Much to the chagrin of Seattle Mariners fans, their team was relatively inactive at Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. Certainly, watching two consecutive late-inning losses to the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, while other contenders improved their major league rosters didn’t help their morale either.
It’s not as if the Mariners season is over because they didn’t make any big moves. They remain relatively close in wild card race. Plus, they’re eight games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers with seven contests remaining with Texas. Plus, they’re just 2.5 games behind the second-place Houston Astros.
There is hope. But, I get it. Fans would’ve liked to have seen more action. Me too.
Frankly, I felt the Mariners needed to do more before 1 p.m. on Monday to become more than a fringe contender. But, the club didn’t do more and has 57 games remaining to end the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball.
Certainly, to play meaningful October baseball, Seattle will have to play better than they have to date. That means that the Mariners will have to do well against their division rivals — 63-percent of their remaining schedule is against the American League (AL) West.
With that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to delve into the “deadline season” maneuvers by Seattle’s four division rivals. Each club had a unique approach. There was a buyer, a holder, a sellout r, and a rudderless shipper. Let’s start with the buyer.
Most pundits classified the club as a deadline “winner.” I’m not as enthusiastic though. Don’t get me wrong. They did improve their roster and I’ve seen Texas as the team to beat in the AL West since the beginning of the season; I still feel that way. However, they solidified an already strong lineup and remained exposed to risk from a bigger need — their shallow rotation.
It’s not as if general manager (GM) Jon Daniels didn’t try to upgrade his starting staff. But, the market was thin and he understandably didn’t want to overpay for one of the many ordinary arms on the market, such as Andrew Cashner, Drew Pomeranz, Hector Santiago, or the injured Rich Hill. Can you blame him?
Multiple reports suggested Texas was interested in top-shelf starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox. But, they were unable to acquire either hurler. We’ll never whether the Rangers didn’t want to meet Chicago’s demands, or if the duo were actually available.
For whatever reason, Daniels couldn’t secure another starter for his rotation. So, he did the next best thing for his club. He upgraded the team’s offense and added a back-end reliever to his struggling bullpen.
The Rangers aggressively sought out and attained two proven offensive players — catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran — who are certain to ensure that the club’s offense remains prolific.
The duo will help with more than the club’s run-production though. Lucroy’s game calling and defensive skills behind the plate will benefit Rangers pitchers and Beltran adds another clubhouse leader with postseason experience.
Daniels addressed his roster’s weakest link by landing Milwaukee Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress in the same deal that brought Lucroy to Arlington. Texas relievers rank last in the American League — according to the Fangraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR), They’ve also allowed the most home runs and registered the fewest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any bullpen in the majors.
Jeffress isn’t a marquee name like Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller and he’s not a swing-and-miss type like Chapman or Miller. But, he’s surrendered just two home runs in 44 innings of work this season and has a proven track record in high-leverage situations.
Adding Jeffress into the late-inning mix with hard-throwers Sam Dyson and Matt Bush certainly improves the Rangers’ chances of holding on to leads late in games. The issue is whether their starting staff can hold leads to hand over to their improved bullpen.
The injury losses of Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have forced the Rangers to turn to Lucas Harrell — recently acquired from the Atlanta Braves — and A.J. Griffin to round out the rotation. The question for Texas is whether the duo can provide enough quality innings until Holland and Lewis from the disabled list (DL), assuming they arrive back on schedule or at all.
Holland has been on the DL with shoulder soreness since late June and is closest to returning. He’s scheduled to start a rehab assignment on Friday. It’s worth noting that this is the southpaw’s third consecutive season with DL time and that he’s only started 29 games since the start of the 2014 season.
Lewis has also been out since late June with a strained lat muscle. As Mariners fans know, recovery from that injury is a slow process. Seattle relievers Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner have been on the DL with lat strains since Spring Training and neither pitcher has an estimated return date. In Lewis’ case, he’s currently doing a long toss program with no formal return date.
If it sounds like I’m nitpicking the Rangers — I am. They’re a legitimate World Series contender intent on winning it all. I’m just not certain that their rotation is good enough.
Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Astros were “holders” and remained relatively inactive at the deadline. Their biggest moves were recalling rookie infielder Alex Bregman from the minors and signing Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.
