- While Spring Training impressions were limited due to the mid-March shutdown, the Mariners were still encouraged by the progress demonstrated by some expected key players, manager Scott Servais said this week on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (Twitter link, with audio). In particular, lefty Justus Sheffield and righties Justin Dunn and Logan Gilbert looked to have taken notable strides. Sheffield, the centerpiece of the Mariners’ James Paxton return, allowed two runs on five hits and no walks with 12 punchouts in eight spring innings. Dunn, acquired alongside Jarred Kelenic in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz blockbuster, whiffed 10 hitters in six innings while holding opponents to two runs in 6 2/3 frames. Gilbert, Seattle’s first-rounder in 2018, pitched four shutout innings with four strikeouts, no walks and one hit. The M’s are hopeful that this trio can soon ascend to the big league rotation alongside Marco Gonzales as the organization emerges from an accelerated rebuilding process. There’s clearly more to the belief that strides were made than those surface-level stats, but the trio’s showing nevertheless was heartening for Mariners fans.
He’s still only 25, but if you go back to his days as a prospect, Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford was seen as an elite young talent. Crawford was the 16th overall pick of the Phillies in 2013, and Baseball America ranked him as the sixth-best farmhand in the sport after the 2015 season.
“At his best, he has a future as an all-star shortstop who can play above-average defense and hit for power,” BA wrote.
Crawford, however, hasn’t realized that vast potential with either organization he has played for to this point. Injuries did play a part in derailing Crawford’s tenure with the Phillies, but even when he was healthy enough to take a major league field from 2017-18, he put together an unspectacular line of .214/.333/.358 with three home runs in 225 plate appearances. Having seen enough, the Phillies dealt Crawford to the Mariners in December 2018 in what was a rather noteworthy trade. The retooling Mariners gave up infielder Jean Segura and relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos in order to acquire Crawford and first baseman Carlos Santana.
There’s no more Santana in Seattle – the team flipped him to Cleveland before he ever donned an M’s uniform – so the deal was largely about finding a long-term answer at shortstop. For at least some portion of last season, it looked as the Mariners were on to something. Crawford came flying out of the gates after debuting with the Mariners in the first half of last May, but his production plummeted after June.
In each of July, August and September, Crawford posted a wRC+ of less than 65. With an overall mark of 63 in the second half of the season, he was the third-worst offensive player in baseball, logging a .188/.288/.299 line in 229 trips to the plate. Crawford did draw walks (11.8 percent) and limit strikeouts (18.8) better than the average hitter then, though a .224 batting average on balls in play down the stretch didn’t help his cause. However, Crawford largely brought the low BABIP on himself with a lack of meaningful contact. According to FanGraphs, Crawford finished with the majors’ second-highest soft-contact rate (26 percent) and its third-worst hard-contact percentage (24.1). Statcast wasn’t impressed, either, as it placed Crawford in the basement of the league in important offensive categories such as average exit velocity, expected weighted on-base average and barrel percentage, to name a few.
The biggest roadblock the left-handed Crawford faced in 2019 was his inability to do anything against same-handed hurlers, who turned him into one of the worst hitters in the league. He batted an awful .160/.268/.179 with a stunningly low .019 ISO against them, but a much more palatable .255/.333/.456 with a .201 ISO versus righties. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time Crawford has run into that type of trouble, evidenced in part by the fact that he has never hit a single homer off a lefty during 144 tries in his career, and he’s a lifetime .144/.272/.171 batter against them. To state the obvious, that’s not going to cut it.
Crawford’s going to have to major strides against southpaws in order to amount to anything more than a platoon player in the majors. And it’s not as if he has shown he’s a defensive wizard whose work at short will cover for his flaws at the plate. Through almost 1,100 innings (including 806 a season ago), he has put up minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-1.7 Ultimate Zone Rating.
The good news is that there’s still time for Crawford to figure it out. He’s controllable for five more years, and the Mariners don’t look as if they’ll contend for at least the next season or two, so they can afford to be patient with Crawford. So far, though, Crawford hasn’t shown many signs that he’ll live up to the hype he garnered as a prospect.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
After 89 wins in 2018 didn’t sniff the postseason, the Mariners willfully took a step back in 2019. A fifth-place finish and 94 losses later, the Mariners have another development year on the horizon when/if the 2020 season gets underway. Even so, General Manager Jerry Dipoto isn’t one to sit quietly on the sidelines, and he found ways to keep himself busy this winter.
