Every couple weeks, the Mariners’ analytics department produces what is called a Red Flag Report — players around baseball who are “popping” as documented by scouting reports and proprietary analytical metrics. Those are the ones that general manager Jerry Dipoto immediately puts on his radar for possible acquisition.
As many as five years ago, a young infielder named Ty France, toiling in the Class A California League after being drafted in the 34th round by the Padres, caught the Mariners’ eye and earned a Red Flag.
“And he never left,” Dipoto said with a laugh Friday.
The internal parlor game became, how can we make Ty France a Mariner? It only intensified in 2019 when France hit an astounding .399 for El Paso in 76 Pacific Coast League games and was, Dipoto said, “the analytics darling of the year.
“I can’t even tell you how many iterations of Ty France trades we created in-house until we finally got him.”
That long-coveted moment occurred Aug. 30, which was the trade deadline in the convoluted 2020 season. France arrived with outfielder Taylor Trammell, catcher Luis Torrens and reliever Andres Munoz from the playoff-hungry Padres for catcher Austin Nola and relievers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla.
The Jarred Kelenic/Justin Dunn acquisition from the Mets in 2018 while offloading a large portion of Robinson Cano’s contract is the one commonly cited as Dipoto’s master stroke. But this deal could wind up being his piece de resistance.
In addition to France, whom the Mariners see as a potentially elite hitter in the middle of their lineup (and just 26), they got one of the top 100 prospects in baseball in Trammell (23), and a catcher in Torrens (25) they believe could be an everyday player.
On any given day this season, all three of those players could be in the starting lineup (as they were Friday night against San Francisco). And the wild card is the flame-throwing Munoz, currently on the injured list recovering from Tommy John surgery but the possessor of a fastball that hit 103 mph and touted as the Mariners’ closer of the future.
“That trade really put us at a different speed moving toward contention, because those are players in the big leagues now, and giving us a chance to win, night in and night out,” Dipoto said.
The beauty of the deal is that it fit perfectly into the needs of both teams at that moment, considering their places in the team-building arc. The Padres, a few steps ahead of the Mariners in their rebuild, were going full-bore for the first playoff berth since 2006. The Mariners were continuing to pursue young, controllable talent.
As the deadline approached, San Diego general manager A.J. Preller, one of the few who match Dipoto in trade aggressiveness, was systematically addressing the Padres’ weaknesses for the stretch drive. And one of the most blatant was at catcher. He made a trade with the Angels for Jason Castro. But Preller wanted more — and the player he wanted, badly, was Austin Nola. And they had a wealth of prospects and surplus major-leaguers to make it happen.
From the Mariners’ standpoint, their position of strength was the fact that they didn’t want to trade Nola. A shrewd pickup by Dipoto off the waiver wire in 2018, Nola had developed into not just a first-rate defensive catcher but a potent hitter. And the Mariners had very little catching behind him with Tom Murphy out for the year, and prospect Cal Raleigh not yet ready.
Their reluctance to deal Nola emboldened Dipoto to put forward a trade request that was beyond perhaps even their expectations. What did they have to lose?
“We said ‘no’ on Nola so many times that when we ultimately got into this stage of exchanging names on the players, we were pretty bold in what we asked for,” he said. “Lo and behold, we got them. That’s not a common thing when you’re making trades.”
What accelerated the trade talks was when Preller uttered the magic words: Ty France, their white whale. And as if that didn’t perk up the Mariners, he said two more that animated Dipoto: Taylor Trammell, whose potential had always intrigued the Mariners. Preller is much like Dipoto in that when he is pursuing a player, he can be relentless. It’s a big reason the pair has worked well together over the years.
“We had an initial conversation with the Padres that was roughly, ‘Hey listen, we’re not really looking to move Nola. If you want to talk about it, it’s going to be heavy,’ ” Dipoto said.
“And then they were very willing to go the heavy route. When we got down to it, A.J. was pretty tenacious in sticking with it, which is A.J.’s personality. He called multiple times, and then ultimately, when we did fully engage, he said, ‘Tell me what it’s going to look like, but we’re willing to do multiple pieces.’ A.J. knew the players we liked in their system, and he introduced names like France and Trammell.”
When Dipoto heard that, he immediately called the Mariners’ assistant GM, Justin Hollander, and told him, “We’re going to get a deal done.”
He added, “If we’re able to start with France and Trammell, it’s going to be awfully hard for us to walk away from that. And lo and behold, we were able to expand the deal.”
The next piece to fall was Torrens, because Dipoto knew he needed to fill the catching hole left by Nola’s departure. Journeymen Joe Hudson and Joe Odom were all that remained. The Padres, with great organizational depth at catcher, were willing to add Torrens.
At that point, the Mariners decided to seek one more piece they felt would make this trade truly irresistible. The in-house discussion, Dipoto said, was “what can we do to look back on this deal four or five or six years from now and make it a home run? That’s where Andres Munoz came in.”
Hollander was initially bullish on Munoz, but that’s when the trade talks, which had been sailing along, slowed considerably. The Padres were reluctant to give up a pitcher who before surgery had been maybe the hardest thrower in the game. But they also were laser focused on catching the Dodgers, and Preller relented on Munoz.
Dipoto stresses that he doesn’t believe the Padres were fleeced in any way. Quite the opposite. For their goal, which was putting the finishing touches on the first pennant drive in more than a decade, it was inventory well spent.
“The Padres got what they needed,” he said. “They got the catcher they could plug in and who works with a staff so well. And in a playoff scenario, getting Austin Adams and his strikeout ability, when you have a 28-man roster for a postseason, was not a small get for them. If Austin was healthy and able to contribute, that was a really big bullet to be able to fire in a playoff game, when you can bring in a pitcher who strikes out half the hitters he faces.”
The trade shows the upside value of Dipoto’s under-the-radar pickups such as Nola and Adams (acquired from Washington for minor-leaguer Nick Wells and cash in May 2019). Their careers blossomed, and they turned into valuable trade fodder that made the bigger trade with San Diego possible.
It also shows the value of a strong farm system beyond just filling a team’s own needs. Because of the Padres’ prospect depth, Preller was comfortable dealing players such as France and Trammell who had great potential but were expendable because of their surplus.
And it gives a tantalizing hint of what could be in the future for the Mariners. It’s not hard to imagine that if they are in contention at some point, Dipoto making the same hellbent pursuit of an established player he thinks would put the Mariners over the top. The Mariners believe they are building a farm system — ranked in the top two or three in baseball by most analysts — that will put them in position to do so.
In the meantime, the Mariners will watch carefully to see how France, Trammell and Torrens develop, and wait for Munoz’s expected return at some point this summer. Nola (finger fracture), Adams (sore elbow) and Altavilla (calf strain) all began the season on the injured list for San Diego, but the first two in particular remain prominent in its plans for 2021.
The Mariners, meanwhile, hope this trade sets them up for the home run they envisioned in the years beyond 2021.
“I think where they were on their arc and where we were on our arc really allowed for the trade to come together,” Dipoto said. “I think the results for the Padres are already obvious. They went to the postseason, and things worked out for them.
“It’s certainly trending well for us, with two players who are going to be in our lineup opening day, a third who we think is going to spend a whole lot of days in starting lineups for us in the years ahead. And then a guy who, frankly, if it clicks for him and he’s healthy, has a chance to be dynamic at the back of our bullpen as early as late summer 2021.”
For the Mariners, that’s cause to wave the Red Flag.