Mariners Acquire Dee Gordon To Play CF. Are You Not Entertained, Shohei Ohtani?

marc w · December 8, 2017 at 12:24 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Two days ago, the M’s traded recent draft pick, a high-floor catcher who’d rank around their 10th-best prospect to Minnesota in exchange for international bonus pool money. Yesterday, the M’s acquired Dee Gordon from the Marlins *to play CF* in exchange for two of their very few remaining prospects, along with an intriguing pop-up arm who did well in Clinton. Again, the M’s got international bonus pool money in the swap – enough to barely overtake the Rangers and become the team able to offer Shohei Ohtani the largest signing bonus.

The Gordon trade is fascinating in and of itself, and reaction to it has been all over the map. But even as we try to process it on its merits, we all have to agree that these moves don’t mean much without knowing where Ohtani lands. If these moves get the M’s over the top, and Ohtani happily signs an obscenely below-market deal with the Mariners, then they’re great. If not, the M’s have spent their remaining prospect assets to add risk.

Risk is the one word that’s come up in pretty much every analysis of this trade. Dee Gordon has played exactly zero innings in the outfield as a major leaguer, and has posted below-average batting lines the past couple of seasons. Of course, that’s not to say Gordon isn’t valuable: he’s been worth 9 WAR over the past three seasons by Fangraphs and just under that by baseball reference. While much of that was the result of his stellar defense at 2B, the M’s clearly think he’ll be able to transfer that defensive skill to CF. The optimistic side of that is raised in the Baseball Prospectus transaction analysis, which notes that even a much slower player like Jason Kipnis had his UZR/DRS/Fielding runs transfer from 2B to CF essentially unchanged; in Kipnis’ case, that just meant a below-average 2B became a below-average CF. So, the thinking goes, now do the same for a well ABOVE average 2B. The experience of Delino De Shields Jr. is a bit more concerning, however. De Shields ranks right with Gordon as one of the fastest major leaguers, and came up as a middle infielder (like his dad), but switched to CF nearer the big leagues. After a poor year in CF, he’s bounced between CF and LF, though to be fair his defensive metrics have improved markedly since 2015. This Fangraphs piece by Jeff Zimmermann examines several other 2B-to-OF position switchers, from Craig Biggio to Ben Zobrist to Alfonso Soriano. Overall, Zimmermann’s pretty confident Gordon can do it, though most of the comps here didn’t play CF. If he can, and if he can add some runs above average, Gordon figures to give the M’s a decent boost above what Guillermo Heredia would give them.

Gordon’s under contract through 2020 for $38 million, so while this is a multi-year deal for a 30-year old player, the outlay isn’t huge by any stretch. But think of what the M’s have done this offseason: they’ve traded Emilio Pagan, their #2, ~#6 and ~#10th best prospects, they’ve traded potential bullpen asset Thyago Vieira. In return, they have an iffy 1B and a CF who’s never played CF before, outside of winter ball. They’ve taken on salary, and traded for a bunch of international bonus pool funding to tempt Ohtani. That is, the M’s have spent money and potentially made their bullpen worse, and while they’re potentially a bit better on paper, they haven’t yet made the kind of move that leaves the Angels/Rangers/A’s in the dust. Everyone knows what THAT move entails, and pretty much every trade I mentioned above has been made with an eye towards getting Ohtani to sign. But in making themselves a more attractive destination, they’ve removed essentially all margin of error. Given where the M’s are on the win curve, you can make the case that the M’s need risk – they need to go for it. But instead of practicing a trapeze act, the M’s have sold off the net, pushed the trapezes a thousand feet up, and now a key member of the act informs you that they’ve never done trapeze before, but they were a great gymnast, and how different could it be?

