M’s Acquire Ex-Yankee RP Nick Rumbelow in Annoying Trade

November 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

The world is awash in outrage, and I don’t want to add to it. Nor do I want to draw any false equivalence between annoying back-of-the-40-man trades and something that really deserves an intemperate response. However mad you can be about trading some low-minors lottery tickets, that’s how mad I am right now. It’s not really about the players involved; Nick Rumbelow may turn out fine. But this is the latest example in a very worrying trend.

Last year, the M’s famously went through 40 pitchers last year, a product not only of injuries (though they clearly contributed), but also of a particular style of roster management. That’s easier to see when you look at AAA Tacoma’s roster, where the Rainiers used an astonishing 52 pitchers in 2017. How can that be when other teams lost more time and/or more pitchers to the DL? Because the M’s, under GM Jerry Dipoto, crank through the bottom of their 40-man roster like no other team.

Because of baseball’s roster rules, these spots at the back end of the 40-man can often be pretty tenuous. Teams roster players to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, for example, but then they may get outrighted or DFA’d once another transaction comes over the transom. Teams with a productive farm system *need* each of those 40 spots, while teams without many prospects might use the waiver wire to fill out the roster instead. The M’s are firmly in the second camp, and thus it’s not a huge shock that they used the 40-man on minor trades and waiver claims. Used well, a team can use these back-end roster spots to build up some depth, especially in the bulllpen. The problem isn’t that the M’s acquire guys like Nick Rumbelow, a one-time prospect who came back strong from Tommy John surgery last year. The problem is that they both pay for the privilege in talent AND then quickly drop guys from the 40-man. The M’s can’t get the most out of any of these live arms, because their hyperactive roster strategy means they can’t actually develop anyone.

Last August, the M’s made a minor deal, trading a couple of lower-level prospects in Anthony Misiewicz and Luis Rengifo to the Rays for C Mike Marjama and RP Ryan Garton. Garton needed a 40-man spot, and eventually pitched a handful of innings down the stretch for Seattle. Garton throws 93+ – nothing overwhelming – with lots of vertical ‘rise,’ has a high-spin curve and an interesting cutter. I don’t want to oversell this; Garton was just outrighted off the roster in October, meaning he cleared waivers. The problem, to me, is that Nick Rumbelow looks an awful lot like Garton. Rumbelow throws 93+ with arrow straight movement and plenty of rise. Seriously, Rumbelow averaged 10.52″ of rise in his 2015 cup of coffee while Garton was at 10.42″ last year. Rumbelow’s slurvy curveball is actually a *low* spin pitch, but his big secondary pitch is a change-up that gets a bit more drop than Garton’s. It’s nothing incredible, movement wise, but it’s helped his K rate against minor league lefties, for what that’s worth.

Rumbelow missed essentially all of 2016 rehabbing his elbow, and only really pitched for half of 2017. To be fair, he put up the best results of his career, limiting hits like never before and inducing some grounders. Dipoto said he thought Marco Gonzales was simply *better* after coming back from TJ, and this may be another case. He may throw the ball better still in 2018 as his surgery fades in the rear view. But he’s 26, and was released by the Yankees not that long ago. Given the Yankee bullpen, he was a marginal roster guy, though of course they added him to their 40-man a few weeks ago. He’s a longshot, but he’s not worthless and may develop in the system. The problem is that the M’s haven’t shown that they have the patience required to actually develop players like this.

James Pazos was solid early on but faded down the stretch. Ryan Garton was intriguing (uh, to me, at least), but if he pitches in Seattle again, he’ll bump Rumbelow or the next Rumbelow from the roster. Meanwhile, all of these moves churn through guys the M’s have drafted and spent some time developing. Rumbelow cost the M’s two low-level pitchers, 2017 draft pick and K-rate king JP Sears and 2016 J2 signing Juan Then. Sears was a blog favorite for putting up video game strikeout numbers in Everett and Clinton. A senior sign out of the Citadel, Sears wasn’t exactly a lock to make the majors. With a 90 MPH fastball, I think a bunch of evaluators might have seen him as a trick-pitch guy, though you simply can’t argue with the results. A longshot like Sears has to open eyes to get a shot, and, well, he opened some eyes. Juan Then was the M’s third-biggest J2 bonus, but put up solid numbers in the M’s Dominican League team while the #1 prospect the M’s signed struggled mightily (he slugged .185) and the #2 prospect was sent off in the Ryon Healy deal. On its own, you wouldn’t bat an eye at two really-far-from-the-majors kids going for a big league ready on-the-40-man player. But the M’s have traded minor league pitchers for Pazos, Garton, Rumbelow, Arquimedes Caminero, Evan Scribner, David Phelps, Shae Simmons, etc. Meanwhile, they’ve been just as active on the waiver wire, bringing in guys like Blake Parker, Evan Marshall, Ryan Weber and a bunch more we’ve all forgotten. Each of THESE moves often bumps someone else off the roster.

