The M’s First Two Trades of the Offseason

marc w · November 16, 2017 at 1:18 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Comments

3 Responses to “The M’s First Two Trades of the Offseason”

  1. bookbook on November 16th, 2017 6:28 pm

    The Jerry era will be remembered as an adrenaline-filled one, that’s for sure. Quite possibly, a short one as well.

  2. cjones on November 17th, 2017 10:59 am

    Whether the plan is risky or not, it feels different to sense that there is a plan at all.
    Also, count me as one who had no idea one could trade a player for international bonus pool money.

  3. mksh21 on November 18th, 2017 8:27 pm

    This is really neat that we acquired a platoon DH/1B thing. I can’t wait to see how Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard rake for the Mariners… hang on being told this is another feeble attempt at making 2 trades from the same team for their mediocre platoon.

    Well at least it isn’t costing us A. Cabrera and Choo this time. But man, how hard is it to get a first baseman in house who can hit 25 HRs and do nothing else in this juiced up era??

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