What Would “Going For It” Look Like?

marc w · July 26, 2021 at 5:27 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

There are two distinct but interrelated questions all of us are trying to figure out right now: 1) Should the Mariners, 1.5 games out of the wild card but with an offense putting up a .294 OBP and with a negative run differential, trade some of their prospects for help? And 2) If the answer is yes, what kind of moves are most likely?

Because 1 is exceedingly hard to answer in a vacuum, we’ll spend most of our time poking around at 2. There are many, many trade scenarios that would add value to the line-up but which don’t make a whole lot of sense, and many of these Dipoto has talked about: rental players in exchange for significant prospects. No one expects that, Dipoto doesn’t want to make such moves, and we can pretty much ignore them. On the other hand, we’ve got deals that literally anyone would make: trades that add some modicum of benefit to this year’s club AND who have at least another year of club control, in exchange for prospects who are years away and/or players with a lower ceiling. If you can convince another team to make *that* kind of deal, you do so, and no one’s going to argue about it. So we’ll set aside Kris-Bryant-for-Julio Rodriguez, and we’ll set aside Jose-Berrios-for-a-PTBNL-and-cash-considerations at this point and try to examine Dipoto’s own history of deadline trades. Because he’s Jerry Dipoto, there are a lot of deals to talk about.

For this, we’ll look at instances where a Dipoto-led team made trades to improve in the current year. We’re not talking about interim-GM-Jerry’s trade of Dan Haren for Tyler Skaggs back in 2010, because the D’backs were awful, and were trying to rebuild. Likewise, we’re not talking about trading James Paxton for Justus Sheffield, as that wasn’t a deadline deal, and wasn’t a win-now deal, either. I’m not sure how exhaustive a list to make it, so some minor things I’ll skip over, but let’s see if we can find any patterns.

2012: Los Angeles Angels
Deadline Record: 57-47, 2nd in AL West

Jerry Dipoto became the GM in the late-autumn of 2011, and quickly found himself in an ideal situation. His boss, owner Arte Moreno, opened his checkbook, allowing Dipoto to sign Albert Pujols and the top SP on the FA market, CJ Wilson, on the same December day. Hyped rookie Mike Trout, who’d debuted in 2011, had an all-time rookie season, cruising to 10 WAR in 2012. Trout drove the offense, and Pujols chipped in with his last Pujolsian season. CJ Wilson was…fine, but Jered Weaver went 20-5, and the Angels were in a great position at 10 games over at the deadline.

As good as the offense was, the pitching staff was merely good. The bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in July, and the rotation was about the same. Neither group was bad or anything, but the problem was that the Angels were fighting tooth and nail with two clubs, the Athletics and defending AL Champion Rangers, who both had stronger bullpens than the Angels. The Angels rotation was a clear step ahead of the A’s by record, but not by FIP. The out-of-nowhere A’s were behind in the standings, but shockingly not as bad as everyone thought they’d be.

With no real allegiance to the prospects he’d inherited from Tony Reagins and with encouragement from an owner who’d splashed out for Pujols, Dipoto went all in. On July 27th, Dipoto sent prized IF prospect Jean Segura and other prospects for the biggest rental player on the market: SP Zack Greinke of Milwaukee.

Did it work?
Eh, not really. The Angels finished 89-73, but finished in 3rd place and missed the playoffs. The Rangers, long thought the prohibitive favorite, won 93 games and the wildcard as the A’s pipped them at the post, winning 94 games and the divisional title. The Rangers humiliation would continue, as they’d lose the play-in game to the Baltimore Orioles, who started Mariners cast-off (and one-time Angel) Joe Saunders.

Is this type of trade likely this year?

Absolutely not. There are plenty of big-name rentals available, though perhaps none quite as sought-after as Greinke was in 2012. Dipoto has said time and again he’s not interested.

Minor trade of note: In early May, Dipoto swapped IF prospect Alexi Amarista for Padres reliever Ernesto Frieri, and the Angels had their closer.

2014 Los Angeles Angels:
Deadline Record: 64-43, 2nd in AL West

After a disappointing 2013, things came together the following year. The offense still had Mike Trout, who was still unreal despite league-wide offense tanking. Albert Pujols sad decline was in effect, but essentially everyone on the team was at least league-average at the plate. They weren’t going to blow anyone out of the water at the plate, but particularly for their (pitcher-friendly) park, their line-up was an overall plus.

Their rotation was, again, a strength, as Matt Shoemaker has his best year as a rookie, and Garrett Richards had the kind of season that ensured he’ll always find work in MLB despite injuries and ineffectiveness marring his career. CJ Wilson had a down year, but Jered Weaver was still quite good.

There was a problem, though. Their bullpen ranked 26th in fWAR in the first half. Frieri turned into a pumpking, sporting an ERA well over 6 when he was traded for Pirates reliever Jason Grilli in late June.