Bregman — the number-two overall pick during the 2015 amateur draft — was primarily a shortstop during his brief stay in the minors. But, the Astros have that position covered for the foreseeable future with 2015 National League Rookie of the League Carlos Correa.
With shortstop unavailable and the team in need of an offensive spark, the Astros slid the 22-year-old over to third base. Unfortunately, for Houston and Bregman, he’s struggling mightily with just one hit in his first 34 major league plate appearances.
The 32-year-old Gurriel, viewed as a major league ready, will likely join the Astros after completing a short stay in the minors to re-hone his baseball skills. The right-handed hitter has played at second and third base, plus shortstop in the past. Perhaps, he’ll relieve Bregman when ready, permitting the rookie to resume his development in the minors.
The only deadline trades made by Houston GM Jeff Luhnow shipped relievers Scott Feldman to the Toronto Blue Jays and Josh Fields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects. Both pitchers weren’t that effective in the Astros’ superb bullpen and deemed expendable.
The lack of movement by Houston spurred many analysts to portray the club as deadline “losers,” but I can understand the organization’s reluctance to make “win-now” blockbuster deals. Their roster is more flawed than their win-loss record suggests.
In early July, I noted that Houston’s strong June was driven by the scorching bats of several hitters who were overachieving. Specifically, Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus, who were all dramatically above their career on-base percentage (OBP) in June.
Based on the reasonable assumption that the majority of these players’ numbers would normalize, I suggested during the Mariners mid-season report that Houston’s record would level out. That’s exactly what’s happened. The Astros had a 13-12 win-loss record in July and their OBP plummeted from number-two in the AL during June to eleventh best last month.
What happened to those super-hot June performers? Other than Valbuena, who’s currently on the DL, every other player’s OBP is below the .270 mark since July 1.
Yes, Houston’s core is outstanding. But, their lineup lacks depth and needs several pieces to improve as a unit. With that in mind, their front office wasn’t willing to forsake their future by overpaying at the deadline. Rather, they opted to be holders and ride out the season with their current cast of characters. To be honest, I don’t blame them.
Led by president of baseball operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst, the Athletics have been masterful at orchestrating deals as both buyers and sellers during previous years. This time, they were in the latter category.
In early June, Oakland sent utility-man Chris Coghlan to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for infielder Arismendy Alcantara. The 24-year-old Alcantara was a top-100 prospect as recently as 2014, but he’s struggled during limited big league auditions. Despite his early problems in the majors, the switch-hitter is a good fielder who possesses home run power and stolen base speed. Plus, he has the athleticism to play second base, shortstop, and center field.
The club’s big sell job dispatched outfielder Josh Reddick and starting pitcher Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three prospects. The most notable being Grant Holmes, a 20-year-old right-handed starter who ranks number-82 on the MLB.com top-100 prospect list. Selected by the Dodgers with the number-22 overall pick during the 2014 amateur draft, Holmes projects as a mid-rotation starter.
Oakland also picked up Frankie Montas. The 23-year-old is a hard-throwing starter capable of topping 100-MPH on the radar gun. His issues have been command on the mound and weight control on the scales. It’s possible that the right-hander will eventually transition to reliever. Currently, Montas isn’t playing due to a stress reaction in the rib area where he had offseason surgery. As a result, he’s not likely to pitch again this season.
The third prospect acquired is 24-year-old Jharel Cotton, who projects to be either a mid-rotation starter. With that said, his 5-foot-11 frame may lead Oakland to transition the U. S. Virgin Island-born hurler into a reliever.
The Athletics also traded outfielder Billy Burns to the Kansas City Royals for Brett Eibner. The right-handed hitter is a former second-round pick, who’s endured numerous injuries in the minors. But, he’s blossomed during his last two seasons at Class-AAA level. Eibner made his major league debut in late-May as an injury replacement for center fielder Lorenzo Cain and slashed .231/.286/.423 during 85 plate appearances before returning to the minors upon Cain’s return from the DL.
Although this is a seemingly minor deal, it’s possible that 27-year-old Eibner could be a late-bloomer now that injury issues are behind him. Oakland retains club control over the outfielder through the 2022 season.
