Mariner Makeover Begins
Mike Zunino will try not to strike out for the Rays next season
Seattle General Manager Jerry Dipoto began rebuilding the Mariners for 2019 this afternoon, making a big trade with his favorite trading partner, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Addressing one of the bigger questions of the offseason—do the 2019 M's try again with the 2018 plan of Dee Gordon in center and Robbie Canó at second, or do they get a new CF to play full time?—the Mariners acquired outfielder Mallex Smith from the Rays in exchange for defensive wizard and strikeout artist Mike Zunino and reserve outfielder Guillermo Heredia.
Smith played all three outfield positions for Tampa Bay last year, most often in center. He's a plus defender and has excellent footspeed, making him a solid choice for patrolling center at the ballpark formerly known as Safeco Field. His on-base skills are impressive as well (.367 OBP last year, .346 career) and he stole 40 bases last year, his first playing close to full time.
This is the second time Dipoto has traded for Smith, though the first time (2017) was as a stopover in a three-way trade with the Rays and Braves that ultimately netted the M's pitcher Drew Smyly, who spent his entire Mariner tenure on the disabled list.
On the other side of the ledger, the M's lose their primary catcher in Zunino, meaning another deal or signing will be forthcoming to fill that hole. Zunino never really panned out as the star he was billed as when drafted in the first round in 2012. Rushed to the big leagues prematurely, Zunino was in the Majors the next year and (predictably) struggled. Aside from the occasional longball, he was a bit of a black hole with the bat for Seattle. For his career, Zunino has compiled a career batting line of just .207/.276/.406. His value was still significant thanks to his defensive skills at a critical position, and it'll be interesting to see what kind of replacement Dipoto manages to reel in for next year's everyday catcher, as the in-house options are unimpressive.
The Rays also get Heredia, a good defensive outfielder with an undisciplined offensive approach. In Heredia's three seasons with Seattle, he batted .244/.318/.342 in a mostly platoon role, with 12 home runs and poor baserunning skills.
In addition to the three principals, there are also two well-regarded minor-leaguers in this deal. Tampa Bay will get 21-year-old pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer, a left-hander that started 12 games for short-season Everett last year in his first professional action and looked impressive, going 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA while striking out 44 in 24 innings. The Mariners get 23-year-old Jake Fraley, an elite defensive outfielder yet to play above Class-A. Fraley hit .347/.415/.547 for Charlotte last year and tore up the Australian winter (well, winter here) league in late 2017 with a .361/.449/.680 line.
With the lefty-swinging Smith joining Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel in the everyday Mariners outfield, Dee Gordon figures to either settle in as the regular second baseman or be traded himself. If Gordon stays, Canó could slide into the regular Designated Hitter role or convert to first base. In a few games at first last season, Canó was a defensive liability, so an offseason learning to play the position would be necessary.
With the center field question seemingly answered, remaining issues for Dipoto to address are:
- Canó or Gordon at 2B?
- If Canó, trade Gordon?
- DH: Canó or ... ? Daniel Vogelbach? New acquisition?
- New primary catcher
- 1B: Canó or Ryon Healy or ... ?
- If not Healy, trade Healy?
- Right-handed-hitting backup outfielder
- Utility infielder
- Starting Rotation: Appears OK, but some depth as Felix insurance wouldn't be a bad idea
Healy, Vogelbach, and Alex Colomé would seem to be the assets most available to trade, but this is Dipoto we're talking about, so just about anyone could be dealt for the right return.