Dipoto’s First Big Trade: Miller/LoMo -> Tampa; Karns, Powell -> M’s
It’s an easy analogy – the M’s have a glut of young shortstops, making one of them obsolete. Other teams *know* that said SS is on the block, and low-ball the M’s accordingly. But it’s tough finding middle infielders with decent power in 2015, so they eventually yield and make the deal. And thus, a year-plus after dealing Nick Franklin, the M’s have shipped Brad Miller (and Logan Morrison and Danny Farquhar) to Tampa for SP Nate Karns, CF prospect Boog Powell, and reliever CJ Riefenhauser. The M’s hope Karns/Powerr are more useful than Austin Jackson turned out to be, while the Rays hope that THIS M’s SS prospect works out better than Nick Franklin.
The irony isn’t lost on Franklin, the guy who became expendable BECAUSE of Brad Miller, and will now be blocked again thanks to Miller’s arrival. The Rays have all but given Miller the starting SS slot, with last year’s incumbent, Asdrubal Cabrera (himself a former M’s SS prospect who got shipped out because the M’s had Yuni Betancourt locking down SS for a decade), leaving in free agency and Tim Beckham OBP’ing .274 and striking out over 30% of his plate appearances. And that makes sense: Miller’s cheap, and by most statistical measures, perfectly fine at SS and flawed-but-solid at the plate. The M’s front office(s) (both Zduriencik and Dipoto) have decided that Miller won’t be a SS while Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor remain in the org. The Rays remember the M’s view of Erasmo Ramirez, and have decided to take another gamble that the M’s evaluation isn’t exactly rock solid.
As Dipoto himself mentions, this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. “They addressed needs. We addressed needs, and everyone walks away happy,” Dipoto said to Bob Dutton, who had the initial report on the swap. The M’s didn’t need a super-utility guy whose best profile was SS if they’re going to give the starting job to Marte. Meanwhile, they actually DID need an athletic CF who won’t strike out all the time. Enter Boog Powell. The former A’s farmhand moved to Tampa in the Ben Zobrist deal after a remarkable 2014 that saw the 21-year old get on base at a .450 clip between the Midwest League and Cal League. The average and thus OBP were a bit lower in 2015, split between AA Montgomery and AAA Durham, but he showed a bit more pop than he did in the A’s org. That is a laughably low bar, however. Of Powell’s 90 hits in 2014, only 18 went for extra bases. The 3 HRs are understandable from an undersized speed/defense CF, but the lack of 2Bs and 3Bs was a concern. With Tampa, the 22-year old Powell notched 28 XBH from his 103 total hits, which..that’s not great, but it’s a hopeful sign, especially when considering the difference in league run environment.
The M’s have gone into the past few seasons thinking that SP depth wasn’t much of an issue. They had to send Roenis Elias to Tacoma in April last year, which didn’t go down well with the Cuban lefty. They swapped the out-of-options Erasmo Ramirez to the Rays. The year before, Elias made the club with Hector Noesi in the pen, which pushed Blake Beavan to..OK, bad example. In any event, SP depth has continued to bite them. James Paxton has struggled to stay healthy, and is now taking his customary tour of the AFL to get more innings in. Danny Hultzen has *really* struggled to stay healthy. Mike Montgomery started out brilliantly, but ended the year not in Seattle but in instructs, close to, but not actually a part of the AFL. Jordan Pries, Forrest Snow and, hell, Chien-Ming Wang weren’t able to force their way into the picture. That’s the context in which the M’s made a deal *featuring* righty Nate Karns. If the M’s are able to bring Hisashi Iwakuma back, Karns is fighting for the 5th slot with Elias. Many may see that as a bad return for a guy the Rays believe is a starting shortstop, but it’s an intriguing move for Seattle.
