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The Mariners Have Pulled The Plug

Photo: Stephen Brashear (Getty)

After a couple of trades in the past 24 hours or so, the Seattle Mariners officially suck again, and they don’t even have fond memories of recent playoff runs to keep them warm over what promises to be several years worth of rebuilding. A run of aggressive, win-now spending—or, anyway, intermittent blips of aggressive, win-now spending—that began with Robinson Canó’s $240 million contract in 2013 culminated in three 3rd-place AL West finishes, a 4th-place finish, and a 2nd place finish that left them short of the Wild Card. And now it is leading to the rapid dismantling of that roster.

The end of Nelson Cruz’s contract and the trade of James Paxton to the Yankees signaled the team’s intention to retool, but the most recent pair of deals made clear that the Mariners have dropped any pretense of trying to win games next season and have instead turned to stocking what had been a mostly barren farm system with an eye on contending years down the road. First, star closer Edwin Diaz and the 36-year-old Canó were dealt to the Mets, along with $20 million to offset Canó’s salary, in exchange for the fragrant short-term contracts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak and a pair of the Mets’ better prospects. This was followed today with the news that the team will go ahead and deal shortstop Jean Segura and a pair of major league relievers to the Phillies for J.P. Crawford, Carlos Santana, and an intriguing prospect named ... what? Ken Rosenthal says Crawford and Santana are it, but that seems impossible.

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All three of these trades, including the Paxton one, are a little bit depressing in the way that a certain type of future-oriented baseball trade—one in which a team that isn’t trying to win gets taken for a ride by a team that is—tends to be. While they almost certainly won’t reach the high bar for shamelessness that the Marlins set last offseason, Seattle’s recent deals still amount to a potentially fun team raising a big white flag for 2019 at the very least. No doubt the Mariners’ plan wasn’t working, and it was unlikely that the team were going to compete not just with elite American League teams like the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees but even the A’s and perhaps Angels in their own division. Still, it sucks to see the team take a cheap, hasty, minimum-effort way out instead of finding pieces that might help them entertain fans now. Even the players that might help the team next season—Santana is a quality big leaguer and Bruce was as recently as 2017—are clearly just passing through until the team can find a way to flip them for more prospects.

Maybe it’s just because they made the deal with the Mets, who could slap their logo on a 747 and make it look like worthless junk, but the Canó/Diaz deal initially appears to be the smartest trade of the three. With Canó, the team gets rid of an aging ex-superstar—one whose bat still showed pop in 2018, but also one who only played half a season due to a failed drug test. In his four full seasons with the Mariners, Canó put up two spectacular years and two solid ones, but the team never reached the expectations set by his huge deal. At a cost of $20 million and some self-respect, they’ve just divested themselves of paying for Canó’s inevitable late-career decline.

The prize of this trade is Edwin Diaz, a 24-year-old closer who broke out with 57 saves last year to go with 15.22 strikeouts per 9 and a 0.79 WHIP. The Mets needed relief pitching—they still do, in fact—and Diaz definitely fills that void. Diaz is working on a very cheap contract for the time being, but his impressive counting stats mean that he’ll become expensive quickly through arbitration. He’s been electric in the majors, but his track record is not a long one—only 191 innings across three seasons, or as much as a great starter pitching in one—and there are no guarantees in relief pitching.

But if that trade’s combination of cost-cutting and prospect-collecting—the Mets sent Jarred Kelenic, last year’s sixth overall pick, and top pitching prospect Justin Dunn to Seattle in the deal—can be seen as the Mariners taking a calculated risk, the other deals seem less promising. Paxton has been excellent when he’s healthy enough to pitch, and there’s something distasteful in sending him to a Yankee team that already won 100 games last season, but at 30 years old and entering the final year of his contract, his value to Seattle was only going to decline. As with the Mets deal, the Mariners got a fair prospect return on him—lefty pitcher Justus Sheffield, who is now probably the team’s top prospect. As with Diaz, the team was selling high on a pitcher who would be the number-two starter on almost any other team in the league. Sheffield has promise, but for him to balance out this deal the Mariners would likely need the 22-year-old to stay healthy and have at least a 4.0 WAR season before he escapes team control. This is not a sure thing for any young pitcher, let alone one who posted less than mind-blowing AAA numbers of 8.59 K/9 and 3.68 BB/9 at Triple-A last season.

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In comparison to either of those deals, though, the Segura trade that just went through is fucking unforgivable. Acquired in November 2016 after a monster season with the Diamondbacks, Segura hasn’t quite repeated the highs of that year, when he hit .319 and bashed 20 homers. But he has been a decidedly above-average bat—hitting at least .300 and smacking double-digit dingers—in both of his seasons with the Mariners, and has played very good defense. He’s still just 28, and a team-friendly extension will keep him under wraps well into the next decade. Trading him and a couple of relievers—James Pazos was solid last year, and Juan Nicasio was much better than his 6.00 ERA would imply—for the return they received amounts to a middle finger to anyone who’s buying Mariners tickets this year.

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Santana will likely never play a meaningful game in Seattle, although his value will likely bounce back some once he’s freed from ever having to use his glove. Crawford is the “haul,” but he’s also something like the poster child for the idea of prospect fatigue. A former first-round pick who has yet to excel in the upper minors, Crawford is, for all his pedigree, a soon-to-be 24-year-old with a .214 career average in 72 big league games. He has room to improve, and he might, but many things will have to go right for him to give the Mariners what Segura did. There’s a case to be made for him as a buy-low acquisition, but giving up a better player in his prime, let alone one who plays the same position and is under contract until 2024, may be overthinking it just a little bit.

The Mariners were not going to win the World Series in 2019. But a roster with Canó, Cruz, Paxton, Diaz, and Segura adds up to something like seven cool Mariners that fans could get jazzed about watching all summer. There are now maybe two—starter Marco Gonzales and outfielder Mitch Haniger—depending on how new outfielder Mallex Smith pans out. Seattle isn’t done, either, and has discussed trading Haniger if the right offer comes along. The same goes for third baseman Kyle Seager. Or, honestly, Dee Gordon or Wade LeBlanc or anyone else who might provide some reason for Seattle fans to pay attention this season.

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Mariners management might be able to sell fans on the team’s chances of becoming the next Houston Astros, but they’re still a successful tank job and a couple of successful drafts away from being able to make that case in earnest. The truth is, making a team purposefully bad in the hopes of hitting the jackpot with some kids somewhere down the line doesn’t require any real skill or bravery. Shamelessness is enough, and it should at least be enough to buy GM Jerry DiPoto a little more time to do whatever it is he’s doing. Felix Hernandez didn’t give his life for this shit.

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