Grilli was coming off some very successful seasons in Pittsburgh, but had a down first-half by his standards. It was a solid change-of-scenery deal for both teams, but Dipoto wasn’t done. After taking a flyer on AAA veteran and last-chance lefty Rich Hill on July 1, Dipoto pushed his chips all in and traded some of his best pitching prospects for Padres closer Huston Street. Trading for Padres relievers had worked so well in 2012, so he decided to go for the top closer on the market. He also nabbed Street’s set-up man, acquiring Joe Thatcher in a separate deal. All in all, Dipoto parted with his #1, #7, #8, and #10 prospects (per https://www.minorleagueball.com/2014/1/11/5297876/los-angeles-angels-top-20-prospects-for-2014).

Did it Work?
Yes, I think this has to be seen as a success. The Angels bullpen improved, and they cruised to a 98-win season, 10 games up on the A’s (who won the Wild Card). The context here was that the division itself was down, as the Rangers window was closing, and the A’s seemingly always about to collapse. The Mariners were moving up fast, finishing a game behind the Angels, but were probably a year or two away.

Is this type of trade likely this year?
Not exactly, no. There are some big-name relievers on the market, including Rich Rodriguez of Pittsburgh, but I can’t imagine that’s something the M’s would be involved in. However, I think this solidified in Dipoto’s mind the importance of a strong bullpen. He hasn’t always shown the ability to reliably create one, mind you, but looking for buy-low relievers has been top of mind since before he got the M’s job. A move like the Joe Thatcher deal may be much more likely than a Huston Street-style splash.

Minor trade of note:
The Angels acquired reliever Vinnie Pestano from Cleveland in exchange for low-lever SP flyer Mike Clevinger. Pestano was great for the Angels, albeit in less than 10 IP. Clevinger eventually became a top SP, but is out with TJ rehab after joining the Padres.

2016 Seattle Mariners
Deadline record: 52-51, 3rd in AL West

The new GM inherited what seemed like a talented but underperforming club with a poor farm club. That script seemed to be playing out in 2016, as the Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano-led offense finished 2nd in the AL in home runs, which helped them play around some black holes in the line-up, notably SS Ketel Marte, C Chris Iannetta, and CF Leonys Martin. The division was tough, but winnable, with the Astros a year away from full-spectrum dominance (with an asterisk, of course). Texas had their last hoorah as a force in the division, but they made no sense. They led the division at the break, but had a negative run differential. In the end, they’d win the division going away despite a pythagorean record of 82-80.

The M’s bullpen was a strength in the first half, and the line-up was powerful, if allergic to leather – they had the second worst defensive numbers in the game.

The starting rotation had been revamped before the year, with Wade Miley and Nate Karns coming in. Both struggled, especially with long-balls in a year that would challenge all-time records for HRs – records that were about to be smashed, repeatedly. The M’s were in third place, and the wild card looked impossible in late July. Teams in the AL East and Central had sizable leads. Thus, the M’s played it safe, making a series of small addition-by-subtraction moves.

Wade Miley was off to Baltimore in exchange for Ariel Miranda. Struggling reliever Joaquin Benoit was swapped for fellow struggling-reliever Drew Storen. The M’s swapped low-level relief prospect Jake Brentz for hard-throwing Arquimedes Caminero. And Dipoto re-acquired Wade LeBlanc, a player he’d picked up in Anaheim, and would continue to look for in Seattle. The headline move, though, was something of a head-scratcher. The M’s newest relief ace was lefty set-up guy Mike Montgomery, in his first year in the pen after his debut with the M’s a year earlier. The M’s were on the fringes of a playoff race, but swapped an effective reliever for a prospect: in this case, Cubs 1B/DH prospect, Dan Vogelbach.

Did it work?
Yes, actually. Storen was decent, Caminero looked good at times, and importantly, neither looked as bad as Benoit. Wade Miley needed to go, and did. Of course, things also worked out well for the other teams: Mike Montgomery helped the Cubs win the World Series that year, pitching the last out in relief. Jake Brentz is, finally, in the majors and pitching well, though not for the club that traded for him.

Is this type of trade likely this year?

I wouldn’t be surprised. As good as trading for need is, sometimes dealing from depth is just as important a maxim. The M’s have a lot of bullpen depth suddenly, and while it would piss off the clubhouse, I can imagine Dipoto deciding to sell high on, say, Drew Steckenrider, particularly if the M’s series with Houston doesn’t go well.

Minor trade of note:
Well, they were all minor that year, but a minor trade this year is one of the most painful: in June, the M’s sent IF Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for SP Zach Lee. Taylor, the new NL Player of the Week, has become an excellent hitter capable of playing all over the IF and OF. He posted a nearly 5-WAR season in 2017, and is on his way to something similar here in 2021. If the M’s want to reacquire him, and they absolutely should, it’ll cost quite a bit in free agency.

