In a rare and rather stunning swap between a pair of division rivals who are both in contention, the Mariners have traded closer Kendall Graveman and recently designated-for-assignment righty Rafael Montero to the Astros in exchange for young infielder Abraham Toro and veteran righty Joe Smith, according to both clubs. The trade is even more eye-opening when considering that the two clubs are gearing up to play each other in the second game of a three-game set tonight.
Trading Graveman at all registers as a moderate surprise, given the Mariners’ recent climb in the standings and stated desire to improve the 2021 roster. To see him traded to the division-leading Astros while the two squads are playing one another is downright jarring. That said, Graveman is a free agent at season’s end, and in Toro, the Mariners are acquiring five seasons of control over an infielder who has been considered one of Houston’s more promising young prospects for the past few years.
In speaking to the media about the trade, Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto plainly acknowledged that as a standalone transaction, it’s a head-scratching move. But Dipoto also emphasized some patience, suggesting this move is but one of a sequence of trades designed to improve the Mariners’ chances both in 2021 and over the long-term down the road (Twitter thread via MLB.com’s Daniel Kramer). Dipoto suggested a subsequent trade or trades could come together as soon as tonight or in the coming days, but it seems as though this is but one of a series of moves for which the Mariners are angling; time will tell just how the moves look when judged in their totality.
Toro, 24, hasn’t yet pieced things together in limited big league action, but he’s decimated Triple-A pitching (.392/.497/.600 in 33 games) and posted strong numbers in pitcher-friendly Double-A settings (.282/.369/.468 in 148 games). The switch-hitting Toro provides the Mariners with a possible long-term option at third base, but he’s also logged considerable time at second base — another area where the Mariners have been known to be seeking help. That long-term fit isn’t likely to matter much to the clubhouse, however, and Divish rather unsurprisingly tweets that the decision to trade Graveman to their top division rival was not well-received among Seattle players.
That’s understandable on Seattle’s end, given just how dominant Graveman has become since transitioning to the bullpen late in the 2020 season. The former Athletics starter has bounced back from an injury-lost 2019 season to emerge as one of the American League’s more effective relievers. In 33 innings this season, Graveman has pitched to a 0.82 ERA with a 28.1 percent strikeout rate, a 6.6 walk rate and a 53.9 percent ground-ball rate. Dating back to his shift to the bullpen in 2020, he’s compiled 43 innings of 1.47 ERA ball.
Graveman is likely all the more appealing to the luxury-conscious Astros because of his affordable salary. He’s playing on a one-year, $1.25MM contract. Incentives have already boosted that base salary by $400K, and the contract overall contains a total of $3MM in reachable incentives. That said, $1.5MM of those are tied up in games finished, and manager Dusty Baker has already indicated that Ryan Pressly is likely to continue as his closer. Graveman could still collect six more stray games finished to reach his first of three would-be $500K bonuses tied to games finished, but it’s unlikely he reaches the 30 and 40 games finished needed to unlock the next pair of $500K bonuses. In all, the contract will likely top out paying him somewhere in the range of $2.65MM based on incentives tied to days on the roster, games finished and total innings pitched.
Montero’s inclusion in the trade is likely a pure accounting measure. The combined salaries of Montero and Graveman ought to clock in somewhere in the same ballpark as Smith’s $4MM salary and luxury-tax hit, though depending on the status of Graveman’s incentives, the Astros could come out either a bit ahead or a bit behind where they were previously projected.
Montero opened the season as the closer in Seattle but struggled early and has been mired in a catastrophic slump of late, yielding 16 runs in his past 11 innings. The ’Stros may have their own ideas on how to help a reliever who was quite good with the Rangers in 2019-20 right the ship, but Montero’s inclusion doesn’t appear to be a key part of the swap. At best he’s a roll of the dice, and at worst he’s a financial counterweight who could be cut loose quickly if his struggles persist.
The same is largely true of Smith, who opted out of the 2020 season after signing a two-year deal in Houston and has been clobbered for a 7.48 ERA in 21 2/3 innings this year. Some of that has been attributable to a sky-high .413 batting average on balls in play, but Smith is sporting a career-low strikeout rate, a grounder rate that’s well off his peak levels and has also been quite homer-prone. As with Houston and Montero, perhaps the Mariners have an idea or two about how to get the veteran righty back on track, but the trade is much more about Graveman and Toro than about the struggling relievers accompanying those two players.