- Taijuan Walker, RHP: one year, $2MM (an additional $1MM in incentives)
- Yoshihisa Hirano, RHP: one year, $1.6MM
- Carl Edwards Jr., RHP: $950K, arb eligible after 2020 and 2021
- Patrick Wisdom, 3B: $600K, major league contract
- Kendall Graveman, RHP: one year, $1.5MM (club option for $3.5MM in 2021)
- Total spend: $6.65MM
Trades and Claims
- Claimed RHP Taylor Williams from Brewers
- Claimed LHP Nick Margevicius from Padres
- Claimed INF/OF Sam Haggerty from Mets
- Selected RHP Yohan Ramirez from Astros in Rule 5 Draft
- Acquired RHP Adam Hill and a Competitive Balance Draft pick from the Brewers in exchange for C Omar Narvaez
- Acquired LHP Nestor Cortes Jr. from the Yankees in exchange for $28,300 international bonus space
- Signed LHP Marco Gonzalez to four-year, $30MM extension (from 2021-2024), $5MM in 2021, $5.5MM in 2022, $6.5MM in 2023, $12MM in 2024, plus $1MM signing bonus and $15MM team option for 2025
- Signed 1B Evan White to six-year, $24MM ($1.3MM in 2020 and 2021, $1.4MM in 2022, $3MM in 2023, $7MM in 2024, $8MM in 2025, $10MM team option in 2026 plus two more club options in 2027 and 2028 for a combined $21.5MM).
Notable Minor League Signings
- Cody Anderson (signed to minor league deal and released), Tim Beckham, Domingo Santana, Arodys Vizcaino, Felix Hernandez, Tommy Milone, Keon Broxton, Ryon Healy, Connor Sadzeck, Sam Tuivailala, Jose Siri (claimed off waivers from Reds, lost to Giants)
First and foremost, let’s pour one out for King Felix. Now 34-years-old, Felix Hernandez joined the Braves as a non-roster invitee this spring, officially ending his 15-year tenure with the Mariners. Granted, we haven’t seen vintage King Felix since…maybe 2015? Regardless: 15 years, 418 starts, 6 All-Star appearances, a Cy Young award, 169 wins, 8 200-inning seasons, 25 complete games, 11 shutouts, 1 relief appearance, and tragically, zero postseason appearances. The Mariners fielded some competitive rosters over the years (85-89 wins five times from 2005 to 2019), but whenever the Mariners end their playoff drought, they’ll do so without King Felix. Still, he goes down as a Seattle great: a career 3.42 ERA/3.52 FIP, good for 50.3 bWAR/54 fWAR.
Beyond Felix, the Mariners didn’t lose anyone of terrible consequence this winter. Healy, Beckham, Milone, Tuivailala and Santana had their moments, while Vizcaino, Siri, and Anderson never appeared in a regular season game for Seattle. None should be missed long-term as the Mariners continue to set their sights on 2021 and beyond.
Meanwhile, they brought back a familiar face in Taijuan Walker. If healthy, Walker has a good chance of making the rotation. For $2MM (plus incentives), it’s a safe gamble for the M’s, and at 27-years-old, there’s still some upside if he can return to form. The M’s ought to have enough leash to give him that opportunity.
Elsewhere in the rotation, the Gonzalez extension keeps the former Cardinal at the front of the rotation for the next four seasons (maybe five) at a good rate. The 28-year-old is coming off solid back-to-back 3+ fWAR seasons, eclipsing the 200-inning mark while going 16-13 with a 3.99 ERA/4.15 FIP in 2019. He’s not the type to front a rotation, but he’s a solid arm who should continue to be an asset throughout the length of his new extension.
The rest of the rotation – and most of the roster – is a series of auditions. The M’s have a lot of interesting young players in the clubhouse, and before Trader Jerry gets set to make another push for the postseason, he’s got to sort the real McCoys from the small-sample hucksters.
In the rotation, there are two types of tryout candidates: prospects and retreads. Walker has the familiarity with the Seattle base, but Kendall Graveman may also get a chance to earn a rotation spot after spending last season rehabbing with the Cubs. Graveman knows the division well having put up a little more than two full seasons worth of solid back-end rotation work for the A’s from 2015 to 2018.
In the prospects camp, Justus Sheffield is facing a make-or-break campaign after seven so-so starts with the big league club last year. Justin Dunn also got a taste last year, and though the former Mets farmhand may not start the year in the majors, he should be a prime understudy after putting together a solid season in Double-A.
