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Looking at the Mariners Ahead of a Possible Fire Sale

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Seattle may be hitting the reset button sooner than expected. Should the Cardinals be looking to make a deal?

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Not too long ago, I took a look at a hypothetical trade scenario, in which the Cardinals would try to move their least desirable contract, that of Dexter Fowler, to Seattle in exchange for a contract that the Mariners may not particularly want on the books anymore themselves. My purely hypothetical proposal of Fowler+ for Kyle Seager was predicated on the idea Seattle might be heading for a rebuild in the relatively near future, and could be looking to divest themselves of a contract that isn’t all that onerous just yet, but has long-term ramifications if the club were indeed planning on hitting the reset button anytime soon.

Well, since that time there’s been a bit more information come to light, and it appears the Mariners may in fact be considering not just a reset in the near future, but a full-blown firesale this very offseason. I admit it would be a little surprising to see a club which won 89 games just this past season go into an elective rebuild, but the underlying numbers on the Mariners are, as many of you probably know, not pretty. That 89-73 record was fueled by one of the greatest performances in the history of baseball in close games, and belied a club that was really not nearly so strong a contender. Seattle’s Pythagorean record was just 77-85, suggesting they were the recipients of an historic run of good fortune, and without a substantial change in their true talent level are likely heading for a sub-.500 season in 2019, rather than another season of the sort one might expect simply looking at their actual record.

Even with those underlying issues, it’s somewhat surprising to see a team be so proactive in voluntarily blowing itself up. Presumably, Jerry DiPoto and his front office staff have determined that in order to get the club back onto solid footing it would require a serious investment from ownership in the form of big free agent dollars, and there must be some hesitation on the part of the Nintendo-owned Mariners to go down that road any further. They already have two huge, unwieldy contracts on the books, for Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez, and may be unwilling to continue pushing the envelope on any more giant, expensive albatrosses.

If the Mariners do, in fact, go the route of the sell and rebuild, they immediately become the most attractive trading partner on the market this offseason for multiple clubs, and really fill a seller’s role that otherwise was potentially going to be seriously lacking. Part of the reason so much of the early focus this offseason has been on the free agent side, with very little attention paid to the trade market, was a perceived dearth of selling teams. It’s possible the Diamondbacks may be forced to consider moving Paul Goldschmidt. The Orioles still have some bullpen pieces to sell. The Texas Rangers are a complete wild card. But really, there simply aren’t that many clubs right now looking to sell off big, valuable pieces. The tanking clubs have already held their fire sales, and everybody else is looking to improve. It appeared this offseason would be heavy on free agent spending, and probably a little light on blockbuster trades, absent a couple front offices getting froggy on the challenge trade front.

Seattle could absolutely change all that. The M’s have a larger collection of high-end talent than one would probably expect, given the dreadful run differential numbers, somewhat similar to what the Chicago White Sox had a couple years ago. They don’t have any players quite at the level of a Chris Sale, but they do have more high-end assets that you would expect from what looks like a true-talent ~77 win club.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the assets the Mariners have to put on the table, and see if there are any roster fits the Cardinals might want to aggressively pursue.

First off, I’m going to disqualify both Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales, considering the Cardinals traded both of them to Seattle within the past two calendar years. The Cards seemed glad to be shut of Leake’s utter averageness and able to take advantage of the open rotation slot, so I can’t imagine they would be very interested in bringing him back. Gonzales, on the other hand, took a big step forward in Seattle this season after dropping his arm slot slightly and altering his approach a bit, to the point I could see the Cards maybe having some interest in him. However, he’s also still young enough and under cheap club control for long enough I would assume the Mariners could see him as part of their next good team 2-3 years from now, and would hesitant to part with him for anything less than a premium.

So moving on from the two former Cardinals (and actually ignoring a third ex-Redbird in Sam Tuivailala, who still doesn’t have any minor league options and also suffered a ruptured Achilles’ in August, presumably torpedoing his trade value until midseason 2019 at least), we come to the first great roster fit for the Cards, which is Kyle Seager. As I said, I already covered Seager awhile back, through the lens of a possible bad contract-for-bad contract swap, but if the Mariners are going full-on sell mode I have to assume they would be less interested in a Fowler contract plus for Seager than they would just straight prospect value.

