After 2021 Near-Misses, Mariners, Reds Go Different Directions With Winker Trade

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds and Mariners both finished just outside their respective leagues’ playoff pictures last season, but they’re heading in different directions for 2022. Less than 24 hours after trading Sonny Gray to Minnesota, Cincinnati dealt left fielder Jesse Winker and third baseman Eugenio Suárez to Seattle in exchange for a four-player package headlined by 23-year-old lefty Brandon Williamson, who recently landed at no. 61 on our Top 100 Prospects list.

Also heading from the Emerald City to the Queen City are right-hander Justin Dunn, outfielder Jake Fraley, and a player to be named later. Via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal:

This is an aggressive move for the Mariners, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and who last year won 90 games, two fewer than the Red Sox and Yankees, the AL’s Wild Card teams. The gave up a substantial amount of young pitching in an effort to shore up an offense that scored just 4.30 runs per game, the AL’s fifth-lowest total, and managed just a 93 wRC+, tied for the fourth-lowest mark. The Reds… well, they saved some money and got some impressive, controllable pitching, but they also gave up their most impactful hitter over the past two seasons — and a prominent voice in the clubhouse — in order to dump the $35 million owed to Suárez.

Speaking of the third baseman, he had apparently just reported to the Reds’ spring training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, sporting an incredible hairstyle that brought to mind a black-and-white cookie for some, and Cruella De Vil for others:

The 28-year-old Winker is coming off a breakout season during which he hit .305/.394/.556 with 24 homers, a 148 wRC+, and 3.4 WAR. All of those numbers were career bests, though he did slug .544 with 12 homers, a 143 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Just over a month after starting in left field for the NL All-Star team, at a point when all three slash stats and his wRC+ ranked among the NL’s top five, he strained an intercostal muscle. While the Reds were initially hopeful that he wouldn’t miss more than 10 days, he was sidelined for over a month, then reaggravated the injury in his first game back, on September 17, and returned to the injured list for the remainder of the season.

As I noted at the time of his injury, Winker has always been a good hitter since reaching the majors in 2017, hitting for a 126 wRC+ across his first four seasons, but since the start of 2020, he’s been hitting the ball harder and elevating it with greater consistency:

Jesse Winker Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% Pull% EV LA Barrel% Hard% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 1.24 42.1% 37.1% 90.9 13.6 5.9% 42.2% .299 .272 .431 .448 .366 .363
2019 1.96 48.7% 39.9% 89.2 7.2 4.3% 39.9% .269 .264 .473 .421 .351 .336
2020 1.67 48.1% 46.2% 92.1 10.5 13.5% 49.0% .255 .263 .544 .521 .396 .394
2021 1.26 42.0% 39.4% 90.6 10.8 11.2% 46.8% .305 .295 .556 .524 .403 .389

The progress has been uneven, but as Winker has cut down his groundball rate, his expected batting average and slugging percentage and wOBA have increased. And while his overall pull rate hasn’t changed by much save for 2020, he’s been pulling fly balls with greater frequency and greater authority, rising from 3.7% of his batted ball events in 2018–19 to 7.7% in ’20–21; where he slugged 1.053 on those balls in ’18–19, that rose to 2.086 in ’20–21. Ten of his 24 homers last season came via pulled fly balls, one more than his total from ’18 to ’20.

It does rate as some concern that Winker is moving from one of the majors’ most homer-conducive parks for lefties to one that’s more or less neutral; Great American Ballpark had a 113 park home run factor for lefties last year, compared to T-Mobile’s 96. That said, his splits have been basically level over the past two seasons, with a 146 wRC+ at home, 148 away.

Winker, who’s in his second year of arbitration eligibility, made $3.15 million last year and projects to make $6.8 million this year, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ Matt Swartz. While he’s coming off a high point in production, the same can’t be said for the 30-year-old Suárez, who in a dismal season hit .198/.286/.428 (85 wRC+) with 31 homers and 0.6 WAR; all of those numbers except the homers and slugging percentage were career worsts, even with a red-hot September (.370/.460/.808 with eight homers).

