HOUSTON – Now it’s only about baseball.
The 2019 MLB trade deadline – the one and only this season – is now a memory of frenetic social-media activity and a record-setting day. Per MLB, 77 players were traded in 30 deals that became official on deadline day. Last year, 43 players were swapped in 16 moves on deadline day. This year’s 30 deadline-day trades crushed the previous record of 18 set in 2016.
With no more trades to be made, the focus returns to the field, which hasn’t always been a safe place for the 2019 Mariners or their fans. Seattle’s on-field performance has been mostly grotesque with abysmal defense, an inconsistent bullpen and far too many blowout losses. They’ve allowed eight or more runs in 31 games, with 24 losses by five runs more. To be fair, there have been short windows of clean baseball, competitive games and a little hope of the future. But those glimmers have been mostly fleeting and dependent on the quality of opponent played.
Seattle is 47-64 with 51 games left, meaning it must win at least 16 games to avoid a 100-loss season. They do have 23 games against teams with losing records remaining this season.
“Obviously, it hasn’t been a great year on the field for us in the big leagues,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said on a conference call after Wednesday’s deadline.
But the record doesn’t really matter at this point. Ostensibly, it didn’t really matter going into the season. They weren’t investing in the team to make a run at the postseason or to be good. The focus was the future. Labeled a “step back” by Dipoto and a rebuild by others, this was always going to be a losing season, even after a 13-2 start.
“We knew what we were getting into,” Dipoto said. “We knew there would be some pain to tolerate at the major-league level and we don’t expect to go into the offseason scouring the free-agent market at the top of the food chain. We understood this would be a two-year process, and we are halfway home.”
Had second baseman Dee Gordon and Domingo Santana both been completely healthy, they might have also been moved at the trade deadline. And Dipoto is certainly going to look at trading them this offseason because neither fits into the Mariners’ timeline to success. Besides Kyle Seager, who is entrenched on the team because of his contract, Gordon represents one of the last veteran players on the roster who is owed significant money in 2020. He has a $13.8 million salary in 2020 with a $1 million buyout of his 2021 option.
The Leake trade removes more money from the projected 2020 payroll. Seattle is paying $5 million of the $16 million owed to Leake next season and also picking up the $5 million buyout, which goes on its 2021 payroll.
That leaves Seattle’s projected payroll for 2020 to about $80 million, with about $40 million of that to guaranteed MLB contracts. That total also includes the $23 million in retained contract money in the Leake, Robinson Cano, Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion trades. The Mariners came into this season with a $160 million projected payroll.
Although the MLB team has largely been gutted, Dipoto now has a roster that is younger and cheaper with more club control. He also has a farm system that is now rated No. 11 out of 30 by Baseball America. And that ranking was compiled before the recent deadline trades.
“I think we’ve done what we said we were going to do,” Dipoto said. “We identified young players, we went out, and I can’t overstate enough how much I think we improved our farm system, through the draft and international signings and obviously with a lot of these trades. We have refocused (on) what we’re doing. I think it’s making a difference.”
The “third-party” rankings that Dipoto once shrugged off as meaningless to his system and the development plan are now referenced. Going into the 2018 season, the Mariners were ranked 30th of 30 teams. The offseason trades that netted several players, highlighted by Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield, put the Mariners at No. 14 to start the season.
“It certainly helps that the national or third-party assessors agree with us,” he said. “We are moving up in the eyes of those outlets in what we are doing with our system.”
In a sign of that prospect depth, two of the pitchers acquired Wednesday – lefties Taylor Gilbeau and Aaron Fletcher — were inserted into MLB Pipeline’s Mariners Top 30 prospect list at No. 22 and No. 27, respectively. They were ranked No. 15 and No. 21 in the Nationals’ system.
“There’s guys right now who we’d consider 15th to 20th on our prospect list who just a year ago would have been in our top 5 or 6,” Dipoto said. “That’s how far we’ve come, system-wide. Trades, like we made today, are a big part of that.”
Of course, it’s difficult for fans to truly feel that progress because most of those players are not playing at T-Mobile Park.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford is one of the few key prospects who is up with the big-league team. After a solid start, he’s cooled off slightly. He’s got a .255/.338/.425 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 17 doubles, three triples, four homers, 35 RBI and five stolen bases in 55 games. Technically, Daniel Vogelbach is part of this future, and he’s had a breakout season with 25 homers and an All-Star appearance. But of the current position players, only Seager, Crawford, Vogelbach, Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith and Omar Narvaez are locks to be on the team next year. The pitching staff is less certain, with Yusei Kikuchi and Marco Gonzales as certainties.
Outfielder Jake Fraley could be called up from Class AAA Tacoma in the next five days, and the plan is for Dunn, Sheffield, outfielder Kyle Lewis and infielder Shed Long to be called up in September, when rosters expand and the minor-league season ends. The recently acquired Gilbeau is expected to get a call-up, and first baseman Evan White is also a possibility.
A glimpse of some potential could be visible in those final games, but MLB debuts don’t automatically mean MLB success. There will be starts and stops, and players sent down and called up again. This is far from a finished product, with another difficult season in 2020 expected.
Dipoto and the Mariners feel they are following the plan set into motion this offseason – a rebuild that hasn’t been done to this level since the last time the team appeared in the postseason in 2001. Their optimism is expected.
“We feel like we’ve made great progress in laying a foundation, and now we have lot of work to do in continuing to develop these guys and identify our needs going forward,” Dipoto said. “We are really happy with where it’s headed.”