The Mariners Begin to Build for 2021

marc w · December 16, 2020 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Going into the offseason, Jerry Dipoto was quite candid about what would be on his shopping list: bullpen arms, primarily, but they would investigate lower-cost, lower-risk deals if any presented themselves. In December, they’ve begun to execute that somewhat low-stakes plan, first by picking up reliever Will Vest in the Rule 5 draft, then by grabbing SP/RP Chris Flexen, fresh off of a successful run in the Korean KBO. This week, they traded for Rangers reliever Rafael Montero. Today, they picked up hard-throwing, TJ-rehabbing reliever Keynan Middleton.

There’s no real way to spin these as win-now moves, but they do address a real weakness of the 2020 team (the bullpen and the back of the rotation). We’ll get to the specific players here in a minute, but at this point, the moves reflect an interesting sort of line the M’s are trying to walk. Because, for the first time in a while, they have high-end prospects nearing the majors, they are very, very hesitant to bring in any higher-end free agent who could block one of their prized prospects. We see this in the rotation, to an extent, but they’re most acute in the outfield, where the M’s get Mitch Haniger back for 2021 and will need to fit in Jarred Kelenic before too long.

At a time when the Rangers are squarely in the midst of a rebuild, when the Angels’ haven’t had decent pitching in years, and when teams across the league seem to be cutting costs, this cautious, incremental approach the M’s are taking may be frustrating. The M’s bounty of prospects needn’t *prevent* the club from improving in other ways, and with players like Francisco Lindor to Blake Snell to Nolan Arenado on the block, it seems weird to sit back and content ourselves with the Keynan Middletons of the game.

A big part of this is that it feels awful to be uncertain all the time, a fact brought home to most of us on the evening of Nov. 3rd. What I mean is that it’s hard to ascertain exactly where the M’s are in their own rebuild, and how to evaluate its success. It’s harder than normal not simply because of the usual mix of encouraging and discouraging signals generated by the bizarre and brief 2020 season, but because MLB itself keeps frantically changing the rules around the playoffs and even the games themselves.

That the game is in flux doesn’t get the M’s off the hook. The M’s remaking their bullpen in the offseason has happened roughly every single season of the Dipoto era, and you can’t blame Rob Manfred for that. The issues surrounding the team predate the sudden expansion of the playoffs or the universal DH or the pitch clock. The M’s have continually tried to leverage their real improvements in player development to help the pitching staff wait for Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock to be ready, and the record’s decidedly mixed. They’ve seen big breakouts from Austin Nola and Dylan Moore, but they’ve been balanced out by offensive collapses from veterans like Dee Strange-Gordon and Mallex Smith to newcomers like Shed Long and Evan White; it’s worth remembering that the M’s commercials last year featured Long, White, and Smith, a group who combined to hit [CENSORED] in the regular season.

It appears that the League is pushing strongly for the playoff format of 2020 to remain in place, with an extra round of the postseason allowing in a few more mediocre teams. I’ve been pretty adamant that this isn’t great for baseball and its regular season, and while it may gin up some TV money, I think it will depress the free agent market further (above what Covid already did). But if that’s going to be the way it goes, you can kind of see this as a season in which Dipoto gets to play with house money: if they fall short, well, that’s OK, we were always really building for 2022, despite public pronouncements about 2019, 2020, and 2021. If they grab a playoff spot – and they came kind of close last year – then Dipoto’s the guy who ended the drought and the rebuild gets a weird sort of validation.

But beyond the playoff drought, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a season in which public opinion on the state of club is so divided. Evan White either got his feet wet and won the first of a dozen gold gloves, or his 42% K rate and, frankly, disastrous batting line is the reddest of red flags (in case it’s not clear, I’m in the latter camp). Kyle Lewis’ Rookei of the Year award is either the feather in the cap of the development system from turning an injured, whiff-prone corner OF into a middle-of-the-order and middle-of-the-diamond beast, or they let their guard down, as the league dominated him in the second half. Kyle Seager’s solid season is either something to build around, or wasted on a team that still can’t reliably hold teams scoreless nor outslug teams like Oakland, Houston, Minnesota, New York…you get the idea. You can do this with JP Crawford, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Yohan Ramirez, and a big chunk of the prospects. The team is either right on track, or clearly in need of another infusion of experienced talent. The individual pieces can be debated, and what they all combine into can be debated. I know, it’s sports, that’s what we do, but I don’t recall such variance in where fans see the M’s in 2022-23 – everything from World Series champs to .500 to rebuilding again seems to have a side advocating for their view.

