Encarnacion to the Yankees and What to Watch For

marc w · June 17, 2019 at 5:09 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It wasn’t exactly a shock, but I’m surprisingly torn about the M’s trading 1B Edwin Encarnacion to the Yankees for SP prospect Juan Then. Encarnacion is older, isn’t signed to a long-term deal, and his value to the club was more about shedding the contract of Carlos Santana (which, at the moment, doesn’t seem like an anchor around the Indians) and acquiring a competitive balance pick in the process. They’d been trying to trade him for months, and it was something of a surprise when he made the opening day roster in Seattle. The fact that he’d been one of the better sluggers in the AL made the trade easier, then, but also somewhat bittersweet. Despite all of the dingers, there wasn’t a huge market for slugging 1B/DH types owed a fair-market salary. And thus, the guy the M’s got back was the secondary piece in their ill-fated acquisition of RP Nick Rumbelow. The M’s traded JP Sears and Juan Then for Rumbelow, then cut Rumbelow, and re-acquired Then for Encarnacion and some cash to balance out salaries. That…that’s not exactly how you draw it up.

If Then HADN’T had the backstory as a throw-in in one of the M’s ill-fated win-now trades, it might look better, though it’s hard to say a whole lot about 99% of prospects who haven’t faced full-season ball yet. It’s easy to understand why both 1) Encarnacion had no real value to the M’s stated goal of competing in 2020-21, and 2) had only a mediocre value on the market, but I’d argue that the move makes the M’s clearly worse in 2019 and doesn’t move the needle in 2021. That’s not a fatal flaw or anything – it’s good to have low-minors depth – but it IS a flaw.

I think all fans are fine with the idea that the M’s are taking a step back, and that they’ll be more competitive in 2021. I think the degree to which the M’s were going to be THIS bad, and post-Encarnacion, they’ll be even worse. For the step-back to be worth it, you have to believe that this group is capable of completing the turn around, and not just the tear-down. Raise your hand if you have that level of faith.

In the short term, this opens up playing time in the field for Dan Vogelbach and UTIL Austin Nola, who played 1B yesterday. But Nola’s real value isn’t at 1B, where his defensive chops are wasted. Nor is putting a glove on Dan Vogelbach a move that optimizes the team. Nola can play C, and it’s not clear that Vogelbach can actually catch, but sure, they can split time at 1B if we need them to. In the longer term, the solution is probably Evan White, who’s coming on after an agonizingly poor start.

White, Jake Fraley, and Justin Dunn offer a trio of potential starters who can impact that all-important 2021 team. Juan Then will be in AA then, if things go according to plan, so he’d be further off. The M’s could get some contributions from Kyle Lewis, and presumably Shed Long and JP Crawford will be hitting their stride and carrying the load offensively and defensively. With Mitch Haniger and Vogelbach, that’s not an awful line-up. It’s just probably not enough. That’s where the financial flexibility that’s the real key to the Encarnacion move comes in, but again, you’ve got to assume that the M’s use it wisely when FA pick-ups haven’t been their strong suit. You’ve got to assume that every prospect hits AND that the M’s fill in around them in free agency, AND that the Astros strangely get worse as Bregman/Correa hit 26-27. It’s not impossible, it’s just a tall order.

The issue, as with everyone else, is player development. There was a lot of discussion on Twitter the other day about ex-M’s SS Ketel Marte, who hit his 20th HR of the year for Arizona. Ketel Marte is now a power hitter, a fact that, let’s say was not foreseen by experts. Marte’s just the latest and perhaps most physically unlikely guys who’ve dramatically altered their ceiling through a swing change, or a difference in coaching philosophy. I’d been kind of down on Marte as he came through the M’s system, thinking that his walk rate would plummet once pitchers understood he couldn’t hit it out of the park even if they let him hit from 2B instead of home plate. I’m not trying to re-litigate the M’s/D-Backs trade here, I’m just using him as an example of someone who was profoundly altered by good player development. He wasn’t a factor in the D-backs evaluation of their “competitive window” a few years ago, but he sure as hell is now.

