Game 104, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 28, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Jaime Barria, 6:07pm

Happy Felix Day. Last night’s loss was a painful one, as the M’s couldn’t do more against an Angels bullpen that they’ve torched this season, and because they were a finger from taking the lead on a bizarre attempt at a steal of home.

On the plus side, it’s looking like Dee Gordon’s locked in again, which makes it slightly less painful that he’s leading off every game. Gordon’s a classic guy who’ll get undervalued by traditional sabermetrics, but no matter how you value him, I guarantee you Jerry Dipoto values him more.

Think Tuivailala may join the team tomorrow, but we’ll see if he’s in uniform tonight.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: El Cartelua

Game 103 – Mariners at Angels – Welcome, Sam Tuivailala, an Odd Sort of Situational Reliever

marc w · July 27, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Andrew Heaney, 7:00pm

Before we talk about tonight’s game, let’s talk about the big news of the day: the M’s made their long-awaited trade for relief help today, bringing in former Cardinals RHP Sam Tuivailala for RP prospect Seth Elledge.

Tuivailala has been someone I’ve had my eye on for a while, as he showed plus-plus velo a few years ago. He came up to the big leagues averaging over 98 MPH on his fastball, and had the rudiments of a good slider to pair with it. He’s developed a sinker as well, which he uses well to right-handed bats. He absolutely has the raw stuff to be a late-inning reliever, and while his command has failed him at the big league level, it’s nice that his raw stuff is way, way above some of the more traditional situational relievers on the market. This is not Marc Rzepczynski; if everything breaks right, he could be more than a situational reliever in a year or two.

That’s good, because while his platoon splits scream “situational righty” the peripherals are a bit weirder. Lefties have torched him, hitting a combined .279/.380/.461 against him, and it’s even worse this year. Meanwhile, righties have a career OBP under .300 against him. Sounds great, right? Well…I’m not so sure. In his career, *every pitch he throws* has a lower whiff rate against righties than lefties. As a result, his K% is better against lefties. He keeps the ball in the ballpark against righties, to be fair, but BABIP is doing a ton of work in those raw platoon slash lines. How can that be, for a plus velo (it’s not plus plus anymore) righty whose primary breaking ball is a slider?

Well, for one thing, his fastballs have almost perfectly average movement. He has a solid spin rate, but something’s not working in translating that into spin efficiency. I’d say there may be a deception thing with righties, but then you’d expect them to miss the ball more than they do (this brings to mind his old teammate Jordan Hicks’ weird mismatch between raw stuff and K% earlier this year). His slider in particular would have to grade pretty poorly against righties, as they simply don’t swing and miss at it as much as other same-handed sliders. It gets grounders, and that’s worth something, but it’s not the kind of putaway pitch you’d typically want from a situational reliever. Luke Gregerson he’s not.

I said it on twitter and I’ll reiterate it here: for this to really make sense, they can’t be thinking about “developing” Tuivailala. The M’s are in a playoff race *today*, and Tuivailala lacks options in any case. If this works out, it’ll be because the M’s have already identified something in his delivery that they can tweak and improve. In his career, Tuivailala’s been a near replacement-level RP, which is why he’s bounced up and down between the majors and AAA. The M’s do not need a ~ replacement-level RP, no matter what kind of potential he’s got. Thus, they need to know what they’re going to do and that that intervention has a good chance of succeeding. What are some of those potential changes?

Right now, Tuivailala throws a sinker and four-seam fastball. He’d been primarily a four-seam guy until this year, when he’s shifted to throwing the sinker more. He’s also reduced his overall FB usage from ~60% in 2016 to the low 50s now. The M’s could simply amp that trend up and have him throw a ton of sliders and his slurvy curveball to righties, using him to avoid lefty match-ups, and putting him in when they need a grounder from a righty. That’s easiest, but I’m not sure it’ll get them a whole lot. The bigger lift would be to drop his arm angle, both to try to get back some of the 1-2 MPH he’s lost since 2015, and to increase the horizontal movement on the pitch. Not only that, but with some hard work, it could help make his delivery a bit tougher to pick up. Clearly, righties are getting a better look at the ball than they “should,” and the M’s should probably work on that. Third, his “Effective velocity” isn’t great – he doesn’t have a long stride that shortens the reaction time hitters have. Fourth, and perhaps most intriguingly, they could work on his slider. The M’s has success changing Marco Gonzales’ curve, which is a big reason he’s throwing it so much more (as JY mentioned). When he came up, it had a noticeably lower release point than his FB. The Cards have largely fixed that, but adjusting the shape of the pitch (which may come with a release point drop), could help disguise it and produce more whiffs.

JY’s have you the run-down in Elledge, but as in any truly fair trade, losing him hurts. He’s got great numbers, has shown the ability to work more than a single inning, and the scouting reports are great. You can’t get a guy with Tuivailala’s promise for a C prospect, and thus the M’s are sending over probably their top RP prospect.

Today, the M’s face familiar for Andrew Heaney in Anaheim as the red hot A’s travel to Colorado.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: LeBlanc

A Not-So-Quick Thought on Tuivailala

Jay Yencich · July 27, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

As is fairly “known” at this point, the Mariners made a trade to bolster their bullpen corps today in acquiring yet another Cardinal, this time RHP Sam Tuivailala in exchange for Modesto RHP Seth Elledge. Very often, I find myself responding in reflexive ways to these trades, preferring what devils I do know instead of the devils I don’t (even if Tampa is now… nevermind). I know stuff about Seth Elledge. I know that his velocity rebounded and that in the scattered mid-season prospect list updates you can find now at your own peril, some have locked Elledge into the back of the top ten as a guy who might contribute to the bullpen next year, just as Festa did this year. I don’t pay much heed to the rest of baseball and certainly not the NL, so Tuivailala is not a guy I’m familiar with and the unknown is threatening to me. My kneejerk here would be to tell you how bad this is and that we’re giving away a minor leaguer of some potential for a team-controlled upgrade who will yield merely marginal gains.

I have also learned from years of doing this that my initial reactions can be very wrong. I was filled with righteous anger about trading Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales because I loved Tank for his stupid home runs and Gonzales was just some Zag who was coming off TJ and had no options left, just as Tuivailala has no options now. Nevertheless, the front office saw something in there that they were able to work with and I don’t think any one of us would complain about the trade at this moment. In Gonzales, they saw some good, some question marks, and believed that they could get more out of him than the Cardinals had, major injury aside.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m among the more numerically savvy posters out there, but I know what tools are out there and I can usually find some practical use for them. That in mind, let’s pop over to Fangraphs and check out Marco Gonzales for his 30+ innings in 2014, his 30+ innings with the Mariners last year, and now. Immediately, certain things start to pop out to us. Marco’s FB usage was consistently four-seam and above 50%, sometimes approaching 60%, but it’s never been a good offering for him. The 2014 season netted him a -1.7 wFB, and last year, -6.0 while in Seattle. The Mariners this season have had him all but jettison the four-seam as an offering, dropping it to a 10% usage with the other 40+ points of difference being split between cutters and sinkers. The weaker four-seam is barely used whereas the more useful two-seams have taken precedence and effectively changed the x- and y-axes for the batters he faces. Additionally, whereas the Cardinals never had Gonzales throw a curve more than 10% of the time, he’s now using it almost every fourth pitch this season. It had never been even a good pitch before, granted, but he’s throwing it a bit harder now and it’s turned into a plus offering, even as something he really picked up late in his development.