There’s nothing wrong with trading prospects to fill big league needs; the last M’s FO failed in part because of their *reluctance* to do so. But what have the M’s really gained in all of this churn? In order to kick the tires on a long list of pitchers, the M’s have essentially ceded the development role in AAA AND traded away a minor league team’s worth of low-minors pitchers. They’ve gotten essentially replacement-level production out of it, though of course guys like Simmons and Phelps are clearly better than that (when healthy). If Dipoto had some special eye for relief talent, that’d be one thing. Outside of Nick Vincent, a cast off from San Diego, the M’s have actually done better with home-grown relievers like Emilio Pagan than they have with trade acquisitions like Chase de Jong or Pazos.

So much of Dipoto’s “buy low” approach depends on a strong player development group that can help correct mechanical issues or improve strength/range of movement. So much of Dipoto’s roster strategy makes that development mission impossible. The M’s bullpen coach Mike Hampton quit midway through 2017. Tacoma operated like an independent league team. The M’s ran through 40+ pitchers. This trade makes me think we’re going to do it all again next year.

The M’s First Two Trades of the Offseason

November 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

The M’s acquired what they say is their starting 1B for 2018 yesterday when they flipped RP Emilio Pagan and low-level SS Alexander Campos for A’s 1B/”3B” Ryon Healy. Doing so allows them to fill a line-up spot cheaply, while dealing from an area of comparative strength (righty relievers). Then, today, they went back to that same well and flipped intriguing power arm Thyago Vieira to the White Sox for international bonus pool space. The two moves are quite different in what they bring to the franchise, but the key to them both is that the M’s are saving money in a couple of pots. These deals on their own are lackluster, even annoying…but they only really make sense once we figure out what/who the M’s are saving their money *for*.

Ryon Healy, a product of the University of Oregon, had a brilliant first few months in the majors in 2016, which capped off a stellar season that saw him rise from non-prospect (or depth prospect) to starter. After a few years of being a low-OBP guy with moderate power, a swing change enabled him to hit quite a few more extra-base hits. He’s not a good defender, so this change was absolutely critical: no one wants low-OBP, medium power 1Bs. A low-OBP guy with plus power sounds more like Mark Trumbo (as Dave just pointed out). Had the A’s just found a replacement for Josh Donaldson, another guy who limped through the system without enough power to be an everyday player before making adjustments and becoming an MVP-caliber player? Well, the results from 2017 don’t look great for Healy. His OBP was just over .300, kept low by a walk rate under 4%. His ISO fell back from 2016 levels too, and thus, while his power wasn’t bad (it’s still his best tool), he ended up near replacement level when you add in his position and defense.

You can see the thought process from Dipoto/Seattle’s point of view fairly easily, too: if 2016 wasn’t the “real” Healy, then neither was 2017. If he regresses towards his career averages, you have the makings of someone with a much better hit tool than Trumbo, and thus more singles/batting average. Sure, it doesn’t add up to a superstar, but a moderate-K guy with pop is something of a rare bird in today’s game, and even better for a team that needs to spend money on pitching, it’s an undervalued combination of skills. Besides, all it cost was a reliever who’s bound to regress; Pagan’s 2017 looked great thanks to a low HR/FB ratio. As a fly-ball specialist, Pagan’s going to give up HRs, and when a few more fly balls die on the warning track, his great control makes him look great. If a few more of those flies end up in the first row, he looks a lot more like 2015 Evan Scribner, where even the best K-BB% around can’t keep him above replacement level. To be clear, relievers are now more valuable, and if there’s one place this particular skillset might still play in 2018, it’s probably Oakland. But I’m sure Dipoto’s thrilled to get a starter for the 3rd-or-so right-handed reliever in the M’s pen.

