The M’s Should Sell Brandon League Soon
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.