Or let’s consider another formerly variable-but-flashy pitcher in James Paxton, the last two years versus his previous, less ace-y incarnation. One of the things that jumps out immediately is that Pax had been throwing the change-up about 10% of the time despite its being the only pitch in his arsenal with a negative career value. Last year, usage dropped to 2.9% and this season it’s all but disappeared. What risks it presented as a rather perfunctory offering have been minimized. To compensate, those gaps have been filled in by curveballs, sinkers, and cutters, all pitches that have netted positive for him. The distribution doesn’t exactly trend cleanly in one direction or the other as far as preference, but ditching the change-up has been huge for his recent success.

Now, let us consider Sam Tuivailala, honing in on the last two years of 30+ innings since anything before that is trifling to work with. The past couple of years, Tuivailala averaged about 60% on total FB usage, while going a bit back and forth as to whether the slider (18.5% -> 24.9%) or the curveball (19.4% -> 16.4%) was a more preferable breaking ball. The Cardinals have gotten some positive value out of the curve this year, but historically, it’s never previously been a positive contributor. Could the Mariners perhaps get him throwing a better one? Indeed they could, if Gonzales is an indicator. That’s one Possible Option.

Another would be to scrap it and distribute the usage elsewhere. What’s tricky about that approach is that we can look at his 2017 season and it’s apparent that his fastball and slider were good pitches for him and the curve dragged him down. That season, his four-seams were used 46.4% of the time, sinker 15.4%, and the slider 18.5% of the time. None of those pitches has been as valuable on its own this season, while we’ve seen the curve look okay for the first time, but it’s notable that the distribution is completely different. He only uses a straight four-seam about a quarter of the time now, the sinker is now being used a third of the time, and the slider almost a quarter as well. This selection hasn’t worked at all in terms of the results for the fastball and slider. Thus, the second Possible Option would be to go back to that plus-velocity four-seam more often while using the slider and sinker as pitch #2a and pitch #2b, absorbing what had been the curveball’s usage until it’s more of a show-me pitch. In either case, keep him away from left-handers until he figures it out.

What will happen? The Mariners are newly into these types of analysis and it appears that they’ve picked up on something that they like. If you buy into the curve’s development, maybe you trust it a little more and try to refine it, or you could get him to throw four-seams more, or you could do both and keep the sinker as a weapon used more sparingly. In any case, just because the Cardinals used him one way doesn’t lock the Mariners into the same patterns. There’s a chance that some real value could come out of some adjustments of usage, just as we’ve seen from other pitchers of the Dipoto era.

Game 102, Giants at Mariners

marc w · July 25, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Derek Holland, 1:10pm – This game isn’t on TV; it’s one of those odd Facebook-only deals.

The M’s close out this short two-game set with San Francisco today with an early game. I, like many of you I suspect, won’t be able to watch it, so hopefully it’s a boring, never-in-doubt win without real standout performances. After last night, I think we’d all take a plain vanilla win without much in the way of drama.

This should probably go without saying, but if I didn’t say it, I’d lose one of my leitmotifs here on the blog: pitchers are completely amazing, and are capable of reinventing themselves. We’ve all seen this, we all know this, but it’s worth repeating. Yes, medical care has helped extend careers, giving pitchers the opportunity to change. Advances in training have essentially tossed out what we’d learned from standard, league-wide aging curves. And great coaching does this frequently – there’s a reason we know the names of several pitching coaches, just as we learned Leo Mazzone’s name 20 years ago. I think one of the reasons this resonates with me is that I think sabermetrics may have obscured this fact more than it illuminated it. Regression towards the mean is a hugely important tool with which to examine the game, and it’s true: not every great game or two-week stretch is indicative of an entirely new level of talent. But within the parameters of their natural ability, pitchers are always in the process of becoming something different. If you’re not changing, you’re either one of the game’s truly elite talents (and even they’re still tinkering, I’d suppose), or you’re going to get exposed pretty soon.

Sam Gaviglio, SAM FREAKING GAVIGLIO, has a K/9 that’s nearly the equal of David Price’s. Both start today, so they could flip-flop depending on how each performs. By K%, Price’s lead is more solid, but did I mention we’re talking about SAM GAVIGLIO? Gaviglio never posted a K% over 20% in the M’s minor leagues, and when he came up to the M’s and then the Royals, his K% was under 16%. That’s not a knock on Sam – it’s just who he was. Command/control lefty. Throws 88. No big-time breaking ball or change-up. Keeps you in the game if he can keep the ball in the park, nothing flashy. THAT guy is now striking out basically a batter an inning at the major league level, and has a K% quite close to league average, so he has an *above-average K%* for a starting pitcher. Literally Sam Gaviglio!

Charlie Morton’s starting for Houston. The guy who had a long career in Pittsburgh despite a K% that was generally below 15%, and *always* below 20%. Threw 92-93, with a decent enough curve, but didn’t miss a ton of bats. Lots of grounders, so maybe an oft-injured Mike Leake, or something in that vein. As you know, Morton now throws 97, has a K% over 30%, and is striking out about 12 per 9. Same guy, yet completely unrecognizable.

I mentioned James Shields the other day, but he’s starting again and I’m reminded again of how impressive his career-saving adjustments have been. No, it’s not made him into a star again, but after last year, I legitimately thought he was done, and that he’d either go overseas or be a AAA vagabond this year. He’s fighting MLB to a draw in Chicago instead.

I bring all of this up because one of his teammates from last year’s pulled the same trick. Derek Holland was worth nearly -1 fWAR thanks to a Shields-like HR/9 of 2.07 over 135 putrid innings. The oft-injured Holland didn’t make it to 40 IP in 2014, and was under 60 the next year. He barely passed 100 IP in 2016, but with his K% in free-fall and his extension drawing to a close, there was no way he’d be back. He signed a 1-year deal with Chicago that I think both parties would love to hit the do-over button on, as Holland’s fastball/sinker/slider/curve mix just never fit well in the homer-charged modern game and the homer-charged ballpark on the south side.

This isn’t to say Holland was changing things up. He was – look at the bottom (yellow) lines in this chart. That’s his curveball, the one that started out as a 12-6 offering at around 75 MPH or so.
Holland velo
In the past few years, his curve has been creeping up towards 80 MPH, and the movement on it is very different too. In fact, I think it’s no longer any kind of curve at all – it’s now a slider; it’s a different look, a slight wrinkle on his “old” slider. The horizontal movement on the pitch is almost identical to his old slider, and it’s within a few MPH in velocity. It no longer drops below 0 in vertical movement, and it no longer has any gloveside movement.