That said, there are some serious red flags with Healy that make it tough to just split the difference between his 2016 and 2017 numbers. His K:BB ratio worsened last year as well as his power production. His GB% ticked up a bit, which explains some of the drop in ISO as well. I’d argue that all of these things have a common source: there’s essentially no hitter in baseball who’s more fastball-focused. I know, I know, “You said that about Ben Gamel, Marc,” you all say. I still feel that it’s an issue with Gamel, but Healy takes that profile and distills it even further. As with Gamel, Healy’s pitch type linear weights are amazing on pitches Pitch Info classes as fastballs. In 2017 – a year in which he was replacement level and an average-at-best hitter, remember), he did exceptional damage on FBs. Breaking that down even further, Brooks/Pitch Info shows that essentially all of that damage came on four-seamers. Statcast data agrees, and if we look over the past two seasons combined, Healy’s wOBA on four-seam fastballs ranks 8th in baseball behind Joey Votto and ahead of Jose Altuve and Kris Bryant. If we look at sinkers/two-seamers, though, a very different picture emerges. Here, a much lower launch angle produces a grounder-hitting guy with a wOBA under .290, ranking 391st out of 442 qualified hitters. Things don’t look a whole lot better if you add in breaking balls and offspeed pitches; Healy’s whiff rate rises, but his launch angle and exit velocities are still much lower than on four-seam fastballs. Essentially, Healy’s quite vulnerable to both breaking balls *and* sinking fastballs. Some teams already seem to know: the Astros, a team that both employs sinker-maven Dallas Keuchel and a team-wide emphaiss on bendy pitches, have held Healy to a career .640 OPS with a 35:5 K:BB ratio. The M’s, who’ve given Healy more four-seamers than anyone, have given up the most HRs to Healy.

As the book gets out on Healy, it may be harder and harder for him to reach the highs of 2016, and in any event, his projections are pretty ugly. Steamer currently projects him for 0.1 WAR, or essentially dead on replacement level, with a slash line of .258/.296/.428. You can bet the over on that (I think I would), but he’s got to blow that out of the water in order to really add value to a team that wants to contend for the playoffs. If anything, this is yet another of Dipoto’s favorite kind of move: the buy-low. Healy’s value is limited not only by his poor 2017, but by the fact that Oakland’s youth movement has essentially left him without a position. Even elite bat-first guys are going for a comparative pittance, so you may as well get one whose value can’t get lower, especially given his years of club control and pre-arb salaries. You could squeeze more out of the position by platooning him a bit with Dan Vogelbach, too, which…ehhh, at least it’s cheap. But buying low isn’t solely about regression towards the mean; it’s a tacit vote of confidence in the M’s ability to actually *improve* players. If the M’s know how to make Healy more selective, or more patient, or more powerful, then this might work. Thus far, as with the acquisition of Scribner or Vogelbach or Danny Valencia, the M’s haven’t really been able to do so. Player development takes time, I know, but I wish I felt one tenth the confidence that Dipoto seems to have that THIS is the group of coaches best positioned to unlock talent in Healy (or whoever else). Fingers crossed, eh?

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The second move came down this morning, when the M’s swapped 100-MPH throwing Thyago Vieira to pick up $500,000 in international bonus pool money from the White Sox. Trading a young, cost-controlled fireballer for a half-million in lottery tickets sounds silly, but of course this is not a normal year for international bonus pools. With the imminent posting of Shohei Ohtani, teams are already jockeying to make a competitive offer to the potential two-way star. The M’s had under $2 million in space, a far cry from the Rangers $3.5M+, but given the amount of money Otani’s leaving on the table by coming over now, teams have to expect that bonus space won’t be the deciding factor. The M’s are trying to get closer, trying to essentially argue that they can match whatever the Dodgers, say, will offer while offering a much better payment on day 1. The Dodgers exceeded their bonus pool last year, and can only offer $300,000 this year – a fact that won’t stop them from lobbying hard for Ohtani’s services. The M’s can’t quite match Texas’ bonus, but they can sell him on the city, being closer to Japan and near an airport with nonstop flights AND an immediate multi-million dollar payday.

