M’s Transactions: Bullpen Pile + OF Help

marc w · November 21, 2016 at 8:10 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Given the sheer volume of activity during Jerry Dipoto’s first offseason at the helm of the M’s front office, it should be much of a surprise that he’s been busy again this fall.

Since my AFL update post, the M’s have made three fairly interesting trades, added a few players to their 40-man roster, and lost and signed a number of minor league free agents. Let’s take a look at each of them.

1: The M’s traded for former Oakland/Boston/Minnesota/Kansas City/Baltimore corner OF/IF Danny Valencia, who’s coming off a solid year at the plate, playing 130 games with a 118 OPS+. Valencia’s always been a lefty-mashing platoon guy; he’s got a career 139 OPS+ vs lefties, but just 85 against righties. That and some defensive limitations partially explain his availability, and his availability for the bargain-basement price of AA starter Paul Blackburn (the throw-in in the Montgomery for Vogelbach trade this summer). The rest, and perhaps the BULK of the seeming chasm between his value and his price, is that he’s gathered the reputation of a difficult personality. Valencia slugged 17 HRs last year, but his most noteworthy smash of 2016 was a punch he landed to the face of Oakland DH Billy Butler. He played for two organizations at the big league level in 2012, 2014 and 2015. There’s essentially zero question about his ability to hit lefties, and his performance against righties has actually been trending upwards in recent years – he was a slightly-above-league-average hitter against them last year. This is an amazing get for the M’s, especially given Blackburn’s lack of projection.*

Personality rumors aside, I don’t want to oversell the “headcase” angle. He’s also going into his third year of arbitration, and will presumably be a free agent after the year. He’ll get a substantial raise from the $3+ million he made last year, and while that’s not terribly important to the M’s, it’s starting to sound like real money to Oakland. His defense has also been an issue. He’s primarily played 3B, something the M’s don’t need him to do. That’s probably for the best, as UZR and DRS agree that Valencia’s been a poor defender at the hot corner. He got a few games at 1B for the A’s last year, and would fit nicely in a platoon with Vogelbach there, but he’d be a lot more interesting as an OF. The M’s #1 LF at this point (via the M’s official depth chart) is Ben Gamel, a lefty who’s projected to post a 91 wRC+ next year. Guillermo Heredia’s a right-handed alternative with a much better glove, but he’s projected for an only slightly better 94 wRC+ mark. Seth Smith is 34, and his defensive marks tumbled last year. There’s room for someone like Valencia (who’s 32 himself) to get a look. Right now, the depth chart lists Valencia as the starter at 1B, but given everything the M’s have said about Vogelbach (and given the M’s interest in acquiring him), I’d assume the hefty lefty will get every opportunity to start vs. righties and thus claim the lion’s share of playing time. Valencia can play 1B, I’d assume, but he’d have a bit more value if he could fill in in an OF corner as well. There’s a surprising amount of risk in his profile: he’s had several lost years at the plate, he could be a defensive disaster in LF, etc. But this is a great, low-cost move to solidify their batting order and satisfy Dipoto’s desire to get another RH bat.

2: As good as that trade was, I’m still scratching my head about the M’s trading impressive starting pitching prospect Zack Littell for left-handed reliever James Pazos of the Yankees. Littell was an 11th round pick out of a North Carolina high school in 2013, and he’d moved slowly in his first couple of years in the system. In 2015, something clicked, and he quickly became the only bright spot on a dismal Clinton Lumberkings team. He started in Clinton in 2016, and was even better. A promotion to the California League didn’t slow him down, and he ended the year as a top-10 prospect for the M’s (that’s where I would’ve put him, anyway). MLB had him as the M’s 14th best prospect, while mentioning that his FB touches 94. Other reports have him with a bit less velocity, and in any case, Littell hasn’t been successful thanks to a spectacular FB. He typically sits around 90 with his well-located FB and has a very good slow curve along with it, according to those who’ve seen him pitch. His calling card is probably his command, as his mediocre stuff plays up, allowing him to post a walk rate below 5% last year while minimizing HRs. He doesn’t have clear, obvious plus-grade stuff, but this is a pretty good get for the Yankees.