So how’s that working out for him? In 2017, not so hot. It was his worst pitch by a mile, as he gave up 13 HRs off of it, good for a SLG%-against of .720. He’s throwing it just as often this year, and it’s sliiiightly more slider like this year, and the results have been completely different. His SLG%-against on it is .321. Derek Holland – DEREK HOLLAND – now has 105 strikeouts in 102 innings. Yes, yes, national league, and spacious ballparks like his new home in SF, and context and the general decline in HRs, etc. I get all of that. But Derek Holland looked like he was headed out of the league. He signed a 1-year deal for less than $2 M, which, depending on your definition, would make him freely-available or kinda sorta replacement level. He’s got a career high in K% and K-BB%.

Like everyone else, he’s throwing a lot fewer FBs than he used to. That approach only works, though, when batters aren’t teeing off on your secondaries. I’m not exactly sure what he’s done to disguise his slurve better, but whatever it is, it’s working. You could project him using his career averages, or his recent year averages, and see a replacement-level pitcher. He’s not exactly like Morton, where everyone can see something fundamental has changed. But the point is that regressing to the mean works great on the overall population. With individuals, true talent is always in flux – you’re regressing towards a moving target. On average, using career numbers works best. It’s often the best way to see what individuals will do going forward, but it can just as often lead you astray. Jon Lester starts today for the Cubs. In his Boston heyday, Lester used to average 50%+ ground balls. It’s one of the attributes that made him successful. With the Cubs, that mark has been falling, and this year it stands at 38%. He’s having a good year (though not by FIP, perhaps). Would you project his GB% to head back towards, say, 46.5%, which is his career average? High five if you replied, “no.”

This is not a veiled shot at Mike Leake, one of the most stable pitchers I’ve ever seen. Leake isn’t flashy, but there’s plenty of value in a standard Mike Leake season, and standard Mike Leake seasons are pretty much his stock in trade. No, there’s another Mariner hurler who could stand to really work on a mid-career reinvention. A guy who’s reinvented himself already, but needs to go further, and faster. Felix owes us nothing. If he retired tomorrow, I would laud an amazingly successful career, and I’d put my kids in their Felix #34 shirseys and tell Felix stories to them for hours. He’s given all of us more than we ever could’ve hoped. But he’s capable of writing some new stories for us to tell, and he’s capable of giving a boost to a club who could use one right about now. I’m not completely convinced the M’s are the best organization to foster and encourage such a transformation, but it’s the only org he’s ever known, and it’s worth a shot.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Leake

Tacoma’s in Round Rock tonight, where they’ll face off against former Rainier/Mariner Adrian Sampson. Erasmo Ramirez makes another rehab start for the R’s.
Other probables in the system include Anthony Misiewicz, Nick Wells, Ryne Inman, and Jheyson Caraballo.

Round Rock jumped on Christian Bergman early in a 7-2 win last night, while Foster Griffin and NW Arkansas blanked Arkansas 4-0 in Game 1 of their double-header. Arkansas won the 2nd game 8-1, getting a HR from OF Chuck Taylor. Modesto edged Stockton 5-4 on a walk-off single by Beau Branton in the bottom of the 9th. Branton, the ex-Stanford 2B drafted in the 28th round this year, now has 38 hits in 25 career pro games between the AZL and Cal League. Vancouver scored 2 in the 7th to come back and beat Everett 4-3. Orlando Razo was solid for 6 IP for the AquaSox.

Game 101, Giants at Mariners

marc w · July 24, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton Roenis Elias vs. Andrew Suarez, 7:10pm

The Giants come to Safeco for a brief visit, fresh off some annoying near-misses against the A’s. The A’s, by the way, closed to within 2.5 games with a drubbing of the Rangers last night that saw two position players out-pitch Alex Claudio, so…yeah. Happy Maple Day.

Andrew Suarez is a rookie who’s been remarkably solid – a solid K%, a GB% of over 52%, not too many walks. His FIP reflects all this, and while his ERA’s under 4, it lags his FIP thanks to a high BABIP and some real problems with men on base. Suarez seems to have taken a step forward, as he was seen as a classic lefty command/control guy, but he seems to be offer a bit more than that. A lefty, he’s averaged 93+ on his fastball, which isn’t too bad at all, even in 2018. The movement on it looks pretty normal, and I suppose the outcomes on it are too, but given Suarez’s high 3/4 release point, it gets less rise than you might imagine. Initially, I thought he might be adding a bit of cut to it, but per Statcast at least, he’s just a very low-spin FB guy. Compared to Paxton, Suarez’s fastball spins a lot less, even if their vertical rise/movement ends up in the same general neighborhood.

Suarez also throws a slider, a change, and a curve, as well as a sinker. I wondered if, given his low spin-rate FB, he’d also show really low spin rates on his breaking balls. Instead, it turns out that he’s more or less completely average in spin rate on his breakers. He’s not the inverse of Garrett Richards (ultra-high spin rates on everything he throws), he goes pitch by pitch – low here, normal here. You know who else does that? Here’s the leaderboard on curveball spin – a familiar face comes dead last. Yes, James Paxton’s transformed his fastball from being a low-spin offering to above average. Meanwhile, his curveball – which has been remarkably low spin for years – remains remarkably spinless.

For a team that very intentionally tweaked Marco Gonzales’ yakker (to add spin, to be clear), I think this must be intentional. As he gets away from the 70%-fastball usage pattern that typified his first few years in the majors, he’s throwing more curves than ever. Yes, even though he’s throwing a cutter – a pitch he didn’t throw in, say, 2013 – he’s still throwing curves more frequently because he’s not just tossing FBs in there. Paxton’s curve fares pretty well in whiff rate, and it gets grounders, too. It’s not quite Blake Snell’s or even Charlie Morton’s (two high-spin guys), but there are some other pretty effective curves at low spin rates – when healthy, Drew Pomeranz is a good example, as is Archie Bradley’s.

Paxton’s been effective with a high-spin FB and a very low-spin curve, which just highlights the fact that when he’s healthy, he…excuse me…just getting some late breaking news here at USSM HQ…take it away, Greg Johns:

Greaaaat. That’s fantastic. Roenis Elias’ curveball used to have well above-average spin rates (nothing in the Seth Lugo/Garrett Richards tier, though), but it’s actually dropped noticeably this year. It’s now a completely different pitch, with plenty of vertical drop, suggesting he’s more efficient with that reduced spin. I’d talk more about what exactly I’d look for, or about his results on the curve, but I’m a bit spooked by this Paxton news. Colin O’Keefe says that it’s nothing serious, and that Jerry Dipoto talks about on today’s Wheelhouse Podcast. Doesn’t sound like it’s time to panic, but it’s just a pattern we’ve seen with Pax before… fingers crossed.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Paxton

MLB announced its Heart and Hustle award winners on each team yesterday, because nothing shows hustle like announcing a seasonal award before the season ends. The M’s winner? Guillermo Heredia, which is nice, but likely won’t get him his starting job back, but he’s in there tonight against the lefty Suarez.

