thoughts on the Mariners, MLB draft, and more HOMELINKSDRAFTABOUT MEMLB SCORES

Chris Iannetta Signed

Chris Iannetta (Keith Allison/UCinternational)
The Mariners signed free agent catcher Chris Iannetta to at least a one-year deal, with reports that it might have an option year attached. It is also unclear just how much money they committed to Iannetta as there appears to be performance bonuses, but estimated guesses range from $4.5-$7 million. All in all, this is a relatively minor commitment in the world that Major League Baseball operates in these days.

This is far from a minor move for the Mariners though.

Iannetta struggled last year, I guess. The popular narrative is that he struggled. He batted .188 in 317 at-bats - not a massive sample size, but certainly big enough to make a .188 batting average hard to swallow. Iannetta also struck out in over a quarter of his at-bats, and he has always been strikeout-prone. So, not that any .188 batting average looks good, but Iannetta's rendition of batting below the Mendoza line looked about as futile as one might expect. Lots of flailing.

However, before talking about what makes Iannetta good, let's just assume he replicates his 2015 campaign. Mariners catchers, in 601 combined plate appearances last year, batted .160 and struck out in almost 30% of their plate appearances. They also only hit two more combined home runs than Iannetta despite hundreds of more plate appearances. Let's not forget how woeful the Mariners catching unit was last year. Iannetta is a clear upgrade.

Moreover, batting average is just about the worst way to judge Iannetta's skillset. He has never hit for high averages, most likely thanks to his propensity to strike out and his lack of speed. Iannetta has some power though, and more than that, he has great plate discipline. Iannetta, despite owning a .231 batting average for his career (about 25-30 points below league average) also owns a career .351 on-base percentage (about 20-25 points above league average). Iannetta draws way more than his fair share of walks.

Iannetta might have simply had poor luck last season. His strikeout and walk rates were close to his career averages, as was his ISO (a metric that measures power). The only stat that was way off was his BABIP, which clocked in at an unsustainable .225 (the average MLB player has a BABIP around .300). Iannetta had nothing fall in for him last year, and when a player already does not collect many hits, that problem looks way worse. There is a good chance that Iannetta simply needs better luck to rebound.

Also, Chris Iannetta is a good defender. He has rated as a positive contributor behind the plate in all but one of his 10 seasons in the majors, and that negative year was back in his overall disastrous 2010 campaign.

There was no other catcher available that fit the Mariners better than Chris Iannetta. This is not the kind of move that saves a franchise, but it still plugged a gaping wound perfectly. Iannetta is a veteran headed towards back-up catcher/mentor status. He could become the next David Ross. Iannetta could start most days if needed, split time, or catch more infrequently. Whatever works best.

Iannetta is a wonderful piece to pair with a guy like Mike Zunino, who appears to have a similar skillset to Iannetta. Zunino also gets high marks for his defense, but his powerful swing remains filled with holes. Zunino seems to be the kind of guy who works very hard and gleans whatever he can from those around him, so watching Iannetta could make a difference for him.

The Mariners will not have a black hole at catcher this next year. In the process they even acquired some on-base skills, which will be a very welcome addition to the lineup. Seriously, given that the Mariners accumulated nearly -2.0 WAR behind the plate in 2015, the Iannetta signing might have boosted the team WAR total by almost 3 wins. That is significant. Jerry Dipoto continues to identify role players that fit together, at least on paper. Hopefully the 2016 Mariners link together just as nicely on the field.

Hultzen's Prospect Status Officially Died Friday

Teams had to figure out by Friday whom to add to their 40-man rosters in preparation for the Rule 5 draft. The Mariners added two players to their roster, 1B/3B/OF Patrick Kivlehan and OF Boog Powell. Neither are surprises whatsoever. It would have been surprising to see either of them unprotected.

However, to make room on the 40-man roster, the Mariners had to cut one player loose. They chose LHP Danny Hultzen.

On one hand, Hultzen is the obvious choice. He has been injured for the vast majority of the past three seasons. There is no guarantee he will ever have a healthy enough shoulder to pitch in the major leagues, much less carve out a respectable career. Oft-injured arms yet to ever reach the majors are dispensable commodities.

However, not every pitcher is a former first round draft pick selected second overall. It is jarring to see a young man considered one of the Mariners brightest prospects a couple seasons ago cut loose without ever getting a chance in the major leagues. It is even more jarring considering that Hultzen was drafted in 2011, which is just four seasons ago. He was expected to move quickly through the minors, and did. He reached AAA before major arm woes surfaced. However, those injuries have now knocked Hultzen completely off the roster.

