This is the baseball world we live in now.
The consternation on social media has still not subsided in the three days since the Mariners traded Edwin Encarnacion to the Yankees.
Instant determination of which team won a given trade became popular in the last decade with the explosion of online writing. That has blossomed to a new level on social media. Now, everyone has an outlet for analysis, despite the obvious understanding that most trades’ true outcomes may not be known for a year or more.
The Encarnacion trade’s basic optics made for an expected aftermath. The Mariners traded the American League home-run leader to an organization that has fleeced the Mariners in past trades and relishes being called the Evil Empire. New York added Encarnacion to a lineup that will soon feature Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Luke Voit, Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius and D.J. LeMahieu.
And what did Mariners get in return?
They got a young player — right-hander Juan Then — whom they’d already traded to the Yankees before the 2018 season.
The return for Then the first time was with minor-league left-hander J.P. Sears for failed right-handed reliever Nick Rumbelow — whom the Mariners released three days before the Encarnacion trade for being so utterly terrible they didn’t want to keep him despite having the minimal commitment to do so.
Of course, there was money involved as well. The Mariners and Yankees basically split the $16.4 million owed to Encarnacion for the remainder of his contract and also the $5 million buyout of his 2020 club option.
If the return for Encarnacion had been a different player similar to Then in age, skills and profile, would fans have less discontent?
But a large portion believed a player leading the AL in homers should draw more in return.
On the surface, that seems like a legitimate complaint. But this era of baseball is different: More players are hitting home runs.
Coming into Tuesday, MLB players had hit 2,911 homers this season with 121 players having 10 or more. A player with 13 or more homers in 70 games would be on pace for at least 30 this season. There are just over 60 players on that pace. In the entire 2012 season, only 27 players hit 30 or more. Being the league leader in homers becomes somewhat diminished if 30 other players are just one or two behind you. Encarnacion was never going to generate as much in return as people would expect. Teams just don’t make those kinds of deals anymore for designated hitter/part-time first baseman rentals who are owed a large amount of money. The Mariners also weren’t in a position of leverage because they’d made it known they wanted to trade Encarnacion the moment they acquired him in December.
When Mark Feinsand, a respected reporter for MLB.com and formerly of the New York Daily News, dropped a tweet about the trade, it only stoked Mariners fans’ ire: “According to sources, other teams offered more talent to the Mariners for Encarnacion, but weren’t willing to take on as much of his salary as the Yankees were. Sources indicated the Astros and Rays were also actively involved, with the Rockies in the mix to a lesser extent.”
There is no doubt Feinsand had a legitimate source telling him that. But in talking with multiple sources close to the situation — some very close — The Seattle Times found some agreements and some arguments to what Feinsand reported.
Multiple sources said the Yankees and Rays were the only teams legitimately in conversations for Encarnacion.
The Rays’ interest started about a week before the trade, and the Yankees’ interest came later that week, perhaps after they heard their AL East rival was looking to add a major bat.
The other teams?
Sources indicate Houston was never involved. The Mariners approached the Astros in the offseason after acquiring Encarnacion and checked in on numerous occasions, but nothing ever got close. And Seattle wasn’t asking for much more in return than salary relief and perhaps a compensatory draft pick.
Instead, the Astros were willing to go with a DH by committee. The need for Encarnacion never arose even with injuries to George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Why? Well, even short-handed, they are dominating the AL West with an 8½-game lead. And they also had 21-year-old homer-hitting phenom Yordan Alvarez in waiting, and he hit four homers in his first five games after being called up.
The Rockies’ interest died weeks ago, per a source. They may have been scared off by Encarnacion’s age and how little he had played first base the previous three seasons. The Mariners found that showcasing Encarnacion for NL teams too much led to little nagging injury issues for the 35-year-old, including the sore back that kept him out of the lineup a few days before his trade.
Colorado has instead used former second baseman Daniel Murphy, who’s been solid, as the everyday first baseman.
Another concern in Feinsand’s tweet was that Mariners ownership cared more about money than the prospect’s talent. This is where some MLB sources disagreed on the return.
All sources asked about the situation seemed certain Encarnacion wouldn’t return a premium prospect.
