It’s been a tumultuous week for the Seattle Mariners and GM Jerry Dipoto. After Seattle overcame an early 7-0 deficit in thrilling fashion to defeat the division-leading Houston Astros on Monday, Dipoto dealt closer Kendall Graveman to those same Astros the following day. In the deal’s aftermath, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish reported the clubhouse wasn’t happy with the front office.
Neither was a fan base energized by the scrappy Mariners having the third best record (32-21) in the AL since May 27.
Afterwards, Dipoto acknowledged the impact of dealing Graveman could have on team chemistry. But the sixth-year GM suggested to MLB.com beat writer Daniel Kramer that subsequent moves during the week would add context to the Graveman trade.
“It probably doesn’t [make sense] as a standalone, but it’s part of a context that I believe is going to be an ongoing story over the next couple of days,” – GM Jerry Dipoto
With the MLB trade deadline now behind us, let’s consider whether Dipoto actually improved his team. Did his words ring true when the dust settled? The best place to begin our conversation is the area that had the most urgent need – starting pitching.
Trading for at least one starter was necessary for the Mariners to have any chance of reaching the postseason. The lone rotation arm added was veteran Tyler Anderson, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for minor-leaguers Carter Bins and Joaquin Tejada. The 31-year-old is a free agent after the season.
Anderson isn’t a marquee name and his average-ish numbers may not wow Mariners fans. But the Nevada native represents an upgrade to a starting staff ranking in the bottom-third of the majors in multiple categories despite good seasons from Yusei Kikuchi, Chris Flexen, and rookie Logan Gilbert.
Anderson has been relatively successful at remaining in games this year, which has been a problem for the backend of Seattle’s rotation. He’s completed the fifth inning in all of his 18 starts and has tossed six-plus frames in eight outings. Overall, the former Oregon Duck is averaging 5.7 innings/start with seven quality starts.
To date, only Kikuchi (6.1 innings/start, 12 quality starts) and Flexen (5.7 IP/start, 9 QS) have been more dependable than Anderson this season. The left-hander has certainly delivered positive results more consistently than young starters Justin Dunn (4.6 IP/start, zero QS) and Justus Sheffield (4.7 IP/start, 3 QS) did before they succumbed to injury.
Although Anderson’s production is bound to help the embattled Mariners rotation, one aspect of his game worth monitoring is his dramatic platoon splits this season. Right-handed hitting opponents have a .805 OPS against the southpaw compared to .484 with lefty bats in the box.
The addition of Anderson could potentially permit the Mariners to use a six-man rotation when either Dunn or Sheffield becomes available. Then again, the team could use one or both pitchers out of the bullpen or send them to the minors.
It’s worth noting the Mariners signed right-hander Asher Wojciechowski to a minor-league contract this week. Wojciechowski will serve as depth and another emergency option for the team. The 32-year-old currently isn’t on Seattle’s 40-man roster.
Having Anderson should also help the Mariners avoid using a spot starter or have a bullpen day. The team has a 2-8 record in games not started by core rotation arms or their replacements.
From a performance aspect, Graveman was a formidable late-inning arm. That said, his availability seemed spotty at times. This is likely due to a benign bone tumor on his cervical spine. With Seattle, the 30-year-old pitched with zero or one day of rest 11 times this season, which was 37% of his 30 appearances. Compared to recognizable, that’s a relatively low frequency.
Personally, I’m in awe of Graveman’s resolve to gut through a spinal tumor that’s probably difficult to manage from a pain/discomfort aspect. Still, there’s a value to being available that can’t be overlooked when discussing a reliever’s importance to a bullpen.
The 37-year-old Smith is a pending free agent with a reputation for being a clubhouse leader, which is plus. Moreover, the 14-year-veteran has postseason experience from tours with Cleveland and Houston. That’s a qualification few Seattle pitchers possess.
It’ll be interesting to see how manager Scott Servais employs Smith, who opted out of 2020 due to COVID-19. The side-armer was struggling with Houston with opponents batting .376 against him. That said, his .320 xwOBA, which is near league-average, suggests the potential for better results. Furthermore, his 3.8% walk rate is top-10 among relievers with 20-plus innings this season.
Still, Smith’s 16% strikeout rate is down over six points compared to 2019 and bottom-20 among relievers. Another troubling indicator – a 26.8% line drive rate that’s eight points higher than his previous campaign. It’s also important to note that the Wright State alum missed most of June due to right elbow discomfort.
The second bullpen piece Dipoto added was Tampa Bay Rays closer Diego Castillo in exchange for reliever JT Chargois and minor-leaguer Austin Shenton. In Castillo, the Mariners get a power arm capable of replacing Graveman. Across the board, the 27-year-old is putting up premium numbers.