There’s quite a lot of risk in Seager’s profile, as the third baseman has been on a two-year slide offensively, seeing his wRC+ go from 134 in 2016 to 107 in ‘17 to just 84 this past season. A tanking BABIP, probably assisted by heavy shifting, has been primarily to blame, but there are other concerning markers in his offensive profile as well. Still, Seager remains a solid enough defender at the hot corner and is only 31, so there’s some upside to bet on in terms of a bounceback as well. The fact he hits left-handed would seem to make him more attractive to the Cardinals, but I wonder how much they would be willing to give up in talent for a risk of this sort.

Possibly a more intriguing player to the Cardinals on the M’s roster, though a less obvious fit, is Seager’s compadre on the left side of the infield, Jean Segura. Segura has come a long way since he was the skinny bolt of lightning playing incredibly inconsistent ball in the Brewers’ infield, and has matured into one of the more solid, dependable shortstops in baseball. Over the past three seasons, he’s posted wRC+ numbers of 126, 113, and 111, and is coming off a roughly four-win season in 2018. Defensively, Segura’s reputation has always outstripped his metrics, as he always looks more impressive than he actually plays, it seems, but he’s still around an averageish sort of shortstop all told. The combination of a moderately above-average bat and average glove at the toughest position on the field, combined with a very reasonable contract that has Segura locked up through 2022 at about $14 million a year on average, heading into his age 29 season, is a very attractive package overall. He’s also a high-contact hitter, which seems to be something the Cardinals are currently eyeballing as an offensive edge, so there’s an interesting little fit there.

Of course, the Cardinals already have a very attractive package at shortstop in the form of one Paul DeJong, who has at points in his career shown plus defense, plus power, and fairly decent plate discipline, just not all at the same time necessarily. DeJong is also under an extremely club-friendly contract of his own, it must be said, and is probably the club’s most valuable commodity, all things considered.

The question, it would seem, is whether it would be worth acquiring Segura with an eye toward either he or DeJong moving over to third base, giving the club essentially two shortstops on the left side of the infield, similar to how certain teams have attempted to stack multiple center field-quality outfielders together to take advantage of their defensive values. DeJong arguably looks more like a third baseman, being over six foot tall and white, but has also shown in limited time a better glove than Segura has at any point in his major league career. I could see either of them playing excellent defense at the hot corner, but my pick would probably be to move Segura over and leave DeJong where he looked like a potential future award winner last season.

There’s only one other position player on the Mariners I see as a good fit for the Cardinals, but he’s a doozy. Cano is still good, but his contract is so long and so expensive I just don’t see a club being eager to pick that up even with his bat holding up as well as it has. Dan Vogelbach has always had elite plate discipline numbers, but his lack of power and defensive limitations make him a not-so-valuable piece in aggregate. Mike Zunino is an excellent defender behind the plate, but his bat has just never come around, and the Cardinals are already set at catcher, both now and presumably in the future. The one and only other position player on the Mariners I see as a really good fit is Mitch Haniger, coming off a remarkable season in 2018 that saw him post over 4.5 wins above replacement and a 138 wRC+, following a 2017 that featured a very similar 130 wRC+, albeit in an injury-shortened season.

The fact is, Mitch Haniger is really good, he plays right field, and he’s cheap. Actually, I suppose that should be, “the facts are...”, but it just sounds unnatural to phrase it that way, therefore I will not. For all those reasons, Haniger would have to be very intriguing to the Cardinals, should the Mariners decide to put their most valuable pieces on the table.

However, Haniger is also a right-handed hitter, which probably takes a little of the lustre off him for a club that’s already skewed a bit too heavily toward righties in the lineup. And if we’re looking at potential middle of the order thumper types, Bryce Harper would seem to offer a potential level of production Haniger just can’t match, even if he was in fact a slightly more productive hitter this past season.

