M’s, Dodgers Complete Classic Change-of-Scenery Trade
The M’s and Dodgers just traded one disappointing ex-prospect for another. I’m sure both fanbases are feeling a similar mixture of disappointment in the return and yet a weird sense of closure. Chris Taylor, the M’s out-of-nowhere SS prospect turned SS of the future turned shrug emoji will head to Los Angeles, while Zach Lee, former bonus baby pitching prospect whom people have finally stopped expecting a big breakout from, will head to Tacoma.
Lee was a highly regarded high school quarterback, and his commitment to play for LSU caused him to slip in the 2010 amateur draft. The Dodgers bought him out of that commitment with a then-team-record $5.25 million signing bonus, and assigned him to the Midwest League in 2011. After a solid debut, he was a consistent top-100 in baseball prospect, though his results came and went. 2012, split between high-A and AA, was a down year results wise, but he made some adjustments and had a great 2013. He was promoted to AAA to begin the 2014 campaign, and his debut happened to be in Tacoma, where he faced off with a brand new shortstop the Rainiers were trying out with Nick Franklin sliding over to 2B. Again, he struggled at the new, higher, level and finished the year with poor stats, but like before, he made some adjustments and had a very good year in the PCL in 2015.
Few prospects have been so scrutinized, so anticipated, than Lee, and that made Lee’s declining K rates as he ascended the Dodgers system all the more worrisome, a fact that led to even more scrutiny. Lee reportedly had mid-90s velocity, but he would commonly work in the high-80s, and his slider and change weren’t big swing and miss pitches. In a perfect world, Lee’s a solid back-of-the-rotation guy who can get lots of ground balls thanks to a well-located sinker, paired with a very firm slider to righties and a change-up to lefties. He’s got a four-seamer with lots of vertical rise, so the M’s could remake him as a high-FB, slow curve fly-ball pitcher if they wanted to.
Ultimately, the Dodgers just ran out of patience with him, and despite a multitude of injuries to their pitching staff, they always had someone else ahead of him in the pecking order. This spring, it was Ross Stripling. Last year, it was Mike Bolsinger. Next year, it…it wouldn’t have been Zach Lee. While nothing about Lee’s path to this point recalls Chris Taylor, the glove-first, no-expectations 5th round pick out of UVA, this sense that not only had he been passed over, but that regular looks were going to be difficult, feels familiar. The M’s SS of the future was supposed to be Brad Miller, the SS they took higher in the draft, and who played in the same conference at the same time as Taylor. Miller flew threw the minors, which actually worked in Taylor’s favor. Despite being drafted a year later, there was always room at a higher level, because Miller kept dominating and needing another challenge. Taylor’s reputation with the glove helped out, but after a swing overhaul, he was hitting far more than even M’s fans would’ve expected, and essentially forcing himself into the conversation at the big league level.
His breakthrough came in 2014, right as Zach Lee’s ascent was stalling out. In his first taste of AAA, Taylor thrived, hitting for more power than ever. After an OPS of nearly 1.000 in April, he hit .391/.452/.652 in May. Brad Miller was a revelation in his 2nd-half debut for the M’s in 2013, but 2014 was a disappointing slog of a season, with his OBP under .300 most all year, and the club grousing about mental mistakes in the field. Taylor was the right man at the right time, and earned himself a shot at a job-share agreement – it helped that Miller hit lefty while Taylor was a righty. The M’s continued to mess around with Miller throughout the next 12 months, moving him to CF, and then to both OF corners. The starting SS job was there for the taking, a fact confirmed when younger SS Ketel Marte started working out in CF for Tacoma.
And then Taylor collapsed. Among the 445 batters who logged at least 100 plate appearances last year, Taylor’s wRC of 23 (a line of .170/.220/.223) was the 6th worst, just ahead of another failed SS-of-the-future, Luis Sardinas. As the gap power and bat-to-ball skills went AWOL, defensive lapses became too much to ignore. Miller wasn’t seizing his job back, or at least, the M’s weren’t thrilled with the idea of just giving it to him by default. Into this sorry state of affairs stepped Ketel Marte, and the rest is history.
I’ll be clear: I saw a lot of Taylor in early 2014, and the guy I saw can play SS in the big leagues. My opinion of Taylor will always be colored by that stretch of high-level play, a level even I have to admit now may be his career peak. I was encouraged that Taylor’s big league debut in 2014 was nearly as encouraging, but any M’s fan knows how those stories tend to end – hell, ask Marte about his nearly-10% walk rate from last year. Given Marte’s emergence, and the new FO’s stated opinion from day 1 in the spring that Marte was the starter, you can make the case that this trade has been an inevitability for 6-10 months. Once the M’s decided that Marte, and not Taylor, was the starter, the M’s needed to move Taylor just as they moved another middle IF prospect, Nick Franklin.
When the M’s acquired Sardinas, I assumed they wanted big league utility depth to stash in AAA. But when Sardinas mashed in the spring and took to playing 3B far more readily than did Taylor, then Taylor’s days in Seattle were pretty clearly numbered. Not only was Taylor not going to beat out the starter, but he wasn’t going to have a shot at the utility role…and both Marte and Sardinas are *younger* than Taylor. The only thing left was to rebuild value with a great season in AAA, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Sure, his brief horror-show of a call-up may have put a dent in that, but it’s nothing compared to 2015.
Zach Lee’s disappointed, and now has no clear role in the Dodgers org. Chris Taylor over-delivered before stalling, and getting passed by younger players. He too has no real shot at a long-term job on this club. To be clear, a change of scenery trade like this doesn’t come with an automatic job opportunity, especially given that both of these clubs are fighting for a wild card spot. Despite the M’s starting pitcher injuries, Adrian Sampson’s ahead of Lee right now, and Taylor’s looking up at an even younger, even more talented incumbent in Corey Seager. But there’s always the chance that a different org, different coaches, and different rosters might afford them more of a shot than they had before. I’ll be the first to admit that I was always high – maybe TOO high – on Taylor, and that it sucks to see them trade kind-of-low on him, especially given that they’re also buying low on Lee. But given the M’s needs and the development of Sardinas, Taylor had no realistic path to playing time here.
So what does Lee need to do? I’m honestly not sure, but I think James Paxton’s development’s been encouraging. That black swan of a development path will get far too much use as an exception that proves a rule, but I’m guessing Lee has more in his arm than he’s shown. If not, there’s only so much you can get in exchange for a guy like Taylor, who can’t get even the extended big league trials that Nick Franklin got due both to his own face-plants and the success of others. Here’s hoping the M’s pitching coaches can unlock something in Lee, who’ll start off in the Tacoma rotation. Here’s hoping Taylor becomes a super-sub for the Dodgers.
One last thing: when these two players met for the first time, back in April of 2014, Taylor stepped in against Lee, who reared back and missed badly with a fastball, plunking the Rainiers SS. Here’s that pitch:
Not a great photo, but it’s one of those cool coincidences that baseball abounds with. That game was a fascinating document about the different paths the M’s and Dodgers were taking. Starting in CF for Albuquerque was another youngster new to AAA, Joc Pederson. The R’s leadoff man was Endy Chavez. Albuquerque featured a couple of ex-M’s flameouts in Miguel Olivo, former-SS-of-the-future Carlos Triunfel, and 2012 Mariner Trayvon Robinson. The Rainiers had prospects like Taylor, Jesus Montero, Nick Franklin and James Jones – all of whom are now in other orgs.