The M’s Get Two New Pitchers and Commit to 1B Evan White

marc w · November 26, 2019 at 12:29 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Okay, it’s been a while. I’m not dead, and, technically, neither are the Mariners, so after a lengthy mourning period for the inglorious end of the Felix era, let’s look at this newly King-less club.

1: The most important move of the past few days was the signing of 1B Evan White to a six-year contract with three option years. At the press conference, Jerry Dipoto said that they’d be giving White every opportunity to make the club out of spring training, as the contract obviates the need for the kind of service time manipulation that’s become routine.

In length and dollars (6 years/$24M guaranteed), the deal is essentially a carbon copy of the contract the Phillies gave to Scott Kingery before the 2018 season. It’s perhaps a bit surprising that there’s not been any inflation in the price of pre-MLB 6-year buyout contracts, but of course there haven’t been many of these. Further, Kingery was a bit more highly regarded prospect, with his ability to play multiple defensive positions including SS/CF. White’s prospect sheen has returned a bit after a slow start in the Cal League in 2018. His overall numbers still don’t look great for a 1B, but they were severely impacted by his home ballpark in Arkansas this year.

White hit just .260/.309/.408 at home, but crushed Texas League pitching on the road, posting a .940 OPS with 13 of his 18 HRs. You can’t really understand White’s production by looking solely at his overall line, so let’s try to find other MLB hitters who faced this home park hindrance. Kyle Lewis is perhaps the poster child for the effects of Dickey-Stephens park, as he was utterly lost at home (.555 OPS) but solid on the road (.896 OPS). The more concerning comp would be 2018 Texas League star Joey Curletta, the 1B kind-of prospect the M’s waived this past April. In 2018, he hit .262/.363/.439 at home, but .299/.401/.520 on the road – not quite the splits that White had, but pretty similar. Curletta got off to a slow start in AAA, and signed on with Boston and had a rough go of it in the AA Eastern League. Going a few years further back, future MLB 1B CJ Cron played at Dickey-Stephens park, but oddly had a better *home* batting line than on the road. He’s not a great comp for White in any event given his low walk rate, but he’s managed to stick around in MLB despite never really locking down a long-term gig.

For years, the knock on White has been a lack of obvious game-ready power that you’d expect/want from a 1B. That lack of power prevented the very real plate discipline from playing up, as it limited his overall batting line. But his road performance combined with Kyle Lewis’ impressive power display in the majors (he slugged below .400 in Arkansas) shows that he might be fine in that department. The more pressing need is to ensure a smoother transition from the minors to the majors. Guys like Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop face-planted after great MiLB campaigns, and while Lewis’ power was unreal, he did K in almost 40% of his PAs. Scott Kingery was awful in his first year for Philadelphia too, so this is not just an M’s problem, but it’s something that teams like the Dodgers have been remarkably good at. Of course, one can argue that it’s more important to just get White acclimated to the majors and worry about performance in 2021, but I hope the M’s are thinking carefully about how to make this transition as easy as possible.

Whither Dan Vogelbach? His defense was always barely-playable, and with his post-April cooling off, it’s not a huge concern. But a good M’s club would likely get contributions from all of their young(ish) players, and not just cycle through them. White’s a legit MLB 1B, but it may take a while for his performance to match the talent. The M’s have a bit of time now, but they’ve also got serious roster holes. Domingo Santana’s seemingly imminent exit would give the DH spot to Vogie, but it’s not clear he can keep it.

2: The M’s signed former A’s starter Kendall Graveman to an incentive-laden 1 year $1.5M deal. With Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone, and, :sniff: Felix all exiting the M’s rotation, the M’s need some experienced arms to hold down the fort until guys like Logan Gilbert are ready/have passed the Super 2 deadline. Graveman’s an interesting case, in that he’s coming off of Tommy John surgery that wiped out nearly the entirety of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. His first season with the A’s he seemed like a garden-variety pitch-to-contact sinkerballer, with below-average velocity and low spin that enabled him to post good ground ball rates. But in each season, his velocity ticked up, and he was touching the mid-90s when his elbow gave out. You never know what to expect with a bounce-back pitcher like this, but I *really* have no idea what to expect from Graveman.