One source felt the Rays were offering a better player — though one similar in age and experience — than Then and that Then’s potential, which had put him in the Yankees’ top 30 prospect list, had diminished from last season to this season. But some believe Then, who turned 19 in February and has touched 96 mph with his fastball and improved his slider, is still a legitimate prospect if developed properly. That’s a whole different analysis with the Mariners.
There seems to be no consensus on whether the Mariners put money over prospect potential. People within the Mariners obviously say the Yankees deal was the best in all aspects.
The Mariners drew criticism for trading Jay Bruce to the Phillies for an unheralded prospect while paying $18.5 million of the $21.3 million owed to Bruce for the rest of this season and all of next season.
With a glut of outfielders at the time and Daniel Vogelbach and Encarnacion sharing first base and DH, Bruce’s playing time was expected to drop considerably, lowering any remaining trade value.
Of course, Mitch Haniger and Braden Bishop suffered freak injuries that would’ve opened up playing time for Bruce. Would it have increased his trade value more? Perhaps. But trade markets don’t stay constant. Teams in need of a player in the moment don’t want to wait weeks to finally get him.
General manager Jerry Dipoto tends to shrug off fan criticism of trades, but the ownership group might not have that sort of tunnel vision in a season that has gone worse than expected.
The money aspect will always linger for fans. That fits into fans’ well-earned thoughts about the Mariners’ intentions when it comes to payroll, profit and the future.
When you make the decision to “step back” or “rebuild” — or whatever you want to label this current trajectory — shedding payroll for a team that isn’t going to win must be part of the plan. Continuing to overpay for a poor product with minimal return on the field generates nothing.
Even saving $3 million on Bruce and $8 million on Encarnacion should matter moving forward as long as those dollars are reinvested into players in the future.
The Encarnacion and Bruce deals were born out of previous trades.
On Dec. 3, 2018, Seattle traded shortstop Jean Segura and relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to the Phillies in exchange for shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman/DH Carlos Santana.
The Mariners paid $1 million to Segura to waive his no-trade clause, but the Phillies assumed the remaining $61 million owed on his contract and picked up the $9 million owed to Nicasio.
Santana was traded to the Indians a week later for Encarnacion and a competitive-balance round B pick in the 2019 draft (taking Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell). The Mariners also received $5 million in cash from the Indians and sent $6 million to the Rays, which is paid out over two years.
So the Mariners saved around $50 million of future salary while getting Crawford, Then and Campbell.
And of course the monster deal with the Mets is in play.
The Mariners traded Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz and $20 million to the Mets for Anthony Swarzak and Jay Bruce and prospects Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista.
Cano was owed $120 million on his contract, and Diaz was entering arbitration eligibility next season. Bruce was owed $26 million for 2019 and 2020. Swarzak was later traded for lefty Jesse Biddle and injured veteran reliever and salary dump Arodys Vizcaino.
The Mariners basically shaved off more than $80 million in future money owed on that trade while also no longer having to carry Cano on the roster.
In essence, Seattle has saved roughly $130 million in future payroll while acquiring this list of players:
Of the group, Kelenic is the Mariners’ top prospect, having replaced Justus Sheffield. Dunn is ranked in the Top 5, and Then and Campbell will be in the Top 20. Is that enough of a return?
As for payroll, looking at projections, the Mariners have reduced a payroll of $171 million at its peak this season down to $141.8 million. They have $88.9 million committed in 2020, $43.2 million in 2021 and no committed salary money in 2022.
That flexibility is beneficial only if players are available via trade or free agency.
More trades are coming for the Mariners.
They are actively shopping pitcher Mike Leake and second baseman Dee Gordon. Kyle Seager’s contract makes him seemingly untradeable. Roenis Elias could be moved if desired.
Leake and Gordon, who are owed a large amount of money next season, will likely return prospects similar to Then, with the Mariners forced to eat a fair amount of salary. Neither is part of the Mariners’ long-term plans, so Seattle could remove their salaries for next season while freeing up spots for Shed Long and perhaps Dunn or Sheffield.
This process is a massive undertaking, unlike anything the Mariners have done since the mid 1990s. Will it work? Is Dipoto the right person to run it? Those are questions that won’t be answered for at least a year or two — or are being answered right now on Twitter.