The M’s Have Been Rather Busy of Late

marc w · December 2, 2015 at 5:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Baseball’s GMs, analysts and assorted job-seekers meet next week for the Winter Meetings in Nashville, but Jerry Dipoto decided to take care of some business before heading out to meet with his counterparts. In recent days, the M’s traded their recently acquired 1B for a backup catcher, signed a RF, signed a RP, and went dumpster-diving for a waiver-wire 1B. Coupled with the recent trades of Brad Miller and Tom Wilhelmsen, and the M’s have made substantial changes to their roster. Let’s take a look at some of the recent moves and what they say (and don’t say) about the M’s plan for 2016 and beyond.

1: Look, Mark Trumbo was not going to play here. Dipoto traded him from Anaheim as Angels GM, and he’s traded him again with Seattle. As someone who’s publicly talked about the need to both “get more athletic” and reduce strikeouts, Dipoto pretty clearly doesn’t see Mark Trumbo as his type of player. What’s changed in the two years between Trumbo trades is what the rest of the league thinks of him. After 2013, Dipoto netted pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Skaggs was highly-thought of, and Santiago’s been a reasonably effective back-of-the-rotation starter for four years now, turning in 300 IP with a solid RA (and a terrible FIP, though his career ERA is a full run lower than his career FIP).

This time, the return for Trumbo was…substantially less. In exchange for Trumbo + a reliever, the Baltimore Orioles will send backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a long-time minor league backstop who was drafted as a 2B and switched to catching in the low minors. Given that background, it’s probably not a shock that Clevenger’s defense is not his calling-card. In his career, he’s thrown out 11 of 80 basestealers, a success rate under 14%. Given that he’s only caught less than 700 big league innings at catcher, or less than half a year’s worth, there’s not a lot to say about his pitch framing. However, what CAN be said is that it doesn’t look disastrous; in his career, Clevenger’s saved a handful of runs through framing, most of them coming back in 2012 with the Cubs. It’s not a lot to go on, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first catcher to excel at framing while rating poorly at controlling the running game or blocking pitches.*

Offensively, Clevenger has been terrible, but he’s been terrible in very different ways than the incumbents in the C spot for the M’s. Unlike Mike Zunino, who really can spend some time in AAA now, Clevenger’s a contact hitter. In the minors, he paired a solid walk rate with well-below-average K rates, and that made up for a near total lack of power. In the big leagues, Clevenger’s patience wasn’t necessarily a virtue, as his low swing rates put him in bad counts and his lack of pop meant he saw too many strikes to walk enough to be passable. In Baltimore, though, he seems to have made an adjustment, as his swing rate climbed from below average to well-above average. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but Clevenger seems to have been convinced that the old strategy wasn’t working. His walk rate’s fallen, but so has his K rate. He doesn’t swing and miss, so taking away a bunch of called-strikes seems like it’s worth a try. As Clevenger still isn’t 30 (despite being drafted back in 2006), it’s not crazy to see him using this new approach to good effect in a park where his lack of power isn’t a huge problem. Let’s be clear: Clevenger is an out-of-options career backup who might not be able to throw out Mark Trumbo stealing, even in a pitch out. He may very well fail and become waiver-wire fodder in several months, but if he does fail, he’ll fail *differently* than his predecessors here. The fact that he bats lefty makes it easier to platoon him and put him in a good position to succeed as well.

The first reaction to this trade on the part of many M’s fans was horror that a starting 1B and a guy the M’s had given up some serious talent for months earlier was a no-hit catcher. That’s understandable, given Trumbo’s power and his status as an ex-All Star, like ex-All Star Kevin Correia or ex-All Star Roger Pavlik. Trumbo himself isn’t yet 30 either, and is in his final year of arbitration, so this isn’t a case of a player stuck with an anchor of a contract. Ultimately, Dipoto wasn’t able to convince teams that Trumbo’s solid final month meant a whole lot, and that’s understandable: Trumbo’s inconsistency is a big reason why he was in danger of getting non-tendered at today’s deadline. A player who might very well be non-tendered, and thus a free agent, is not a player who can command a lot in the trade market. That the estimate of Trumbo’s arb award was under $10m underscores his value. Trumbo at 1 year/~$9m wasn’t enough of an enticement to net Steve Clevenger straight up – the M’s actually had to sweeten the pot (they sent reliever CJ Riefenhauser to Baltimore as well). Why?