In return, the M’s get a hard-throwing lefty reliever who’s had intermittent control problems and battled the always-encouraging “undisclosed injur[ies]” in his minor league tenure. He throws very hard: Brooks measured his average FB last year at 96 MPH, up from 94.5 in 2015. Pazos throws it from a low 3/4 motion, and it’s got plenty of armside run. I kind of like the pitch in theory, but big league hitters haven’t had too much trouble hitting it hard (miniscule sample alert). He’s been great in the minors, and he seems ready for an opportunity to get more playing time in the bigs, though it’s perhaps telling that the Yankees are moving him after clearing some space in their bullpen by trading Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. They, like most teams, have plenty of options for the back of the bullpen, so that’s not a slam on Pazos, but this feels like an overpay by the M’s because of their stated need to get a lefty reliever. Pazos shouldn’t have come free – he’s a lefty with a weird arm angle throwing 96 – but I was amazed it took Littell. On the plus side: despite his long tenure in the minors and being drafted out of college, Pazos should still have two options years left. He didn’t use one in 2015, so he burned the first of three in 2016. If his control goes south again, he can head to Tacoma to refine it. If he’s working out the kinks in the PCL, though, the trade may seem even more lopsided, however.

3: In a great change-of-scenery trade, the M’s picked up IFs Richie Shaffer and Taylor Motter from Tampa in exchange for SP prospect Dylan Thompson, RP Andrew Kittredge and 1B Dalton Kelly. Thompson’s the prize here, as the M’s went overslot to get him a few years ago in the draft, but he threw just a handful of innings this year, all of them in the Arizona League (he started the championship game, actually). Kittredge, a former UW Husky, has been a long-time M’s farmhand, working out of the bullpen in Jackson and Tacoma for many years. When the M’s pulled Thyago Vieira out of the AFL, they replaced him with Kittredge, presumably so the Rays could get a better look at him. He throws a a low-90s FB with a hard, cuttery slider and a slower, big breaking curve. Dalton Kelly was a very late round pick out of UCSB and had a hot start for Clinton, but really tailed off down the stretch. He showed some good bat-to-ball skills, but doesn’t currently have the power you’d look for in a 1B.

In return the M’s got a lottery ticket in Richie Shaffer and at least the potential for a super-sub in Taylor Motter. Shaffer was the Rays’ first-round pick out of Clemson in 2012, but he combined poor power (for a 3B/1B) and didn’t hit for average. He’s shown the ability to work a walk (you can tell why Dipoto was interested), but hadn’t really gotten his BP power to show up in games. That changed in 2015, when he knocked 26 HRs and worked his way from AA to MLB. While his walk rate stayed high, his K rate crept up at each level, and that’s been a huge problem in his two cups of coffee in Tampa. Without any development, he’s a useful piece for Tacoma, as a “Mike Zunino’s skillset minus the catching parts” isn’t playable, but while his odds of breaking out aren’t great, he’s shown he’s capable of driving the ball. Will working with Edgar unlock some latent ability? I’m not wagering any money on it, but his odds are better than your average waiver-wire find.

Taylor Motter has always hit remarkably well for a guy who’s always had the “4th OF” or utility man tag slapped on him. A 17th rounder out of not-yet-national-power Coastal Carolina, Motter combined decent speed with a solid eye and contact skills to post solidly above-average batting lines throughout the minors. He played all over the diamond, logging most of his time at 3B and RF, but getting quite a few games at SS, 2B and CF. Motter’s older and right-handed, but there’s some Ben Gamel in is approach at the plate: both have a decent eye, don’t hit for a lot of power (Gamel’s 2 years younger, to be fair), and after some solid seasons in the upper minors, both got steamrolled by the American League last year. Gamel’s projected to do a bit better next year, but Motter had the superior MiLB lines and didn’t crash *quite* as badly as Gamel.

