January 11, 2017
Mariners Move Deck Chairs
As usual, Grant Brisbee is right. Acquiring the vanilla Smith for a flunked-out veteran starter is about as Orioles as an offseason can get: pick an adjective between banal and dull. If they’d made this move a season or two ago, perhaps there’d be some life to it. Instead they made what’s likely an incremental improvement, with heavy emphasis on incremental. While their new outfielder used to be the kind of undervalued platoon asset that we sabermetric types fawned over, it stands to reason that today he’s a decent enough fourth outfielder on a team in desperate need of a bat.
Some players do it all and some do just one thing. Smith falls into the latter category, making his hay by beating up on right-handed pitching and displaying no particular proficiency toward any other aspect of the game. There were reports that the Mariners were trying to give Smith away for any middling prospect and found no takers, so they sucked it up and took on the bitter pill of Gallardo’s contract. That makes sense, given the glut of corner hit-only players on the market, including the Orioles’ own wandering right fielder in Mark Trumbo.
Seth Smith is not Mark Trumbo, as he lacks the upper-register power and replaces it with an on-base skill that the Orioles could actually benefit from. The only caveat is that Smith needs to slug a little too—remember, he’s supposed to be a good hitter, not just average—and last year saw his power numbers fall. It wasn’t the dingers that failed Smith, despite his move to Seattle. It was the doubles and triples, which makes for a more alarming trend. The lefty sawed his two-bagger numbers from the previous two seasons in half, from 31 doubles in each of the previous two years to just 15 in 2016.
While the Mariners did a nice job protecting him from lefties—he earned just 33 plate appearances against them last year—Smith was worse than ever at hitting them. Gallardo, a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, probably could have put up the same quality of offense against southpaws in 2016. I’d imagine that the complete cratering against lefties will regress a bit during this upcoming season, but the power outage may not regress along with it. While any team can live with a .260 True Average hitter, given Smith’s other skills he’ll need to top that mark to be anything more than a good pinch-hitting option off the bench or a third outfielder that you consistently wish you could upgrade.
Unfortunately, the Gallardo signing turned out to be a very bad one for the Orioles in the aggregate. When Matthew Trueblood wrote up the Transaction Analysis on the deal last winter, he mentioned that Gallardo would have to beat PECOTA’s health projection for him to stay valuable on his expensive two-year deal. He didn’t—his performance worsened and the team may have been better off pocketing the money and giving his starts to a freely-available Triple-A righty. Acquiring Smith for the remains of his contract may be a little salve to how this deal burned them, but we must remember that the wound was self-inflicted. Once again, the Orioles will have to look elsewhere for starting pitching and once again the options don’t appear to be all that appealing.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Royals need quality starting pitching. I know, you’re absolutely shocked. With the addition of Karns, perhaps they’re filling the void left by Edinson Volquez’s departure or perhaps they’re not done moving on arms. Either way, acquiring the well-traveled righty gives the team something they didn’t have in December: enough veteran arms to fill out a year’s worth of starts. (Maybe.)
Karns had a great season in 2015 with the Rays, enough to make him an enticing trade target for Seattle and the centerpiece of the move that sent Brad Miller to Tampa Bay. (All Mariners shortstops must serve time on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Think of it like Singapore’s conscription of able-bodied males over 18, except limited to versatile shortstops who can hit a little.) Digression aside, Karns was expected hold down the fort as a better-than-average fourth or fifth starter and he did that for a little while before his back betrayed him. He moved to the bullpen after the injury, which did not go well before ceasing operations at the end of July. Everyone hopes that he’ll return fit as a fiddle for spring training, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise except for the fact that he’s a pitcher.
Karns lives and dies on a good (more than a strikeout per inning) whiff rate and iffy control, respectively. That makes him, I dunno, kind of like an early-career Yovani Gallardo. In 2016 his walk rate ticked up and his sinker got hit a little harder than usual—his line-drive rate on the pitch ticked up noticeably—but his velocity stayed nice and steady. He also leaned a bit more heavily on his curveball—probably the right thing to do given that it’s his second-best pitch—but being injury-free with a more stable core is required before we know if that’s really the “problem” from last season’s performance dip. I know it sounds like a cop-out to say “wait until he’s healthy” but he was a pretty good pitcher the last time he was healthy and that was less than a year ago. He’s likely to be just fine in Kansas City, all injury issues aside.
Before this deal, the Royals were dangerously shallow in their rotation and pleasantly full in their outfield. Now? Billy Burns may take on Dyson’s role as the team’s outfield defensive specialist and running expert—without too much of a drop-off, I might add—and the team still has the surprisingly adequate Paulo Orlando holstered. This isn’t a particularly flashy move, but it will hopefully patch a hole for the upcoming season and beyond.
Most critically, the bill is about to come due on this team’s 2014 and 2015 successes. Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Danny Duffy will all hit free agency after this season. The Royals cannot afford to pay all of those players to return and whether they’d even want to is a bit of an open question. When you pair that with their overall starting pitching talent—I’d go ahead and use the word “yuck” as a shorthand—one can certainly see why Dayton Moore and company would seek out a team-controlled, reasonably-priced starting pitcher with a little upside. Dyson’s a fine player with skills tailored to the Royals’ gameplan, but this is the kind of move Kansas City needs to make to remain even close to viable during the eventual rebuilding years to come. That World Series banner sure was worth the cost, though!