Los Angeles Angels
This is an organization in a difficult predicament. They desperately need to upgrade their minor league system — ranked worst in baseball. But, they have few appealing assets on their major league roster. Their most valuable piece — Mike Trout — is a generational talent who isn’t going anywhere.
Still, the team did have opportunities to improve as Monday’s trade deadline approached, but their strategy was peculiar — at least to me.
The club’s biggest deal sent southpaw starter Hector Santiago and minor league reliever Alan Busenitz to the Minnesota Twins for 26-year-old pitching prospect Alex Meyer and 33-year-old starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco. It’s incomprehensible to me that Los Angeles exchanged Santiago for Nolasco.
Yes, the Twins are picking up a significant chunk of Nolasco’s salary for this year and next. But, he hasn’t been good for some time — 5.44 ERA during 56 career starts with the Twins dating back to 2014 — and is five years older than Santiago.
Clearly, the key to this deal for the Angels is Meyer — a 6-foot-9 hard-throwing right-hander, who’s struggled with command throughout his professional career and has been dealing with shoulder problems for most of this season. Before his health issues, Minnesota had converted the number-23 overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft to a reliever.
That’s right; Los Angeles dealt a starting pitcher, who was an all-star last season and under team control for one more year, for a struggling 33-year-old starter and a 26-year-old pitcher with command issues and shoulder problems. How does that make sense?
The team’s only other move saw reliever Joe Smith going to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Class-A pitcher Jesus Castillo. In this case, the Angels were simply moving a rental player. Since Smith hadn’t been effective as in years past, his value diminished in the trade market. In return for their submarine tossing reliever, Los Angeles picked up the 20-years-old Castillo.
Smith may have been the club’s only healthy player with an expiring contract. But, there were several players under team control past this season who could’ve been moved and brought value back to the Angels. Yet, GM Billy Eppler chose to stand pat.
A prime trade candidate was third baseman Yunel Escobar. Los Angeles holds a $7 million club option for next season with a $1 million buyout. Considering that Escobar has been productive at the plate — .322/.370/.411 — and relatively affordable, it’s hard to fathom that the Angels couldn’t find a dance partner interested in the 33-year-old.
Reliever Cam Bedrosian is a player who had to be in high demand and could’ve returned value to the organization. The son of former major league reliever Steve Bedrosian is under team control until 2022 and has been highly effective — 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings — as the eighth inning set up man for manager Mike Scioscia.
With the trade of Smith and closer Huston Street going to the DL, Bedrosian has assumed the closer role in Anaheim. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the Angels to start retooling their system by moving the 24-year-old?
Another trade piece could’ve been starter Matt Shoemaker. Granted, the club’s rotation has been so decimated by injury that moving a starting pitcher in-season might have been difficult. But, considering what the Tampa Bay Rays received from the San Francisco Giants for Matt Moore — major league third baseman Matt Duffy and two top-30 prospects from the Giants farm system — it’s plausible that the Angels could’ve found similar or more value for Shoemaker.
Admittedly, moving right fielder Kole Calhoun would be a tough pill to swallow. After all, the 28-year-old is slashing .275/.354/.415. Other than Trout, he’s the club’s best position player and under team control through the end of the 2019 season.
On the other hand, how do the Angels plan to be competitive by 2019?
Considering the current state of the Angels’ minor league system, it’s unlikely it’ll be able to provide significant relief within the next three seasons. Plus the Angels will enter 2019 with a 27-year-old Mike Trout with one year remaining on his contract and a 39-year-old Albert Pujols with two left on his deal. Both men will be making a combined $62 million. Under these circumstances, I fail to see a road map to success for the Angels.
So, Seattle Mariners fans. There is a glimmer of hope for your team’s playoff expectancy. The two teams in front of you in the AL West standings have played better, but have flawed rosters too. It’s going to come down to which teams are best positioned to overcome their flaws.
In my mind, the Rangers continue to be in the driver’s seat. But, their starting staff could be their undoing in the divisional race or postseason. Plus, the Astros are struggling enough to be caught by Seattle.
For the Mariners to leapfrog Houston and — gasp — Texas, they’d need a few breaks along the way. Most importantly, they’d need their starting staff to regain its early season form and avoid injury to their core position players. That’s a lot to hope for with less than two months remaining in the system. But, at least there’s hope Mariners fans.
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