Waiver claim Nick Margevicius falls somewhere between the two camps. He struggled in the bigs last year with the Padres, posting a 6.79 ERA/5.64 FIP, but he made the jump from Double-A, and he’s still just 23-years-old. His typically pristine control slipped just enough to hurt upon reaching the big leagues, while his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio skyrocketed. He wasn’t exactly pitching in a bandbox in San Diego, but if he can limit the long ball and get his walks-per-nine back under 2 where it lived for most of his minor league career, the Mariners might have another lefty for the rotation.
Along with Yusei Kikuchi, that’s at least seven semi-interesting arms to look at, which might be more than enough in a short season (though there’s obviously a ton of uncertainty there). The other notable additions this winter were in the bullpen, where new Yoshihisa Hirano, Carl Edwards Jr., Nestor Cortes Jr. and Rule 5 pick Yohan Ramirez all have a chance to make the Opening Day roster.
Hirano struggles somewhat for the Diamondbacks in his second season stateside, but he also bumped his strikeout rate from 8.0 K/9 to 10.4 K/9 – with a lesser jump in walk rate (3.1 BB/9 to 3.7 BB/9). He could end up being a big piece of the bullpen. CJ Edwards, meanwhile, was one of the more inexplicable flameouts in 2019: 8.47 ERA/5.74 FIP across 22 appearances for the Cubs and Padres. Considering the 3+ seasons with a 3.06 ERA/3.12 FIP that Edwards put together for the Cubs from 2015 to 2018, and he makes for an intriguing flyer who is still just 28-years-old.
On the offensive end, Dipoto made two big moves. The first was trading starting catcher Omar Narvaez to the Brewers for a Competitive Round Draft Pick and 6’6″ right-hander Adam Hill. Narvaez had a good season last year (.278/.353/.460 with 22 home runs, 199 wRC+), but his other half Tom Murphy looked good too (just ask MLBTR’s own Anthony Franco). Hill has a big arm, but has to get his control under wraps. He was the Brewers #24 prospect per MLB.com at the time of the deal. The Brewers had him for just half a season after he joined the organization from the Mets in January as part of the Keon Broxton deal.
Dipoto took the opportunity to add youth, so they’ll turn over the backstop duties to Murphy and Aaron Nola’s big brother Austin. Murphy posted good numbers on both sides of the ball, and he’ll get the starting nod, but Nola figures to get plenty of playing time as well. Nola is an infield convert who plans to make catching his full-time gig in 2020. If he can stick it defensively, he seems to have enough bat for the position (.269/.342/.454 in 267 plate appearances last year). Assuming good health, the Murphy/Nola combo ought to be sufficient in 2020 while Cal Raleigh continues to work his way towards the bigs.
Dipoto’s other significant decision was giving first baseman Evan White a six-year, $24MM deal after he played the 2019 season for the Arkansas Travelers in Double-A. White, 24 on Sunday, certainly looks worth the money if he continues to perform as he did for the Travelers. White hit .293/.350/.488 with 18 home runs across 400 plate appearances in 2019. He’s the Mariners’ 4th-ranked prospect per Fangraphs, and he profiles as a complete player with plus power, speed, and defense that should help him claim (and keep) first base for the next half decade.
Granted, it’s risky to hand $24MM to a kid who’s totaled 4 games above Double-A, but Dipoto secured significant upside with this deal, which includes three option years for an additional $31.5MM. If White turns into the player Dipoto suspects, they’ll have him for the next 9 seasons at an AAV of $6.17MM. Also, they can now start White on the major league roster without manipulating his service clock (if they deem him ready). First base certainly isn’t thought of as a core position these days, but core players routinely make their homes there (Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt, etc.), and while White has a lot to prove before qualifying to break bread with that trio, the Mariner brass saw enough to write his name on the lineup card in pen.
If there was a surprise this winter from Trader Jerry, it’s that he didn’t find a way to move more of his remaining veterans. Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon would figure to be the first to move in 2020 if they can establish any value. Unfortunately, Gordon doesn’t have any at present (nor much of a path to establishing some), and Seager’s price tag all but nullifies any value he might have accrued during a bounce-back .239/.321/.468, 110 wRC+ 2019 season. The eldest Seager bounced around the trade papers this winter in regards to hot corner openings in the NL East, but he’s owed $19.5MM in 2020, $18.5MM in 2021, and if he were dealt, a $15MM club option for 2022 becomes a player option. The option clause makes Seager difficult to deal, and the Mariners like his makeup, so it seems as likely as anything that he’ll play out the remainder of his deal in T-Mobile Park.
