Mariners Swap Seth Smith for SP Yovani Gallardo
As we talked about last time, the M’s looked to be a team with an exceptionally wide range of possible outcomes in 2017. Many of the players they’re counting on are old, volatile, or untested. There are a couple of ways to deal with this: the club could either leverage their prospects and even young talent (read: Edwin Diaz) to bring in a stabilizing force to the rotation/line-up and close the gap with the Astros, OR they could say “screw it” and get even more volatile.
By trading Seth Smith for Yovani Gallardo, they have clearly, unambiguously, opted for the latter strategy. As mentioned here, and by many other people, there’s no mystery about the weak spot in the M’s line-up: it’s the outfield. Leonys Martin slumped the entire 2nd half of 2016, and he’s flanked by untested prospects like Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger. Prior to today, the M’s had all of ONE player playing primarily OF who projected to be a league-average hitter. Now, they have none. Now, to Jerry Dipoto, that may not matter, as the projection systems are going to be low on the M’s young corner OF given that all of them hit poorly in short stints last year. Given the paucity of big league PAs for Gamel/Heredia/Haniger, that just means that the systems throw up their hands, regress them a bit towards league average (and towards their minor league equivalencies) and call it good. The M’s front office very clearly believes in guys like Gamel and Vogelbach, and they’ve done all they can to essentially clear the decks for them. The M’s have steadily removed the contingency plans; at the very least, the kids are going to have to hit opposite-handed pitchers, and hit them hard.
The M’s are banking on their ability to develop and teach young players, and after last year, that may not be a bad bet. Of course, it’s one thing to do focus on instruction in the minors, and another to bank your playoff hopes on it, especially considering that this may be the last realistic shot in a while. The M’s front office is callings its shot with Gamel/Haniger, and now that Seth Smith will suit up in Baltimore, they better be right.
In general, the quid pro quo with a move like this is that you get some upside with your volatility. Sure, Jean Segura’s really hard to figure – he’s gone from Ketel Marte-in-2016 bad to a 5 WAR season – but the upside potential is crystal clear. The M’s *could* have a perennial all-star. The disappointing thing about this move is that there’s none of that. It increases volatility only by *removing* a fairly consistent performer from the OF options; it hasn’t added upside, because Haniger/Gamel were already here before this move was made. Doesn’t Gallardo add upside? Err, not really, no. I’ve talked a lot about Yovani Gallardo, especially in 2015, when he moved from the Brewers to Texas and helped anchor a depleted rotation.
He came up in 2007 after tearing up the PCL (at the same time Tim Lincecum was doing the same), and made some All-Star teams in Milwaukee with a straight, rising four-seam fastball and a big curve ball. Over time, he’s added a sinker to his repertoire, and relied more on a slider than his curve. With a rising fastball and curve, you’d expect him to run GB rates in the 30-40% range, right along with, say, Chris Tillman. But over time, Gallardo gradually evolved into a ground ball pitcher. Sure, the sinker helped, but even now, he throws it less than his four-seam. Instead, he learned to get more and more grounders from his breaking balls. His slider’s not much to write home about as far as swinging strikes go, but it’s occasionally good for a grounder. His curve’s been more consistently a ground ball pitch, which could prove useful if Safeco Field’s as HR-happy as it was last year.
Gallardo was successful in Texas in 2015 in part because of his GB rate and in part due to a high strand rate. That latter bit screams fluke, but Gallardo’s been consistently good at stranding runners, and that’s the main reason he pitched a bit better than his FIP both in Texas and in his last year with the Brewers. Unfortunately, nothing worked for him in Baltimore. He was injured part of the year, and his FB velocity was down to 87 in the early going last year. His GB percentage plummeted, and batters weren’t just hitting more fly balls – they were hitting them harder. Gallardo has been pretty good at yielding average- to a bit below-average contact on ground balls, but his *fly* ball contact authority went up last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly given all of that, his strand rate collapsed as well, leading to an ERA that was not only well over 5, but well over his (bad) FIP, too.
His K rate had been declining for years, but he was able to find a modicum of success in Texas despite of that, and despite a mediocre K:BB ratio, because he managed contact. Last year, he couldn’t. The pitches he’d traditionally used to get grounders produced fly balls instead, and injuries hounded him, too. To be fair, he looked better down the stretch, as his FB velocity was averaging 91 again by September. But the M’s have acquired a pitch-to-contact righty who spent time on the DL last year for shoulder pain, and who’s coming off his worst year. That shoulder injury wasn’t a fluke, either: the Orioles medical staff found an issue with his shoulder when they gave Gallardo his physical. That caused the Orioles to re-work the contract he’d agreed to – it went from 3/$35M guaranteed to 2/$22 with a team option.
In other words, there’s very little upside in Gallardo. Best case scenario, the M’s think Gallardo’s slide in GB% was due to pitch mix and approach, not a lack of command due to chronic shoulder pain. But even if that’s true, they get something a bit more like they thought they had in Wade Miley – a roughly average guy who, if everything goes right, out-pitches his peripherals a bit. It’s very, very easy to imagine other, darker outcomes for this move: Gallardo’s injury woes are worse in 2017, and the M’s spend $13M ($11M in salary and a $2M buyout for his ’18 season) to rehab the guy. If he’s healthy, but his batted ball contact profile doesn’t change, he could work out about as well as Miley did in Seattle. After his 2016, I’m absolutely shocked it took Seth Smith to get him; I’d have thought Baltimore would be fine to get out of his contract. There are very good reasons why this deal’s getting savaged on twitter and the interwebs.
If the M’s had a better track record of helping veteran pitchers, I’d understand it a bit more. But Nathan Karns, who came over with plenty of upside and youth, was mishandled and has now been traded. Wade Miley…yeah, let’s not even rehash that. The big success story of 2016 was James Paxton, but he seemed to take off in Tacoma, and all of the stories about his mechanical changes give the credit to AAA pitching coach Lance Painter. If Gallardo skates out of trouble and pulls a 2015-Texas, better-than-the-sum-of-his-parts season out of nowhere, that’ll help the team tremendously. But I’m just stunned that this ticket for the world’s most boring lottery (please, please give me a season like Jason Vargas’ 2011 or something…daddy needs a new pair of shoelaces!) cost a starting outfielder.