Mariners Scoop Up Luis Urías For Another Fresh Start

Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time this calendar year, Luis Urías has been traded in a one-for-one swap for a right-handed pitcher from the 2019 draft class. This time, it’s the Mariners hoping to help the former top prospect turn things around and rediscover the skills that made him an above-average contributor in 2021 and ’22. In exchange, they’re sending 26-year-old Isaiah Campbell to the Red Sox. The righty reliever made 27 appearances for Seattle this past season.

Urías was a highly-touted prospect in the Padres organization in the mid-2010s, but after a slow start to his major league career (an 80 wRC+ and 10 errors in 83 games), San Diego shipped him off to Milwaukee for a change of scenery in November 2019, picking up Trent Grisham in the process. It was with the Brewers that Urías finally broke out; after another poor performance in 2020, he posted a 111 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR across 269 games in 2021 and ‘22. Thus, even with Willy Adames locked in at shortstop, middle infield prospect Brice Turang knocking on the big league door, and veteran third baseman Brian Anderson joining the fray in free agency, Urías looked like a key piece of the team’s future. His glove didn’t stand out at any one position, but he could hold his own at second, third, and short, allowing the Brewers to plug him in all around the infield.

Urías was Milwaukee’s Opening Day third baseman in 2023, but unfortunately, a hamstring injury kept him off the field for all of April and May. He returned to a more crowded infield picture in June: Owen Miller had been red-hot over the past month, Andruw Monasterio was hitting well in his first week of big league action, and Anderson still boasted a 102 wRC+ on the season despite having slowed down after a strong start. Moreover, Turang was struggling but still needed regular playing time if the Brewers were going to keep him in the majors, and Adames was nearing his return from a short stint on the 10-day IL. Urías stumbled that month, going just 8-for-51 with three extra-base hits, and the Brewers – who, at that time, were still in a close division race – had little patience for his struggles. He was optioned at the end of the month in favor of Turang, who was hitting well at Triple-A after a brief demotion of his own.

Ultimately, that would mark the end of the road for Urías in Milwaukee. Seemingly lacking optimism that he could return to form at the big league level, the Brewers flipped him to the Red Sox at the deadline in exchange for 22-year-old
pitching prospect Bradley Blalock. Things got better in Boston, as one could’ve expected. Not only was Urías further removed from his hamstring injury, but his .179 BABIP with the Brewers was bound to improve. He never got back to his peak from 2021 to ‘22, but he posted a 98 wRC+ with the Red Sox over the final two months of the season.

With that in mind, it’s somewhat surprising to see Boston give up on Urías so quickly. After his poor performance in 2023, he isn’t going to earn a sizable raise in arbitration; the projections at MLB Trade Rumors suggests he’ll earn the exact same $4.7 million salary in 2024. Even if he never reaches his full potential, a versatile infielder who can provide league-average production with the bat is a valuable player to have on the roster. Consider Whit Merrifield and Amed Rosario, whom our contract crowdsourcing estimates have earning two-year deals worth $16 million and $18 million, respectively. To that end, it’s not as if the Red Sox are overflowing with infield talent, nor is the free agent market. Rafael Devers has third base on lock, and Trevor Story should be the starting shortstop, but second base remains a question mark. Boston has internal options, but none with the experience or high ceiling of Urías.

It’s certainly possible the Red Sox are planning to pursue Rosario, Merrifield, or Tim Anderson, but chief baseball officer Craig Breslow has already spoken about the internal options, and it looks like Enmanuel Valdez is likely to be the starting second baseman on Opening Day. Valdez hit for a 102 wRC+ in 49 games last season, playing second base and a sprinkle of shortstop, and presumably, the Sox think they can get similar production to Urías at a pre-arbitration salary. Veteran utilityman Pablo Reyes (another former Brewer) and speedy shortstop prospect David Hamilton figure to get some reps at the keystone as well, especially the right-handed Reyes, who could serve as the short side of a platoon with the lefty-batting Valdez.

If the Red Sox have faith in Valdez (or a plan to sign an upgrade), this isn’t a bad move. After all, while Urías is only a year removed from a 110 wRC+, there are reasons to be concerned about his bat. His best skill is his plate discipline; from 2021-22, he posted a walk rate 23% higher than league average and a strikeout rate 9% lower than the average hitter. His 0.53 walk-to-strikeout ratio ranked among the top 20 qualified hitters in the National League. Strangely enough, his 11.9% walk rate in 2023 was actually a career high, but it’s difficult to imagine that the way he got there was sustainable. While Urías swung significantly less often in 2023, he was far more likely to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. As a result, he posted a career-high called strike rate and a career-high whiff rate. By and large, hitters should keep the bat on their shoulders more often, but if a hitter is going to be selective, he has to be selective in the right way. Moreover, his slightly above-average power fell off too, and even if you want to blame it all on his injury (he hit the ball harder as the year went on), Urías has developed something of a reputation as an injury-prone player. Over the last two years, he has gone on the IL with strains to his hamstring, calf, and quad.

