The Winter’s First Trade Shows How the Game Is Changing

If you had Jerry Dipoto in the pool of which GM will make this off-season’s first trade, congratulations, you win nothing because of course he did. Trader Jerry is baseball’s version of the red paperclip guy, attempting to take his team from mediocrity to contention by making a million small upgrades. And his latest deal is particularly interesting, even if it wasn’t exactly a swap of household names.

The deal’s particulars.

Seattle Gets:

Ryon Healy, 1B

Oakland Gets:

Emilio Pagan, RHP
Alexander Campos, SS

A couple of years ago, the analysis on this kind of deal would have been pretty simple. The Mariners traded a 26-year-old generic reliever for an at-worst platoon hitter and maybe an everyday first baseman with some power. Any time you can turn a fungible bullpen arm into a more valuable hitter, you have to do it. Relievers are fickle, and it’s not like Pagan is an upper-tier arm, so even with Healy’s flaws, reliever for slugger is a win for the Mariners.

But the game is changing, and the most dramatic shift we’ve seen in player valuation the last few years has been a significant increase in interest in controllable (and option-able) depth arms, while one-dimensional power hitters have seen their costs regress heavily. While relievers are still wildly inconsistent, the fact that every team now wants four or five swing-and-miss arms in their bullpen has created a market for guys who were previously seen as interchangeable, and this trade represents a lot of the changes the market has undergone over the last few years.

After all, Mark Trumbo is in the midst of a $38 million contract that he got after rejecting a qualifying offer, and Ryon Healy isn’t all that different from Mark Trumbo.

Plate Discipline
Name O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
Ryon Healy 36.3 % 58.9 % 46.4 % 59.0 % 88.1 % 75.5 %
Mark Trumbo 36.5 % 67.5 % 50.4 % 56.8 % 82.3 % 72.1 %

Healy makes a bit more contact on swings in the zone because he’s a little bit choosier about which strikes he swings at, but he’s gone after balls just as aggressively, and thus his game is built around doing damage when he does make contact. He doesn’t quite have Trumbo’s power, but with a slightly better strikeout rate, the overall skillsets end up being about equal. Like Trumbo, Healy is a low-OBP, defensively-challenged power hitter with enough thump to be valuable against lefties, and with some improvements, could be playable against righties.

Of course, one of the first things Jerry Dipoto did when he was hired by the Mariners was to get rid of actual Mark Trumbo, and he’s spent most of the last few years moving the team away from this kind of player. But with a hole at first base and a bunch of needs on the pitching side of things, Dipoto saw a chance to try and fill his first base hole cheaply, leaving money in the budget to pursue some necessary upgrades on the other side of the ball.

And if one still doesn’t buy into the rising valuation of non-elite bullpen arms, Pagan isn’t a huge loss. Steamer projects him as a replacement level reliever in 2018, as his mediocre minor league track record doesn’t entirely support his pretty good performance in the majors last year. A year ago, Eric Longenhagen had him as just another arm in the team’s minor league system, noting he “works up in the zone with a fastball at 92-94 and throws an average slider”. In the majors, though, Pagan was sitting 94 and topped out at 97, which allowed his fastball to play up and gave him the ability to miss enough bats that his fly-ball tendencies didn’t hurt him.

As an extreme fly-ball guy, though, Pagan is just a little bit of command regression away from being a guy who gives up too many home runs to be trustworthy in close games, and since his secondary pitch is better against righties than lefties, he might end up profiling as more of a right-handed specialist than a face-anyone-setup-guy. In an age where every team wants guys they can shuttle between the majors and the minors to keep fresh arms available, Pagan has value as a good arm who can be effective in relief, but also has options and can be moved back and forth when the team needs a fresh arm.

A few years ago, you don’t get Mark Trumbo 2.0, with five years of team control remaining and nowhere near his expensive arbitration years, for a fungible relief arm and a kid who is at least four or five years from the majors. But this isn’t the first time Dipoto has traded a surprisingly interesting relief arm for a chance to fill first base cheaply, and the results of that trade should be a reminder that it’s not always a win to swap reliever for a low-end 1B.

A year and a half ago, the Mariners traded Mike Montgomery to the Cubs for Dan Vogelbach, as Montgomery also looked like a replaceable bullpen arm who had only been good for 60 innings in relief work. Vogelbach had hit well all through the minors, and despite significant defensive flaws, the Mariners hoped that getting six years of a controllable young first baseman was worth giving up Montgomery, even as he had turned into one of their best bullpen arms.

But the Mariners bet on Vogelbach didn’t pay off, as his weaknesses outweighed his strengths, and now they’re trading for his replacement while Montgomery has been a solid left-handed piece of the Cubs bullpen the last couple of years. And the Mariners clearly could have used Montgomery in their bullpen last year. With the increasing reliance on relievers, it’s no longer as simple as saying that if you can turn a reliever into a potential everyday player, it’s a win.

