ASAP and Vargas is the best mid-season player to deal off. I will be looking forwards to the returns they will get out it. I am Not looking forward to the irrational fan reactions to the deals. And worst of all is the usual jumping to conclusions about the merits of the deals based on small samples, but it happens all the time.

  7. SonOfZavaras on May 12th, 2012 1:40 am

    The Dodgers have ex-Mariner James Baldwin’s kid (also named James Baldwin) in the minors- he’s a toolsy lefty hitter with centerfield possibilities.

    He’s a kid I wouldn’t mind having in our organization.

    Frankly, we could use some beefing up in the centerfield/speed prospects all across our minor league affiliates.

    League to the Dodgers for Baldwin and a AA-level arm. I think I pull the trigger.

  8. goat on May 12th, 2012 9:24 am

    Theoretically, trading League to the Angels makes a lot of sense, as they need bullpen help and have lots of position players that could be starters who aren’t getting enough playing time. I don’t particularly like Trumbo, with the sub 300 OBP last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if last year will be his best year, and I’m not convinced he’s that much better than someone like Liddi or Carp, actually. Obviously a straight up trade for Bourjos is ridiculous, but the Angels do appear to be shopping him, and I think we could put some sort of package together that includes other players they might be interested in.

    I don’t see the wisdom in criticizing Dave regarding his proposed Pineda/Votto trade, as what did end up happening was remarkably similar.


  9. JoshJones on May 12th, 2012 10:25 am

    League to the dodgers? They finally gave kenley Jensen the closer tag. He was stuck behind Javy Guerra who has no business closing games. They don’t need league, Jensen might have the best stuff of any closer in the league.

  10. themedia on May 12th, 2012 11:10 am


    The problem with your long post wasn’t that it didn’t have statistics, it was that, as far as I could tell, it didn’t have a point.

    If I were hard-pressed to do so, I’d identify the closest thing to a point in that post as your observation that some people (who don’t understand how to value relief pitchers) would interpret the trade as giving up on the 2012 season. Which is surely true! But so what? People interpret things stupidly all the time. A general manager can’t do his job if he’s hamstrung from making moves by this possibility. And, to state the obvious, this is a fairly minor move; not the sort of thing that has any real chance of impacting attendance. I don’t care how low information fans, or fans with a poor understanding of player value, evaluate personnel moves. You seem to, but I have no idea why, because you don’t give a reason.”

    I’m sympathetic to this reaction. I like that you looked for a point even thought you didn’t find the one that I was trying to identify. Your confusion was likely a result of two things: 1. Bad writing. 2. Bad reading.

    Number one is 100 percent my fault, but my raison d’etre was a pretty simple one: the acknowledgment of external factors in front office decisions is important. We tend to dismiss it out of hand on this blog as “stupid” (your word choice), and I suppose you and Dave don’t think that’s a problem. I can see why. I tend to agree to a point. Issues like fan perception, ownership perception, etc. arise from a critical perspective that we might call “ignorant” and “stupid.” Libertarians definitely would do that. Just kidding, libertarians. Some things are jokes at your expense. That was a digression, but my point there was that we tend to dismiss a lot of things that aren’t things we call rational or statistically measurable.

    On the other hand, I might point out that the 2012 Seattle Mariners have been constructed using a lot of metrics that we advocate. Dave identified John Jaso as an easily acquirable but valuable piece a long time ago, for example. The rotation seems to have been constructed using PITCHF/x, FIP, etc. Or, at least, we have several players who do well when measured using stats that might be peripheral to some clubs and certainly are peripheral to casual baseball fans.

    And here we are, struggling as an organization. Cutting loose Brandon League would likely hurt our 2012 organization. Dave has pointed out, and I think he’s right, that League could probably only fetch a marginal, young prospect. We can all agree that he’s worth that in the long term, and we’re all going to be Mariners fans no matter what. Trade him. Keep him. Doesn’t matter.

    I do think cutting League loose would cause even more people in Seattle to grumble. Maybe we don’t care about that, because it’s “stupid” and “ignorant.” I think it’s a perspective we should acknowledge. At the least, I think it’s a perspective we should acknowledge Z as acknowledging. Now *that’s* bad writing.

