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.
Ryon Healy, 1B
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.
|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.