Healy has his uses, but in 2018, when good relief arms are in high demand and power is cheap, I think I’d probably rather have the optionable reliever who can get it up to 97 than a guy who fits best as the weak side of a platoon. The Mariners hope that, this time, trading for a mediocre first baseman means they won’t have to keep giving away useful relievers to fill this hole again next year.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

Dipoto has a habit of trading for mediocre pitchers, hoping one of them pans out. I guess this is part of a wider strategy.

That said, I kind of like buying low on Healy and also like this trade better if Dipoto invests some of that money he saved in actual starting pitching upgrades (*cough*Darvish*cough*). I just don’t like that he gave up an actual valuable major league piece to do it.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, I certainly thought Healy was going to fetch more than this. The Oakland FO has been really weird for a while now.

I will say that I could see them making some big splashes this winter. They’ve got oodles of payroll space…. cough cough Stanton cough…

Vampire Weekend at Bernie's
4 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

I agree that Healy could have theoretically brought back more in a trade (particularly to a division rival). However you had me until, “They’ve got oodles of payroll space…. cough cough Stanton cough…”

At that point, I looked at the A’s finances, and … wow. If they really wanted to, they could actually afford Stanton. After accounting for the arbitration-eligible players, they have about 30-40M to work with for 2018 (and possibly beyond). They have almost no long term commitments for contracts. I haven’t heard any Stanton-to-the-A’s rumors, but it makes sense for a variety of reasons. I doubt it would happen, but the Athletics are certainly a valid dark horse candidate for the Stanton Sweepstakes.

Dave T
4 years ago

No, they’re really not. The notion that the A’s could take on Stanton’s contract focuses too much on one year payroll and not enough on their overall situation.

Until the A’s get their stadium situation resolved, they are one of those teams (like the Rays) for whom even the later arb year costs of players become an issue if they graduate a good cohort of young players at the same time.

Beane talked about that dynamic in an interview with Eno Sarris a couple years ago: ” ‘One of the beauties of what they’re doing is that they have the ability to hold on to those [good, young] players for a while,’ said Beane of the Cubs and Astros. ‘That would be a challenge for us. In some sense, if we embarked on a five-year plan, we would not be able to afford it in Year 3.’ ”

The A’s simply don’t have the revenue in their current situation to commit $30 million of payroll to one player for a long period of time.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

Its more complicated then that though. Not much is known about the OAK Tv deal, but I believe its up around the projected time of a new park. John Fisher the teams primary owner is one of the deepest pocketed in MLB, the team is privatly funding the new stadium. So Oak if they lock in the site for certain this winter, has an owner that is capable of running the team on a deficit for a few years if he so chooses. Once your out of limbo with a real path forward you can change your planning acordingly. I dont know what they will choose to do, but I wouldnt be suprised to see payrolls around 70-95mm over then next few years as they move into the new park.

Also keep in mind that while they have more logistical hurdles with the proposed site, if it doesn’t look like its working out the current colosseum location has 100 acres and is an easy lock if the other doesn’t work out. Oakland has been a lot more motivated to keep the A’s since the warriors are moving across the bay and the raiders are moving out.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

Bingo, Dave T. This…

…is *still* the largest contract in A’s history. When crudely adjusted for inflation, it’s basically what Dexter Fowler got last winter. There’s no way The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton is a viable option for Oakland.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

I also don’t think that philosophically, there is any reason why Billy Beane would trade for a guy he can’t flip later due to the no-trade clause. If there’s one thing Billy Beane prizes, it’s the ability to flip a player elsewhere if it doesn’t work out.

4 years ago

They have no commitments past this season, period! Stanton would be a risk however since the team will get towards the expensive side before the new stadium opens. Stanton now put in stasis for three years would be the deal. So I guess they will have to wait a little longer before the payroll boosting moves of opening a new park.

I would change my equation however if Oak could sign Ohtani, lock him in, and take most of the money on Stanton and Gordon, while dealing Lowrie for prospects to use getting Stanton/Gordon, and sign a couple relievers. I could see taking money from the Marlins to add a couple finishing pieces, since the room is there, only under conditions where the rest of the offseason has already worked in a way it shouldn’t. If OAK cleared Davis/Lowrie/Joyce out for some prospects and pitching, and signed Ohtani, and a couple relievers, then maybe with what added payroll you have after the trades you look at turning around and getting some combination of Stanton/Yelich/Ozuna/Gordon for less talent and more money. Then hope the fanbase turns out for a winner before the new ballpark opens.

I had to work pretty hard to get to even a remote solution for Stanton making sense. I would assume OAK could build a package around Megden, Montas, Holms, Bassit, Hahn, Cotton, and some of the younger relievers in some combination so they could help MIA with a couple pitchers or three and maybe one prospect. They have what MIA needs, being arms with upside that can pitch in the bigs, probably why OAK was already talking to MIA about the non-Stanton OF.