The Seattle Mariners’ step-back plan was born at 9 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018, when the club announced a five-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays that sent away the Mariners’ beloved starting catcher and brought back two largely unknown young outfielders.
It was the first transaction of a significant roster overhaul that took place the course of three busy weeks in November for general manager Jerry Dipoto, whose penchant for deal-making kicked into overdrive and became one of Major League Baseball’s more intriguing story lines of the offseason.
Ultimately, the success or failure of those deals — and three of them in particular — will come to define Dipoto’s tenure in Seattle.
How do those deals look now, more than six months later?
This is far from a final analysis — that can’t and won’t happen until much farther down the road, when the step-back has more time to find its stride — but a review of three of the biggest offseason trades shows one obvious “win” for the Mariners, one potential “miss” and one pleasant surprise.
Trade No. 1: The pleasant surprise
The deal: Mariners trade C Mike Zunino, OF Guillermo Heredia and LHP Michael Plassmeyer (minors) to the Tampa Bay Rays for OF Mallex Smith and OF Jake Fraley (minors).
Of all the players the Mariners acquired in the offseason, Fraley has been perhaps the most surprising. The 24-year-old outfielder was generally considered the second piece in the deal after Smith, who was coming off a breakthrough season in Tampa.
But Fraley’s impressive start at Class AA Arkansas, coupled with some of Smith’s struggles in Seattle, leaves open the possibility that Fraley could be the more likely long-term option in the Mariners outfield.
After a couple of injury-riddled seasons in Tampa’s system, Fraley impressed the Mariners in his first big-league camp this spring, and then carried that over to Arkansas. In 56 games, he has a .326/.393/.563 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 11 homers, 14 doubles, two triples and 14 steals in 19 tries (note: all stats listed are through Thursday’s games). A promotion to Class AAA Tacoma could come any day.
Plassmeyer, the Mariners’ fourth-round pick in 2018, has a 2.15 ERA in 11 starts over two Class A stops for Tampa.
Zunino, the Mariners’ No. 3 overall pick in 2012 and for years heralded as Seattle’s catcher of the future, has long been lauded for his defense. But his offensive woes have continued in Tampa, where he’s hitting .176/.228/.318 with three homers and a 36-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 plate appearances.
Trade No. 2: The whiff?
The deal: Mariners trade LHP James Paxton to the New York Yankees for LHP Justus Sheffield (minors), RHP Erik Swanson (minors) and OF Dom Thompson-Williams (minors).
At the time, there were some who wondered why the Mariners didn’t get more for their best pitcher.
“It’s a bad return,” one scout told The Times after the three prospects in the Paxton deal were revealed.
The debate in November centered on Sheffield, a hard-throwing left-hander who had already been traded from Cleveland to New York (for Andrew Miller) in 2016. The uncertainty has intensified as Sheffield — the Mariners’ No. 1 prospect coming into the season — has struggled in Class AAA Tacoma.
In eight starts since May 1, the 23-year-old Sheffield has an 8.35 ERA — and he had his worst start of the season in the Rainiers’ 15-1 loss at San Antonio on Thursday night, in which he allowed eight earned runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Again, it would be premature to label the Paxton deal as good or bad based on one eight-game stretch for one pitcher. That said, Sheffield’s issues have to be alarming. Some industry analysts have long projected him as more of a bullpen arm — and not the top-of-the-rotation talent the Mariners thought they were acquiring. If that’s the case, it’ll be a significant step back in the step-back plan.
Mariners fans got to know Swanson, 25, during his six-start audition with the Mariners early this season. The numbers weren’t pretty (1-5 record, 8.04 ERA), but he did have a couple of promising starts and will surely get more chances to stick at the back-end of Seattle’s rotation. He’s currently on the Rainiers’ injured list (hamstring).
Thompson-Williams has cooled off some after a strong start in Class AA Arkansas. The 24-year-old outfielder has a .762 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with seven homers and 11 steals.
Paxton, meanwhile, has had an up-and-down first couple of months in New York (4.04 ERA), and spent most of May on the injured list with left-knee inflammation.
Trade No. 3: The home run
The deal: Mariners trade 2B Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz to the New York Mets for OF Jarred Kelenic (minors), RHP Gerson Bautista, RHP Justin Dunn (minors), OF Jay Bruce and RHP Anthony Swarzak.
If you had to grade this trade right now, it is an ‘A’ for Dipoto and the Mariners. An easy ‘A.’
Simply getting out of Cano’s bloated contract alone warrants high marks. The 36-year-old second baseman entered 2019 owed $120 million through 2023. Yes, the Mariners had to include $20 million in the deal to pay down that contract while also taking on the contracts of Bruce (which ended up costing the Mariners roughly $25 million) and Swarzak (roughly $8 million), both of whom have already been traded.
Still, any money saved off the Cano contract is a victory for the Mariners.
Cano has been terrible in New York. He was benched for a game last month after loafing on the bases in two earlier games, and he is currently on the injured list with a quad strain. In games he has played, he is slashing .238/.284/.366 with three homers and 13 doubles in 183 plate appearances for the Mets — and he’s striking out nearly 20% of the time, the highest rate of his career.
Including Edwin Diaz in the deal was a steep cost. For M’s fans, it stung in November, and it still stings now. But Diaz had to be included for the deal to happen, and frankly, it was worth it.
Diaz hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was in Seattle last season, when he set a club record with 57 saves. In 28 games for the Mets, he has two blown saves in 16 opportunities, with a 2.81 ERA.
The financial savings were significant for the Mariners, but those are far from the best part of this deal.
Leading up to the 2018 draft, the Mariners had been enamored with Kelenic as a high schooler in Wisconsin, and they insisted on his inclusion in the deal last November. We’re now seeing why: In his first full season of pro ball, he earned a promotion by the end of June, going from Low-A to High-A Modesto, where the 19-year-old is one of the youngest players in the California League.
His combined numbers in 57 games this season: .316 batting average, .993 OPS, 13 homers, 15 doubles, three triples, 10 steals (in 14 attempts), 50 strikeouts and 24 walks.
Earlier this month, Kelenic rose 33 spots, to No. 28, in Baseball America’s ranking of the Top 100 prospects. (Kelenic has missed the last week-plus with an injured wrist.)
Not only is Kelenic the M’s center fielder of the future, he is more and more looking like the centerpiece of this rebuilding plan. Dipoto has publicly said Kelenic could move through the system quicker than the Mariners initially anticipated, with a potential arrival in Seattle in 2021.
The other pieces in the deal could be part of the long-term plan, too.
Bautista is a lively arm out of the bullpen. He just turned 24 on May 31 and made his Mariners debut a week later.
Dunn, 23, has been one of the top starters for Class AA Arkansas and projects as a middle-of-the rotation arm in the majors. He could be in Seattle a year from now.
Big picture, it’s difficult to picture a realistic scenario in which Dipoto doesn’t make the Cano-Diaz deal all over again.
As for the Mets? The New York Post last week summed up the deal from New York’s perspective: “It’s the Mets trade that keeps on giving … pain,” the paper wrote. “And somehow, it’s only getting worse.”
For the Mariners, it’s looking more and more like Dipoto’s best move yet.