In terms of his, uh, utility to the M’s, the clear comp for Motter is Shawn O’Malley, a guy who can play all over and not embarrass himself, and hit enough to justify a roster spot, particularly given today’s short benches that put a premium on positional flexibility. Motter appears to be a top-shelf version of O’Malley (who, like Motter, was drafted by the Rays), with a bit more upside at the plate, but without the switch-hitting ability. O’Malley’s the better defender at SS, but Motter’s got more upside than most utility guys.

4: So, I mentioned it above, but just after I wrote about Vieira, the M’s removed him from the Peoria roster, replacing him with Andrew Kittredge. You can understand the thought process: the deadline for the M’s to roster was fast approaching, and they had one last chance to see him face decent competition. Vieira responded by throwing 102 with decent control, and thus the decision didn’t turn out to be that difficult: the M’s added Vieira to the 40-man, and then shut him down to avoid the risk of injury.

Joining Vieira on the MLB roster were left-handed reliever Paul Fry and 1B/DH DJ Peterson, the club’s first round pick in 2013. Peterson had some injury issues in 2016, but on the whole, he performed far better than his atrocious 2015. At this point, I’m not sure he’s ever going to hit for average, but he’s demonstrated in-game power in the upper minors, and could tap into more after some work with the M’s coaches. Paul Fry could be a LOOGY for the M’s next year, a possibility Dipoto mentioned to Ryan Divish the other day. He posted a nice ERA, though a high walk rate and plenty of un-earned runs make that a bit misleading. Making room on the roster were Tom Wilhelmsen, who’s now a free agent, and Stefen Romero, who’ll ply his trade in Japan next year. LH RP David Rollins, the M’s last Rule 5 pick (2014), was claimed by the Cubs off of waivers.

Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, by adding Vieira, Fry and Peterson, the M’s 40-man roster is now full, so it doesn’t look like they can play in the MLB portion of the Rule 5 on December 8th. In fact, the M’s are already facing a roster crunch: CF Boog Powell is currently on the restricted list following his PED suspension, so while he’d been on the 40-man, his spot doesn’t officially “count” until he serves his time. At that point, the M’s are going to have to make a move to either keep Powell or try to slip him through waivers. Powell’s currently playing in the Dominican League, where he’s posting his customary solid OBP, but, sadly, a sub-.300 SLG%. Hey, better than Taylor Motter who’s 0-18 in the Dominican.

5: The M’s signed a few minor league free agents, grabbing RP Peter Tago who’d last been in the White Sox org. Tago had been with the White Sox, where he showed solid bat-missing ability, and elite-level strike-zone-missing ability. They also signed Blake Perry, a right-hander who’d played his entire pro career (dating back to the 2010 draft) in the D-Backs organization. They even re-signed Steve Baron, whom they bumped from the 40-man roster a few weeks ago. The M’s have lost a few farmhands as well, with Venezuelan righty Osmer Morales signing with the Angels and 2016 Tacoma starter Kraig Sitton signed with Colorado.

6: At this point, the M’s have made a number of small moves that, taken together, make the 2017 club a bit better at the expense of some low-minors pitching depth. That sounds like an unalloyed good thing, and I suppose it’s not bad, but if you’re going to play for 2017 – and let’s be clear: they absolutely should – then they need to take a decisive step instead of tinkering with the 11-13th reliever on the active roster. The M’s SS position is a problem, and they’re actively working to upgrade it, either with Cincinnati’s Zach Cozart or someone else. Ketel Marte needs more seasoning, more ABs…*something*. But the M’s OF is a bigger, more complicated problem. They have 5 rostered OFs (6, including Powell), and only Seth Smith – who’ll turn 35 next year – is projected to be league average at the plate. Leonys Martin’s 2nd half swoon makes his projection of an 82 wRC+ a bit more plausible, and Gamel and Heredia’s sub-100 projections seem fair, too. Shawn O’Malley isn’t on the roster to be a league-average bat, and if Motter impresses, he may not be on the roster at all. Sure, use Danny Valencia out there, but that makes it less likely that they improve on their -40 defensive runs last year, and you also can’t use him at 1B. You can hope Gamel and Heredia make strides, but the whole “he hasn’t shown it yet, but I swear it’s coming,” thing is what sunk the Zduriencik administration.

