The First Big Trade and the M’s Approach to 2019

marc w · November 9, 2018 at 5:45 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Sorry for the delay in writing this one up, but I ended up writing about this for Baseball Prospectus. Uh, yeah, so I’m going to be contributing over there now. It’s a big honor, as I’ve read BP for *almost* as long as I read this blog, and of course, it was through USSMariner that I found BP in the first place.

The upshot is that the M’s are essentially paying Tampa as a professional development contractor. The M’s have tried desperately to find a CF, and they’ve failed. Guillermo Heredia – also included in the trade – never developed despite the ability to work a walk and defense that looked good at times. Leonys Martin seemed to get into a slump midway through 2016 and just was never able to get out of it. Uh, until this year, in Detroit. Dee Gordon…the less said, the better.

Mallex Smith looked to be very Guillermo Heredia-like when the M’s sent him to Tampa as part of the ill-fated Drew Smyly acquisition. But as is the Rays’ wont, they were able to improve him and create a more-than-playable CF. Unsurprisingly for a guy with his speed, Smith hits the ball at a lower trajectory and hits plenty of ground balls. It may help his BABIP a bit to run out GBs in the SS/3B hole, so it’s not like the Rays wanted to get him to hit a lot of fly balls; as one of the weaker fly ball hitters in the game, that’d be a recipe for disaster. The problem was the nature of those low-to-negative angled hits. In 2016, the average Mallex ground ball came off the bat at 73.8 MPH (per Statcast). That was good for 466th out of 471 players with at least 50 balls in play, beating out the likes of Johnny Cueto and Max Scherzer. In 2017, he somehow dropped even more, all the way to an average of 72.3 MPH. That left him at 462 out of 466 players, but hey, in your FACE, RA Dickey. But last year, he was up to 80.3 MPH, which, while not good, at least ensured he was in the range of position players and not pitchers. Not only that, but Smith cut his K rate as well, meaning those grounders weren’t just hit harder, but they were coming at the expense of strikeouts. At all added up to a wRC+ pf 117 and a 3+ win season.

Things changed, though, when the Rays acquired Tommy Pham from St. Louis. With a full OF, and an OF that promised more power than Smith could provide, the Rays had a 3-win, club-controlled asset that they didn’t desperately need, and like anything they don’t desperately need, they shopped him immediately. The M’s get a massive, massive upgrade in CF, and they can finally bring Dee Gordon back to 2B. This does a couple of things. Not only does it improve the M’s defense, but it may help them dominate the market around the trade deadline. Dee Gordon is untradeable now, after an abysmal offensive season and the whole let’s-just-forget-it-ever-happened CF experiment. A solid 1st half back at his old position could help the M’s find a buyer, and a great 1/2 year from Smith could make him a guy who commands a premium. He’s still a pre-arb guy; he’ll have his first arb season in 2020. If the M’s aren’t bad in 2019, they keep him and let him be a cheap, useful piece to build around. If they’re horrible, they’d go into the deadline with players to sell that other teams might actually *want* for a change.

So much of what happens next depends on the market for James Paxton. There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about the M’s willingness to move him, with Ken Rosenthal talking about the Yankees interest today. The M’s don’t have to move him, and frankly *should* be listening to offers on their ace, but it’s nice that they don’t need to move him unless they’re blown away by an offer. If he stays, the M’s could again be semi-competitive. If the M’s drop out of contention, I think another healthy 1/2 year might make him a great win-now pick-up. But if someone offers two-three top 100 prospects, then I think the M’s take the deal now.

Mike Zunino’s volatility made it harder to assume he’d be decent trade bait. His value would’ve been fairly high at this time last year, but it had tanked by the time July of 2018 rolled around. The M’s clearly didn’t know how to bring him out of the slumps he was so often mired in, and decided to sell now when he had both a sterling defensive reputation and memories of his 2017 were fresh. It’s got to be a humbling situation; the M’s have been trying to develop a catcher since Dan Wilson (who was mostly developed in Cincinnati), and they finally did it, but it didn’t stick, and then they had to use that partial success to cover over their other glaring developmental failure: CF.

