Mariners, Mets Choose Opposite Paths

You probably don’t need me to remind you of this, but, in the 2018 season, the Mariners won a dozen more games than the Mets. The Mariners, for some time, felt ticketed for the playoffs, and they topped out at 24 games over .500. The Mets were 10 games over .500 in the middle of April, but they were under by the first day of June. By early August they were 46-65. The Mets started strong, and they finished strong, but everything in the middle was a catastrophe, and the overall season was bad. The Mariners won. The Mets didn’t. Those are the facts.

Of course, the Mariners did overachieve. According to BaseRuns, the Mariners were only four games better, by underlying performance. The early offseason projections put both these clubs right around average. And yet, despite that similarity, the organizations are veering away from one another. As of a short while ago, the worst-kept secret in baseball is reportedly official. No more hurdles. The Mariners and Mets have agreed to a blockbuster, with the Mets setting their sights on winning in 2019 while the Mariners continue to tear down.

Mets get:

Mariners get:

As has been talked about elsewhere, it’s helpful to think of this as two big trades in one. We’ll get to that a little later. What’s immediately clear is that the Mariners are doing more than just “re-imagining” their roster. Moving Diaz puts them in rebuild territory. The Mets, meanwhile, are making a statement acquisition, declaring their intent to win right away under new GM Brodie Van Wagenen. Cano provides short-term help in the infield. Diaz is one of the best closers on the planet. Name value aside, Diaz is the prize in this one, and how he goes will determine how the Mets — and baseball — feel about this decision down the road.

This is a trade involving a superstar. This is a trade involving a high-level reliever. This is a trade involving good prospects, and this is a trade involving the Mets. Everything about this is asking for, begging for, screaming for some manner of hot take. Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about this for days. I haven’t arrived at a hot take. It’s unquestionably an *interesting* trade, but I’m not convinced it’s particularly lopsided on either end. I think there’s a lot left to figure out, and I don’t know how the Van Wagenen plan will come together over the coming months, but this move doesn’t feel regrettable. It could become regrettable, but based on the information today, fans on both sides have expressed some disappointment. That’s one measure of an even move.

Back to the idea of this being two moves in one. Obviously, this requires taking a few liberties, and one part doesn’t entirely work without the other, but you can think of half of this as Cano and $20 million for Bruce and Swarzak. Cano is due $120 million over the next five years. The additional money pays down a sixth of that. Bruce and Swarzak are major-league players, and they might contribute something, somewhere in 2019, but they’re effectively in here as further salary relief. Combined, they’re due about $36.5 million over the next two years. That means the Mets are getting five years of Cano for roughly $63.5 million. Just about half of the actual commitment. This isn’t the first time players have been used as money, and it won’t be the last.

The other half, therefore, would be Diaz for Kelenic, Dunn, and Bautista. Again, that’s not exactly right, because the Mariners might feel like the Mets are providing additional value by eating more of Cano’s deal than the Mariners would’ve otherwise expected. Had the Mariners traded Diaz alone, perhaps he could’ve fetched a slightly stronger return. Every team in baseball would love to have Edwin Diaz. There’s been criticism that the Mariners hurt themselves by insisting Diaz be packaged with a bad contract, but there are still good prospects coming back. Eric Longenhagen just wrote about them Saturday, and you should read what he said.

It’s hard to know exactly where to go from here, so let’s turn our attention to the household name. The centerpiece of the trade is Diaz. The player the Mets are most excited to get is Diaz. The familiar name is Cano. As much as Cano is being included so that the Mariners can be rid of his contract, it’s important to understand that Cano can still play at a high level, even though he’s 36 years old. Last season, he played at a six-win pace. Statcast loved what he did at the plate. The talk about Cano being a first baseman or a DH ignores that he continues to fare well at second base in both DRS and UZR. Steamer projects Cano for about 3.0 WAR. That’s good! Cano is still good. He’s not just a pure salary dump.

On the other hand, there is the age part. For a quick analysis, I went back to 1974 and looked for position players who, like Cano, were really good between the ages of 33 and 35. Here’s how the following five years each played out:

Still good at 36. That’s in line with Cano’s Steamer projection. Still startable at 37. Things get shaky by 38, and they don’t improve from there. Very obviously, every player is unique, and Cano will have his own individual aging experience, but based on the history, the Mets should count on about two more productive seasons. Maybe two and a half. The back end will probably be ugly, because the back end is almost always ugly.

Eventually, Cano will be a bench player. For now, there’s concern he just blocks the surprisingly exciting Jeff McNeil. I’m not actually worried about that. Rather, I think this is a good thing for the Mets’ depth, which is something they’ve lacked in recent seasons. The roster is going to change further, but today, McNeil offers support at a variety of positions, including second and third. That means that, through Cano, the Mets get additional coverage at first, in case their younger options aren’t ready or able to help. You’ll see what kind of contract Marwin Gonzalez gets as a free agent. McNeil might kind of be the Mets’ own Marwin Gonzalez, albeit less able to play short. It’s important to have capable reinforcements at the ready.

Diaz is sensational. Diaz should give the Mets something they didn’t have. He throws a million miles per hour, and he just struck out 44% of his opponents, plus he’s not yet 25, and he has another four years of team control. This is where the real value is — Diaz is cheap, but if he were a free agent, he might look for $80 – 90 million. All that Mariners overachieving in 2018 was due in large part to their shutdown closer. The Mets are getting a weapon. Diaz is coming off one of the best relief seasons in recent memory.