Essentially, Haniger feels a whole lot like a right-handed hitting version of Alex Gordon during Gordon’s run as a top outfielder. That’s extremely intriguing, particularly if the player comes with a low price tag. I have to assume the bidding in trade for Haniger would be insane if he were put on the market, though, and it feels like the Cards might prefer to pay in money for a Harper type than go for another all-around excellent player who maybe doesn’t offer the same kind of pure offensive ceiling that would require them to dip into the talent pool again, rather than simply the financial one.

On the pitching side, the Mariners have two significant assets I would have to think the Cardinals would be interested in. There are a couple lesser relief names I could see the Cards having some interest in, guys like James Pazos or Alex Colome or our old friend Juan Nicasio, but there are two real prizes in the bunch.

First off is the Mariners’ closer, Edwin Diaz, coming off one of the most dominant relief seasons in recent memory in 2018. This past season, Diaz struck out over 44% of the batters he faced, while walking just over 6%. His ERA was 1.99, but his FIP was actually even better at 1.61. He appeared in 73 games and saved 57 of 61 chances. Edwin Diaz was one of the most dominant, if not the most dominant, relievers in the game this year, and he’s basically exactly what we all wish the Cardinals had lurking at the back of their bullpen.

The bad news is that Diaz will be a hugely coveted commodity if he hits the market, as he’s still just 24 years old and is only entering his first arbitration season in 2019. If Seattle puts him out there, there will be an absolute bidding frenzy to get him. Also, take this for what it’s worth, which is probably not much, but Diaz looks to me like a pitcher who will burn brightly and not last very long, probably due to arm troubles. Just a gut feeling based on his approach and mechanics, so feel free to discount that entirely if you wish.

The second pitcher I’m sure the Cards would have to be interested in is Seattle’s de facto staff ace, James Paxton. The big lefty has never been able to stay on the field consistently, having cracked the 160 inning mark for the first time just this season at age 30, but he is arguably as talented as any pitcher in baseball when he does take the mound.

Paxton was absolutely brilliant this season, striking out 32.3% of the hitters he faced, against just a 6.5% walk rate. His actual run prevention numbers were worse than you might expect with those peripherals, mostly due to an uncharacteristic bout of homeritis, but in terms of ability to fill up the zone and still miss bats, James Paxton is about as good as they come in the game today.

Of course, that talent still comes in the package of an oft-injured 30 year old hurler entering his final year of arbitration eligibility in 2019, so there’s plenty of risk involved with possibly acquiring him. He won’t come cheap, either; I would bet heavily on the Yankees going all-out to try and bring him to New York if he’s made available. I’m not sure why; I just get the feeling he’s the sort of pitcher they would covet. Anyhow, even ignoring the potential bidding war, it’s hard to look at Paxton’s checkered health history and not feel a little queasy about putting too much stock in his left arm, no matter how talented it might be. We’ve seen how counting on chronically injured pitchers can handicap a club with the Cardinals and Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha, and that has to be a concern. Then again, Randy Johnson didn’t become Randy Johnson until his age 29 season with the Mariners, and we saw how that worked out, right? (Note: please do not bet on pitchers having the career arc of Randy Johnson.)

There are a few other, smaller pieces I could see the Cards maybe kicking the tires on, should the Mariners go into full teardown mode, but these are the players that really represent an impactful fit to my eye. Unfortunately, these are the same players that would make for an impactful fit with a whole bunch of other clubs, as well, so it isn’t as if the Redbirds would have an easy time of winning a trade war in any of these cases. If pressed, Paxton is probably the guy I most covet, with the dream of a 45 appearance, 110 inning season in the back of my mind as he becomes the most feared fireman in baseball while keeping his innings in check, but I have to admit to really like Jean Segura as a potential solution on the left side of the infield as well. Excellent contact skills, a decent amount of power, and a glove that could really play up as a third base conversion project are all exciting elements to me, even if I don’t expect it to be the direction the Cardinals ultimately go in this offseason.