NW Arkansas scored a couple of runs late to beat Arkansas 4-2 last night. Modesto scored *6* runs late, though, to come back to beat Rancho Cucamonga 8-6 – Gareth Morgan and Nick Zammarelli homered for the Nuts. Fort Wayne beat Clinton 4-2, and Boise beat Everett 11-10. Starting in the system tonight are Christian Bergman, Williams Perez and Spencer Herrman (it’s a AA double-header), Reggie McClain, and Orlando Razo. Everett won the divisional first-half title, so they’re in the NWL playoffs. Arkansas, too, has qualified for the playoffs. Modesto…will not qualify. Tacoma’s close-ish at 7 games back, and Clinton’s had a great overall season, but is still on the outside looking in. There’s a month+ to change things, however.

So…You Want A Situational Reliever?

marc w · July 23, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s have talked publicly about what they want at the deadline this year, and just in case no one got it, Jerry Dipoto reiterated it at the Baseball Prospects night on Saturday. They’re not looking at starters, no matter how well-reasoned by article on that market may (or may not) have been. Instead, with some SP depth, they can limit innings both by moving to a 6-man rotation AND by shortening the games on the back end. Dipoto stated that they’re fine at the end of games, with Edwin Diaz dominating in the 9th, and with Alex Colome…uh…handling the 8th (he’s put up -0.1 fWAR thus far with the M’s which is obviously a ludicrously small sample, but it’s not great to see a negative sign there). Now, they want wipe-out relievers that can come in and handle the 6th/7th innings. They don’t need length out of them, and they don’t need guys who can go multiple innings – they want the situational excellence they thought they were getting from Marc Rzepczinski. Are any situational relievers avaiable in the M’s price range? I’m glad you asked, narrative device!

Righties:

1: The Name-Brand Option
The Marlins are out of it. They’re out of it in a division with two teams loaded with young talent who’ve arrived a bit earlier than expected in Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Nationals are still ever-frustrating, and may look quite different in a year, but they give three really solid competitors, and all of them feature current 40-man rosters that simply outclass Miami’s. There’s a reason why so many of these options currently toil there, is what I’m saying. There’s no real need for the Marlins to hold situational relievers, or shut-down relievers of any stripe, at this point in their development. They need to see if they’re able to develop starters and position players to fill the yawning chasm left by the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. This isn’t about trying to slash payroll, though I’m sure the Marlins ownership would love that. Rather, it’s about providing some opportunities for players who could conceivably be a part of the next good Marlins team.

Perhaps no one is more miscast on the Marlins than righty Brad Ziegler. Ziegler, the side-arming GB specialist, signed a 2-year, $16 M contract last year, and it expires at the end of 2018. The M’s can easily afford a fraction of $8 M for the rest of the year, and he gives them a very different look than, say, Nick Vincent. I’ve always thought a bullpen needs someone who can come in when a double play ball is in order, and Ziegler’s 73%+ GB% this year would do the trick. In his long career, he’s getting grounders from 2/3 of the batters who put it in play.

Why this makes sense for the M’s: In Ziegler, the M’s would acquire a righty who’s been tough on same-handed bats for a decade, and someone with nearly unparalleled grounder tendencies. If you want “proven” – whatever that phrase means for a reliever – Ziegler is it.

Why this makes sense for the Marlins: Ziegler’s making $8 M this year, and has next to no real utility for them in August/September. His innings could be reallocated to youngsters like Drew Rucinski or Ben Meyer. At this stage, they can’t really expect anything back in terms of talent (low-level lottery ticket), but it would still make sense for everyone.

Why this might give you pause: You know who had a decade-long track record of being tough on same-handed bats? You know who had an amazing GB%? Marc Rzepczynski, that’s who. Also, Ziegler hasn’t been a true shut-down guy against righties this year. He’s been worth -0.5 fWAR – most of that damage has come against lefties, but he’s still giving up a .300 wOBA v. righties, which isn’t exactly what you want from a market-rate ROOGY.

2: The Lesser-Known, Hipster Option
No one in baseball’s induced a higher GB% against right-handed bats this year than one Kevin McCarthy, 26-year old ROOGY for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are in bad shape right now, but they at least have the lingering memories of their World Series win in 2015 to help them through what may be a painful rebuild. The thing is, most of the hard stuff’s already done – Hosmer followed Dave Cameron to San Diego, Lorenzo Cain’s in Milwaukee – and so it’ll probably be easier for the FO to move guys like Whit Merrifield and, uh, everyone else. McCarthy is a righty reliever who doesn’t miss bats, which is why he could be available. He’s cost controlled for a while, though he’s also the kind of guy who would never command a huge salary given his skillset. But hey, the Royals are interested in Ryon Healy, so I’m sure both teams have already spoken.

McCarthy’s sinker runs just shy of 93, and has solid but not truly remarkable armside run. He pairs it with a change (as well as a slurvy curveball and a tighter slider), which is interesting for a ROOGY. To date, he has not figured out lefties *at all* so again, his ceiling’s quite limited. His change is effective against all hitters, but his fastball is the real story, as lefties apparently get a long look at the pitch and can elevate it. He’s got whatever the opposite of deception is – really debilitating candor, or something.

Why this makes sense for the Mariners: McCarthy does most of what Ziegler does, and he wouldn’t be a rental. If you’re one of the old heads who misses a Sean Green type, well, McCarthy is…not exactly like that, but a 10:1 GB:FB ratio vs. righties could be huge in a bases-loaded, 1-out scenario. I wouldn’t do this for Healy straight up, but if they’re interested in Healy, then make sure we get McCarthy as part of the package coming back.

Why this makes sense for the Royals: Like the Marlins, the Royals simply don’t need situational relievers, and while I’m sure the Royals could build around cost-controlled young players, no one builds around low-K situational relievers. You either need one now or you don’t.

Why this might give you pause: Ziegler’s been around enough to be able to at least fight lefties to a draw. McCarthy’s pretty much sunk if the opposing manager pinch hits, which limits his effectiveness. If you’re targeting big spots in the 6th inning, it could work, but there’s the possibility of a crippling HR to a lefty, or a bunch of intentional walks in his future. The lack of real bat-missing ability is a red flag, too.

3: The Closer-type
Keone Kela, of Highline/Chief Sealth and then Everett Community College, is currently the Rangers closer. He’ll draw plenty of attention as the go-nowhere Rangers retool for another run in a few years. He’s in his first arb year this year, so he’ll get sizable raises over the next few years. Importantly for the M’s, he’s absolute death on a stick against righties, thanks to a fastball/curve combo that’s tough for righties to pick up. In his career, righties are hitting .184 and slugging .276 on his slurvy curveball. He’s a perfectly fine closer for now, but I think he’d be even better as a righty-focused set-up man.

If the fit works well (I’d actually rather have him where Colome’s slotted in now) in terms of role, I’m less sanguine about the fit in trade. The Rangers may get a decent prospect or two for Kela, who’s still cost controlled, and who has the all-important closer tag on him. For a guy with apparent attitude issues for a while, Kela seems to have done well in the closer’s role, though of course the Rangers are about as far from a playoff race as you could get.

Why this makes sense for the Mariners: Kela offers exactly what you want in a righty specialist. He’s got premium velocity and a great breaking ball that righties seemingly can’t quite pick up. He’s fine against lefties, too, so you don’t have to remove him if the opposing manager pinch hits. All in all, he’s better than Alex Colome, so clearly he’d be a great pick-up for the M’s. His price may come down as a result of his recent DL stint with shoulder soreness.