I don’t think my negative reaction here is the product of overrating the M’s prospects; the M’s top prospects simply aren’t equivalent to other teams’ top 10 guys. While it hurts to lose Nick Neidert, his struggles in AA illustrate that he’s far from a sure thing, and reports of high-80s velo late in the year is…well, that’s Miami’s problem now. But over the past year or two, the M’s have absolutely torn down their top 20 prospect list, and the team isn’t a whole lot better. It’s better, of course, but the question is by how much? It’s fair to point out that many of their former top-20 talents have been DFA’d, so you might as well trade while guys have value. But that gets back to my constant fretting about player development. If the team’s struggling to develop young talent, are they going to get the most out of Ryon Healy (the Vogelbach experience here isn’t encouraging)? The previous front office absolutely bungled player position changes, declaring the actual Chris Taylor unfit for multi-position use, watching Brad Miller struggle in the OF, and tentatively moving Ketel Marte to CF, then pulling him back. This FO should be better (and Gordon’s clearly better), but I’d love to think that their coaches can help ease this transition.

There’s an overarching issue here, I think, that makes me skeptical of the moves we’ve seen so far. Last year, the M’s ranked 5th in walk rate in the AL West, which has 5 teams. They ranked 4th in ISO, and 5th in baserunning runs. The M’s divisional rivals are improving on the offensive side of the ball, and meanwhile, the M’s project as an offense that will be *worse* in on base percentage/walk rate and *worse* in slugging. 144 players qualified for the batting title last year. Of these, Ryon Healy ranked 140th in walk rate. One spot behind him, in 141st, is Dee Gordon. Now, the M’s figure to strike out less, and that’s great, but the M’s have spent the past two years getting absolutely flattened by the home run explosion and how it’s changed the game. This year, the M’s are trying to build a team around balls in play. The M’s tried last year to build a great pitching staff around the idea that you could run a really low BABIP with great OF defenders. They did it, and watched it come to nothing thanks to a flood of dingers. This year, the M’s appear to be betting that with Gordon, Segura and Gamel, they can run a freakishly HIGH offensive BABIP. If league HR rates stay where they are, the same problem may occur: the M’s will have a high average and lots of base hits, but as many or fewer runs than plodding teams like Oakland who’ll rely on the three true outcomes.

I agree with Nathan Bishop that while there’s risk here, there’s also the potential for a big reward. Gordon could take to CF and become a 4-win player. These moves may get the M’s the Ohtani, in which case it’s completely worth it. I think the M’s have made a decisive move to address their need at CF, and it’s a better one than trying to bring back Jarrod Dyson (while Gordon has platoon splits, they’re not as problematic as Dyson’s). Going after Lorenzo Cain would’ve been nice, but I can imagine the M’s want to save some money for a big FA pitcher, and while their 2018-2019 payroll won’t be prohibitive, they are probably already thinking about what it’d cost to extend Ohtani should he sign with them. This is not another bullpen-tweak type move, another of which just happened while I was writing this. But beyond how we value Gordon, the ease of position shifts, or how much more likely the signing of Ohtani just got, I get the feeling the M’s have a very different idea of how to build a great team than I do. That’s OK, they’re the professionals, and I’m the keyboard cassandra with no stake in it. But part of being an M’s fan is that every move comes complete with a tragic precedent. That doesn’t mean the team is doomed, but it means it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see why it might go wrong. I hope this doesn’t go wrong, and again, if the M’s get Ohtani in part because of these trades, they become retroactively awesome. Strange times we live in.


One Response to “Mariners Acquire Dee Gordon To Play CF. Are You Not Entertained, Shohei Ohtani?”

  1. Westside guy on December 8th, 2017 1:07 pm

    Jerry Dipoto says the right things, and he’s very personable – but I’m getting rather concerned about his continued management of (or perhaps mismanagement of – or even disdain for) the team’s minor league players.

    The team’s core is getting old. I understand Jerry wants a shot at winning with his current group… but there’s a fair bit of signage indicating that ship may have sailed. If we don’t have some young exciting kids to start building around – it’s shaping up to be a dreary future for us fans.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.