What’s more, it’s not as if the Red Sox gave up Urías for nothing. Seattle has developed a stable of talented pitchers in recent years, and Campbell was only expendable because the Mariners are so confident in their pitching depth. Indeed, Campbell, the first big league player born in Portugal since Frank Thompson of the original Washington Nationals, put up promising numbers in 2023, pitching well enough at Double-A to earn the call to join one of baseball’s best bullpens in July. Although his career got off to a slow start due to the lost 2020 season and an elbow surgery in 2021, the righty quickly established himself as a legitimate big league bullpen arm after pitching to a 1.57 ERA and 3.04 FIP over the last two minor league seasons. His pitches are a little difficult to classify; what Pitch Info calls his slider, Baseball Savant calls a sweeper, and what Baseball Savant calls a slider, Pitch Info calls a cutter. Regardless of what you call it, however, his cutter/slider is a true weapon. He threw it about 38% of the time in 2023, holding big league batters to a .139 wOBA and .217 xwOBA. The pitch modeling systems agree that it’s a plus pitch, and combined with his high-spinning four-seam fastball, which sits 95 and tops out at 97.4 mph, Campbell has what it takes to hold down a spot in Boston’s bullpen. The Red Sox have some solid arms at the back end of their ‘pen, but they need depth, and this move helps to accomplish that goal.

As for the Mariners, they certainly didn’t need Urías – they already have a pair of right-handed utility infielders in José Caballero and Dylan Moore – but it’s clear that Seattle likes versatility and reclamation projects. Their 40-man roster already features several utility men, including Caballero, Moore, and Sam Haggerty, and Jerry Dipoto is no stranger to shopping for bounce-back candidates. Several players to get meaningful playing time in recent years have been in this middling bat/versatile glove mold, including Abraham Toro and Josh Rojas, who is penciled in for starting second base duty in 2024.

Those names might not inspire a ton of confidence, but still, the appeal of a player like Urías is clear. Besides, as the Mariners discovered this season, the safe choice isn’t always so safe – just look at how the Kolten Wong trade worked out. With that in mind, it’s no surprise Dipoto went in the opposite direction this time around. In fact, this could work out quite well for the Mariners, as long as they treat it like the gamble it is. Evidently, the Red Sox weren’t willing to risk a mere $5 million on Urías, and the Mariners could reap the rewards of spending a little extra cash to take him on. Besides, even if Urías isn’t anything more than a league-average bat and the weak side of a second base platoon, he isn’t a bad pickup, given the dearth of middle infield options on the free agent market.

That said, it’s worth stressing that while this might be a productive gamble, it’s certainly not the offensive upgrade the Mariners need to compete with the Astros and Rangers in the AL West. It remains to be seen if this trade is a sign of the Mariners flexing some financial muscle by scooping up a player another team didn’t want to pay or if it indicates that Dipoto plans to spend another offseason shopping in the bargain bin instead of pursuing more expensive options. Seattle could really benefit from adding a corner outfield/DH bat in free agency, and they have the payroll space to do so (they’re about $35 million below last year’s luxury tax payroll), but this front office has never spent big on a free agent position player before.

The Mariners are taking on the uncertainty in this trade, but ultimately, it’s the Red Sox who are taking a bigger risk. Boston, a team with no clear answer at second base, gave up a young, cost-controlled infielder who was a two-plus win player as recently as 2022. If Urías bounces back with the Mariners, Breslow could end up looking foolish in his very first trade as CBO.

Over the past 10 years, Urías has gone from unheralded international signing, to top prospect, to big league bust, to breakout hitter, to reclamation project. This is already the third time he’s been traded in his big league career. With that in mind, it can be hard to remember that he’s still young; Urías won’t turn 27 until next June. Indeed, he’s younger than NL Rookie of the Year finalist James Outman. In other words, he still has time on his side. His days as a top prospect are far behind him, but his top prospect potential hasn’t disappeared, and the Mariners will hope to help him reach that ceiling in 2024.





Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
darrenasu
5 months ago

Can I like the trade and still be annoyed at the same time?
Signed, M’s fan who saw what we did last year’s offseason and does not want a repeat.

catmanwayne
5 months ago
Reply to  darrenasu

Luckily Urias is only 26-27, not 32 and older. There’s probably a lot left in his tank, maybe even a possible breakout if not a return to his pre-injury form, which arguably can’t be said about the guys they tried out last year.