Why this makes sense for the Rangers: The Rangers have already made it clear they’d like to move him, as no team except possibly Miami needs a closer less than Texas. He’ll draw plenty of interest, and should net a solid prospect or two. Dan Vogelbach won’t get it done here, so the M’s are going to need to send over several near-MLB players, and frankly, they don’t have a ton to offer.

Why this might give you pause: Kela’s going to command more in trade than anyone on this list, and has struggled with control at times. Two years ago, he collapsed to a replacement-level season, with an ERA over 6, the product of too many HRs. Since that time, he’s limited dingers remarkably well, but the other side of that coin is that his HR/FB luck could run out at any point. Also: shoulder soreness.

Lefties:

4: High K Potential Relief Ace

Adam Conley, a local kid out of Olympia HS and Wazzu, threw 300 big league innings as a starter. The first 200 were quite good, but the last 100 got him demoted to the minors, and then saw him lose his starting role. He’s worked out of the minors most of the year, but has come up to throw 26+ innings as a reliever, where the Marlins hoped his stuff might play up. It has. Conley’s sinking, running fastball now averages 95+, and with 10″ of armside run, it looks like a true weapon out of the pen. Even better for Conley, it’s made it hard for lefties to elevate. He’s got completely different batted ball profiles against lefties and righties, with lefties pounding the ball into the ground, and righties hitting the occasional fly ball on those rare occasions they don’t strike out.

Unlike the others on this list, Conley isn’t really a true situational guy. He’s just new to relief work, and as of right now, he’s actually fared better against righties. But with that FB boring in on the hands of lefties, and with the makings of a decent slider, there’s no real reason he couldn’t dominate lefties. The problem, such as it is, is that his change-up’s ahead of the slider right now, so he’s striking out righties instead. I can’t speak for Jerry Dipoto, but personally, I’m ok with that.

Why this makes sense for the Mariners: Conley is under team control for three years, costs virtually nothing this season, and looks for all the world like a break-out reliever. Tweaks to his breaking ball akin to the tweaks they made to Marco Gonzales’ should make him even more effective.

Why this makes sense for the Marlins: Conley is now 28, and hits arbitration for the first time next year, meaning he’s due for a big raise. That’s awesome – he’s earned it. He doesn’t have a long track record as a reliever, so he won’t command a ton in trade, but as a guy with three years of arb coming up, the Marlins may decide they’d rather sell high and give those innings to pre-arb players. If that’s what they want to do, the M’s should make a move and happily pay Conley a slightly-higher fraction of what he’s owed.

Why this might give you pause: Conley would cost more than Ziegler in terms of talent. If the Marlins want a legitimate prospect, I can see some wondering if it’s worth it for a non-late-inning reliever. There’s also much less of a track record here. Righties used to hit him fairly hard, and he’s *never* posted decent K rates against lefties. If you want a shut-down guy against same-handed hitters, Conley both might cost too much and do too little. He’s great, but it may just not be the right fit.

5: The classic LOOGY
Alex Claudio is Keone Kela’s teammate with the Rangers right now, and like Conley, he’ll hit arbitration next year. He lacks the velocity and raw stuff of his teammate/fellow lefty Jake Diekman, but he makes up for it in deception and GB tendencies. With a sidearm delivery and a sinker with tons of armside run, Claudio has a GB% over 60%. His slider has loads of horizontal movement, making it a great weapon against lefties. I’d liken his stuff to watching Carson Smith (or Diekman) in slo-mo – it’s doing the same sort of thing, it’s just doing it 10 MPH slower.

Claudio’s been bitten by BABIP this year, and has never really been a swing-and-miss pitcher, even against lefties. That’s largely due to the fact that the slider that has all of that break has been his third pitch. His main secondary pitch is a weird change-up thrown very slow, at around 71. It’s weird because despite its low velo, it actually has *less* sink than his, uh, sinker. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything like that, actually. The M’s could work with him on his slider to be even better against lefties, but even if nothing changes, he’d be a solid option with men on and a lefty at the plate, as he induces tons of grounders against them.

Why this makes sense for the M’s: Claudio gets tons of grounders and lefties have a .204 OBP against him in his career. From a pure results standpoint, Claudio checks the boxes: he gets lefties out, and he doesn’t walk people.

Why this makes sense for the Rangers: I’m mentioned before that a rebuilding team doesn’t really need LOOGYs, but the Rangers actually have two left-handed relievers on the market. Diekman’s better overall, especially as puts his major surgery behind him (he had his colon removed in 2017), and Claudio’s escalating contract may not be as attractive to the Rangers as it would be to the M’s. Even in arb, Claudio’s not going to break the bank. The Rangers should be happy with cost-controlled relievers coming back, and the M’s have plenty to offer.

Why this might give you pause: As funky as his change-up is, it’s not a great bat-missing pitch, and his overall results are down this year. In 2018, the league average reliever strikes out a batter an inning. Even in a specialist role, Claudio will never come close to that, and thus may not be the kind of specialist the M’s really want.

Shane Greene’s now out with shoulder discomfort, Tony Barnette was shut down a while ago with the same problem, so they’re not viable candidates. Zach Britton probably *is*, but as an absolutely dominant former closer coming off of injury, I think he may not quite fit with Seattle. Not only has he not been linked to them in public reports, his stuff’s not quite what it used to be. Britton will help someone, but I doubt it’ll be the M’s. That’s fine, as I’ve shown there are quite a few players who might fit the M’s needs, depending on how you define situational reliever. What would you give up for a 6th-7th inning specialist? How much does that willingness to trade change with the M’s current spot in the race, and how much does club control matter to you?

Game 100 – White Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 22, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Reynaldo Lopez, 1:10pm

Last night featured a great discussion with some of my favorite baseball writers, Jerry Dipoto and John Choiniere from the M’s front office talking about their process, some very encouraging innings from Félix, and ultimately a mostly-gross 5-0 loss. It’s nice that good company and a good pace-of-game can overcome a total lack of offense and one poor inning from Felix. I’m trying to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations in re: El Cartelua, but I honestly think he outpitched his line. He got swings and misses, his change-up looked (from my vantage point high in the 300 level) to have bite/sink, and I thought he generally targeted the weakness of a free-swinging line-up. He also gave up 4 runs in 5, and that was essentially that.

That was that in large part because Dylan Covey, of all people, was nearly unhittable. Before the game, and spurred on by a fan question, reiterated his belief that while strikeouts-plus-grounders is essentially the best possible skillset for pitchers, economic reality pushed the M’s in a different direction. They couldn’t afford guys like that, so they picked up strikethrowers instead, and tried to build a great defense around them that would mitigate the downside of allowing a ton of contact and elevated contact. Dylan Covey is an interesting sort of counter to that strategy. That is, even assuming you can’t just go pick up a peak-Félix or Aaron Nola or whoever in free agency, you *can* find people with skills that lend themselves to high-K, high-GB outcomes. They just come with a bunch of other problems. In Covey’s case, it was a complete lack of control and command. But the White Sox saw that he threw a sinker really hard, and had the workings of a decent slider. Sure, he didn’t know where either was going, and even in a best-case scenario, he’s probably going to struggle with lefties, but his selection in Rule 5 was a bet on their ability to coach him up – to keep his positive attributes while they sanded down his rough edges. By and large, this hasn’t worked; it’s a microcosm of the White Sox massive rebuild – an interesting idea, well-executed at times, that ultimately still looks pretty shitty when viewed from the outside. I don’t know enough about Covey to know if he’s in their long-term plans, and I don’t know what they’ve done with his mechanics. But for a night, it looked pretty darn remarkable. He got grounders *and* a lot of weakly hit pop-ups. That’s a pretty neat trick, even if it was annoying to watch it work against the M’s.