After setting career highs with 49 homers, a .572 SLG, and 4.3 WAR in 2019, Suárez hasn’t been as productive a hitter since undergoing surgery to remove loose cartilage in his right shoulder following a January 2020 swimming pool accident. He slipped to .202/.312/.470 (101 wRC+) in 2020 before bottoming out last year. As to why that’s the case, it’s tougher to discern. His 89.1-mph average exit velocity was consistent with his previous two seasons, and his 15.0% barrel rate was a career high. His chase rate, swinging-strike rate, and strikeout rate have all been consistent over the past three seasons. But while he’s been pulling the ball more often in that stretch than before and hitting fewer grounders than ever, his results on pulled grounders have been awful: he hit .132, slugged .154 and produced a -33 wRC+ in 91 pulled grounders, where the average major leaguer hit .177, slugged .207, and produced a -1 wRC+ on such balls. Those balls accounted for 26.8% of all of his batted balls. By comparison, in 2019, he hit .221, slugged .279, and produced a 20 wRC+ in a similar slice in 2019.

Rather than re-signing 2020 starter Freddy Galvis or adding another free agent, the Reds moved Suárez over to shortstop for the first month of last season, which probably didn’t help his cause. Though he played the position regularly in his first two years in the majors (2014–15), he was no longer capable of doing so, and the metrics (-6 DRS, -10 OAA in just 285.1 innings) were brutal in an experiment that more or less coincided with his .130/.229/.304 (40 wRC+) performance in April. He was significantly better the rest of the way (.213/.299/.455, 95 wRC+), if not actually good. With a more typical performance from him, better luck in the injury department from Winker, and an actual shortstop in tow, the 83-win Reds might have been more serious challengers for the second NL Wild Card berth.

Suárez is signed through 2024 at $11 million per year with a $2 million buyout on a $15 million club option for 2025; the Mariners absorbed all of that money. General manager Jerry Dipoto said on Monday that Suárez would be the team’s regular third baseman, which leaves him filling the shoes of the retired Kyle Seager. Winker will play left field against righties and some lefties in an outfield that will also include Jarred Kelenic in center field and Mitch Haniger in right. How they’ll all fit together if Kyle Lewis is healthy would make for an interesting conundrum, but Lewis didn’t play after May 31 last year. After surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee — his third surgery on the joint — he suffered a setback that prevented him from returning and, according to Dipoto, still won’t be ready for Opening Day. Winker’s defensive numbers (-5 DRS, -7 OAA) suggest he’d be a fit for the DH role if the Mariners choose to park one player there.

As for the players the Reds are receiving, Fraley is a 26-year-old lefty swinger originally drafted by the Rays in the second round in 2016 and acquired by the Mariners in the Mike Zunino deal in November ’18. Viewed as a tweener whose bat would be too light to carry an outfield corner, he struggled over the course of 70 PA with the Mariners in 2019 and ’20, then hit .210/.352/.369 with nine homers, 10 steals, and a 109 wRC+ in 265 PA last year. He’s a very disciplined hitter who walked 17.4% of the time last year and showed surprising power, though his 85.3-mph average exit velo and 6.2% barrel rate illustrate that he doesn’t consistently hit the ball hard. As Eric Longenhagen wrote last year, he’s most likely a Ben Gamel-style bench piece, or perhaps a platoon player if things break right.

Dunn is a 26-year-old righty who was the 19th pick of the 2016 draft by the Mets, then a key piece (along with Kelenic) in the December ’18 trade that sent Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz to New York. After spending all of the 2020 season in the Mariners’ rotation, he began last year in the same capacity but was sidelined by a shoulder strain in mid-June and faced just one batter in a mid-September rehab appearance before being shut down. He has been cleared to begin throwing from a mound next week.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Dunn throws a four-seam fastball that averaged 93.7 mph in 2021 and generally ranged from 91–96 mph; his average spin of 2,357 rpm put him in the 76th percentile. He’s got an effective curve and slider; batters hit just .204 and slugged .222 against the former, .128 and .191 against the latter. His ERAs have been well ahead of his peripherals thus far, with a 3.75 ERA but a 4.74 FIP in 50.1 innings in 2021, and he owns a 3.94 ERA and a 5.05 FIP in 102.2 career innings. Walks (a 15.5% rate) have been a real problem, though his 20.6% strikeout rate is nothing to write home about, either. As a flyballer, he might have trouble with the move to the less forgiving ballpark, making it all the more imperative he can cut that walk rate.