Other veterans like Mallex Smith and Daniel Vogelbach are young enough to be a part of the next Seattle contender, but more than that, they don’t carry much trade value at present. Vogelbach, 27, finished last season with 30 home runs and a palatable 111 wRC+. But he’s not a fielder, and he’s not a runner, and even though he’s not even arb eligible until 2022, there’s not a lot of need for his skill set around the league. Smith, 27 in May, has shown promise at times in his career, but as MLBTR’s own Connor Byrne wrote about in a recent post entitled “Seattle’s Struggling Center Fielder“…well, the title pretty much tells the tale (and if not, Connor can take you the rest of the way).
Mitch Haniger is the guy toeing the line here, as the Mariners’ have long-lauded his character and the total package he brings to the table, but as a 29-year-old corner outfielder, it’s fair to wonder if his contributions would better serve a contender. A slew of injuries has kept that question on the back-burner, however, as there’s no timetable for his return after undergoing a pair of offseason surgeries.
Finding core players to play alongside White will be priority number one for Scott Servais and company whenever play resumes. Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic are two big-time prospects atop the M’s vision board, but they’re both probably a year or maybe more away. In the meantime, Servais and Dipoto will keep a daily eye on a whole host of young position players who may or may not become crucial parts of their future. Among those looking to secure their long-term place: Shed Long, Jake Fraley, J.P. Crawford, Kyle Lewis, Braden Bishop, and to a lesser extend, guys like Tim Lopes and Donovan Walton. Some vets were brought in to compete – CarGo, Cody Anderson, Wei-Yin Chen, among others – but it’s looking increasingly likely that the Mariners will ride the youth wave in 2020.
If a couple from the Long/Fraley/Crawford/Lewis bucket can establish themselves – along with Sheffield and/or Dunn in the rotation – then the Mariners will count 2020 as a success. They could even set themselves up as a real team of interest heading into 2021. Conditions for development aren’t ideal, but the biggest question facing the M’s might be how much they can learn about their young players in a potentially shortened season. Speculation on that front will have to wait until we know more. For now, we’ll have to settle for grading the Mariners’ winter work.
How would you grade the Mariners’ offseason moves? (Link for app users.)
If we go back eight years to January 2012, we’ll find a huge trade centering on two players who looked to be among the premier young building blocks in Major League Baseball at the time. The Mariners sent right-hander Michael Pineda and fellow righty Vicente Campos to the Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero and RHP Hector Noesi. As it turned out, though, the swap didn’t go according to plan for either side.
Pineda was the most proven major leaguer in the trade when it happened, and that hasn’t changed. Then 22 years old, he debuted in the majors in 2011 and fired 171 innings of 3.74 ERA/3.42 FIP ball with 9.11 K/9 and 2.89 BB/9 to serve as one of the majors’ top rookies. But that All-Star season wasn’t enough for the Mariners to keep Pineda. Instead, desperate for a big hitter to build around, they shipped Pineda to New York in an attempt to bolster their offense.
It was easy to dream on Montero when the trade occurred. He was a 22-year-old who was once grouped with the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and considered among the top-notch prospects in baseball. And Montero terrorized opposing pitchers during his first major league stint late in the 2011 season, hitting .328/.406/.590 with four home runs in 69 plate appearances (perhaps you remember the first two homers of his career). Expectations then mounted that Montero would hold his own in the majors, whether with the Yankees or someone else, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, as a member of the Mariners from 2012-15, Montero stumbled to an overall .247/.285/.383 line with 24 homers in 796 plate appearances. The big-bodied Montero was never an ideal fit for the catcher position, where he logged just 735 innings as a Mariner and accounted for minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved. Clearly not the savior they thought he’d be, the Mariners cut ties with Montero heading into the 2016 season. Montero has since spent time in the Blue Jays’ and Orioles’ system, not to mention stints in Mexico and Venezuela, but he has not appeared in the majors since his Seattle tenure concluded.
It’s still hard to believe Montero flamed out so quickly. After all, at the time of the trade, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman compared Montero to two of the greatest players of the past few decades, saying: “To me, Montero is Mike Piazza. He’s Miguel Cabrera.”
Not so much. New York didn’t lose out on another Piazza or Cabrera, and it did come out on the better side of the trade, but that’s not really saying a lot. Pineda missed what would have been his first season with the Yankees as a result of the April 2012 right labrum surgery he underwent. He also sat out the next season, but he did pitch to a solid 4.16 ERA/3.65 FIP with 9.09 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 across 509 innings and 89 starts in pinstripes from 2014-17. Not bad at all, but Pineda underwent yet another surgery – Tommy John – in the last of those seasons and never took the hill for the Yankees again. His career’s still going, though, as he performed well enough for the Twins in 2019 to convince them to re-sign him to a two-year, $20MM guarantee last offeason.