It’s a post of mine, so you know PD is going to come in for criticism, but putting that aside, this has the potential to make the M’s better in 2019. Yes, a great Zunino would’ve been the easiest path to improvement, but that was far from a sure thing. An easier improvement would be getting more than replacement-level production from your starting CF. The options in free agency at C aren’t great, but then, they don’t need to be. They need to replace Zunino’s overall performance, which, to be fair, was buoyed by his amazing defense. But his .259 OBP and .289 projected OBP aren’t exactly high bars to clear. AJ Ellis comes to mind as a cheap one-year stop-gap who has some of Zunino’s strengths in game-calling/managing a staff, while also offering a solid eye at the plate. No 450′ HRs, though, and his framing grades poorly on BP’s metric. Stephen Vogt lives locally, and had solid framing numbers the last time he was healthy; that “healthy” part means he’d come cheap, but it’d be tough to count on 120 games from him. Anyway, there are options for even a team that’s going to claim budget constraints.

Other notes/transactions:

1: Mallex Smith brings a ton of value on the basepaths, and that’s an area that the M’s have struggled with for years. Last year’s team should’ve bucked that trend, and maybe it would have if Dee Gordon had gotten on base more, but the M’s graded poorly in FG’s baserunning metric, which measures SBs/CSs, but also things like scoring from 1st on a 2B, going from 1st-3rd, etc. The problem is that the M’s have been bad every year, and while they’re better than they were in, say, 2015, they’re still grading poorly even after spending on speedy guys like Gordon. Some of this comes from signing Nellie Cruz and watching Kyle Seager’s speed slip away, but my guess is that the same factors that make it really hard to hit 2B and 3B in Safeco make it exceedingly hard to take extra bases on the basepaths. The OF is simply too small, meaning it’s harder to be certain a ball will find a gap, and it’s correspondingly easier for an OF to get a ball off the wall back to the IF quickly. It didn’t seem to bother Jarrod Dyson too much, but Gordon’s speed number sank along with…all of his other numbers last year. Here’s hoping Mallex is able to keep his amazing SB% and still go 1st-3rd on singles.

2: The M’s signed utility IF Dylan Moore out of the Brewers org. He’s hit well in recent years, but is 26 and AA/AAA, and is just now back on the map after a terrible stint in the Braves org after a trade from the Rangers for international bonus pool money. He put up gaudy numbers in High A in both High A leagues, but those were partially a product of great hitting environments (High Desert!). He collapsed for the Braves AA affiliate, slugging .292, and thus got released. He signed a minor league deal with the Brewers and blew away AA, eventually spending most of the year in AAA. He hit incredibly well, but then there’s that whole environment thing: he played in Colorado Springs. Still, as a young-ish guy with a promising bat, but perhaps not quite as promising as the stats show, he’s got enviable positional flexibility. In 2018 alone, he played SS, CF, 2B, 3B, 1B, and LF. He’s played all 3 OF spots in the past, and seems to know how to handle the middle infield without anyone losing their job over it. This could be your new Andrew Romine, or at least a more interesting AAA IF than the Rainiers have had in a while.

3: Speaking of the Rainiers, they’ve resigned reliever Ryan Garton, who’d been outrighted last year and played sporadically in Tacoma in 2018 while navigating a series of injuries. You may remember him coming over from, you guessed it, the Rays in the minor trade that netted the M’s Mike Marjama. That trade sent IF Luis Rengifo to Tampa, but they quickly moved him to Anaheim, whereupon he had a huge breakout, and now finds himself in the Angels’ top 10 prospect list, and a guy who will probably get some big league time next season.


One Response to “The First Big Trade and the M’s Approach to 2019”

  1. Goob on November 10th, 2018 4:00 pm

    Congrats on the Baseball Prospectus gig!

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