Today, Marco Gonzales makes his first start of the second half. Marco and Mitch Haniger are the two feathers in the cap for this FO, and they’ve earned the right to gloat a bit about it, and Jerry subtly, charmingly, took that opportunity before last night’s game. They talked a bit about changing/refining his curve, which is quite clearly a much different pitch than it was when he was a Cardinal. I had no idea if the new, better, curve was one of the things that attracted them to Gonzo last year, or if it was the product of their coaching – now it seems we have our answer. And honestly, that’s the answer I was hoping for. The M’s need to maximize the ability of all of their players, and the process that went into Marco’s improved curve is something that gives me a bit of hope for the M’s future. Just listening to how they incorporate data (including from third-party providers), make decisions, and then talk with on-the-ground coaches like Brian DeLuna, was fascinating and it’s something to build on. Jerry mentioned Marco’s intelligence as a key reason he was able to make the change so quickly, but I hope they’re able to do more of this.

Reynaldo Lopez was one of the big-name prospects the Sox got when they traded cheap/controlled OF Adam Eaton a year or two ago, and he’s been the brightest light in a dark, dark season for them. The 24 year old throws a 96MPH fastball and backs it up with a change at around 84, a slider at 84-85, and a curve ball at 77. The change-up seems to be his favorite weapon, but purely from a movement point of view, it looks pretty marginal to me. The curve seems to be a work in process, but his slider’s been a decent enough pitch this year. Like Covey, his actual strikeouts lag his stuff, and without Covey’s weird low-spin fastball, Lopez won’t rack up as many ground balls (he’s been an extreme fly ball guy, in fact). But he’s relied on his FB to get mostly weak contact, and if he can develop either his curve or change, the Sox would definitely have something. As it stands, he’s not getting chase-swings, he’s walking a few too many, and he’s getting by with a low BABIP, but you can clearly see why he was such a big prospect.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Gonzales

As you can see, Mike Zunino’s been recalled from AAA, with David Freitas heading back to Tacoma. Guillermo Heredia is back in at CF – against a righty – to give Ben Gamel a break and because Lopez doesn’t have such extreme splits.

It was something of a bleak night in the system last night, as Tacoma lost to Salt Lake 2-1 in 10 IP, Springfield beat up on Arkansas 13-7, Modesto got blasted 11-5 by Rancho Cucamonga, Boise blanked Everett 9-0, and the AZL M’s lost to the AZL Padres. But hey, the DSL M’s picked up a win.

Game 99, White Sox at Mariners, Nerds

marc w · July 21, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Dylan Covey, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day.

Last night, the M’s were able to overcome a great performance by James Shields thanks to a 10 strikeout gem from Wade LeBlanc. Among the many sentences I never thought I’d write this year, that one may take the cake.

Today’s game preview will be an abbreviated one, as I’m heading up for the Baseball Prospectus event before tonight’s game against the White Sox. Come say hi if you’re at the game.

The M’s, back at 20 games over, send the newly-healthy Félix to the hill against the Southsiders’ stopgap, former Rule 5 guy, Dylan Covey. Covey has been in the A’s system, but struggled with injury and control, but you can see what the Sox saw in him: armed with a 95 mph sinker and a solid slider, he offers the promise of Ks AND grounders, if it’s often obscured by a present reality smothered in walks and hard-hit balls.

As a righty sinker- slider guy, Covey struggles against lefties, and teams are putting more lefties in their line-ups against him. Should be a good match-up for Seager, Span, and the suddenly hot again Dee Gordon.

The other big news of the day is that Kyle Lewis has been promoted to AA Arkansas, though the circumstances aren’t great: Arkansas CF/M’s prospect Braden Bishop’s season’s over after a pitch broke his wrist.

The Second Half Begins: White Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 20, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc v. James Shields, 7:10pm

Two extremely homer-prone starting pitchers face off in the much more hospitable climate of 2018-in-Seattle. James Shields, one of the originators of Tampa’s “pitch up in the zone” philosophy used a located fastball and a good change to become a reliable #3/occasional #2 for many years. As he lost a tick on his FB, the game changed around him, and thus not only did he allow more balls in play (as his strikeouts dropped), that contact turned more and more damaging. After signing a deal with the go-for-it Padres (this was a thing; it’s easy to forget, as it only last a few months), he collapsed thanks to a barrage of dingers. His FIP crested 6, and the Padres gifted him to the rebuilding White Sox, where he’s been since. Not even Don Cooper could help him last year, as the rabbit ball and close confines in Chicago combined to produce tons more HRs.

In 2018, though, Shields is enjoying a very mild sort of resurgence. He’s not a #3 anymore, or anything close – but he’s also not solidly below replacement level anymore. He’s posting his second straight year with a well below average BABIP, and the newly changed ball has made his stuff playable again. He’s transitioned away from his change-up to cutters and breaking balls (including two species of curve), but keeping lefties from doing damage is still a critical issue. Maybe it’s improved command, maybe it’s the ball, but one night-and-day change for him has been on non-pulled contact. A year ago, Shields had a .417 wOBA-against off of his four-seam and sinker. This year, it’s down to just .216. You can see by his pitch chart that he keeps it away, inviting opposite-field or up-the-middle contact – but it’s essentially unchanged from a year before. His approach isn’t different, but the results are.

One other thing’s different though, too, making it hard to tease these variables apart. Shields has abandoned his old, straight, rising four-seamer and has completely moved his position on the rubber. In, say, 2013, he threw from a 3/4 slot that produced a FB with 10.5″ of vertical rise. His sinker was more a change of pace, as it didn’t really sink much, but had a bit more armside run. So far, so standard for a Rays pitcher equipped with a curve. Last year, his vertical release came down by a half a foot, and he was one foot closer to 3B. He had the same armside run but much less vertical run, implying a bit of cut and gyro spin had infiltrated his four-seamer. Despite getting pounded last year, he doubled down this off-season, moving his release further out, and dropping his arm slot even more. Now, his sinker has very little rise, and his weird cutter/four-seam hybrid thing has over one standard deviation less rise than average. Have batters noticed? Well, *lefties* certainly have. After years of getting destroyed by southpaws, his FB is holding them in check this year. Whatever deception his new mechanics have hasn’t quite carried over to righties, and lefties are still drawing walks off of him, but his old fastball had become unplayable – not MLB quality in any way – and he’s managed to figure out a work-around.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Herrmann, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: LeBlanc

Lots of moves for the M’s as their DL’d players get healthy and as Cano eyes a return to action. First, the M’s have recalled John Andreoli and 1B Dan Vogelbach. That’s interesting, and seems to put some pressure on struggling 1B Ryon Healy and CF Guillermo Heredia, but there’s no news on that front. They’ll need another move in a day or two as Félix Hernández comes off the DL. Mike Zunino is *eligible* to come off the DL, but the M’s are sending him to Tacoma for a while; he’ll start tonight at Cheney. Vogelbach has clearly done all he can at AAA, but still doesn’t quite enjoy the faith of Scott Servais (just signed to an extension, by the way). As hard as it is to understand when the incumbent sports a .270 OBP, Vogelbach has looked lost in the bigs, and needs to show he’s dealt with the weaknesses that MLB pitchers exploited. Of course, to demonstrate that, he’s going to need to actually play. Hard to

Mike Morin was outrighted to Tacoma, removing him from the 40-man for the second time this season. Erasmo Ramirez is throwing again, and Zunino will catch him down in Tacoma tonight.

