(EricEnfermero, Wikimedia commons)
Today's interesting topic: the big five-player swap the Mariners made with the Rangers this week. The Mariners acquired CF Leonys Martin and RHP Anthony Bass for OF James Jones, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, and a player to be named later.
Let's start with whom the Mariners parted ways with in this trade.
James Jones is a likeable player with a skillset that the M's previous player development unit arguably ruined. Jones, when first drafted, was an intriguing two-way player who had pitched and played outfield. He was noted for his strong arm (unsurprisingly), and while raw at the plate, flashed both speed and power.
However, somewhere along the way, Jones lost most of his power in the minor leagues and transformed into a slap hitter. This had to be intentional, or at least sure looks intentional. Jones belted 34 home runs in his first four professional seasons, and has just 10 since (over three seasons), including none in 359 MLB plate appearances.
Jones's transformation wouldn't be a huge issue if he was a good slap hitter. His speed should play up well with a slap-hitting approach that gets the ball in play and lets him use his wheels. However, Jones still strikes out a bunch, and his rate is especially high for a player sacrificing power to make more contact. This is ultimately why Jones is not an MLB-caliber baseball player.
The Rangers are almost certainly hoping that their player development team can either help Jones become a bona fide slap hitter, or (more likely) help him find his missing power stroke. Texas has a good player development record under Jon Daniels, and given the M's horrible player development record under Zduriencik, there is good reason to expect Jones to take a step forward with this move. I hope he does, because like I said earlier, he seems like a quality human being.
Tom Wilhelmsen was one of my favorite Mariners of the past few years, so as a fan it is hard to see him go. His classic power-fastball power-curve combo was fun to watch when he was on. His background of quitting baseball, bartending, and then resuscitating his career with the Mariners is the stuff of magical baseball stories that aren't supposed to happen in the 21st century where sports is a multi-million dollar industry filled with athletes who have trained their entire life. Plus, Wilhelmsen just seemed like a cool dude - unafraid to dance, scream, and generally have a great time in the bullpen. I would want to be on a bullpen bench night in and night out with a person like Tom.
However, the analytic side of me has wanted to see Wilhelmsen traded. His spotty command makes him susceptible to hot and cold streaks. He is also becoming more expensive as he hits his arbitration years. Wilhelmsen is an above-average reliever, but he is above-average by being untouchable for stretches and unbearable in others. I was convinced some team - maybe many teams - would be convinced that they could coax the untouchable Wilhelmsen out of him a little more often. I was even more convinced of that when Tom went on his hot run as a closer at the end of the season. Dipoto is selling high on Wilhelmsen in this trade.
More importantly, Dipoto sold high on Wilhelmsen to get a very worthwhile return.
First of all, Anthony Bass is sort of Wilhelmsen's replacement, but not really. The recently acquired Joaquin Benoit is Tom's replacement, and an upgrade at that. Bass projects to a similar WAR as Wilhelmsen, so the same overall value, but he compiles it in a completely different way. Bass is anything but flashy, or at least his numbers suggest no flash. Bass simply absorbs innings quietly and relatively effectively, at least in 2015. He reminds me a bit of Ryan Franklin, for those of us who remember the last time the Mariners were relevant. Maybe a better comparison is a right-handed Vidal Nuno. Bass could provide multiple innings in middle relief or start as necessary. The Mariners needed a pitcher like Bass to lengthen their depth on the pitching staff.
However, the centerpiece of this deal is Leonys Martin. The Mariners have themselves a bona fide center fielder that is built for Safeco Field.
Martin became available for two reasons. First of all, Delino DeShields Jr. emerged as an everyday outfielder and leadoff hitter for Texas. Second, Martin struggled through a miserable 2015 season - at least at the plate. Martin has graded out as a well above-average defender in center field for three seasons running, including last year. He is 27 years old, so also just entering his prime. Martin is a safe bet to cover Safeco's cavernous gaps. He is the ideal defender the Mariners have sorely lacked in center field since Guti's health problems arose.
Moreover, there are reasons to believe the Martin's bat will rebound in 2016. Martin's BABIP was a rather low .270 last year, which appears to be unsustainably low. An average MLB player has a BABIP around .300, and Martin is not average. He possesses great speed, which shows up on the basepaths and also goes a long way towards explaining his excellent range defensively. Players with great speed also tend to have elevated BABIP. Sure enough, Martin's BABIP in 2013 and 2014 were .319 and .336 respectively. Simply regressing Martin's BABIP towards the league average or his previous seasons brings his 2015 batting line in line with others he has produced.
Make no mistake, Leonys Martin is unlikely to become an impact hitter in the Mariners lineup. However, he should not be a black hole. Dipoto expects Martin to plug into the lower third of the M's lineup and that is a great spot for him. Martin is not an automatic out and will wreak some havoc on the bases when he gets aboard. Moreover, he would be aboard for the top of the Mariners lineup, which should be rather good. Zduriencik assembled a good core of hitters. It was the steep dropoff from the core that was the problem.
The Mariners finally have an outfield that lets me rest easy at night. They look set to platoon Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez in left field with Leonys Martin in center field and Nelson Cruz in right. I am not crazy about Cruz in right, but it will work fine with the supporting parts. It also looks like Dipoto still wants to add one more outfielder and the odds of that player being a good defender are high.
All in all, the Mariners gave up a AAA outfielder that might have some upside along with an up-and-down reliever for a pedestrian bullpen innings-eater and a legitimately good defender in center field. That's a trade I make 11 times out of 10, especially given the glaring holes on the roster before the trade.
The Mariners have taken a step forward this offseason, and they were not all that far away from playoff contention last year. The offseason has barely begun too. It's good to be a Mariners fan at the moment.