Part of it is that Trumbo’s OF defense has pretty much officially closed the door on playing anything other than 1B or DH. That severely restricts the teams who could figure out how to play him. The M’s actually DO have an opening at 1B, but Trumbo’s platoon splits make him hard to start against right-handers, and given the M’s obligations to their stars, $9m for a platoon DH/1B just doesn’t sound like a great way to spend money. But deciding that is one thing – the M’s actually needed a plan to utilize that payroll savings for something they actually needed…

2: …enter Nori Aoki, the M’s new RF. Aoki will be 34 next year, and will cost somewhere in the $3-$5m range. The deal isn’t official (Aoki still needs to pass a physical, and after suffering some bad post-concussion symptoms after being beaned by Jake Arrieta, the physical is probably pretty important), but it sounds like it’s for one year with an option for 2017. Aoki is an elite contact hitter, with K rates under 10% in every year he’s played in MLB – almost unheard of in today’s whiff-prone game. His walk rate isn’t elite, probably because he has very little power, but his pure hit tool allows him to post very good on-base-percentage numbers. With a batting average that’s bounced around between .285 and .288 (!) in his four years, his OBP has reliably settled in around .350 every year as well. Considering Mark Trumbo will make more, can’t play OF, and is projected to get on base at a .309 clip, the M’s seem to have done well here.

Aoki’s defense is something of a divisive topic. We’ve seen him take…non-traditional routes to balls in the OF, and while he’s speedy, he doesn’t have, say, Ichiro’s instincts and first step. All of that said, UZR’s seen him as a solid defender in each of the past three years. DRS doesn’t agree, however, as it sees a steep drop off from 2013 to 2014 and 2015, with a solid arm making up for very poor range. The M’s cannot expect to have a gold glover in RF if that’s where Aoki starts, but even if you take the DRS trend line an extend it down (due to age-related decline), Aoki will be worlds better defensively than last year’s combo of Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo.

3: With the other chunk of savings from the Trumbo trade, the M’s acquired reliever Justin de Fratus from Philadelphia. De Fratus was awful last year, posting a 5.51 ERA and a still-bad 4.28 FIP for the rebuilding Phillies, but in 2014, he was effective in 50+ games, with a 4.08 K:BB ratio and a sparkly ERA to match. De Fratus isn’t overpowering, with a fastball in the 92-94 range and a solid slider at 82, but he’s not a ROOGY: he’s been better against *lefties* in his career, and when he’s been bad, right-handers have been his undoing. Why? De Fratus has a change up that he’ll throw lefties, but lefties have been flummoxed by his slider to a surprising degree. They’ve slugged .237 on it in De Fratus (admittedly short) career, while righties are slugging .346.

De Fratus throws a four-seamer and a sinker, and he’s shifted which one he favors a few times. In 2014, he was a sinker/slider guy. Last year, he threw a lot more four-seamers and cut his rate of sinkers by two thirds. I’m not saying that this alone is the reason he struggled, but righties have always hit his four-seamer fairly well. More than a change in his pitch mix, the M’s might want to look at his delivery; De Fratus is far, far more hittable than he should be, and there may be something he could do to get a bit more deception. The M’s DFA’d Edgar Olmos today, so there’s a bit of room in the bullpen, and De Fratus is a good low-risk bet: his one-year deal will set the M’s back all of $750,000.

4: Among the minor moves of the day, the M’s lost prospect Pat Kivlehan to Texas, as he was the PTBNL in the Leonys Martin/Tom Wilhelmsen deal. Also leaving the org is catcher John Hicks, who was signed by Minnesota. Hicks had been DFA’d in November when the M’s signed Chris Iannetta. With a spot on the 40-man open (after Olmos was DFA’d), the M’s signed minor league 1B Andy Wilkins as well. Wilkins got a cup of coffee with the White Sox, the club that drafted him in 2010, but bounced between the Jays and Dodger orgs last year. Wilkins doesn’t strike out a ton, but doesn’t have enough power to play 1B. In the PCL last year, Wilkins slugged .479 for Oklahoma City. He was great in the International League in 2014, but last year’s regression made that look more like an outlier than a sign of development and growth. Wilkins hits lefty, which is nice considering the only other 1B on the 40-man is righty Jesus Montero. Wilkins is not a solution to 1B, and has less of a chance than Montero, which is saying something. But the M’s are clearly weak at the position, so if you’re going to pick through freely-available players, you may as well prioritize 1Bs.

