It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about the James Paxton trade and the perpetual player-moving machine that is Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto. It was, in actuality, over a week ago and, as it turned out, that was simply a harbinger of things to come. In the days since, we’ve been accosted with a never ending onslaught of trade rumors and, in just a few days’ time, have learned that the Mariners have gone full rebuild and are headed to the cellar for the immediate future.
The first deal was announced over the weekend, with Seattle sending Robinson Canó, Edwin Díaz and cash to the Mets in exchange for Anthony Swarzak, Jay Bruce and a trio of prospects in Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista. If it seems weird at first glance that a 89-win team (Seattle) is unloading a couple of its best players to a 78-win team (New York) in exchange for prospects, welcome to Major League Baseball in 2018.
As we touched on when analyzing the Paxton deal, the Mariners drastically overperformed last year and were actually a 77-win team by their Pythagorean record, one who had (and continues to have) the unenviable honor of playing the same division of the Astros. The Mets didn’t really underperform or overperform, with a 78-win Pythagorean record, but they’ve got a new GM in Brodie Van Wagenen, one who has instructions to figure out somehow, someway, a way for the Mets to get back on track while they still have an enviable rotation headlined by this year’s Cy Young-winner Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler. But we’ll return briefly to the Mets shortly.
When discussing how the Mariners outperformed their expected record, one of the biggest parts of that was their record in one-run games (36-21) and extra-inning games (14-1). You know what helps with that? A shutdown closer, which is exactly what Díaz is. When you throw in the high 90s and you strike out over 15 hitters per nine (while only walking a little over 2 per), you’re probably going to find success, which Díaz did, accumulating 57 saves and 3.2 bWAR/3.5fWAR. Díaz was one of the best relievers in baseball last year, right up there with Josh Hader and Blake Treinen.
Despite serving an 80-game suspension this season for a failed PED test, Canó hit 303/.374/.471 in his 80 games, for a 136 OPS+ and 3.2 bWAR/2.9 bWAR. Had he played a full season, he likely would have received some down-ballot MVP votes. While his $240 million contract in 2013 seemed insane at the time, it’s worked out pretty well for Seattle. That suspension aside, Canó is still a Hall of Fame caliber player who hasn’t completely dropped off yet. He makes his team better now, and that’s something that the Mets have decided they need and the Mariners have decided they don’t.
Now we get to the less exciting part of the analysis, because Seattle also sent cash to New York, and they took on Swarzak and Bruce, which are basically salary dumps for the Mets to offset some of Canó’s salary. The Mets quickly came to regret their two big-ticket purchases last offseason, as Bruce was good for 0.1 fWAR and Swarzak -0.4 fWAR, and now Seattle is going to be paying for former GM Sandy Alderson’s missteps.
In terms of the prospects that went in Seattle’s direction, they’re definitely worthy of some discussion. 19-year-old outfielder Kelenic was the Mets’ 6th overall pick in last year’s draft and immediately becomes either best or second best prospect in Seattle’s system, but he’s a long, long way from the majors and anything can happen. 23-year-old RHP Dunn was the Mets first-rounder in 2016 (19th overall), and he profiles somewhere between a middle-of-the-rotation starter and the bullpen. 23-year-old RHP Bautista is more of a throw-in, who might develop into a bullpen piece.
It’s a lot to put together when this many players with varying contract considerations change hands, and I’ve gone back and forth multiple times while writing this. But, ultimately, I can’t shake the feeling that the Mariners might have made a mistake in their approach. Dipoto likely had his marching orders from ownership in terms of bringing down payroll during the rebuild, but it’s certainly disheartening on the fan’s side that Seattle.
If I’m a Seattle fan, I would want Seattle to get back the best prospects back that they can, especially given the sorry state of the farm system prior to this offseason. Baseball teams are businesses, and at least they didn’t make this entirely about a salary dump. But they did cash in one of their best trade chips and the money involved kept them from getting the best return possible.
While Kelenic (#62) and Dunn (#89) both crack MLB.com’s top 100 prospect list, we (lately at least) usually see a prospect (or prospects) of higher pedigree moving when a reliever like Díaz changes teams. For recent comparison’s sake, both Brad Hand and Ken Giles fetched more notable returns. For current comparison’s sake, I’d like to see what would’ve happened if Treinen or Hader were on the move this offseason. Given the year-to-year variance in MLB’s top relievers, they’re almost certainly being overvalued in the current market, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t judge Seattle’s move harshly, since it took place within that environment.
On the Mets’ side of the ledger, they will almost certainly feel the sting of this deal in a couple of years, once the net-cash positive aspect of moving Bruce wears off. Canó has been very, very good for a very, very long time, but the last couple of years of this deal, at the least, are going to be rough, because that’s just what happens when people who are 40 play professional sports. Canó’s contract is almost certainly going to hurt badly for at least a couple years when the curse of age finally manifests itself.
