M’s Trade Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis for SP Marco Gonzales

marc w · July 21, 2017 at 12:45 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s made it pretty clear that they were trying to win now with their trade of prospects for set-up man David Phelps. Thus, it can’t be *too* shocking to see them part with their biggest high-minors trade chip, OF Tyler O’Neill, in return for some pitching help. What *is* shocking is that they’ve turned to ex-Gonzaga Bulldog Marco Gonzales to help their beleaguered rotation. Gonzalez made one start for the Cardinals this year, gave up about a HR per inning, and was unceremoniously optioned back to AAA. He made one start for them a year ago, got battered around, and was then optioned back to AAA. In a move that seemingly eliminates any possibility of claiming that this is a win now move, the M’s will cut out the “one bad big league start” middle-man and send Gonzales straight to Tacoma.

Jerry Dipoto said the club needed to be realistic and creative in their pursuit of a playoff spot in 2017 and the near future. They didn’t have a ton of minor league talent to deal from, and they need help rebuilding pitching depth that’s been hammered by injuries and ineffectiveness. I understand that given the league-wide need for pitching and the M’s mediocre farm system that they wouldn’t be buying name-brand starters, but I thought they would at least bring back an actual big league pitcher. After the Phelps trade, I argued that if they wanted a starter, Phelps might be a decent option, and one they obviously had the talent to afford. I’m not sure what the plan is with Gonzalez, or more accurately, *when* he’s supposed to add value. To be fair to the M’s, Gonzalez has 40+ innings and less than 1 full year of service time, so he’s under club control for a long while. But then, so was Tyler O’Neill. If, as everyone acknowledges, the price in talent rises at the trade deadline would the M’s pick *now* to pick up a long-term project?

Gonzales throws a running four-seam (and, rarely, a sinker) at about 90-91 and pairs it with his best pitch, a change-up, with fairly extreme armside run. Overall, the entire package reminds me a bit of former Mariner Mike Montgomery, back before Montgomery’s trip to the bullpen and velocity increase. Back when he first joined the M’s, Montgomery threw about 91 with a four-seamer that moved a lot like Gonzales’, and featured a change-up with nearly identical movement. Both are lefties of course. Both had been noted high-floor prospects, and then both spent time wandering the baseball wilderness – Montgomery couldn’t solve the high minors and was in danger of being released. Gonzalez had a great initial season with the Cards, and then spent 2015 struggling and dealing with shoulder pain, before missing all of 2016 with TJ surgery. Maybe that’s the reason for his struggles now, and maybe there’s some untapped potential there that the M’s could mine. But if the *Cardinals* couldn’t get maximum value out of a moderately-talented baseball rat, what chance do the M’s have?

Gonzales’ change-up racks up a ton of swinging strikes, but batters *also* put it in play a lot. They swing a lot, and when they make contact, it tends to be hit pretty hard. This is why he doesn’t show the righty-suppressing stats of someone whose change-up misses so many bats; he has better K rates against righties (in majors and minors), but also higher hit rates. His K rates against lefties have suffered because while he’s toyed with a slider and curve, neither are big-league quality quite yet. They may get there eventually, but they’ve been show-me offerings thus far, and his usage rates reflect that. There’s raw material here, but the M’s player development staff have a lot to do, and Gonzales is 25 already.

While O’Neill was the M’s top position player prospect, that doesn’t mean he’s seen as a premium prospect by the league. He battled contact issues, and while they’d gotten better, he’s always going to have swing-and-miss in his game. His power was evident in the Cal League and in his recent hot streak in Tacoma, but it wasn’t 70-80 grade. What the Cardinals are buying is a trajectory, a trend line. O’Neill was a very raw player out of British Columbia who switched positions, lost some time to injury, and then needed to learn to harness his impressive strength. And while his raw OPS or wOBA numbers weren’t amazing (though last year’s was pretty darn good), they showed growth. Combine a propensity to learn and adjust with a young age, and you’ve got someone who might be more interesting than the surface numbers would indicate. As a bat-first corner OF, O’Neill needs to hit a *ton* to add value. The growth from 2015 to 2016, and even the growth from April/May of this year to June/July shows why the M’s – and others – have interest.

He’ll now head to a team that’s had some success with players of this type. I’ve long thought of O’Neill as a pocket-sized Randall Grichuk, and while Grichuk’s struggled this year, the Cards got a surprising amount of production out of a slugger who showed far less minor league production than O’Neill. Tommy Pham struggled with contact in the minors, and it took him about 10 years of seasoning to get a shot, but I could see O’Neill putting up lines like Pham’s 2016 in fairly short order. The question is, can they help him do more, and get up to something like Pham’s 2017 line? O’Neill is not a perfect prospect, and there are still red flags splashed across his Fangraphs page. But the Cardinals got a cost-controlled, pre-arb OF they can take some time to develop, and all it cost them was a pitcher who likely wasn’t in their plans anymore.