Like many of the Rays, Karns is a straight-over-the-top, rising FB pitcher. His four-seamer averaged over 11″ of vertical movement, making it an extreme fly ball pitch that he’s comfortable throwing up in the zone for whiffs or poor contact. His best pitch is a power curve at 81-83, and with good two-plane break. He’s also working on his change-up, and the pitch may now be within range of league average, after starting out as something of a project. That three-pitch mix enabled the somewhat unheralded Karns to post 1.5 fWAR and 2.6 RA9 WAR for Tampa, using the curve and a willingness to pitch up to rack up impressive strikeout totals.
The downside to all of the elevated fastballs probably isn’t a surprise. Karns has given up 1.42 HR/9 in his brief career, and while he improved on that last year, he still clearly had a HR problem. But just as Miller makes sense in the AL East, especially for a team whose frame of reference for defense was Asdrubal Cabrera, Karns’ weakness should be masked a bit by Safeco and the other coastal parks in the AL West. Of course, you wouldn’t want to run a fly ball pitcher out there with Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo in the OF, but that’s where Powell comes in. On paper, the M’s have ticked every box – they reduced K’s offensively, they added to SP depth, and they swapped something of a poor fit for their park for a great one.
But these are the M’s, and they’ve been trading from the same areas of surplus and receiving a bit less in production than they would’ve hoped. For the past two years, the one position the M’s have felt comfortable trading has been the bullpen – they simply had too many arms for too few spots out there, until suddenly their depth vanished thanks to variance and regression. Last year, it was Chris Taylor’s remarkable 2014 that had the M’s ready to entertain offers on Brad Miller, and then Taylor melted in a short big league trial. Brad Miller had the job, then lost it to Chris Taylor and then Marte. The areas teams identify as surpluses have a weird tendency to become areas of need in short order.
That cautionary note aside (and they’re pretty much required for M’s fans), this is a solid deal for the M’s. Forget Miller’s Fangraphs stats. He wasn’t going to play SS here, not while Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor remain. With K% a concern of the new GM, Marte’s elite contact skills and Miller’s…not as elite contact skills made Miller’s ISO advantage irrelevant. Meanwhile, the Rays have Matt Moore AND Alex Cobb AND Drew Smyly coming off of long injury layoffs last year and likely would’ve sent Karns to AAA if those three plus Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi were healthy. Yes, pitchers get hurt, and the Rays know that better than anyone, but the Rays were able to sell high on a righty without an overpowering FB and without a guaranteed rotation spot. I’m sure there are Rays fans upset they couldn’t get more for a cost-controlled, improving-but-already-league-average starter, and if it makes them feel better, despite knowing it was coming, it still stings to trade Miller after his last two sub-par years.
Just as the inclusion of Powell makes this a much more intriguing deal for M’s fans, the inclusion of Logan Morrison makes…ha ha, no, sorry. Morrison is no longer exciting, but he still fits a clear need for Tampa. M’s 1B ranked 28th in baseball last year, thanks in large part to Morrison’s disappointing campaign. But James Loney and the Rays’ first sackers were even worse, finishing 30th out of 30 with a combined 77 wRC+ (the M’s 1Bs managed an 88), while playing worse defense. The Rays have somehow made dumpster diving work in recent years, getting Casey Kotchman’s best year after the M’s cut bait, and then getting what passes for a good Loney campaign before striking out last year. LoMo isn’t much of an upgrade, but it’s the kind of low/no-cost move the Rays have a surprisingly good track record with.
Finally, the clubs swapped disappointing relievers, as Danny Farquhar and CJ Riefenhauser swap places. Farquhar has the better stuff, by far, with plus velo and what looked like great breaking stuff in 2013-14. But Farquhar was absolutely awful last year, and while you imagine the Rays have a few tweaks they’d like to make, Farquhar’s inclusion in this deal isn’t going to trouble M’s fans. Riefenhauser is more of a LOOGY, with a slider-dominant arsenal and a low 3/4 arm slot for his 88-90 MPH fastball. Oddly, Riefenhauser’s been better against righties than lefties recently (small sample alert), which is nice, but made it impossible for the Rays to figure out how to actually use him in games. He and Edgar Olmos will fight it out as strange lefties without well-defined roles.