Almost a decade after the fact, Pineda’s the lone quality big leaguer left from this trade. Noesi hasn’t amounted to much in the majors so far – he even spent time in Korea – and settled for a minors deal with the Pirates last December. But at least Noesi has actually pitched in MLB on a fairly consistent basis. The same can’t be said for Campos, a once-impressive prospect whom injuries have helped ruin. Now 27, Campos is a free agent who most recently pitched in the Mexican League last season. He totaled 5 2/3 frames as a Diamondback in 2016, but that’s the extent of his big league work.
On one hand, credit goes to the Yankees for getting more out of this trade than the Mariners. On the other, it’s fair to call it a disappointment for the two clubs, both of which thought they were getting at least one long-term cornerstone apiece. The Montero and Noesi tenures in Seattle didn’t work out at all. Pineda had his moments as a Yankee, but they were too few in number, and Campos didn’t come close to realizing his potential. In light of Pineda’s decent contributions as a Yankee, you can’t call this trade a complete disaster, but it certainly didn’t live up to the hype.
The Mariners’ trade for Tom Murphy a little over a year ago didn’t turn heads. Murphy had once been a notable prospect in the Rockies’ organization, but the shine had seemingly worn off. He saw sporadic action for Colorado between 2015-18, but his .219/.271/.439 line in 210 cumulative plate appearances was underwhelming. Even more disheartening, the Rockies themselves seemingly soured on him. Over those four seasons, the club gave more playing time to all of Tony Wolters, Nick Hundley, Chris Iannetta and Dustin Garneau, en route to largely underwhelming results. Even amidst that suboptimal situation, Murphy didn’t earn himself a long look.
The out-of-options Murphy bounced from the Rockies to the Giants on waivers last spring. After San Francisco decided he wasn’t in line to make the active roster, they shipped him to Seattle for a minimal return (minor-league pitcher Jesus Ozoria). That might have been a coup.
Murphy shined in 2019, his most extensive action to date. He and Omar Narváez quietly combined for a 121 wRC+, the best offensive production by a catching tandem in MLB. Murphy was a big part of that, having hit .273/.324/.535 (126 wRC+) with 18 home runs in 281 plate appearances. Unlike the bat-first Narváez, Murphy also rated well defensively. He drew plaudits from Baseball Prospectus for his blocking and pitch framing, while his 39% caught stealing rate was well above-average. All told, he rated as a top 25 defender at the position by both Defensive Runs Saved and BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average.
Pairing huge power production with above-average defense, Murphy was one of the game’s most valuable catchers last season. His 3.2 fWAR ranked fifth at the position, trailing J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, Mitch Garver and Christian Vázquez. Of that group, only fellow breakout slugger Garver logged a partial season’s worth of playing time as Murphy did.
It’s unlikely Murphy will maintain that level of production moving forward, as there are some red flags in his offensive profile. His .340 BABIP masked a 31% strikeout rate. That’ll almost certainly regress moving forward, particularly given Murphy’s fly-ball heavy approach and below-average speed. He’s also never been one to draw many walks, and that continued even amidst his power barrage. But even if Murphy ends up a low-OBP hitter, there’s plenty to like about the profile.
The right-handed hitter drew plaudits for his raw power as a prospect. While the baseball composition no doubt played some role in his home run frenzy, he hits the ball hard and frequently gets it in the air. He’s a strong bet to hit for much more power than is typical of the position. And Murphy’s 71.1% contact rate, while below-average, isn’t catastrophic. Skeptical Mariners’ fans could have visions of Mike Zunino. Zunino, though, never connected on more than 67.4% of his swings in a season. There are some similarities in the players’ general profiles, but Murphy already makes more contact than Seattle’s former catcher ever has.
The 29-year-old looks like a potential core piece of the Mariners’ rebuild. Narváez has been traded away, so Murphy has his clearest path to playing time yet (although Austin Nola was expected to be a highly-utilized #2 before the shutdown). Controlled through 2023, he’s squarely within the club’s anticipated contention window.
Center fielder Mallex Smith was one of the majors’ breakout players in 2018, a year he spent with the Rays, but he was unable to build on that last season as a member of the Mariners. The two teams made a notable swap involving Smith heading into last season, though neither club has gotten much major league value out of it thus far. Smith fell flat in 2019, as did the Rays’ headlining acquisition, catcher Mike Zunino.