For a sinker-dominant pitcher, Graveman has surprisingly small platoon splits. They’re actually negative over his career, which is either a good sign or a bad one, depending on your disposition. A part of the issue may be that he doesn’t rely on a big slider as his breaking ball, as so many sinkerballers seem to do. That limits his effectiveness with righties, which is a big factor in his platoon split weirdness. Developing one might help, but I can understand if the M’s are wary of that given his recent elbow surgery. Beyond that, it severly limits his strikeouts, and Graveman’s spent his whole career ignoring the modern game’s reliance on Ks. In some sense, this is another classic Dipoto move of trying to get cheaper production by paying for skills *other* than pure bat-missing strikeout potential, something that would be a bit concerning after the M’s paid dearly for their lack of whiffs last season. But that said, Graveman’s a low-risk flyer and could be an interesting test case for pitch design work; there’s something to start with in his seldom-used slurvey curveball, which could be tightened up. His cutter’s interesting, but he allows more elevated contact on it, and that’s a red flag if we still have the dragless HR-Derby-type baseball we saw last year.

3: Another newcomer is SP/RP Nestor Cortes, Jr., whom the M’s picked up from the Yankees in one of their annual trades after the Yankees firm up their 40-man roster. The M’s didn’t protect any players this year, leaving the likes of Ljay Newsome eligible for the Rule 5 draft. There’s very little chance that any club would/could roster someone like Newsome for an entire year, so for the M’s, it’s a low-risk way to go shopping on *other* teams who have severe 40-man roster crunches and more solid players to roster than they have roster spots. The Yankees are a clear example, and that’s why the M’s take a careful look at players right at the cusp of the 40-man roster. Nick Rumbelow was one of the last 40-man adds a few years ago, and they drafted Mike Ford in Rule 5 after he was one of the last cuts. This year, crafty lefty Nestor Cortes, Jr. was DFA’d to free up room on the Yankee 40-man, so the M’s swooped in and acquired him for an international bonus pool slot.

Cortes throws about 89 with his fastball that’s almost comically “Yankee-ish” with about 3″ of armside run and 9+ inches of vertical movement. Those marks are very, very close to Nick Rumbelow’s, and they have similar bizarre little gyro-spinning curveballs, though of course everything Rumbelow threw came in much harder. Cortes’ claim to fame, if you can call it that, is his ability to dramatically alter his delivery. He’s got different arm slots, different wind-ups, etc. Think of Johnny Cueto with his penchant for either drawing out his wind-up with multiple shimmies and hesitations, or quick-pitching. All of this is probably why a guy with sub-90 velocity has been able to get plenty of strikeouts.

If you want a comp based on something other than FB movement, that’s reasonable, so here you go: Vidal Nuño . Nuño is 5’11”, 210 pounds, an exact match for Cortes, Jr. Both lefties get a few more K’s than you’d think given their raw stuff, with Cortes’ posting higher rates, but Nuño pitching more in a starting role. Overall, the projection systems have them for nearly identical K:BB ratios, with Cortes having a few more Ks and a few more walks. But like Nuño, the real risk here is the long ball. Cortes’ rising fastball leads to very high FB rates and low GB rates. With solid coaching, as in New York, he was just about playable. In tougher environments, like Baltimore, Cortes got annihilated and quickly released. But hey, the very same thing happened to Nuño back in 2017! If the M’s are suddenly able to coach their pitchers to avoid some HRs, that would be remarkable, given their INability to do so recently, but it would greatly help a pitching staff that looks quite weak at the moment.

Neither Graveman nor Cortes look all that great by the projection systems, and you can see why. Here’s my annual hope that the M’s player development group (now with Kris Negron!) can help players like these take a huge leap and blow their projections out of the water. We’ve seen some interesting steps in the minors, from the aforementioned Ljay Newsome to Reggie McClain to Evan White’s newfound power stroke. But it’s time to turn those developmental successes into big league production, and there’s been precious little of that. There’s no other option for 2020, as the M’s are unlikely to begin the year with one-year rentals like Edwin Encarnacion. It’s time for the prospects – and these reclamation pick-ups – to show what they can do.


3 Responses to “The M’s Get Two New Pitchers and Commit to 1B Evan White”

  1. Stevemotivateir on November 28th, 2019 8:01 am

    There has been some talk about White’s leadership skills lately, which might help further explain the extension. They seem to really believe he’s a cornerstone for the future, so it’s good they were able to lock him up. Low-risk gamble.

    Nothing else we’ve seen so far excites me much, but it’s exactly what I’ve expected. There’s still time for a surprise or two, but I’m more excited about spring than I am about trades and acquisitions.

  2. ck on November 28th, 2019 10:13 am

    Thank you, Marc. As Mickey Rooney would say in the old movies, “Hey Kids, Let’s put on a show !”

  3. Westside guy on December 6th, 2019 7:16 pm

    Thanks, Marc! Interesting as always.

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