None of these moves radically remake the team, but Dipoto’s style is pretty apparent. In Aoki and Clevenger, the M’s are showing a clear preference for contact skills, and the pick-ups of De Fratus and Martin highlight that Dipoto prefers to buy low with guys with poor recent stats. But beyond that stylistic change, one thing’s pretty apparent: the M’s are categorically not rebuilding. This was never really in doubt, not with Robbie Cano and Felix around, and not with Nelson Cruz coming off the year he had. But the M’s have NOT shown a preference for getting younger, even in these minor moves. Aoki will be 34, Clevenger 30. Leonys Martin is older than Brad Miller and Logan Morrison, who’s more or less the same age as Andy Wilkins. This isn’t good or bad on its own – the M’s seem to want a specific set of skills rather than a specific development path, and that’s fine. Given the age of Cano/Cruz/Felix, this is understandable, even laudable. It does, however, put a premium on fixing the remaining roster holes.

And that’s going to be tough unless the M’s allow the payroll to rise, probably above last year’s $120-123m mark. The M’s haven’t done what we all sort of expected and signed Hisashi Iwakuma, but he’ll cost more than the $7m he made last season. Given the contracts pitchers are getting this off-season – JA Happ’s $12m per year to David Price’s $31m per, it’s easy to see Iwakuma doubling or tripling his annual salary. The M’s have already committed $94-97m to just 9 players (depending on what Aoki gets), and they’ve extended contracts to their arb-eligible players, too. They don’t have a whole lot of room to go shopping, but they’re not sold on just turning the 1B job over to Montero or counting on full years from James Paxton/Nate Karns/Vidal Nuno in the rotation. The M’s have clearly been willing to part with Paxton, and that might help shore up 1B, but then it’s even more critical that the M’s reduce the uncertainty in the rotation.

* Intuitively, this is odd, but when you think about it more, it makes sense. Your body position to frame a low strike is probably different than your body position would be if you wanted to ensure there was no way the ball would get past you. Jose Molina, the godfather of pitch framing, had poor rates of passed balls/wild pitches. Wellington Castillo was not letting the ball by, but he was an awful, awful pitch framer. This isn’t a hard and fast rule or anything; Jonathan Lucroy was great at both, as is Yadier Molina. And some of this may just be selection; Sal Perez doesn’t need to impress teams with his framing – they’re still agog at his 80-grade arm. Francisco Cervelli can’t do that, so he adds value through framing.


29 Responses to “The M’s Have Been Rather Busy of Late”

  1. Rengaw on December 2nd, 2015 9:50 pm

    Reading over Marc’s review of the changes made so far to the Mariners, it occurred to me that leaving out the up-in-the-air 1st base position, the M’s could easily field an entire team that could bat from the left side. Seems we could use that as quite an advantage at times.

  2. Spanky on December 2nd, 2015 10:26 pm

    Why would Dipoto throw in another player to acquire Clevenger when he could have released Trumbo and picked up some replacement level catcher at Walmart for a couple of bucks.

  3. MrZDevotee on December 2nd, 2015 10:36 pm

    I kinda think that’s exactly what he did… He had two guys he wanted to move out, along with a 9.1 million-ish salary to move… If he cuts bait on Trumbo, sure he saves the money, but he gets nothing in return… It’s really just sort of a dice roll with Clevenger, who at least is a known quantity at the moment, versus just having an open seat available. I think essentially it was an “I’m gonna non-tender Trumbo, so I wonder what I can get for him” move. In a strategic move, he also plugged up the 1B hole a tiny bit in Baltimore, a team that would have been a competitor with us in the 1B market, with Chris Davis moving on… So yeah, essentially we non-tendered Trumbo, and picked up a backup catcher– just in a way that the players didn’t have a choice in where they ended up…

  4. Westside guy on December 3rd, 2015 1:11 am

    This off-season has already been far more entertaining than the Mariners 2015 season was!

  5. bat guano on December 3rd, 2015 6:26 am

    I haven’t seen any discussion anywhere about the fact that Seth Smith came up as a first baseman. Seems to me he may end up playing there in a platoon, with Aoki/Guti in another (OF) platoon. That would mean adding another OF, which I think is as likely as seeking more 1B help. Just a thought.

  6. Hutch on December 3rd, 2015 9:08 am

    I was a little angry about the Trumbo move, but seeing Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez non-tendered the next day makes it clear that there just isn’t much of a market for power-only .225/30HR players any more, unless they’re athletic enough to add value in the field or on the base paths. Z was one of the last of a dying breed of GMs that fetishized this type of player.

    All things equal I think I’d have preferred to keep him, warts and all, since I’m not convinced that $9 million in 2016 salary cap really gets you much and I think there’s reason to believe that he’s got another 2.5 WAR season in him if he’s utilized correctly. But I’m willing to take Dipoto at his word that this deal shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum and it will all make sense in the end. If it means they’re able to cobble together something cheaper at 1B and add value in the OF or SP positions, then it’s a better team in the end.