Just two years ago, Smith was a .296/.367/.406 hitter who, despite totaling only two home runs, posted an impressive 3.5 fWAR across 544 plate appearances. The Mariners were banking on Smith logging similar production when they acquired him, but it wasn’t to be last season. While the speedy Smith did steal a career-high 46 bases after swiping 40 bags in the prior year, his numbers with the bat cratered. He ended up with a .227/.300/.335 line over 566 trips to the plate, and even received a demotion to the minors early in the season. All said, Smith’s MLB output amounted to a nonthreatening 74 wRC+ (down from 118 in the prior year) and a replacement-level fWAR of 0.0.
With the Mariners still unlikely to contend in 2020, and with Smith still under cheap control (he’s not scheduled to become a free agent until after 2022), they can afford to take a patient approach with him. The question for now is whether there’s any hope for Smith to turn into a valuable M’s contributor. Based on what he did last season, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Compared to 2018, Smith’s strikeout rate climbed by almost 7 percent, his soft contact rate jumped by nearly 6 percent, his line drive rate fell by 6 percent and his fly ball rate increased by about 5 percent. Smith’s skill set indicates he should be hitting as few fly balls as possible because his power is just about nonexistent. With that in mind, it’s no surprise he was a Statcast disaster at the plate last year. Smith finished below the league’s fifth percentile in average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage and expected weighted on-base average.
Smith may have been the worst hitter in the game last year – a far cry from his 2018 effort – but what of his defense? Well, it was a mixed bag. Smith earned good grades in terms of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating before 2019, but he fell off a cliff in both categories last year (minus-13 DRS, minus-9.5 UZR). On the other hand, Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric was high on Smith, giving him a plus-10 mark that ranked eighth among 133 qualified outfielders.
Even if we take OAA’s word for it, and even if we consider Smith’s elite speed, it looks highly questionable whether he’ll hit enough to turn back into a valuable contributor. Smith’s still just 26, so it’s too soon to give up on him, but this season (if it happens) could wind up as a make-or-break year for him.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto provided updates on the recoveries of a pair of injured players (via Greg Johns of MLB.com). Right-handed reliever Austin L. Adams is progressing well in his rehab from surgery to repair a torn ACL. While Adams was placed on the 60-day injured list in February, Dipoto said there’s now a real chance he could be ready whenever MLB returns from the coronavirus hiatus (assuming it does at all this season). As MLBTR’s Steve Adams explored in detail last week, the relatively unheralded 28-year-old quietly emerged as a relief weapon for manager Scott Servais last season.
Unfortunately, progress seemingly hasn’t been as rapid for outfielder Mitch Haniger. He’s still limited to walking and exercise as he recovers from a pair of offseason surgeries, Dipoto told Johns. The GM stressed that Haniger did not suffer a further setback; rather, his ramp-up was always expected to be slow. There’s still no timetable on his potential return.
The 29-year-old Haniger had emerged as a key long-term asset for the Seattle organization before myriad injuries over the past year knocked him off course. From 2017-18, Haniger hit .284/.361/.492 with 42 home runs (134 wRC+). He’ll be looking to bounce back after a ruptured testicle limited him to 283 plate appearances last year.
It could have easily been Anthony Rendon. The media certainly believed the Mariners would draft Rice’s star third baseman with the second overall draft pick in 2011, despite injury concerns. Former Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik recently told Corey Brock of The Athletic, “We liked Rendon…a lot. Going into the draft, he was probably the player a lot of people thought we were going to take…and we did, too.”
Most observers expected the Pirates to use the first overall pick on UCLA righty Gerrit Cole, and indeed they did. That scenario left two strong possibilities for the Mariners: Rendon, and University of Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen. Rendon was considered by some to be the top talent in the 2011 draft even with recent ankle and shoulder injuries. But those injuries loomed large for the Mariners, with Zduriencik telling Brock, “Anthony had some physical issues. He’d been hurt the year before and was limited somewhat. There were a few things that were concerning.”
