Winter Report Card: Did Mariners’ endless series of trades make them better?
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Seattle Mariners.
86–76 (.531), second place in the American League West
OF Nori Aoki, RHP Arquimedes Caminero, OF Franklin Gutierrez*, C Chris Iannetta, RHP Nathan Karns, 1B Dae-ho Lee, 1B Adam Lind*, SS Ketel Marte, LHP Vidal Nuño, OF Seth Smith, RHP Drew Storen, RHP Taijuan Walker, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen
OF Jarrod Dyson, RHP Casey Fien, RHP Yovani Gallardo, OF Mitch Haniger, RHP Chris Heston, LHP James Pazos, C Carlos Ruiz, LHP Marc Rzepczynski, 2B Jean Segura, RHP Shae Simmons, LHP Drew Smyly, 3B Danny Valencia
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
Since he became general manager of the Mariners on Sept. 28, 2015—three months after losing a power struggle with manager Mike Scioscia in the same capacity with the Angels—Jerry Dipoto has made 36 trades involving 94 player transactions. (The Braves rank second over that period with 23 swaps.) Only eight players remain from the 40-man roster he inherited 16 months ago.
“I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, What magical trade can I make today?” Dipoto said this week. You’d be forgiven for wondering.
Most of his deals this winter have been marginal—Pazos, with 8 1/3 career major league innings, for minor leaguer Zack Littell; third baseman Richie Shaffer, designated for assignment 19 days later, and utilityman Taylor Motter for three minor leaguers—but Dipoto did make one major move this off-season, snagging Segura, Haniger and minor league lefty Zac Curtis from the Diamondbacks for Walker and Marte on the night before Thanksgiving.
After an uneven start to his career in which he was at times an All-Star and at times replacement-level, the 26-year-old Segura broke out last year to the tune of 5.7 WAR, a .319/.368/.499 line, solid defense and 33 stolen bases. If that’s the player the Mariners are getting, this is a great trade, though Segura's production has been decidedly scattershot over his young career. Haniger, meanwhile, is a 26-year-old former first rounder whom Dipoto called “the best offensive player [last year] in the minor leagues at any level.” That took some doing on Haniger's part. After he scuffled at Double A Mobile in 2015, he requested a demotion so he could play every day and work on his swing. It worked: He had an OPS of .999 last year across three levels, including the majors. Haniger could be the key to a deal in which Seattle traded away the possibility that former top prospect Walker and heralded international signing Marte will fulfill their potential. It's a win-now trade for Seattle, but Haniger gives it a chance of success down the road too.
Since his arrival, Dipoto has emphasized youth and athleticism in an attempt to take advantage of a pitcher-friendly ballpark, and that was clearly a focus of this feverish winter. Outfield corners once occupied by 34-year-old Aoki, whose routes to balls could best be described as creative, and 33-year-old Smith, whose teammates nicknamed him “Dad,” will now be patrolled by Dyson, who is 32 but remains one of the fastest players in the game, and Haniger. Either could play center, but incumbent and excellent defender Leonys Martin—himself acquired in a trade with the Rangers last November—will stay put.
Smith went to the Orioles last month in exchange for Gallardo, who will look to improve on a disastrous 2016, which started when he had to restructure a planned three-year contract down to two years and an option after a physical showed shoulder issues. It only got worse from there: He missed two months and walked nearly five men per nine when he did play, finishing the season with a 5.42 ERA in 118 innings. Gallardo is still just 31, though, and only a year removed from ranking seventh in the AL with a 124 ERA+ in the brutal confines of Texas. If he can stay healthy, he could be a stabilizing, innings-eating fifth starter.
The same day that Gallardo arrived, Dipoto shipped Karns to the Royals for Dyson. The new leftfielder can't match Smith’s offensive production, but the Mariners are betting on his more than making up for it in leftfield and on the base paths, where he’s pound-for-pound perhaps the most valuable runner in baseball. Dyson and Cubs rightfielder Jason Heyward, who will make $184 million over the eight years of his deal with Chicago, are the only two players who rank in the top 15 in FanGraphs’ outfield defense and base-running metrics.