For another quick study, I examined recent history for relief seasons worth at least 3 WAR. That’s a mighty high bar to clear, and between 1998 – 2017, there were just 33 such seasons. The following year, by average or median, the relievers gave back about 40% of their value. This is important to get: Diaz was great, and Diaz is great, but there’s a good chance he peaked. The Mets can’t expect him to just replicate what he did.

Still, Diaz should be a quality reliever for however long he’s healthy. If the 2019 Mets are a bust, but if Diaz pitches well, he could be flipped for a prospect return. I think on some gut level there exists the thought that, health-wise, Diaz is a ticking time bomb, but there’s no way I know of to back that up objectively. All pitchers are risks, and I can’t demonstrate that Diaz’s own risk level is elevated. Aroldis Chapman hasn’t been horribly injured. Craig Kimbrel has been steady from the start. Going further back, Francisco Rodriguez was good and healthy for a long time. If Diaz’s arm blows out, the Mets would find themselves in a nasty position, but that would be true for any important pitcher. We know now that, at the very least, Diaz passed a physical.

So the Mets are up a second baseman. They’re up a high-leverage reliever. They’re down a sunk-cost reliever, and a sunk-cost outfielder. And then we have the prospects. Once the Mariners determined it was time to step back, it made sense to trade Diaz around the apex of his value. I imagine the Mariners also thought there might not be many future opportunities to trade Cano away, given his age, contract, and no-trade clause. Cano might’ve only wanted to go to New York, and there’s hardly a guarantee a team in New York would always be open-minded. The Mariners have now stepped back, absolutely. But they no longer have baseball’s worst farm system.

Kelenic was the sixth overall pick in the most recent draft, and, generally speaking, such players tend not to be traded so soon. He’s a 19-year-old center fielder who should have enough bat if he shifts to a corner. Kelenic hit pretty well in his first professional exposure, and in Longenhagen’s estimation he’s advanced and relatively high-probability. He remains two years off or so, but he’s a great outfield prospect, and a good centerpiece for Seattle’s return.

Dunn was the 19th overall pick in the 2016 draft. He’s a 23-year-old righty who’s still relatively new to starting, after doing a lot of relieving at Boston College. This past season, Dunn worked his way up to Double-A and struck out more than a quarter of the hitters he faced, so the potential is clear, even if it remains uncertain whether his future role will last 5-6 innings, or 1-2. The whiffs are there, and Dunn has a full repertoire. What remains, as is common, is improving command. In terms of readiness, you can consider Dunn a step behind acquisitions Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson.

At last, Bautista is a 23-year-old righty reliever who briefly broke into the majors this past season. For the moment, his repertoire consists of a big, swing-and-miss fastball. The other stuff is a couple steps behind. Bautista had a Triple-A ERA over 5, and a 9% walk rate. But he also had a 28% strikeout rate, so he’s one of those relievers who could turn into something meaningful with one tweak. If it were 10 or 15 years ago, evaluators would think of Bautista as a future closer. The game has changed, but he could still help right away.

As for Bruce and Swarzak, they might not last the offseason with the Mariners. I don’t know if anyone will last the offseason with the Mariners. But for whatever it’s worth, they’re not total zeroes. Both players were good as recently as 2017, which is why the Mets signed them to multi-year deals. If they do start the year with Seattle, there’s a certain amount of hope they bounce back just enough to each go for a modest prospect midseason. There’s just a little bit of value, then, beyond just occupying big-league roster spots to keep the club vaguely respectable.

This is a big, fascinating trade. We don’t know everything about the various motivations. It does seem a little weird to see the Mariners backing up, while the similar Mets are trying to move forward. But then, in the American League, the Mariners have to contend with the division-rival Astros, and there are also the Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians. In the National League, there are the Dodgers, but then I think the competition isn’t so stiff. In the Mets’ own division, the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies all hope to be good and competitive in 2019, but there’s not yet a super-team among them. The Mets could have more of an opportunity to win, in other words. It’s not going to be easy, but Van Wagenen has a whole rest of the offseason to put the other pieces together.

Maybe he doesn’t do a great job of finishing the roster. On the Mariners’ end, maybe they haven’t been maximizing their returns. It’s perfectly fair to wonder about both of these organizational plans. But as for this move, this trade — I don’t see anything too terribly objectionable about this trade. The Mets, now, just have to make sure they can win. And the Mariners have to make sure they develop the young players they’re receiving. Because the rest of the teams aren’t sitting still. The pressures here are different, but it’s safe to say the pressure is on.

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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5 years ago

The trade might be fair, but I think both fanbases are upset because if either teams’ owners ate more salary they would have walked away with more talent. That’s a frustrating reality to accept, even if fans of these teams should be used to it by now.

5 years ago

You can say that about any trade.

5 years ago
Reply to  CM52

You’re right, but not every trade has three salary dumps and cash involved.

Smiling Politelymember
5 years ago

Indeed. And the emotional component–Seattle fans don’t want to believe last year was a fluke, and Mets fans…well, I dunno, but presumably, even they are wiser than the owners of the team and perhaps think it’s smarter to rebuild (esp if the Nats, Braves, and Phillies are 3 of the 4 best teams in the NL–yes, in this, weird scenario, the Mets are the Rays). Different expectations/goals might be the cause of perception difference rather than actual/perceived value.