In a press conference, GM Jerry Dipoto praised Scott Servais in announcing the manager’s extension, noting a great record in one-run games (hat tip, Shannon Drayer). He noted that he’s shying away from rental players at the deadline, especially involving top prospects – ergo, don’t get your hopes up for Cole Hamels. He also mentioned that Robbie Cano’s taking grounders at 1B in the Dominican, and that he could play 1B/DH and some 2B when he comes back, with Dee getting most of the time at 2B, and occasional games in CF. That makes some sense, but puts one/both of Ryon Healy/Dan Vogelbach’s status up in the air. Sure, Robbie can’t play in the postseason, but what will the M’s do with 3 1Bs?

I looked at wOBA-allowed on FBs – Four-, two-seam and sinker this year in three pitchers who’ve previously struggled with HRs – Wade LeBlanc, James Shields, and Marco Gonzales. This year, they’re all essentially tied at .363 (ok, Gonzales is at .364). If we turn that wOBA into delicious, protein-rich wOBACON (exclude Ks/BBs), a big shift occurs: Gonzales and LeBlanc’s results get worse (as we remove their strikeouts), but Shields’ actually get *better* as walks drop out. The FB isn’t a K pitch for Shields – it’s just weird enough to produce bad contact, which is reflect in his wOBA on Contact. But for LeBlanc and Gonzales, those FBs are a key part of their attack, and they sneak backwards Ks and whiffs with their elevated heaters.

Can the M’s Upgrade Their Rotation?

marc w · July 19, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Yes, I mean, the answer to that is pretty straightforward. WILL they is a bit trickier, and doesn’t lend itself to clear, definitive answers. And after years of doing this, I’m drawn to definitive answers, as nothing else in this forward-looking, saber-y, projections-and-stuff blog leads to them.

But we can’t just leave the post there; we’re going to have to wallow around in the much of “will they?” and laugh about it in a few weeks once the definitive answer comes. The past two to four weeks have helped to shake things out, not just the teams who might be vying with the M’s to buy talent (welcome, Oakland), but the types of players each team may want to acquire. The shift in the way they acquire players is clearer now, too. The M’s have traded just about everyone save for their last two first-rounders, and without marquee names to move, the M’s strategy has been more about taking on salary. That’s not a critique, by the way. The M’s have a barrier, and they’ve been creative in surmounting it. The M’s got Mike Leake and cash for a so-so prospect because St. Louis, flush with a bunch of prospect arms, wanted the payroll flexibility. When the M’s wanted to acquire a set up man, they got Alex Colome in part by giving up Andrew Moore, but also by taking on Denard Span’s contract (and have watched Span outperform Colome quite handily). The M’s big names – especially Kyle Lewis – have red flags now, so setting aside the fact that the M’s would be loath to trade away a potential star for a rental, Kyle Lewis might not get it done. But the team has money, and if they’re serious about giving themselves the best chance to win in 2018, they could spend it. With Manny Machado finally moving (to the Dodgers), Deadline season is well and truly upon us. Will they M’s be a part of it, or did they shoot their shot back in May?

There’s a problem here, though. The M’s – like most teams – would like to stay below the self-imposed luxury tax threshold, which is at $197 million this year, and rises to $206 million next year. The M’s aren’t in serious danger of exceeding it this year, but they’ve actually committed more money than any team in the division for 2019. That is, they start planning for 2019 with over $125 million in guaranteed expenses, way more than the Astros (under $80 M), the A’s (of course), and more than the Angels, the team with Albert Pujols on a back-loaded deal through 2021. This has given the M’s stability; with the exception of Nelson Cruz, a big chunk of the M’s talent is under contract for years to come. But it means the M’s may see constraints on how much they can add in future years.* All of that to say that, just as the M’s have limitations in marketable prospects, they have limitations (perhaps self-imposed) on the kinds of multi-year contracts they can take on, too.

Another limitation in this year where parity up and died is supply. There are a *lot* of downright awful teams out there, but the problem is that these teams already shed tradeable talent; it’s why they’re awful! Teams like, say, the Marlins don’t have pitchers (or hitters) under long-term contracts now. They shed their biggest over the winter in the Giancarlo Stanton trade. They can get a mint for JT Realmuto now, and the M’s could probably use him, but they’re not going to be serious players for guys with multiple arb years remaining. That’s why the M’s haven’t been connected with Michael Fulmer, the Tigers hurler who may net Detroit a big prospect haul: the rebuilding Tigers want premium prospects for a guy like that. The same may be true for teams like the Twins who have a couple of starting pitchers on one-year pillow contracts. The lack of long term commitments mean the contract itself is affordable to every team in MLB, meaning it may be harder (but not impossible) for the M’s to compete. The M’s best shot at acquiring a starter or impact reliever is to take on a big free agent contract, but that’s hard to find on teams that are already well out of the race.

Learning from the most recent Rays trade, the M’s could compete for one player by taking on another’s contract, too. That would push their offer up the list with many teams, but that runs into another constraint. I’m assuming here that the M’s want to at least explore an extension for Nelson Cruz. He’s been, by just about any measure, one of the most important, successful free agent acquisitions the M’s have ever made. If he’d sign a two-year deal here, I think the M’s would try to move heaven and earth to make it work – he’s been instrumental in fostering the team’s positive culture as well as hitting loads of dingers. But taking on too many contracts now would make that more difficult. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s a constraint that the M’s are no doubt aware of.

So what to do?

1: Get Cole Hamels+

Hamels will be a free agent at the end of the year, and while Ryan Divish pooh-poohs the idea here, he’d be a good fit. He’d be a huge boost to the M’s rotation in a playoff series, especially if James Paxton pitches in the wild card game. He wouldn’t imperil any deal for Nellie, as his 2019 option is only $6 M. And without years and years of club control, the Rangers can’t really expect big-time prospects in exchange for Hamels, who’s currently having a so-so season.