Yes, O’Neill’s status as the top of a thin farm system may have worked against him here, but Gonzales ranked 16th in Fangraphs’ list of Cardinals prospects this year, and the Cardinals aren’t challenging the White Sox or Braves for preeminent farm system. I thought the M’s didn’t strike a hard bargain in the Phelps trade, but in comparison, this is probably worse. Put aside the M’s public statements about 2017, the high prices for deadline deals, or Gonzales’ former 1st-round-pick status. What do starters with a solid MiLB track record and very poor MLB numbers go for? Mike Montgomery (1st round pick) cost Erasmo Ramirez, an out-of-options guy the M’s would’ve had to release. Dillon Overton (2nd round pick) was a very good four-seam/change-up guy in the PCL in 2016, and then had a crappy cup of coffee in Oakland before the A’s let him go to the M’s for one Jason Goldstein, senior-sign catcher. Eddie Butler, once a top-100-in-baseball prospect (and a supplemental 1st rounder), was swapped straight up for a minor-league reliever. I’m sure there are examples of a top OF being traded for a project, but even there, you’d expect that project to have a bit more upside than Gonzales, who realistically is a #4 or so if everything works out.

The M’s have made some disastrous win now deals of MiLB outfielders, and while I’m not fond of this, I think it’s a far cry from Shin-Soo Choo-for-Ben Broussard. But this combines my frustration at Dipoto and Company’s ability to extract maximum value from their system with a more generalized confusion about the plan going forward. Rebuilding pitching depth is important in a system where Nick Neidert is still in the Cal League. Getting a post-hype prospect with plenty of club control makes some sense, too, in a vacuum – but it doesn’t seem to fit with the team’s desire to improve the 2017 club.

Many in the M’s twitter/blogosphere note that this is important information about how the league saw and valued O’Neill. O’Neill didn’t really have a place to play in the now-crowded Seattle outfield, so I understand making him available, but if THIS is how the market valued him, the M’s needed to wait and make a deal in the off-season. If the M’s were willing to swap him for down-the-road help, then making the trade *now* seems like very poor strategy. By waiting, the M’s could take more advantage of his second-half surge (assuming it continued) and wouldn’t have to pay a premium for a post-TJ command/control change-up guy, especially if he was never the answer to a particular 2017-specific problem.

The M’s don’t have – and haven’t had – a great farm system since Dipoto took over. He’s made plenty of trades from it, but simply hasn’t gotten a ton of value in return. In the past year, the M’s have dealt a number of top-10 prospects (yes, yes, top 10 in a weak system). Drew Jackson went to LA in the Chase de Jong deal. Luiz Gohara and Alex Jackson went to the Braves for Mallex Smith (swapped with Ryan Yarbrough for Drew Smyly), and Max Povse/Rob Whalen. Injuries have bit them, and Povse’s still a talented youngster, but the M’s have spent an awful lot of chips in order to take flyers on Whalen/de Jong/Overton/Bergman-type arms. The vast gulf between what it’s taken to acquire, say, Overton with what it took to get Gonzeles doesn’t seem to concern them. It concerns me.


7 Responses to “M’s Trade Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis for SP Marco Gonzales”

  1. Westside guy on July 21st, 2017 1:20 pm

    First off, I have to say my knowledge of minor league players is very limited… but I was a bit depressed when I read about this trade. I really don’t get the “why” of it.

    Only thing I can think of is if someone in the org thinks they’ve identified some tweak Gonzales needs which will catapult him into the majors… but really, it doesn’t seem like the current org is exactly known for pitcher development as a particular strength.

  2. Westside guy on July 21st, 2017 1:28 pm
  3. marc w on July 21st, 2017 1:34 pm

    Right, I think if they see something in Gonzales that they think they can “correct” quickly, ala the White Sox with Matt Thornton, then I can understand their strong desire to get him. I still don’t really understand who they were bidding against or why *ANY* team, no matter the state of their system, would have to put up a top prospect to get a guy like Gonzales, coming off of injury, with a poor performance record, etc.

  4. Westside guy on July 21st, 2017 2:02 pm

    Yeah, you’re spot on – it does look like another overpay, no matter what the end result is.

  5. bookbook on July 21st, 2017 2:47 pm

    Sometimes the best trade is the one you do not make…

  6. mksh21 on July 21st, 2017 3:14 pm

    It may turn out fine. O’Neill may suck, but the PERCEPTION of him is that you could get something a little more sexy for him.. I don’t get it either but I trust this front office a lot more than front office’s past

  7. Sowulo on July 21st, 2017 8:35 pm

    I follow the M’s minor league affiliates pretty closely. Right now there aren’t any hitting prospects at all to get excited about. And darn few arms. The Cards #16 prospect is immediately the M’s #7. Depressing.

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