Mariners Get Depth, Blue Jays Get Better

There’s a current story, that Ken Rosenthal has reported and written about. Bryce Harper and the Nationals are butting heads, trying to figure out the specifics of Harper’s arbitration eligibility. At stake are several millions of dollars, now and down the road, and it seems like a situation that could cause there to be bitterness between the player and the team. But, probably, the business side will be separated from the baseball side, and they’ll go on to get along fine. People thought there might be an issue with Mike Trout, too, when the Angels renewed his contract that one time near the league minimum. It seemed like the wrong thing to do to a superstar, and then later on Trout signed maybe the most team-friendly contract extension ever. Sometimes there are feelings, and often those feelings pass.

And then, sometimes, they don’t. At the end of the year, Mariners officials made some pointed remarks about Michael Saunders‘ preparedness and durability. They were unusually specific, and they hadn’t bothered to talk to Saunders first, and so Saunders’ side shot back. There was a rift, and while there was a chance things could be patched over, it seemed likely that the Mariners would send Saunders away so he could try to thrive somewhere else. Jerry Crasnick had reported that Saunders was being shopped at the GM meetings, and, at last, Saunders has been traded, from a team that didn’t value him to a team that could badly use him.

Leaving Seattle is Michael Saunders, as he heads to Toronto. Leaving Toronto is J.A. Happ, as he heads to Seattle. It’s a straight-up trade, that addresses a need on each side. The Mariners, for their part, wanted to add some depth to the starting rotation. And the Blue Jays, meanwhile, were looking to add a second-tier outfield sort. The Blue Jays, now, are that much closer to being finished. The Mariners, meanwhile, are now in pursuit of an outfielder. So they effectively moved a hole from one place to another.

For the Mariners, it’s a downgrade. For the Blue Jays, it’s as good a trade as a trade like this can be. For every team in the market for an affordable corner outfielder, I’ve been recommending Michael Saunders. He would’ve also been an obvious fit in Texas. But it’s Toronto that gets to take advantage of the Mariners’ feelings, and while Happ certainly served a purpose where he was, the Jays are less likely to miss Happ than the Mariners are to wish this hadn’t happened.

To be clear: Saunders absolutely has had some injury issues. He hasn’t proven himself to be durable, and if he had, he’d still be a Mariner. Last year he played the equivalent of half a season, down from a career-high 139 games in 2012. But for one thing, Saunders was more valuable in his partial season than Happ was in his full season. And for another, it can be hard to distinguish between fragility and bad luck. Nelson Cruz was fragile until he became durable. A year ago we were talking about Jacoby Ellsbury’s injury-proneness, and then he played in 149 games. The Mariners know some things about Saunders other teams don’t, but if you want to think about it mathematically, injury-proneness seems like the sort of skill that would take an awful long time to stabilize. Saunders is young, and if there were issues with his work ethic, say, that’s the kind of thing that can change.

Saunders is a fine defender in a corner. Over the last three years, he’s posted a 109 wRC+, and last year he came in at 126. Again, over three years, on a per-600-PA basis Saunders has averaged 2.5 WAR. That’s tied with Melky Cabrera and it’s just above Michael Cuddyer and one Nelson Cruz. He has a long swing that can make him vulnerable, especially against lefties, but he also has power potential that exceeds what he’s put up on his player page. The Blue Jays aren’t getting a star. That ship has presumably sailed. But Saunders is average or a little better, and he’s under control two more years. This year he’s projected to make $2.9 million.

And Happ is projected to make $6.7 million. That’s $6.7 million in Happ’s last year of team control. Statistically, Happ is a little worse than Saunders. He’s older than Saunders, he’s more expensive than Saunders, and he’s under control for less time than Saunders. In almost every way, the Mariners draw the short straw.

The last time Happ posted a double-digit FIP- was 2008, when he appeared in eight games. His career ERA- is 106, his career FIP- is 109, and his career xFIP- is also 109. There is no breakthrough potential, and Happ appears to be a pretty reliable No. 4, who can sometimes look like a No. 5 or worse. Easily the most interesting thing about Happ is what’s happened with his average fastball velocity. Used to be he’d top out around 89 – 90. Now look at this table, which shows Happ’s year-to-year percentile rank among starting pitchers in average fastball:

Year FA mph, percentile
2008 28%
2009 38%
2010 38%
2011 40%
2012 44%
2013 53%
2014 80%

Somehow, Happ has climbed into the upper fifth of all starters, after beginning in the lower third. It’s definitely encouraging, and backs up Happ’s better performance last season. He responded by throwing more fastballs instead of secondary stuff, and that caused an increased strike rate and a decreased walk rate. Happ became more of a control pitcher, staying more often in and around the zone.

But still, Happ was worth 1.3 WAR. By runs allowed instead, it was 1.5 WAR. His xFIP was a little better than his FIP and his ERA, but it remained a bit below average, and Happ is 32. The velocity shows he’s not in decline, but he hasn’t achieved an incredible peak.

Seattle’s a good place for him. Happ trends toward fly balls, and as a southpaw, he’ll end up seeing a lot of right-handed batters who hit in Safeco with a disadvantage. The Mariners have gone through this with guys like Jason Vargas, Jarrod Washburn, and to some extent Roenis Elias. Tony Blengino has written here about how Safeco still plays like murder against many righties, so that’ll give Happ a boost. Definitely, he fits the environment, and definitely, the Mariners needed to add some starting-rotation depth.

It’s just, you wonder about alternatives. It’s possible the Mariners could’ve just re-signed Chris Young, who benefited from the park. That would’ve allowed them to keep Saunders. But they wound up determined to deal Saunders away, and what they got was a worse player due more money over less time. There are legitimate questions about Saunders, questions other teams might also share, but there’s no way to see this as anything other than selling low.

It might not be a coincidence that the Saunders story broke almost simultaneous to Nick Markakis signing for four years with the Braves. The Braves now have a new right fielder. The Mariners seek a right fielder, and they’ve been deeply interested in Justin Upton. The Mariners aren’t the only team that likes Upton, and the Braves might not be able to pry Taijuan Walker away, but that would be a pretty unsurprising next step. It would only further focus the Mariners’ window on 2015, and now Walker is a little more expendable with an extra starting pitcher on the club.

The Mariners were going to deal Michael Saunders, so they dealt Michael Saunders for something they can use. The Blue Jays were going to find another outfielder, so they took Michael Saunders, giving away something they didn’t need. It isn’t a trade that totally changes the dynamic of anything, but for Toronto, it’s a good little move that further supports a division contender. For Seattle, now they get to search for something to fill a hole they just themselves created.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Upton to Mariners is too obvious. Never works out that way.


this does seem like a trade that sets up a paxton or walker trade for Upton or another top flight OF. I could also see a walk for Cespedes and Owens.