But if Hamels won’t get MUCH, he’ll still drive a decent return. I can’t imagine the M’s would give up Evan White/Kyle Lewis for two months+ of Hamels, but then, I don’t know the M’s thinking on what the proper balance is between “win at all costs in 2018” and “we can be good in 2019, too.” There’s a way to get Hamels without giving up too much, though. Get Shin-Soo Choo, too. Choo’s having a great year, but is owed another $42 million through 2020. I imagine the Rangers wouldn’t mind off-loading that commitment, and that Choo would waive his limited no-trade deal (not sure if Seattle’s on his list of blocked teams) to come back to the area he lived in for years. A year ago, Choo’s salary looked like dead money. This year, that’s much less true. As such, taking on an aging Choo for ~$50 million may not be seen as such a big offer. But the Rangers are now in a full-on rebuild, as Hamels and Beltre could both by free agents this winter. Where would the M’s play Choo? They already have an All-Star at DH *and* RF, Choo’s two positions. Moving him to 1B would block the one spot the M’s could use Robinson Cano at, especially if they don’t want to yo-yo Dee Gordon back to CF. But hey, that’s for Scott Servais to figure out.

Cost in talent: Moderate
Cost in 2019-2021 contracts: $6M option buy-out; $20 M 2019 option.
Likelihood: 10%

2: Take on Jordan Zimmermann’s deal

It made so much sense at the time. Jordan Zimmermann had been remarkably consistent as a National, and thus his 5 year, $110 million deal with Detroit seemed a good fit for the win-now Tigers. Almost immediately, everything fell apart: Miguel Cabrera faltered, Victor Martinez got hurt/fell off a cliff, and Zimmermann himself started to struggle at the big league level. His K rate plunged, and with it his strand rate. It had been above 74% in every full year in DC, but it’s never been terribly close to 70% in Detroit. Despite their commitment to Cabrera, the Tigers seem set to selling everything off, including Michael Fulmer, who won’t even reach arbitration until next season. If they’d rather have prospects than pay Fulmer a comparative pittance, then they’d probably love to escape the last two-plus years of their commitment to Zimmermann.

Importantly for the M’s, Zimmermann is actually starting to pitch well again. His strikeouts are back, and his command’s improved. The problem is that he’s been hit hard by injuries over the past few years, and apparently got a “nerve-blocking injection” in his neck over the All-Star break, which sounds like fun. Still, we’re talking about an All-Star caliber pitcher who probably won’t command a lot in trade as long as the M’s are willing to take on most/all of his deal. He’s owed more than Choo, so this could interfere with their pursuit not only of Cruz, but several other players who’ll become available in the 2018-19 off-season – guys like Hamels, JA Happ, and the one-year contract folks like Jake Odorizzi.

More importantly, this would require some serious input from the M’s coaching AND training staff. Can Mel Jr. help Zimmermann continue to do whatever it is that enabled these promising 2018 results? Can the M’s keep him relatively healthy through 2020? Unless the M’s know exactly what changes he’s made and how to help coach him, I think they stay away. If they see something they could work with, this would be an interesting move, and it wouldn’t be a rental contract of the sort Divish reports the M’s owners hate.

Cost in talent: Moderate/low
Cost in 2019-2021 contracts: Moderate/high
Likelihood: 15%

3: It’s Happ-ening dot gif

Since last we saw JA Happ, he’s enjoyed a remarkable late-career renaissance, first in Pittsburgh immediately after leaving the M’s, and then again in Toronto. Happ started his career as a fairly average pitcher in terms of strikeouts, but he always had some annoying control issues. Towards the end of his first stint in Toronto, something seemed to click, like he was poised to unlock some bat-missing strategy, but we never really saw that in Seattle. Instead, he settled back in as a perfectly reasonable (if boring) low K middle of the rotation guy. Traded at the deadline, he went to Pittsburgh and instantly struck out more than a batter an inning while cutting his walk rate. After being in the high teens/low 20s in K%, he shot up to 27%+ in what was admittedly a small sample. It was large enough that the Blue Jays signed him to a three year deal, though, and while his K rate fell back to earth initially, it’s over 26% for 2018, good for a K/9 of 9.99, which is stunning even taking into account the whiff-prone era we’re in. Happ is no longer a bottom-of-the-rotation guy.

That’s a blessing and, if you’re an M’s fan, something of a curse. Happ’s in the last few months of his three year deal; he can walk away at the end of the year. Because of that, his contract is cheap enough for any team to take on. That’s going to make talent in terms of prospects the key determinant of where Happ finishes the year. Who can offer more? Well, the Yankees apparently want pitching, and they’ve got more brand-name prospects to offer Toronto. So too could one of the NL contenders, like Philadelphia, who lost out on the Machado sweepstakes. It’s too bad, because Happ makes a lot of sense in Seattle, which is why he’s been linked to the M’s in trade chatter. It just seems like other teams could fit better, especially if the M’s don’t want to give up one of their few premium prospects for a rental.

Cost in talent: Moderate
Cost in 2019-2021 contracts: 0
Likelihood: 10%

4: Nate Eovaldi? Nate Eovaldi.

Nate Eovaldi of the Rays is like Happ, but with the risk and reward amped up. The oft-injured fireballer has thrown 51 IP this year, and none in 2017 as he rehabbed from surgery. He tantalizes with plus velocity and a four-pitch mix, but the results have always lagged behind the scouting reports. Still, what he’s shown in very limited duty this year make him intriguing as a short-term boost to a rotation. He’s throwing more of his secondaries and relying less on his straight-but-speedy fastball, and his K:BB ratio has never been better.

All of that’s true, but his overall season line (again, 51 IP) is right in line with his frustrating career marks. Sure, much of that has to do with his last start, a 2 2/3 IP disaster that saw him give up 8 runs to the Twins, of all people. But on the other hand, the hot streak that saw him shoot up trade target boards was really based on just his three starts before *that*. Small samples are always intriguing, but his career numbers don’t scream “maybe trade your top prospect for this?”

Again, this is the type of pitcher who would be an interesting risk if the bidding comes in lower than expected (8 runs to the Twins?) AND if the M’s coaches have some sort of a plan to improve upon the intriguing raw material that Eovaldi represents. If there’s a mechanical or repertoire change to make, or a change in his delivery to amp his deception, sure, maybe you go for it. Failing that, it seems like a massive risk to ask a frustratingly inconsistent starter to add consistency to your rotation. That hasn’t stopped the M’s from exploring the idea, and I’m glad they’re doing so. I just don’t see it happening, despite the history of deals between these two clubs.

Cost in talent: Moderate
Cost on 2019-2021 contracts: 0
Likelihood: 15%

I get that it feels gross to even worry about contracts. I get that it’s silly to get too fixated on prospects at the expense of putting the best possible team on the field right now. But while there has to be some sort of balance, the M’s are very clearly in win-now mode. They can make a splash in this market if they want to give up Lewis plus some of their relief arms, but given the returns we’ve seen for Machado and now Brad Hand/Adam Cimber (a big-time, high-minors, top-50 hitting prospect+), sprinkling Warrens and Festas over the proposal may not be enough. The question is are they willing to give up Kyle Lewis?

* The M’s CAN exceed the threshold, of course. Depending on exactly how the hypothetical contracts worked out, it might make sense to blow past it for one year, without triggering the larger penalties meted out to teams who exceed it three straight years.

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