Dunn has two years and 20 days of major league service time, but he also has three minor league options remaining. His late start to the spring makes it conceivable that he could spend a chunk of the season in the minors — enough that he wouldn’t reach three years of service time and arbitration eligibility next winter. That said, the trade of Gray leaves the Reds with Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Vladimir Gutierrez as their only experienced starters. Manager David Bell believes that heat-throwing Hunter Greene, the second pick of the 2017 draft, is ready after a season split between Double-A and Triple-A, but that still leaves room for Dunn.

Eventually, Williamson could figure in that rotation as well. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound lefty, a 2019 second-round pick out of Texas Christian, split last season between High-A Everett and Double-A Arkansas, putting up a 3.39 ERA with a 37.4% strikeout rate, 8.1% walk rate, and a 1.0 HR/9 rate. Longenhagen compared Williamson to Blake Snell, describing him as “a pitch data darling” with four plus pitches. More, from THE BOARD:

Scouts congregating in Dallas on Friday nights to see Nick Lodolo during the spring of 2019 would often just spend their weekend with a Texas Christian club that produced nine draft picks. Among those nine, none impressed more than Williamson, a 6-foot-6 pop-up JUCO transfer who was cranking out mid-90s heat from the left side. Ultimately landing in the second round, Williamson had a phenomenal full-season debut, putting up a 37.4% strikeout rate while spending the majority of the season at Double-A, where he finished with a flourish. Williamson has a variety of weapons to choose from. After struggling to hold his velocity as an amateur, his 2021 went a long way toward convincing scouts of his ability to remain a starter, as he intentionally ratcheted down his velo to the 92-94 mph range while touching 96, and was able to maintain those levels throughout games. His high arm angle allows his fastball to play up due to good shape and outstanding vertical break, and it’s also his worst pitch, as he can miss bats with a plus mid-80s slider and an even better changeup with massive downward action. Williamson will also lob in a low-70s curveball and he sometimes alters his delivery to do so, as a way of catching hitters by surprise. While he has improved his strike throwing as a pro, he remains a control-over-command type, but with this kind of stuff, he doesn’t need to be especially precise as long as he just fills the box. He projects as a potentially dominant starter who still needs three or four innings from the bullpen.

And here’s some video of Williamson taken on the Mariners’ backfields (the day before the trade, no less):

Though Reds general manager Nick Krall said that Williamson “will compete for a spot in spring training this year,” he’ll likely start the season in Triple-A. As for the rest of the deal, Krall told reporters, “The player to be named later is also a player we like, so it’s not just a throw-in there. We have a couple of months to be able to scout a group of players before we choose one.”

Between the opt-out of Nick Castellanos and the trades of Gray, Suárez, and Winker, the Reds have cut payroll to the point of having just four players with guaranteed salaries on their roster: Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama, and Justin Wilson. Roster Resource estimates their total payroll at just $90 million, about $10 million below where they finished last year. Even so, Krall refused to call what the Reds are doing a teardown. Via The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans, he said, “We’re not trying to rebuild. We’re trying to be the best team we can be in 2022 and also set ourselves up for long-term success and sustainability.”

Krall told reporters that the Reds plan to use the freed-up money to “work in the free-agent market and be more proactive in the free-agent and trade markets,” but it’s safe to assume they aren’t pursuing Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, or even Zack Greinke. While the new Collective Bargaining Agreement contains measures to curb tanking, a cynic might look at what the Reds are doing as trying to buy a ticket to the draft lottery rather than compete for a playoff spot. This is a frustrating turn of events for their players and fans in the wake of Cincinnati’s 2020 postseason appearance and franchise-record payroll.

It’s not a painless move for the Mariners to surrender that much young pitching, particularly when their rotation could probably use another arm. But in the wake of last year’s near-miss, it’s encouraging to see Seattle, which made a significant splash by landing Robbie Ray via free agency, double down in an effort to secure that long-elusive playoff spot.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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David Klein
2 years ago

So mlb owners have a huge issue with Cohen spending to try to win and added an extra surcharge to the cba to try and stop him yet they’re okay with Bob Castellini dumping payroll and tanking what clowns they are . It isn’t even like Suarez is making that much anyway. Man the Reds OF is super packed I guess Winker or Haniger will be the dh and Trammell might be moved in another trade and Lewis is starting the season on the injured list I believe.

David Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

Mariners not Reds OF my bad