  11. djw on May 13th, 2012 9:20 am

    Cutting loose Brandon League would likely hurt our 2012 organization.

    As Dave points out in this post, we have a number of talented relievers, and League is showing some unfortunate trends and it probably pitching over his head right now. There’s no particular reason to think this will cost the team significantly. Furthermore, the rest of your comments seem to suggest your point is about the degree to which incorrect perceptions by other people (fans, I presume, but you’re still not being entirely clear about this) can (and should? You’re not clear here either) constrain a general manager. But here you seem to be saying you agree with those incorrect perceptions.

    I do think cutting League loose would cause even more people in Seattle to grumble. Maybe we don’t care about that, because it’s “stupid” and “ignorant.”

    I’m not interesting in insulting casual fans or doing things to spite them. That they’re incorrect about how to understand the value of relievers reveals nothing about their intelligence, to state the obvious. Most fans are casual; they use their brains for other (probably more productive and sensible) pursuits. So enough with that strawman please.

    But your position seems to be that a GM ought to cater to the whims of these fans when making personnel moves. This is a terrible way to run an organization (any kind of organization, not just a baseball team). To be clear, we shouldn’t care about it because a) it’s a persistent feature of trades in major league baseball that some fans will grumble, and b) it doesn’t have tangible negative effects. Look, to state the obvious: you get more value when you trade high than when you trade low. But fans like players who are doing well. Therefore fans will be more annoyed when players who are doing well are traded. Catering to the kind of casual fan whims you suggest would mean taking a distinctly suboptimal approach to personnel moves that a good GM can’t afford to take.

    At the least, I think it’s a perspective we should acknowledge Z as acknowledging

    You’re asking us to acknowledge something there’s no evidence for, other than your hunch. I’ll acknowledge it’s possible, if you’ll admit you have no idea if it’s true. You can’t peer into Zdurencik’s brain any more than I can. Furthermore, we are talking about a GM who has already traded a popular, successful closer once, so there’s that.

  12. themedia on May 13th, 2012 10:34 am

    “’ll acknowledge it’s possible, if you’ll admit you have no idea if it’s true.”

    Of course I don’t!

    The rest of your points are salient ones. I’m trying to emphasize the line Z has to toe rather than the legitimacy of that line, so when you undermine that line, you’re kind of talking past my point.

    Broadly, I’m trying to suggest that the reason Dave et al. often propose moves that have almost no possibility of happening (although I’m not sure the post about League is in that category; it’s close, anyway) is that this line exists. We are very often right about valuing performance, but we are very often wrong about what is going to happen. That seems kind of strange, yes?

    Remember that time Z said he’d only trade Aardsma for “an impact bat”? We were all like, “Um, okay, but you won’t get one.” Z didn’t budge on that request—at least not publicly. It seems like that points to the issue I’m trying to call our attention to. That is, we can read Z’s statement in one of two ways: 1. He doesn’t know how to value players. I believe Dave asked someone to “[p]lease be rational” when they suggested that we could get Peter Bourjos for League, and Peter F. Bourjos is not “an impact bat.” Therefore, if Z was serious about that trade request, then he does not know how to evaluate players “rationally.” 2. He knows very well how to evaluate players. He can assume other GMs do, too (maybe not Kenny Williams …). Therefore, making that statement has nothing to do with GMs. It has nothing to do with a trade that is likely to happen. It’s some kind of misdirection, yes, but for whom?

    I would answer that it’s misdirection for M’s fans, ownership, etc., because I think Z knew damn well that he wouldn’t get a middle-of-the-order hitter for a closer. This sort of misdirection informs the choices Z (and other GMs) make; I think it’s worth acknowledging that this line exists when we speculate about what’s going to happen next.

  13. djw on May 13th, 2012 12:01 pm

    Broadly, I’m trying to suggest that the reason Dave et al. often propose moves that have almost no possibility of happening (although I’m not sure the post about League is in that category; it’s close, anyway) is that this line exists. We are very often right about valuing performance, but we are very often wrong about what is going to happen. That seems kind of strange, yes?