  7. Steve Nelson on December 3rd, 2015 12:52 pm

    I am sure that Dipoto had been trying to trade Trumbo ever since he was hired, but there was virtually no interest in him at the salary he was likely to get in arbitration. The marketplace just doesn’t value power-only hitters to the extent those players are compensated in arbitration.

    The disparity between what the Mariners gave up to land Trumbo and what they are getting now isn’t Dipoto’s fault. Arizona no longer had use for Trumbo; they were in a place of needing to get something in return for a redundant piece. Jack Z was one GM who did value Trumbo; Arizona took advantage of that to score a nifty deal for themselves.

    Dipoto is simply unwinding that mistake. The damage was already done.

  8. ck on December 3rd, 2015 3:13 pm

    Marc’s ‘busy’ about Dipoto is a bon mot. The M’s seem better already (on paper ), and the off-season has not yet reached the Winter meetings / roster set Rule 5 Draft stages. The earlier comment about Seth Smith, First-baseman, seems intriguing. Nelson Cruz was a great DH last season, and if he can match that type of production, while real MLB fielders play the outfield, I will be in the mood to buy tickets to see these new, improved, Mariners.

  9. Notfromboise on December 3rd, 2015 3:32 pm

    You do not bend over backwards to get more athletic in the outfield only to platoon Smith/Montero at 1B. We finally got rid of the dude who got excited over playing people out of position, lets not go back now lol.

    Smith (like Miller before him) wouldn’t be of much use being moved to a position he doesn’t hit well enough to move the WAR meter past 0. Obviously, if he can’t hit like a replacement level first baseman, there is not a lot of use in rolling the dice to see if he can field like one.

    That said, its a bit unnerving to be at this uncomfortable stage of Trumbo *gone* and Montero / Peterson the only ones left in the system remotely capable of playing first….. And Corey Hart may literally be the 5th best 1B FA on the market.. Yikes. I hope (and think) Dipoto has his next move planned out, because this is a REAL scary time and place to have that particular roster hole, no matter how well he plugged up the other 8 positions.

  10. Rengaw on December 3rd, 2015 9:42 pm

    Anybody in on moving Cano to first?

  11. Notfromboise on December 3rd, 2015 10:13 pm

    Now that we’ve ousted Miller and Franklin, it’d be rather pointless… The FA market for 2B is as bleak as 1B. Most of his value comes from getting his production from second base, plus he’s not a minus defending the position either. He’d likely be a minus fielder at first learning on the fly, and obvious his production would suddenly be rather pedestrian coming from first.

    You’d be better off moving Cruz to catcher. He’d post like a 10 WAR on offense and you could give him one of those ginormous umpire chest protectors.

  12. marc w on December 3rd, 2015 11:21 pm

    Not in on moving Cano to 1B now, no. Boise’s right that the lack of both 1) internal options and 2) payroll flexibility makes 1B kind of nerve wracking, but I suppose even trolling the non-tender waters gets it up to ‘decent’ or ‘not terrifying’ production levels. I mean, Pedro Alvarez is really flawed, but might fit.

    Beyond that, and I’m like a broken record on this, I know: the M’s can help themselves by becoming an effective player development group. People have mentioned DJ Peterson, and a few years after the best pure hitter in the draft is taken out of college, yeah, you SHOULD start to think of him as legit depth. The M’s can’t right now, and that makes their plight a bit tougher.

  13. MrZDevotee on December 4th, 2015 12:24 am

    re: 1B
    I think Alvarez OR Carter would be an upgrade on Trumbo, for not much more $$$’s… But Dipoto likes trades, so we probably aren’t even aware yet who HE wants at 1B… (HE might not even be aware yet)…

    Bottomline, before the winter meetings, The M’s already have the best lineup taking shape they’ve had in the past decade…

    1. Aoki OF
    2. Seager 3B
    3. Cano 2B
    4. Cruz DH
    5. (1B)
    6. Guty/Smith OF
    7. Iannetta C
    8. Martin RF
    9. Marte SS

    An entire lineup that doesn’t require hoping some prospect who’s never shown an MLB ready profile has to “break out” or “figure it out”…

    PS- Man, it hurts to still have this screen name… Tried changing it multiple times, but no one ever approved the new ones… It’s like a scar I carry with me, to remind me of something stupid I did when I was drunk once…

  14. MrZDevotee on December 4th, 2015 12:40 am

    AND… By having a real MLB roster, we actually have improved our previously ravished Minor League system “by proxy” (players actually being at the level their talent warrants)…

    AAA Tacoma

    C- Zunino
    1B Montero
    2B Patrick Brady
    SS Chris Taylor
    3B Petersen
    OF O’Malley
    OF Morban
    OF Blash

    (I realize Petersen has been moved to 1B, but maybe now he can move back to 3rd, and start hitting again?)