This year, Castillo has demonstrated noticeable improvement in preventing free passes. The right-hander’s 6.9% walk rate is significantly lower than his 12.4% mark from last season. On the availability front, 46% of his 37 appearances have come on zero or one day of rest.
Overall, Graveman and Castillo have been similar this year. But there are two notable differences for me. The availability piece I’ve been harping on. Plus, Graveman is a pending free agent. Castillo remains under club control through the 2024 season. This matters to a fringe contender intent on becoming a sustainable winner.
Castillo also possess something that hopefully matters to the Mariners at some point – experience on baseball’s brightest stage. The Dominican has logged 14 appearances and 16.1 innings in postseason games since 2019, including last year’s World Series.
How Servais uses Castillo remains to be seen. Sometimes, using the best bullpen arm in the eighth inning against the teeth of an opponent’s lineup is the best move. That said, I envision Castillo closing games most often with Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider serving as alternates. Other high-leverage arms include Erik Swanson, Casey Sadler, and Anthony Misiewicz.
It’s important to note that reliever Héctor Santiago received an 80-game suspension for PED use this week. The 10-year veteran was putting together a very nice season for Seattle after not pitching in the majors in 2020. His ability to throw multiple innings will be missed.
For the Mariners, getting Toro was the key to the Graveman deal. As late as 2019, the 24-year-old was a top-5 prospect in Houston’s system. But over the last half-decade, young infielders in the Astros organization have been blocked by All-Stars or established players.
Toro has primarily been a third baseman, although he has experience at first and second base and has even made 15 minor-league starts as a catcher. During brief auditions with the Astros since 2019, the switch-hitter had a .193/.276/.350 slash-line with a 69 OPS+ in 308 plate appearances. Overall, he’s been more productive from the left side of the plate with a .677 OPS compared to .528 as a right-handed hitter.
It’s likely Toro spends most of his time at second base this season. Perhaps the native of Longueuil, Canada , who is under club control through 2025, eventually replaces veteran Kyle Seager. That’s assuming the team doesn’t exercise its 2022 option on Seager. If the former North Carolina Tar Heel stays, Toro could potentially remain at second base.
On the surface, adding Toro appears more about his new team’s long-term plans than this season. Still, it’s important to not discount his potential value to the Mainers’ lineup in 2021. Seattle’s second base production ranks near the bottom of the majors in multiple categories. It’s possible he changes that for the better.
Stats & MLB Rank of Seattle’s Second Baseman
28.9 SO% (28th)
7.5 BB% (17th)
.209 AVG (29th)
.275 OBP (29th)
.362 SLG (24th)
.279 wOBA (28th)
.277 xwOBA (29th)
79 wRC+ (28th)
I’m not proclaiming Toro as a savior for the Mariners’ offensive challenges at second base. However, he does have a .219/.297/.439 triple-slash with a 105 wRC+ and a 16.4% strikeout rate this season. Not eye-popping numbers, but better than what the team has received from the second base position in 2021.
Are the Mariners a better team since Dipoto made his statement on Monday? Yes. But the improvement is relatively small and nowhere near what many fans and some media members were expecting.
Overall, the rotation is better with Anderson. Whether his arrival is a difference-maker is debatable. Still, if his presence can help prevent early blowout deficits caused by other starters or bullpen days, that’s value added.
Castillo essentially replaces Graveman at the back of the bullpen. But time will tell how other bullpen moves affect the Mariners’ season. Will the advanced metrics prove true with Smith rebounding in the second half or will he be a liability? How does the team replace Chargois and Santiago?
In the long run, Toro likely becomes the best addition made before the deadline. Later in the week, Dipoto told Danny and Gallant of 710 ESPN Seattle that Toro is yet another 20-something blocked from playing time in another organization only to be snatched up by the Mariners. So far, this strategy has resulted in the arrival of Mitch Haniger, J.P. Crawford, Ty France, and Luis Torrens. Maybe the Canadian is Dipoto’s next success story.
Essentially, the Mariners made incremental improvements by being buyers and sellers prior to the deadline. This won’t sit well with a segment of fans wanting the team to be aggressive at the deadline. But what was the alternative? Go all in and pay a premium in prospect equity for recognizable rental players?
That would be tantamount to front office malpractice.
Perhaps it’s been lost in the club’s messaging, but the 2021 season was always about the Mariners assessing and developing young players. Dipoto and his staff were never going to waver from their established plan. Moving forward, the key to making Seattle a legitimate contender will be the organization’s spending posture this offseason.
That’s right. It’s time for Mariners ownership to step up.
Otherwise, we’ll be talking about the front office making a few interesting acquisitions 12 months from now that aren’t designed to put the club over the top.
My Oh My…
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