    No, it doesn’t seem strange at all. Trades in baseball have always been much rarer than speculation about trades in baseball.

    But again–after agreeing with me that your theory is entirely speculative and you have no idea if it has any merit, you attempt to leverage two things–the relative infrequency of trades and a public statement once made Zduriencik–as evidence that your theory is true. That’s pretty thin gruel, to put it mildly. And you certainly haven’t made any effort to explain how your theory can account for the fact that Zduriencik has already traded an “established” closer.

  14. themedia on May 14th, 2012 6:46 am

    Well, okay. What is a public statement? Why make a public statement?

    To interact with the public … ?

    And I’m drawing a blank on Z’s trade. Which established closer did he trade? If you’re referring to Brandon Morrow, I think that situation is much different than this one. In that case, Z actually traded a mystery arm *for* a closer. Many of us didn’t like that trade, myself included, but it seemed to be a short-term approach to pitching. That may not be the case you’re talking about, though.

    I didn’t just mean that we’re wrong about what actually happens in terms of specific trades. I meant that we’re discussing trades on this blog that get categorically dismissed when discussed by GMs. Again, think back to “the Votto trade,” which was essentially laughed off the internet. Dave made a strong case for that trade on paper; we all saw the way he smartly calculated WAR vs. $$$. It had absolutely no chance of happening. That was immediately evident to a number of people here. When reporters began to ask the Reds about trading Votto, they said it was something that had no possibility of happening.

    I don’t really think it’s a theory. Or, rather, I suppose it must be, but so is gravity. It seems like such an obvious factor when making roster moves, and I’m surprised you’re questioning its existence. I was trying to make the case that we should begin thinking about roster moves, lineups, etc. through a more complete lens more consistently.

  15. msfanmike on May 14th, 2012 8:13 am


    I believe the “established closer he traded” was J.J. Putz

    Morrow was not yet established as either a closer or as a starter. Since he was never established (an organizational blunder, for sure and for certain), he was traded for less value than he subseqently has provided to Toronto. However, I doubt that he is the ‘established closer’ being referred to above.

    As you recall, the J.J. Putz trade brought in a very nice haul. Easily the best trade Z has made to date. If/when Guti returns, the dividends will continue to compound.

    If it is possible to be served another dose of that type of medicine – by trading League – I will be all for it.

    So would you.

  16. kinickers77 on May 14th, 2012 4:53 pm

    Dave, c’mon. Your response to TheMedia was pretty childish to me.

    The logical thing for the Ms to do is exactly as you say. But they don’t always make logical decisions now do they? TheMedia has a point. They may very well care too much about the “appearance of giving up” and hold League for another month still.

  17. themedia on May 15th, 2012 9:09 am

    msfanmike: I am not Geoff Baker. I am so not Geoff Baker.

    Geoff Baker doesn’t care about advanced metrics. He cares about real baseball stuff like makeup, leadership, Nolan Ryan-ness—generally categorized as “cahones.”

    I am not Geoff Baker.

    And, yes, I forgot about Putz! How did I forget about Putz? What a putzy move I made when I forgot about Putz! If Z could turn League into another everyday CF, then, yes, I’d be satisfied, as would most M’s fans.

  18. msfanmike on May 15th, 2012 10:34 am

    I remember how “Geoff” slipped in there, but I also recall wanting to remove it before hitting “submit.” At one point, I felt like I was writing to him directly, because I did read the list of comments and the stream of consciousness seemed to be a pretty good match.

    Thank you for clearing up that uncertainty, though.

    I think your initial comment poked the bear and started the argument with Dave – a comment that you subsequently apologized for (I believe it was in regard to the word “understand”).

    What portion of the media do you actually represent … if you don’t mind saying?

  19. themedia on May 16th, 2012 11:41 am

    No part. It’s just the name.

    I picked it because “media” is tossed around haphazardly. Its cultural indeterminacy interests me (see above confusion).

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