I’m preaching to the choir, and the M’s know this as well as anyone. This is not the OF that the M’s will enter the regular season with. But with all of the talk about the SS position, the M’s have lots to do with their outfield.

* I kind of imagine the A’s making the deal without really knowing who they were getting.
“We’re interested in Valencia”
“SURE, no problem. We can make this work.”
“Ok, you want pitching?”
“Yes. Or hitting.”
“We’ve got a lefty in AA who ca”
“Done. Sounds great. I’ll start the paperwork.”


8 Responses to “M’s Transactions: Bullpen Pile + OF Help”

  1. maqman on November 22nd, 2016 2:20 am

    I didn’t like the Litell trade either. If they need a 40-man spot I’d give up Zach Lee after 2 bad seasons with 2 clubs.

  2. JMB on November 22nd, 2016 10:12 am

    Thanks for the detailed write up. Much better than what I found on Baseball America.

  3. Liam on November 22nd, 2016 1:43 pm

    Yeah, thanks for taking the wheel at USSM, marc.

  4. stevemotivateir on November 23rd, 2016 5:46 am

    What puzzles me are the reports suggesting Dipoto is making every effort to land Napoli. Unless they were to start Vogelbach in Tacoma, that would all but cement Valencia’s place in the outfield. Do we really want an outfield that potentially features Smith and Valencia in the corners at the same time?

    This can’t be it for outfielders and Valencia isn’t very interesting as an option for left field because of his lack of defensive shine. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for them to find a corner outfielder who can leadoff and take a little pressure of the pitching?

    Then there’s short. If Cozart can’t be had, who should be on the radar? There’s also a serious need for a left handed setup man with Furbush gone.

    Questions, questions, and more questions. Hopefully the winter meetings provide some answers.

  5. mrakbaseball on November 23rd, 2016 8:54 pm

    Well, let’s just hope the Mariners get something close to the 2016 version of Jean Segura rather than the 2014 or 2015 one.

  6. Notfromboise on November 23rd, 2016 11:43 pm

    Mitch Hanigar plays centerfield and had 12 BB in 100ish ABs this year. Thats something at least.

    If I was the M’s I might side toward Paxton over Walker, too. Tough to give up either, but emotionally I feel a lot closer to the desire to give Paxton actual money than Walker. ‘Trouble locating triple digit heat’ feels more fixable than ‘lingering injury and gopher ball issues’.

    I wonder if Ketel Marte was ‘asked for’ or ‘inflicted upon’, and I’m only half joking when i ask that. Feels like a moral loss that we couldn’t use our farm system to produce something as basic as a replacement level shortstop over the last half dozen years of need. Or a replacement level backup catcher (Don’t you dare say Zunino was supposed to be the backup! :P)

    Signing guys like Clevenger with a straight face and needed to shed a legit pitching talent like Walker to fill such a basic need feels like a step backwards, even though we are super blessed to have Jean on the team now. The path could have been easier.

  7. Rick L on November 26th, 2016 9:06 pm

    I’ve been waiting for days for some expert commentary ot the Taijuan Walker trade. Plead write a post on your opinion.

  8. LongDistance on November 27th, 2016 12:34 am

    Don’t worry, Rick. He’ll be doing that. He’s just taking his time to think over everything, rather than just posting in the immediacy with the more easily at hand platitudes and canned reactions served up on instant media. That thoughtfulness is the reason we come here. As for TW, whatever wasn’t working here, I doubt was going to turn around here. That’s baseball. I wish him the best. But there comes a time you either fish or cut bait.

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