Even with the pitcher swap, though, Seattle still had room in the rotation, which is where Smyly comes in. Dipoto picked up the 27-year-old lefty from the Rays on Jan. 11 in exchange for two minor leaguers and centerfielder Mallex Smith, whom he’d acquired earlier that day from the Braves along with Simmons for two good pitching prospects. (Why not just swing a three-team trade, you might ask? Good question! Presumably Dipoto was trying to pad his transaction stats.) The Mariners had long coveted Smyly, a fly-ball pitcher with strikeout stuff who will fit in well with the new defensively strong outfield if he can improve his home-run rate, which at 1.6 per nine innings is fifth worst among AL starters over the past two years. He will slot in behind Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton in the rotation. Simmons, whose four-seamer sits at 97 mph and whose sinker inexplicably beat it at 98 last year, is a good bullpen arm with four remaining years of club control, though he's had a litany of arm issues in the past, including 2015 Tommy John surgery.
Dipoto made one other trade of note this winter, sending righthander Paul Blackburn to the Athletics in November for Valencia, a righthanded hitter who will likely platoon with lefty Dan Vogelbach at first base and occasionally see time in the outfield. Valencia has been a potent bat off the bench for the last few seasons and was terrific for Oakland last year, hitting .287/.346/.446 with 17 home runs and a 119 OPS+, though a late-season clubhouse squabble with then-designated hitter Billy Butler was what made the news.
Seattle also declined to re-sign any of its five free agents: first basemen Lind and Lee, righty reliever Storen and veterans Gutierrez and Iannetta. Neither Lind (94 OPS+) nor Korean import Lee (102) was worth much in their lone years with the Mariners; Lind remains a free agent, and Lee has returned to Korea Baseball League. Storen was solid after coming over from Toronto late in the season, striking out 16 in 18 1/3 innings; the former Nationals closer parlayed that into a one-year deal with bullpen-needy Cincinnati. Fan favorite Gutierrez remains an impact defender in the outfield but hasn't cracked the 100-games played barrier since 2010 due to a neverending run of injuries. He's still waiting to find a new team. Iannetta wasn't the solution to Seattle's perpetual problems behind the plate, batting just .210/.303/.329 in a part-time role. The 33-year-old will try his luck with Arizona.
Replacing Iannetta on the roster is fellow veteran Ruiz, who was picked up from the Dodgers for Nuño. The longtime Phillies backstop is still chugging along at 38 and should be the main backup for Mike Zunino. In the bullpen, one-time closer Wilhelmsen and hard-throwing righty Caminero are gone; the former is still a free agent, the latter will take his Aroldis Chapman-like fastball to Japan. In their place are lefty specialist Rzepczynski and journeyman righty Fien, as well as Heston, who was acquired from the Giants as rotation depth for a player to be named later. Rzepczynski will likely become manager Scott Servais's go-to lefthanded option out of the bullpen after a strong year split between the A's and Nationals, while Fien will hope that Safeco can help temper his extreme home-run problems (eight allowed in just 25 2/3 innings for Minnesota last year) if he can make the team.
Unfinished Business: Is there any unfinished business?
This team has to be done, right? This is the Mariners we’re talking about, so probably not, but the major changes are surely over. Seattle could look to add more corner outfield depth, in case Haniger doesn't live up to expectations, but any other move would seem to have as its primary purpose keeping Dipoto busy.
Preliminary Grade: A-
If nothing else, give Seattle credit for effort. This is a team that knows its window is a year, maybe two, until Hernandez drops off and designated hitter Nelson Cruz’s deal expires. The rest of the division is full of question marks, so the goal here is to add enough pieces around those two, second baseman Robinson Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager to give the Mariners a shot to stay in it until the deadline, when perhaps Dipoto will consider making a trade.