The M’s saved money to get a first baseman with Healy, and now they’re maximizing their bonus pool flexibility. That’s exciting and all, but giving up two intriguing relief arms ups the pressure on the M’s to actually land someone worth spending all of these savings on. Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta won’t come cheap, and while the Vieira trade won’t help with that, the Healy savings might. If they don’t land Ohtani, and I’m still guessing that they won’t, they still need to make a splash on young talent – perhaps some of the prospects the Braves are set to lose thanks to their punishments for improper payments.

The common thread here is that the M’s will have money to spend, and they’ve now filled one starter position without spending any of it. They can be more aggressive internationally, too, and while we all hope that means Ohtani, the Braves’ misdeeds mean there will be some nice consolation prizes, too. The free agent market and Ohtani’s posting have made this a pivotal year for the franchise, and they’re set up well to play in those markets. But coming close won’t end the M’s playoff drought; the M’s need to actually acquire elite talent, and they don’t really have an excuse if they fail.

’17 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

November 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 7 Comments 

Well, it’s that time of the year again. If you sense less enthusiastic intonations in my pixels this time around, you’re not wrong. As exciting… debatably exciting, as previous incarnations of the 40-man preview were, this year we find our cupboards more barren and the reasons are two-fold. One, as I’ve noted previously with some sneering, is that there has been some eagerness on our general manager’s part to send off risks for modest ceilings. Had we projected forward from the same time in 2016, then as 2017 40-man offseason additions, we likely would have been thinking about Tyler O’Neill and Zack Littell as prep draftees from ’13 and Luiz Gohara as an international signing as headliners. Heck, we could’ve even talked up the finer points of Pablo Lopez. Joke’s on us, it seems. The second reason is that our ’14 draft was not a major one for college selections (or any selections, really). The Rays will probably add Ryan Yarbrough and the Giants might add Tyler Herb, but we already have Altavilla on the roster and the rest have not much distinguished themselves. As exhaustive as I used to be in projecting guys who even had a ghost of a chance, I don’t think many losses from this group would come back to haunt us (rimshot).

I am duty-bound to report back on my findings, although I feel as if the acquisitions of Mike Marjama and David Freitas mean that we can safely overlook the coterie of catcher in the high minors, to say nothing of the fact that a lot of those fringe candidates are technically minor league free agents at the moment. The deadline we’re looking at for all additions would be Nov. 20th at 5 pm PT / 8 pm ET. Credit to Baseball America for providing that information as Major League Baseball’s own website doesn’t often bother anymore.

Omissions will include Jordan Cowan (faded after good start to end up sub-.700 in OPS), Adonis de la Cruz (reliever, walks, SSS), Anjul Hernandez (has some Ks, is youngish, great googly moogly walks and hits), and Chris Mariscal (older and exposed in double-A stint). Those I’ve mentioned in the past that haven’t really done much to make their cases since, I’ll also skip. Wow, sub-1500 words? I’m losing my edge.
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Roy Halladay, 1977-2017

November 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Roy Halladay faced a good M’s team three times in 2000. He tossed a total of 7 innings across 1 start and 2 relief appearances, yielding 13 hits and 7 runs. He walked 5 and struck out 2. He was 23, and would start the next season down in the Florida State League after compiling an MLB ERA over 10 in that season. Sure, the year before, he’d put it all together against Seattle, going 7 shutout innings in a duel with Jamie Moyer. But in July of 2000, it looked like that’d be a great bar story, the talented kid who’d made the show but couldn’t stick.*

Halladay wasn’t exactly a young phenom, and he’d amassed over 200 big league innings. Sure, his minor league numbers were better, but they didn’t scream can’t-miss-prospect; his BB/9 in AAA was about 3.5, while his K/9 was just over 5. He’d been a first-round pick, so it’s not like the Jays were giving up on him, but in the years since the draft, he’d showed little evidence that a breakthrough was imminent.