You can debate whether it’s fair to criticize the Mariners’ choice of Hultzen in hindsight. Zduriencik told Brock, “Danny was the guy who everyone loved. It made a lot of sense.” But while Hultzen was by no means a reach or a bad pick at the time, he was considered the “safe” choice. After Day 1 of the draft, Keith Law (then of ESPN) said the Mariners “shock[ed] everyone,” elaborating, “I’m not criticizing Hultzen in the least here, but I think drafting at No. 2 overall is a rare chance to go for ceiling, and the Mariners didn’t do that. They took a very safe, very good college pitcher who will move quickly but doesn’t have No. 1 starter upside.” Unfortunately, even the safest pitchers carry extreme risk, and Hultzen’s career was all but wiped out by shoulder issues.
No one could have foreseen that the draft’s best player would turn out to be Mookie Betts, as the Red Sox landed him 172nd overall. But the draft gurus were correct on Rendon, who ultimately has been the second-most productive member of his draft class by measure of Baseball-Reference WAR. And that was a draft that included Cole, Francisco Lindor (also of interest to the Mariners), George Springer, Trevor Story, Javier Baez, and many other excellent players.
To the surprise of the baseball world, the Pirates, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Orioles, and Royals all decided to pass on Rendon. Maybe it was the ankle and shoulder injuries, maybe it was adviser Scott Boras, but whatever the reason, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo was “pleasantly surprised” when Rendon fell all the way to the sixth spot. The Nationals went with who they considered to be the best player available, even with Ryan Zimmerman entrenched at third base. That choice paid off in a huge way for the Nationals. But with apologies to Mariners fans, let’s consider an alternate universe where Zduriencik called Rendon’s name instead of Hultzen’s on June 6th, 2011.
Rendon reached the Majors in 2013 and had his first highly productive season in 2014. By that point, Kyle Seager was already established as the Mariners’ third baseman. Seager’s 18.4 fWAR run from 2013-16 was actually much better than what Rendon did, albeit with a slightly lower ceiling. As with the Nationals, Rendon would have likely been shifted to second base as a rookie to accommodate the incumbent third baseman.
The Mariners had used the second overall pick in the 2009 draft on Dustin Ackley, whom they decided to shift to second base the following year. Ackley never hit like the Mariners (and everyone else) expected him to, nor did he take to playing second base, so the club gradually shifted him to the outfield starting in 2013. Second base would have been the primary infield opening for a top prospect, since Brad Miller came up around the same time to take over at shortstop. In real life, the Mariners had a quality middle infield prospect coming in Nick Franklin. Franklin was capable of playing shortstop but seen as more of a second baseman. Even with Ackley in the outfield and Miller at shortstop, Seager’s success at the hot corner would likely have left Rendon and Franklin to battle for the Mariners’ second base job as rookies in 2013.
Franklin was a top 50 prospect prior to 2013 and he had an OK showing as a rookie that year, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Mariners from signing Robinson Cano to a franchise-altering ten-year, $240MM free agent contract that offseason. Rendon’s real-life rookie showing was similarly mediocre, though he was more highly-regarded than Franklin.
Franklin became a popular trade chip once Cano signed in Seattle. The Mariners ultimately parted him at the 2014 trade deadline in the deal that netted them center fielder Austin Jackson and landed David Price in Detroit. With Cano in the fold, would the Mariners have traded Franklin, Rendon, or both? And when? The Mariners may have been more willing to part with at least one of them during the offseason rather than at the trade deadline, and were known to have interest in Price.
Or, would the presence of two promising second basemen have led the Mariners to spend their money elsewhere? Though Cano was the biggest fish that winter, that was also the point where the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury and the Rangers signed Shin-Soo Choo. The Mariners never seemed to be in play for Ellsbury despite his Northwest roots, but Tanaka or Choo would have been viable financially if not for the Cano signing. In the end, Cano performed well in his five seasons with the Mariners, and though they had to include Edwin Diaz and a lot of cash, Cano was part of the reason the Mets were willing to part with Jarred Kelenic in December 2018 (more on that here). In a roundabout way, if the Mariners had drafted Rendon, they might not have Kelenic now … though they might have other appealing players instead.
If the Mariners’ hypothetical second base surplus would have prevented them from trying to upgrade the position in the 2013-14 offseason, what would have become of Cano? A return to the Bronx was the prevailing guess in November of 2013, yet the Yankees reportedly topped out at a $175MM offer for Cano despite going on a spending spree on other players. Would Cano have swallowed that alleged lack of respect and remained a Yankee? Or would some other team have stepped up to fill the void?
The Dodgers sat out the Cano bidding that winter. The Mets took a meeting with Cano’s agent Brodie Van Wagenen, their future GM, but the team might have just wanted the chance to meet Jay-Z. Beyond the Yankees and Mariners, there was never another serious suitor for Cano that winter, at least as it was known to the public. If somehow the hypothetical presence of Rendon would have reduced the Mariners’ interest in Cano, the logical conclusion is that he would have returned to the Yankees — at much less than $240MM.