The point here is that player development determines a team’s “competitive window” much more than a bunch of front office guys looking over a roster and making a pronouncement. You can’t simply ignore the actual players in your org, but unless you know how your player development group works, and what their track record is, identifying a competitive window is kind of useless. The A’s had no business competing in 2012 and 2013, and they had no business competing in 2018. They did because Matt Chapman went from so-so glove-first guy to an MVP candidate, just like Josh Donaldson before him. Matt Olson hit, and Blake Treinen turned unhittable for a few months. Luck played a huge role, sure, but luck wasn’t the major factor in Marcus Semien going from a mediocre defender at 2B, to a disastrous, hide-your-eyes bad defender at SS, to a decent defender, and finally into a great defender. There was no window open, but their PD went and shoved the thing open anyway.

There are enough positive signs that if you really, really want to, you can convince yourself the window’s opening. The M’s have had a hard time navigating the minors-to-majors transition for pitching prospects like Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, but again, maybe you tell yourself that that’s where all of their financial flexibility will go. But even the optimists would probably like one more key piece, the way Kris Byant’s arrival turned the Cubs into a juggernaut, or the way Corey Seager/Cody Bellinger did for LA recently. You may not believe that the gap between the M’s and their rivals is actually 30-40 games, but you have to admit that it could help if the M’s finished that far back. Edwin’s departure hasn’t really changed much, but with Edwin gone, I think we have to at least entertain the idea that it’d be better if the M’s didn’t win a whole lot more games.

No team should go into the year planning to suck, and I’d argue that the M’s didn’t really do so this year. They thought they’d built a flawed but ultimtely fair-to-middling team. They haven’t, though, not while their pitching is still suspect and their best pitcher over the past month is ticketed to follow Encarnacion out the door. It’s not quite clear right now what clawing back to a 75-win pace or whatever would get them. Sure, I think we all want to see JP Crawford continue his hot streak and completely alter our/my view of his offensive ceiling. I’d like to see Shed Long find a position and hit well, too. As long as those things happen, I’m not too concerned about the team’s record. I AM concerned about their 2021 deadline, though.


5 Responses to “Encarnacion to the Yankees and What to Watch For”

  1. heyoka on June 17th, 2019 7:54 pm

    Well there’s always the year after the year after next.

  2. bookbook on June 17th, 2019 8:17 pm

    White / Haniger / Smith / Vogelbach / Crawford / Long / Fraley / Lewis – fine prospects or players all. If they each reach their 75th percentile projection, they can be solid contributors to a championship team. None will be super stars.

    On the position player side, the M’s chances of being a winning playoff team feels like it leans really heavily on the development of Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez.

    The Pitching??? There’s a reason the team drafted pitcher after pitcher after pitcher this year. Even if the pocketbook is wide open, I don’t think there will be enough free agent pitching available to help the M’s be a true playoff team in the next 2-3 years.

  3. Celadus on June 18th, 2019 11:13 am

    On a positive note, the Mariners drafted so many pitchers that their chances of randomly having selected one that turns into a one or two level rotation talent, willy nilly, have markedly improved.

  4. don52656 on June 18th, 2019 3:07 pm

    Perhaps, but then you’d have to believe that the Mariners randomly selected such a talent and that they have the ability to develop him. The number of starters that the Mariners have successfully developed is a mighty short list.

  5. Stevemotivateir on June 19th, 2019 8:32 pm

    Was 2021 ever a deadline? I assumed that they intend to open the window by that point and make some noise, but Kelenic, Rodriquez, and White won’t have a ton of experience in 2021 (if any). 2022 or 2023 would seemingly be stronger years if they’re leaning on inner-organizational talent to carry the load.

    Regardless, pitching should be the bigger area of concern. Easy to see a lot of money spent on arms.

    It’s also easy to see them improvising their plans a little if there’s any kind of delay and potentially moving players, such as their entire regular starting outfield right now (Santana, Smith, and Haniger).

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