At the time, there were a couple of closely-related tenets of the nascent sabermetric community that pretty much everyone agreed on. The first was that minor league stats could effectively predict major league performance, indeed, they were at least as good as *MLB* stats at predicting future MLB performance (once adjusted for level/context, of course). As you can see, there was little in Halladay’s MiLB resume to suggest he could either a) miss bats at an elite level or b) develop pinpoint command. The conclusion that’s distinct, but clearly similar to this theory held that raw stuff, or talent, or ability, or skillset was essentially fixed, innate. It’s what allowed minor league stats – and stats in general – to be predictive: they were an indicator of skill. That’s not to say that all a pitcher could ever be was what he was at 19 years old, but it implied that development was about figuring out what in a pitcher’s bag of tricks was particularly good or noteworthy and honing that skill into a weapon. You couldn’t just “develop” into a hard-throwing strikeout artist – you either were or you were not. If you were throwing 89 but had good control, it would probably be best to focus on command. If you threw a sinker, you should focus on being the best ground ball pitcher you could be. Roy Halladay had so-so command and so-so stuff: his stats told us. Things were looking bleak.

You all know what happened next, and while Toronto’s coaches and player development staff get a lot of credit, the primary reason Roy Halladay not only got another big league shot but became ROY HALLADAY was that he worked incredibly hard. Sabermetric ideas worked well on the population at large, but they couldn’t identify players like Halladay who simply wouldn’t stop improving themselves. Armed with a new approach, Halladay first became an absolutely elite control pitcher and what we would now call a contact-manager (a species the nascent sabermetric community was pretty sure did not exist back when Halladay was evolving into one). Even then, when he’d become a very good MLB starter, he *kept* developing and by 2008, he was a strikeout pitcher as well, and by far the league’s best overall arm.

Given his insane work ethic, it wouldn’t have been a shock if Halladay had been a hyper-competitive gym rat, a guy fueled by resentments real and imaginary. Instead, Halladay was the kind of guy even those who couldn’t hit him wanted to talk to. During and after his playing days, he was reaching out to younger pitchers, especially those who were struggling – often for the first time – and didn’t know why. He wanted to help, and his example must’ve been the focus of dozens or hundreds of young pitchers who got roughed up in their first taste of the bigs. That’s what made Halladay so much more than the story of an extemely talented pitcher who shook off early struggles and reached his potential. That’s pat and boring. Instead, Halladay showed that what you are now isn’t what you’d always be. Other pitchers soaked it up, either directly or, as in the case of Brandon McCarthy, by carefully and meticulously copying his every move.

After McCarthy found success by completely overhauling his repertoire, the A’s essentially codified it and institutionalized Halladay-mimicry for a while, something I’ve talked about a few times on this blog. The damage to the old idea of a fixed quantity of “stuff” went far beyond the more literal “throw cutters and sinkers.” I don’t want to oversell this; coaches and teammates have passed on new pitches for years, and things have clicked for many, even after years of fruitless struggle. But THE story of 2017 wasn’t the ball, it wasn’t stockpiling draft picks, or Statcast – it was the very Halladay-esque idea that you could go out and fundamentally change everything about a ballplayer. You could smash through the hypothetical ceiling that prospect people always talked about. Charlie freaking Morton could throw 98, because hey, why not. Chris Taylor could slug .500 in the majors, but finish a few HRs shy of Zach Cozart’s season total. Roy Halladay didn’t teach Taylor to elevate the ball, but he started something that’s still working its way through the game. By being not only relentless but open, friendly and helpful, Halladay fundamentally changed a few people’s careers, and the ripples of those changes have altered the game for the better.

Roy Halladay died today at the age of 40. He’s a few months younger than I am, and by all accounts was as dedicated to his family as I try to be. Even with a Halladay-like work ethic, I’d never be able to throw 80, let alone 90. But there’s something about his personality and the way he related to others – athletes or not – that’s inspiring. I don’t think a Chris Taylor-like transformation of my personality or abilities is in the offing, but Halladay is one of the people who makes me want to be a little bit better, and, crucially, that putting the work in to do so is worth it. I hope his example and his legacy is some comfort to his loved ones and especially his kids. RIP.

* The proper name for outings in which replacement-level pitchers toss one great start against Seattle and then fade away is a “Waechter” after former Tampa hurler Doug Waechter.