It's a sad situation, plain and simple. All accounts say that Danny Hultzen has tremendous character. He works hard, stays positive, and clearly had talent before the injuries. I always liked the pick, probably more than most, so maybe this move is especially disappointing for me. However, even those less enamored with the Hultzen pick would have to admit that this is a sad move. Even the Hultzen skeptics were mostly skeptical because he lacked a high ceiling. Nobody doubted that he was a safe bet to make the major leagues.

I have harped on the Mariners player development in recent months as Jerry Dipoto has taken the reins and cleaned house in that department. However, I am not convinced that Hultzen's failure rests in the hands of the M's player development. This looks like a case of bad injury luck. For better or worse, a new leadership that did not draft him came to town and decided his injured shoulder was not a part of the Mariners future core. Would Jack Zduriencik have come to the same conclusion? We will never know.

Hultzen's Mariners career might not be over. In fact, it might be likely to continue. He could pass through waivers, given the status of his shoulder and the premium that teams place on 40-man roster spots right now. Basically, at this point in the offseason, teams either have full rosters or reserved a few spots for free agent targets and/or eligibility in the Rule 5 draft. It's easy to believe that a handful of teams still like Danny Hultzen, but the real question is if some team likes him so much that they are willing to cut loose somebody they are currently protecting on their roster. That's a harder question to answer.

We will learn more about Hultzen's fate in the next couple weeks. I don't know if I want his Mariner career to continue, because at this point that would mean no team in baseball values him as a 40-man roster member. The only thing that is certain as of today is that he is no longer a core member of the M's future. Whatever rebound Hultzen may or may not make would be a pleasant addition. It is not something the Mariners are counting on.

Dipoto Grabs More D, Acquires Sardinas

Jerry Dipoto, it turns out, is a man of his word. He said he wanted to make the Mariners more athletic and focus on run prevention. Both of his outfield acquisitions, Boog Powell and Leonys Martin, fit that mold. However, the Mariners were starved for outfielders. Dipoto's most recent trade really begins to show his value in defense.

Yesterday the Mariners made a minor move, shipping OF Ramon Flores to the Brewers for INF Luis Sardinas. I would argue this trade is the most interesting of Dipoto's so far because it gives us the best look at his vision. It's the first deal he made that did not address a gaping hole on the roster, so presumably this says something about how he values Sardinas and his skills.

Let's start with Flores though. We hardly got to know him. He was part of the package the Mariners got in return from the Yankees for Dustin Ackley at the trade deadline. Flores got off to a torrid start in Tacoma but broke his leg and missed the remainder of the season.*

*I was at the game where Flores broke his leg. It was weird. No contact involved. He crumpled to the ground in the middle of running down a ball in the right-center field gap.

I felt that Flores had a fringy toolset, but in areas where the Mariners lacked any skills. He batted leadoff in Tacoma and I quickly fell in love with his approach at the plate. Flores worked counts and was a safe bet to put the ball in play, often enough in the form of a pretty solid line drive. I liked him as a darkhorse to make the Mairners opening day roster, assuming he had recovered from his broken leg.

Luis Sardinas is an interesting return for a player like Flores. Sardinas is not much of a hitter (at least yet) but he can play shortstop and already has experience at second and third base. At worst he is a utilitiy infielder. However, Sardinas is only 22 years old and has a few cups of coffee in the majors to his credit already. He was also listed among the top 100 prospects in all of baseball in 2013 and 2014 by Baseball America. For a little perspective, neither Brad Miller nor Chris Taylor had gone beyond AA by the time they were 22 years old, and neither were ever listed as a top 100 prospect. This is hardly a guarantee that Sardinas will be an impact player in the majors, but he brings some interesting upside to the Mariners while also adding defensive depth around the infield.

I doubt anyone, Jerry Dipoto included, thinks that Luis Sadinas is a better hitter than Ramon Flores. So, Dipoto is banking on Sardinas providing value defensively, especially at shortstop. However, the Mariners already have Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor on the roster, so Sardinas is a bit buried on the depth chart. He is almost certainly more buried than Ramon Flores was.

Perhaps the Sardinas deal is actually a harbinger of yet another trade, ala when Dipoto acquired Joaquin Benoit and then shipped away Tom Wilhelmsen. However, this deal can also stand on its own. Sardinas is younger with better reports on his defense. He fits the Dipoto of team control and run prevention. He appears to show just how serious Dipoto is about both, given that Sardinas does not play a position of need like other Dipoto acquisitions have.

Ultimately, Sardinas reminds me some of Joaquian Arias, who is the definition of a replacement-level infielder. So, this trade is not likely to make a huge impact. However, from a skillset perspective, it says something about how devoted Jerry Dipoto is to defense and run prevention.