So no, these recent moves are not going to settle this. They will improve a bullpen that looked like it was in bad shape, though. Rafael Montero is already the M’s top projected relief arm by Steamer, for example. Let’s see what the M’s are getting, or at least, what the M’s see in the guys they’ve acquired.

1: Montero easily has the most big league experience. He came up as a starter with the Mets, showing brilliant control in the minors, which allowed him to move up despite middling raw stuff. That control did not follow him to the big leagues, however. His walk rate is over 11% for his career, and was worst in his starting role, before improving a bit in the Rangers’ pen. That transition to the pen greatly improved his fastball velocity, which went from 93 up to 96 in 2019. The other thing the Rangers seemed to do was to take a bunch of spin *off* of his fastball; his raw spin rates declined markedly when he moved from Queens to Arlington, and that’s despite the aforementioned increase in velo.

Given that change, the shape of his fastballs is a bit different, with his four-seam and sinker now showing increased sink/decreased rise. That’s an interesting decision, given that his best secondary pitch is a change-up. Now, to be clear, that change-up is still plenty good, and one of things I’d expect the M’s to do is to get him to throw it more often, the way he did in his breakout 2019. He has a slider, too, which seems perfectly fine, I suppose.

The problem with the drop in spin and drop in vertical movement on his fastballs is that the movement differential between his pitches – particularly the sinker and change, or sinker and slider – gets smaller. Everything comes up sinking, and I will always have flashbacks of this happening to Erasmo Ramirez. The velocity gap means this isn’t necessarily disqualifying, but I just think this makes things easier on the hitter, particularly for pitches that he’ll use in similar parts of the zone.

Montero’s a big fly-baller with HR trouble, and despite the damage that profile’s caused the M’s since 2016, the M’s still love to bet on regression towards the league mean. Makes sense and all, but given Montero’s batted ball profile, even post-sinkering, I’m not sure regression alone is going to solve it. That said, Montero has big league experience and cost the M’s a young pitcher who’d yet to throw a professional pitch plus a PTBNL. We don’t know who that is, but this seems like a decent bet, despite the fact that Montero hit 30 recently.

2: Keynan Middleton was drafted by Jerry Dipoto out of a Eugene, OR community college in 2013. Dipoto’s Angels drafts were not the stuff legends are made of, but Dipoto is nothing if not a loyal evaluator, having picked up Austin Adams, RJ Alvarez, and now Middelton after having drafted them with the Angels. Middleton’s carrying card is a 97 MPH fastball. It’s a pitch with decent if not-terribly-remarkable movement, and, perhaps relatedly, not terribly-great results. Batters have slugged .489 in Middleton’s career, which has been interrupted by injuries. He gets solid K rates with a hard slider, but he doesn’t have the kind of platoon splits you’d think of with a FB/SL arsenal. He does have a change-up he can throw to lefties, but he hasn’t made much use of it.

Like Montero, Middleton’s an extreme fly ball guy, and like Montero, that’s gotten him into trouble with long balls. Despite pitching in a home park that suppressed dingers, Middelton has a 1.32 HR/9 in his short career, and with GBs accounting for only about 1/3 of his balls in play, it’s easy to see why. Again, it’s not lefties who are hurting him: it’s right handers, and they’re doing the damage on his fastball. RHBs are slugging .550 with 8 HRs off of his four-seamer, and I’d think the M’s are going to try and figure out why.

He’s coming off of two years lost to injury, and he’s on a one-year, $800,000 contract. This is a riskless signing, really, and while I’m not sure that Middleton’s going to give you more than competent 7th-inning-guy stuff (despite the velo), it’s pretty hard to argue with it.

3: In Chris Flexen, the M’s have a potential rotation piece, which would merit a lot more attention than the rest of these bullpen moves. Flexen is another guy who came up in the Mets system with solid control only to see that control collapse completely in the bigs. Flexen has a negative K-BB% ratio for his career, due to a walk rate over 15%. He had a 93 MPH fastball with some rise to it, and a hard slider at 87, and he’d also play with a curve and change, but none of it seemed to work.