2017 Seattle Mariners:
Deadline Record: 54-53, 2nd in AL West

The 2017 Mariners still had an excellent offense and fixed some of their defensive ineptitude from 2016. The division was, perhaps, a bit weaker, but it had a runaway leader: the newly dominant Houston Astros, who’d go on to win over 100 games. But despite a great record in one-run games, the M’s pitching was in shambles. Trade target Yovani Gallardo imploded, and Ariel Miranda, who’d looked interesting in the second half of 2016, looked much less so in 2017. Injuries and ineffectiveness led the M’s to cycle through guys like Christian Bergman, Sam Gaviglio, and Andrew Moore. Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez battled injuries and ineffectiveness.

Worse, the bullpen wasn’t always able to bail them out. Edwin Diaz wasn’t as good as he’d been in 2016, and while $1 special Tony Zych was great, Marc Rzepczynski was not, and James Pazos was up-and-down. So with the team in 2nd, but facing an uphill climb to make the playoffs, the M’s made a couple of moves to shore up their beleaguered pitching staff. They flipped OF prospect Tyler O’Neill for Cards lefty Marco Gonzales, buying low on a guy still working his way back from injury. They probably foresaw Gonzales getting big league innings in 2017, and he did, so you can kind of call it a move to supplement the big-league team, but it was much more a move to improve the M’s rotation down the road.

To help the bullpen, the M’s packaged prospects OF Brayan Hernandez and SP Pablo Lopez to the Marlins for reliever David Phelps. Phelps was having a great year, and the M’s prospects were in the lower levels, but this turned into a disaster when Phelps blew out his elbow a few weeks after coming over. Much better was the trade a week later to reacquire Erasmo Ramirez from Tampa in exchange for erstwhile closer Steve Cishek.

Still figuring out if they were in or out, the M’s then made a splash just after the deadline, trading OF Boog Powell for 1B Yonder Alonso. Alonso had been known for his discipline, but had shown little power for a 1B, but was on a power spree in early 2017 with Oakland.

Did it work?
It’s a mixed bag, here, but the short and longer term answer is probably no. The M’s slumped in August and September, finishing below .500 and out of the race. Alonso’s discipline-but-no-power approach was back, Gonzales got hit very hard in Seattle, and, as mentioned, Phelps got hurt. Erasmo Ramirez pitched pretty well down the stretch of increasingly less important games.
We debated the O’Neill/Gonzales trade furiously, as I worried that the M’s had given up the best player. O’Neill is having a breakout season now, but won’t add as much value as Gonzales did between 2018-2020, though his collapse this year is a real concern. What no one knew at the time was that the best player traded in this spree wasn’t either guy – it was Lopez, the pitchability lefty the M’s added in what was then the Hernandez-for-Phelps deal. He hasn’t logged the IP or WAR as Gonzales, but he’s grown into a very good #2 SP, though he is on the shelf at the moment with shoulder discomfort, which is never good.

Is this type of trade(s) likely this year?
I think so. As with the previous year, Dipoto likes to hedge his best, combining win-now moves with some attention to longer term needs. I don’t say that disparagingly at all, he’s been better at that than I’ve given him credit for, and it’s one reason why the M’s are in this position. I don’t think he has some remarkable acumen in talent ID; the Taylor-for-Lee swap would disabuse anyone of that notion. But his process has been better than we bloggers often realize, and that’s worth something. I can see people getting upset if he does something like that this year, but with their playoff odds still remote and with the team firmly in negative run differential territory, you can argue for playing for a year in which Jarred Kelenic hits better than .100.

Minor trade of note: Anthony Misiewicz and Luis Rengifo for Mike Marjama and Ryan Garton
This trade didn’t mean much, especially with Rengifo regressing in Anaheim, but it’s a testament to how often the same names repeat themselves in Dipoto’s trade logs. He’d reacquire Misiewicz later on, and he’d become a solid part of the M’s bullpen this year. You could do this with everyone from Keynan Middleton and Vinnie Nittoli to Tyler Skaggs and Wade LeBlanc. If you’re a player wondering if Dipoto still has your agent’s number, don’t worry: he does.

2018 Seattle Mariners
Deadline Record: 63-44, 2nd in AL West

The division was still Houston’s to lose, but the M’s unreal start had them in control of the Wild Card. The bullpen was now a strength, leading to a great record in one-run games yet again. Gonzales’ emergence solidified the rotation, and that group, too, was above average. The bats were merely league-average, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Mitch Haniger, just acquired from Arizona, was a revelation, as was the guy he came over with, Jean Segura (see what I mean about names repeating?). Dan Vogelbach was taking longer than expected, and Mike Zunino fell off of his brilliant 2017 pace, but even if you wanted to argue that the team was lucky – and let’s be clear, they were: they had a negative run differential despite a huge win total – you couldn’t take away all of those wins that they’d banked.