While it’s inspiring to see new Van Wagenen get the Wilpon-owned Mets make these sort of moves in theory, we’ll have to see how they handle it when the piper actually arrives in Flushing expecting his paycheck. But, then again, the Mets’ rotation isn’t getting any younger and they the service time clock doesn’t have a pause button.
And we really have to wait and see how the Mets front office navigates the rest of the offseason before we can really make a proper call. They’ve indicated that they’re looking to trade Syndergaard, which is a move that might have made sense if they were reloading (or whatever you want to call it), but makes absolutely zero sense if they’re trying to win right now. There’s also the issue of Jeff McNeal, the Mets rookie second baseman who hit 329/.381/.471 in 2018 and is now going to need to find a new place to play with Canó in town, but we’ve got another trade to talk about, so hopefully he’ll just adjust to playing wherever he’s placed with aplomb.
Before the ink had even dried on that deal, Dipoto had already done another blockbuster, sending Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to the Phillies in exchange for J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana. This one might be easier to analyze because there aren’t as many moving parts (but they are definitely still plenty of parts, and those parts are moving, and, who am I kidding, Dipoto is involved, so it’s going to be complicated).
Segura will turn 29 during Spring Training and is controllable through the 2023 season (at the cost of $58 million over the next four seasons, with a $1 million buyout/$17 million club option for 2023). He’s been consistently excellent over the last three seasons, posting a .308/.353/.449 slashline for a 116 OPS+ and an average of 4.3 bWAR per season, with a deserved All Star nod in 2018. He’s been defensively sound by both DRS and UZR, and it’s quite likely that his bat will carry him through a defensive decline over the course of his contract.
Crawford, who will take Segura’s place at shortstop, doesn’t have a proven track record of success against MLB pitching as of yet. While he was consistently placed on top-twenty prospect lists, he’s hit .214/.333/.358 for a 85 OPS+ and has just 0.8 bWAR over 72 games in Philadelphia over the last two seasons. That said, he’s dealt with injuries, is only 23 and won’t reach free agency until 2024. Seattle is taking on a player who will cost far less over the life of the contract. While Crawford has struck out too much in his (still young) MLB career, there’s certainly plenty of upside there for the taking.
Pushing upside to the side, it’s still statistically likely that Segura will be the better player over the next half decade, given his proven production and not-too-far advanced age. Again, though, the Mariners are saving money on the deal, despite taking on Carlos Santana’s contract.
Santana stepped back in 2018 (from a 112 to a 105 OPS+), and the move to a pitcher’s park isn’t going to help his power and make him a harder sell when Dipoto inevitably tries to move him in the future. And by taking on Santana’s contract, Seattle negated a large chunk of the money they saved in the Segura-for-Crawford part of the trade, although they also shipped Nicasio’s contract to the Phillies.
But if this all confusing (it is), the most important thing to note is that Seattle didn’t get anything in the way of prospects in this one. Crawford has already failed to prove himself against MLB pitching and has shed that shiny prospect status. Given that we live in a golden age of shortstops, and one where there is little demand for them amongst contending teams, it was certainly going to hurt Dipoto’s ability to get back something of supreme value in exchange for Segura, but that’s another of the Mariners’ best trade pieces headed to another team with little in the way of farm aid to show for the deal.
We certainly know a couple of things for sure now, and one of those is that the NL West is looking to position itself as the most competitive in baseball. With the Braves and Nationals having made some smart improvements already this offseason, and the Phillies and Mets pushing their chips in with these moves as well, it’s going to get interesting quickly.
We also know that the Mariners have gone full rebuild and, now that we do, it clearly would have been better to see their moves really improve the farm over the last few weeks. They’ve had one of the worst farms in all of baseball for a while now, and it’s made Dipoto’s job extremely difficult, as he had to concurrently deal with the contracts he inherited from the previous regime.
Looking at the bigger picture about whether the Mariners were right to go ahead with a rebuild raises even more questions. Seattle has been in a tough spot for a few seasons now, concurrently with Houston’s rise through the ranks to a perennial contender. But the Mariners looked like they might snag a Wild Card spot for the majority of the 2018 season, and it took an absolutely ridiculous tear from the A’s to put an end to that dream. I’m on the fence about whether the Mariners are right to tear the whole thing down now, but, even if they do, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to all work out.
There can only be so many Cubs and Astros success stories and, when so many teams are taking to tanking, you’re not going to get a first or second overall draft pick every year. Unfortunately, that’s how you increase the probability that trusting the process will actually work out. The MLB isn’t the NBA. The failure of top prospects to pan out, combined with the inability of a sole superstar to carry a team, makes tanking a far-from-certain guarantee of future success, one where the likelihood greatly decreases when there’s a whole bunch of teams with the exact same game plan.
The future is, as always, uncertain. The Mariners have a better farm system now, for sure. Dipoto had a tough job, trying to maximize his return on his best players while ensuring that the owners cut costs and lined their pockets. But it’s hard to see a light at then end of the tunnel coming for Seattle fans anytime soon, and it certainly appears like the longest playoff drought in major American sports is going to continue for the foreseeable future.