  15. Rengaw on December 4th, 2015 7:33 am

    OK, no Cano at first….at least not now.
    Dipoto indicated Montero deserves a real look in the spring due to his outstanding production at Tacoma. I watched him with the Raniers and he just blistered the ball. I was hoping this would somehow translate to success with the M’s but he sure goes fishing for low breaking balls. On the plus side, you don’t get a fast ball by this guy very easily.
    I root for Montero knowing how hard he has worked to improve his game. Also, I don’t think the M’s did him any favors in how he got jostled around in trying to find a niche for him.
    If somehow Montero does make the team, I envision him being platooned at first. Otherwise, I think the Mariners move him.

  16. davepaisley on December 4th, 2015 9:38 am


    Maybe we can pretend it’s all about Mike Zunino… like repurposing an old girlfriend tattoo.

  17. MrZDevotee on December 4th, 2015 12:13 pm

    Ooh… I like it… Which probably means poor Zunino is being traded in the next couple days… (laugh)

    ps- I meant “Martin CF” obviously, in my lineup above…

  18. mrakbaseball on December 4th, 2015 5:27 pm

    With Greinke signing with the D-Backs, I wonder how much competition the Dodgers will provide the Mariners for Iwakuma’s services?

  19. Longgeorge1 on December 4th, 2015 7:27 pm

    Nelson Cruz =1B Can’t be worse than Jesus with the glove.

  20. davepaisley on December 4th, 2015 8:20 pm

    Yeah, but you have to remember that Jesus saves (fewer runs than average)

  21. Steve Nelson on December 4th, 2015 9:17 pm

    Maybe Jesus saves, but Moises invests.

  22. mrakbaseball on December 6th, 2015 6:13 pm

    Well, not only did the Dodgers provide the Mariners competition for Iwakuma’s services, it looks like a deal has been agreed upon.

  23. Westside guy on December 6th, 2015 7:46 pm


  24. Notfromboise on December 6th, 2015 7:47 pm

    That really stings. Losing assets for nothing is never fun.

    Going to be interesting to see what the price tag was. Would be hard to believe Seattle would close the purse strings to sign Iwakuma. My spidey sense is detecting a massive Dodger overpay in dollars or years.

    Still hurts, tho.

  25. californiamariner on December 6th, 2015 8:21 pm

    Really bummed the M’s lost Iwakuma.

    Notfromboise, however they didn’t lose him for nothing. They do get the compensation pick because of the qualifying offer…

  26. Sowulo on December 7th, 2015 1:22 am

    Iwakuma was hurt too often for me to have any big regrets about losing him. He’ll be 35 in April. Some people just break down younger than others.

  27. mksh21 on December 7th, 2015 12:03 pm

    Looks like we got J.A. Happ version 2.0 on the way in Wade Miley. Yawn. I’d rather have an average righty than a terrible lefty, but baseball law dictates you must have a left handed starter who doesn’t belong, in your rotation.

    Somewhat kidding

    IF the trade rumors are true Wade Miley shouldn’t be that bad I guess. Trade low for bounce back of two lousy seasons for the remaining 2 years 15 million of Miley (team option 12 3rd year).

    Don’t know what we are sending over to Boston yet.

    Suck losing Iwakuma. He may age well not relying on speed, and he goes to another pitching haven. But the Dodgers are full of terrible contracts and I’m sure blew him away after losing ZG and had money to burn.

  28. Dennisss on December 7th, 2015 12:18 pm

    Looks like it’s Elias and Carson Smith for Miley and Jonathan Aro (possible future middle reliever based on something I found.)

    It looks like Dipoto thinks it’s easier to fill a bullpen and the first base slot than, say, outfield or starting pitcher. Also seems like the M’s can’t really fill any holes via trade without creating another hole.

  29. Dennisss on December 7th, 2015 12:25 pm

    I find it interesting that Dipoto has substantially remade the roster without making any blockbuster moves at all. The best player in any of his transactions so far might be Brad Miller, but he has impacted every position except 2nd, 3rd, DH, and arguably shortstop (if you think Miller was a center fielder.)

    It’s death to the Zduriencik era by a thousand cuts.

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