The focus at the deadline was shoring up the team, and particularly the bullpen. Lucky was one thing, but lucky AND good was the goal. Thus, relief prospect Seth Elledge was flipped for Sam Tuivailala, SP prospect Andrew Moore went to Tampa for Denard Span and Alex Colome, and then the M’s flipped cash and lower-level prospects for rental relievers Zach Duke from the left side and Adam Warren from the right.

Did it work?
No. All told, the M’s bullpen had a better ERA in the 2nd half than in the 1st (albeit with a poorer FIP), but the gamble failed, as the luck that had alighted on the M’s skipped town. The team was already looking shakier in July, and then had a mediocre August. They finished in third place in the strong AL West behind Houston and Oakland. Their record of 89-73 looked nothing like their Pythagorean record of 77-85, and ultimately convinced Dipoto and ownership to embark on the step-back/rebuild that they’re still navigating today.

Is this type of trade likely this year?
Despite their bullpen being a signal strength, I think we could see another Duke+Warren style swoop. It cost them very little and seemed to make sense. Warren came from the Yankees, possessors of a bullpen that was too good to give innings to him, for example. I know Dipoto doesn’t want rentals, but a nearly-free guy getting shut out of high-leverage innings might be too tempting.

Minor trade of note: Bryson Brigman for Cameron Maybin
Again, good idea to get a former uber-prospect at a position of need, but this didn’t quite work out.

What have we learned?
Jerry Dipoto wants to blend near-term and medium-term improvements, and Zack Greinke ain’t happening in 2021. He learned in 2014 and potentially again in 2016-18 how important bullpen success is, and thus I wouldn’t be surprised to see the former reliever target bullpen upgrades as much for load management as anything else. The M’s have serious needs at the plate, and that’s why they’re being linked with Royals 2B Whit Merrifield, but Merrifield may cost more than the M’s want to spend, as he’s under contract for 2022 and has a team option for 2023.

The M’s aren’t moving Kelenic/Raleigh/Rodriguez/Gilbert, and probably won’t sell low-ish on George Kirby and Emerson Hancock, who are pitching sparingly as the M’s manage their workload. Thus, it might center on the M’s willingness to part with Noelvi Marte. I simply can’t see that happening. If the M’s wanted to move some of their pitching depth, it would take more than Hancock on his own, and the Royals may be loathe to go for Kirby if they’re worried he’s not 100%.

Thus, I think we might see more bullpen help, and probably some selling of solid contributors as well as buying near-term help as the M’s go all-in (kind of) in 2022.


2 Responses to “What Would “Going For It” Look Like?”

  1. Stevemotivateir on July 26th, 2021 6:41 pm

    This is a great breakdown of Dipoto’s habits/history. I’ve wondered if Steckenrider might be the most likely reliever dealt. A lot can happen before Friday, or even on Friday, but it’s getting harder to see Sewald or Graveman moved. Even harder to see Haniger or Torrens being dealt.

    Merrifield would be a great acquisition, but at 32, declining, and not having a great July (though he has hits in his last 4 or 5 games), I would certainly hope that none of the top-6 prospects (Rodriguez, Kelenic, Marte, Kirby, Hancock, & Raleigh) are sacrificed.

    Maybe chasing low-cost rentals isn’t the worst idea?

    Still wondering how Jerry couldn’t, or wouldn’t, top SD’s offer for Frazier.

  2. Lailoken on July 26th, 2021 7:02 pm

    If the cost for Merrifield is similar to the cost for Frazier then the M’s should absolutely be in the mix.

    While the pandemic has taken a financial toll the M’s ownership has brokered two huge deals with ROOT sports in securing broadcast rights to the Blazers & the Kraken. If the way the higher ups view their books factors those deals in at all, I’d love to see the front office flex some financial muscle & take on a bigger contract or get in a three-way deal wherein they help pay down a contract like say Hosmer to the Royals, with Merrifield coming to the M’s. Scherzer is another player I’d explore a deal for as the money involved means the prospect capital can be underwhelming, especially since Boras can leverage his 10-and-5 rights into converting deferred money into contract years money. Blackmon is another player I could see the M’s using financial muscle on, though I’d much rather he not be on the M’s roster.

    Parting with Graveman if a longer term reliever comes back in a deal wouldn’t hurt my feelings.

    One RHH 2B (Merrifield or Schoop), one SP (Scherzer or ?), & a reliever who’ll be around for awhile sounds about right.

    Buxton is the only player on the trade market I’d trade significant prospects for but his injury history & contract situation should keep his trade value reasonable-ish.

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