Acquired RHP Yovani Gallardo from Baltimore Orioles in exchange for OF-L Seth Smith. [1/6]
Acquired OF-L Jarrod Dyson from Kansas City Royals in exchange for RHP Nate Karns. [1/6]
The Mariners are almost completely unrecognizable from the team Jerry Dipoto inherited and there’s hardly a month that goes by without some sort of personnel move. For that reason, when the Mariners made two trades last week to reshape their outfield and rotation the question wasn’t so much “why?”—because it’s the Dipoto thing to do, duh—but rather “how?” Blessed with a solid defensive center fielder in Leonys Martin and a healthy measure of risk in the team’s Hernandez/Iwakuma/Paxton-led rotation, they ... acquired another stellar defensive center fielder and added a risky veteran starting pitcher.
Huh. Maybe we should ask “why?” after all. And instead of breaking down this move in terms of the deals as they were made, let’s try to look at it in terms of the positions that were swapped: Smith for Dyson and Karns for Gallardo (plus a few bucks).
It’s easy to start with WARP, so when looking at the outfielders let’s start there. Smith (or “Dad,” as our Meg Rowley might say) has had a remarkably consistent run as an about-average outfielder in not-quite-full-season action since 2009, but his 2016 was a down year thanks to average hitting (.261 True Average) and bad defense. His 0.2 WARP was the worst of his career and he'll be entering his age-34 season. From the Mariners’ perspective, you can certainly imagine that their internal projection systems may view him as a strong-side platooner with diminished skills and on the downslope of his career; moving on in favor of a younger, cheaper option is hardly a shocking move.
Meanwhile, Dyson isn’t as young as he plays, but the 32-year-old has been magic in a limited role with Kansas City over the last five years. Despite only seeing the batter’s box around 300 times per season, Dyson has earned about a win-and-a-half per season thanks to good defense and barely-below-average offense (.243 career TAv). One would have to imagine that this triples-happy offensive output will decline in a move from Kauffman Stadium to Safeco, but otherwise he’s a fair bet to keep producing at his current level for a year or two.
Perhaps a bit more reliable at this stage than Smith, Dyson also had a big reverse platoon split last season; that’s outside his career norms. Dyson is no righty-killer like “Dad” was, but on a pure value swap one could see how this may be an upgrade for the Mariners in the aggregate, changing out a little offensive value for defense and baserunning, even if Dyson or Martin ends up spending time in a corner rather than up the middle. I’d posit that the Mariners could use this extra defensive help, because the acquisition of Gallardo could mean that their run prevention could take a small hit.
Baltimore is where pitchers go to die and Gallardo was positively cadaver-esque in his 23-start run for the O’s in 2016. Yes, he has a pedigree of remarkable WARP consistency prior to last year, but 2016 was a fiasco. In his first below-replacement season, Gallardo missed time due to a shoulder issue—which in and of itself is a giant red flag—but was very ineffective when he took the bump. Gallardo’s ground-ball rate dipped to the mid-40s of his early career, but he couldn’t replicate the strikeout rate that supplemented it in his younger years.
He leaned on his sinker and changeup more than ever, moving away from his diminished-velo fastball, but still couldn’t find a way to get enough outs. And while his control has always been an issue, things got dark last season as he walked 4.7 per nine innings. There’s two forms of risk here: the performance could be as bad as it was in 2016, signaling an early nadir to his career despite his relatively young age of 31; there’s also the specter of those shoulder issues lurking in the background, perhaps removing him from the mound when the Mariners could use anyone with a working wing.
Karns, meanwhile, is hardly a spring chicken at 29 and not nearly the workhorse that pre-’16 Gallardo was, but he had much better peripherals than Yo and the potential to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter. (In fact, he was one of those in 2015 with Tampa Bay.) Karns had injury issues in 2016, just like Gallardo, but was effective prior to his back problems and probably has more upside. There’s also the issue of Gallardo’s salary, which includes a $2 million option for 2018.
In his article on the team’s recent moves, Patrick Dubuque cited a need for upside from the Mariners’ rotation, especially as the team drifts away from their window for contention. With a veteran-laden roster there’s an immediacy to their moves and adding two players on short-term contracts just over 30 speaks to that win-now focus. And certainly, this could go poorly: Dyson could slow down, Gallardo could stick in 2016 mode, and the team could fail to generate enough offense against right-handers overall. The upgrade from Smith to Dyson may not offset the downgrade from Karns to Gallardo, but the tradeoff is close enough to make one at least slightly hopeful for 2017.
The real question is this: Will they miss having a relatively cheap starter in 2020 as the cost for adding Dyson and Gallardo today? Given the weak back-end of the Mariners’ rotation the past few seasons, I’d edge toward answering with a yes, but keep in mind that with Dipoto at the helm there’s always the chance that the move he makes tomorrow could offset the move he made today. If you shuffle the deck long enough, eventually you might find the card you like best.