All of that changed in 2020 when he joined the Doosan Bears of the KBO. He posted a K/9 over 10 and, crucially, a K:BB ratio of 4.4:1. He was tough to hit in a hitter-friendly league, and essentially had the season of his life. The question is how it’ll translate back to the big leagues. The case of Merrill Kelly is an encouraging one, as the career MiLB guy took off in the KBO, as he posted good but not Flexen good K rates in the for years. Returning with the Diamondbacks, Kelly’s been a reliable middle-of-the-rotation piece with solid control. If the M’s get Merrill Kelly-liek results, they’d be thrilled.

In Korea, Flexen relied on the combination of his 93 mph fastball (quite firm for the league) and his curve, a pitch that may have been his fourth-best offering before. Despite his control issues with New York, he threw in the zone even less, getting whiffs on his curve that was set up by high four-seamers. We’ll see if this approach can work for him in MLB, or if batters will make him prove that he can throw the curve (or slider) for strikes.

Flexen signed a two-year deal for $7M guaranteed, making this perhaps my favorite of the four acquisitions we’ll talk about. There’s upside here that far exceeds even Montero’s, just given the innings he could log. And with the M’s confirming they’ll use a six-man rotation, there’s some room for him to do so. I’ve said it for years, but the six-man rotation and increased rest may be ideal for pitchers like Flexen and Yusei Kikuchi who’ve pitched in Asia, where starters typically get more rest than MLB’s five-man rotations offer. The M’s simply do not have the talent that many of their rivals do, and thus it’s incumbent upon them to get more out of the talent that they have. Taking a flyer that the KBO in some sense “fixed” Flexen, once the Mets #4 prospect, and pairing that with a six-man rotation, is a great way to try and do that.

4: Finally, the M’s again made a selection in the MLB Rule 5 draft earlier this month. They picked reliever Will Vest, who had been in the Tigers system. Vest was drafted in 2017, and has been up-and-down in his career in the Tigers’ system. That club has seen a player development transformation as well, with guys like Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo and others give them a lot of near-majors pitching. I say that not only to highlight why a guy like Vest may have been available, but to highlight one of the things that’s made the Tigers system notable: guys pick up velocity.

Skubal, the old Seattle University product, is perhaps the big example, but it looks like it happened to Vest, too. He didn’t make his college team’s varsity squad until late, and into the draft, he was talked about as a low-mid-90s guy with some armside run. By early 2019, he was throwing 94-96 according to this YouTube video, and then showed up in instructs this fall touching the high 90s.

He’s got a hard slider around 88, and the workings of an interesting change (though, to me, most change-ups are interesting) in the mid-80s. I think this is an intriguing pick, and I hope he’s both able to stick on the roster the way Yohan Ramirez did AND have a bit more control than the ex-Astros farmhand showed. It’s simply not allowed to complain about Rule 5 picks, and Vest could be a solid member of the developing bullpen, particularly if he’s able to hit 97 more often.


52 Responses to “The Mariners Begin to Build for 2021”

  1. eponymous coward on February 26th, 2021 9:23 am

    I simply don’t believe the plan is to never spend again.

    Neither do I. It’s just I don’t think the plan was “spend in 2021” after 2019, unless they hit the inside straight somehow in 2020 (which they kinda sorta did given that they fell just short of that last playoff spot). When “step back” (a Bully Beane-ish cheap, not good, but not terrible 70ish win team for 2019) turned into “train wreck”, that’s when the goalposts moved.

    I think Seattle’s rebuild is comparable to Chicago’s. They just appear to be a couple of years behind.

    The White Sox? They spent seven years under .500. The Cubs spent five. That’s something like 2024-2026 to complete the rebuild? Yikes.

  2. Stevemotivateir on February 26th, 2021 12:02 pm

    Did we break the comment section!? Anyway…

    Neither do I. It’s just I don’t think the plan was “spend in 2021” after 2019, unless they hit the inside straight somehow in 2020 (which they kinda sorta did given that they fell just short of that last playoff spot). When “step back” (a Bully Beane-ish cheap, not good, but not terrible 70ish win team for 2019) turned into “train wreck”, that’s when the goalposts moved.

    I didn’t think we would likely see stars added, but to see zero fielders brought in (to this point)? Not shocking, but it is a bit surprising and I do think the loss of revenue last season had an influence on the budget this year. And for the record, I think it’s BS (regardless of reason).

    The White Sox? They spent seven years under .500.

    Yes, the White Sox. They started their rebuild in the 2017 offseason. They watched a few of their top prospects graduate, then started adding veterans last season (year four) as they attempted to break out and integrate more top prospects.

    Easy to see Seattle following suit.

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