But the Mariners went into that winter intending to make a big splash, and it’s quite possible they would have traded Franklin for pitching, kept Rendon, and signed Cano. In reality the Cano signing mostly tapped out the Mariners’ budget, and they traded for the affordable Logan Morrison to split time at first base with Justin Smoak in 2014. Though it would been a waste of his defensive talents, might the Mariners have found a temporary home for Rendon at first base? The 2014 Mariners fell one win shy of a Wild Card berth, a season in which Rendon was worth 6.4 fWAR while Morrison and Smoak combined for 0.6. It’s not too hard to picture a 2014 Mariners club with Rendon, Cano, and a pitcher acquired for Franklin overtaking the Royals in the Wild Card game and maybe even making a deep playoff run.
Even a 2014 playoff run might not have been enough to save Zduriencik’s job, given all the things that went wrong in 2015. So even in our alternate Mariners universe, Jerry Dipoto still takes over as GM in 2015 and remakes the team in his image. Rendon might have been enough to put the Mariners in the playoffs in 2016 and/or ’18, changing the trajectory of the franchise. In reality, the Mariners continue to suffer through the longest postseason drought in the sport.
The implications of the Mariners choosing Hultzen over Rendon nine years ago can make your head spin, and we didn’t dive into the hypothetical consequences of the Yankees keeping Cano, the Nationals drafting someone else sixth overall, or the Diamondbacks, Orioles, or Royals drafting Hultzen instead of Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, and Bubba Starling. Feel free to do so in the comments or let us know how you think things might have played out had the Mariners drafted Rendon.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Mets’ trade for Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano could hardly have gone worse in the first year. But how was the blockbuster deal viewed at the time? MLBTR’s Jeff Todd explores this huge Mets-Mariners swap in today’s video.
We at MLBTR have been doing head-to-head comparisons of some of baseball’s elite prospects in recent weeks. Let’s keep it going with a pair of the minors’ top young outfielders, the Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic and the Braves’ Cristian Pache. The two would have been National League East rivals had the Mets not traded Kelenic (we’ve covered their 2018 blockbuster with the Mariners extensively of late; see: here, here and here), but it wasn’t to be. Kelenic now looks like a tremendous building block for the long-suffering Mariners, while Pache could amount to the latest homegrown Braves great.
Kelenic was the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, and there now seems to be an almost unanimous belief that he is the game’s 11th-best prospect. Each of MLB.com, Baseball America and FanGraphs place him in that position, after all. The power-hitting 20-year-old climbed to the Double-A level for the first time last season, his debut campaign in the Seattle organization, and batted .253/.315/.542 with six home runs in 92 plate appearances. Not necessarily extraordinary numbers on paper, nor was it a huge sample size, but that line was an impressive 33 percent better than the league average, according to FanGraphs’ wRC+ metric. Speaking of FanGraphs, their own Eric Longenhagen wrote just two weeks ago of Kelenic, “He’s much more stick than glove, but Kelenic looks like an All-Star center fielder who’s rapidly approaching Seattle.” The upside’s definitely there for Kelenic, like fellow Mariners outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez, to help the Mariners escape the mire in the coming years.
Unlike the M’s, the Braves have enjoyed quite a bit of success in recent years. They’re back-to-back NL East champions who probably aren’t going away in the near future, considering the vast amount of talent they possess. And it appears to be only a matter of time before they get a look at Pache, who just turned 21 a few months ago and could someday join the amazing Ronald Acuna Jr. (and maybe fellow prospect Drew Waters) as an indispensable part of the Braves’ outfield. For now, the experts at Baseball America (No. 12), MLB.com (No. 13) and FanGraphs (No. 20) say Pache is among baseball’s 20 premier prospects. Pache was terrific last year in Double-A, where he hit .278/.340/.474 (134 wRC+) with 11 homers in 433 PA, but wasn’t quite as powerful in his initial taste of Triple-A action (.274/.337/.411 with a single HR over 105 PA). However, as Longenhagen suggested a couple months back, Pache won’t need to post all-world offensive numbers to make a notable impact in the bigs, as he possesses tremendous upside as a defender.
Kelenic and Pache could eventually turn into two of the top center fielders in the game, but their styles are different. Kelenic seems to be more of a force at the plate, while defense looks like Pache’s forte. Which one would you rather have? (Poll link for app users)