Busy Mariners improve on margins with trades for Martin, Karns, Benoit
The off-season may be off to a slow start, but the Mariners are not waiting around like everyone else. Seattle’s new general manager, former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, made his third notable trade of the month on Monday night, an intra-division swap that sent former closer Tom Wilhelmsen, centerfielder James Jones and a player to be named later to the Rangers for centerfielder Leonys Martin and righthanded reliever Anthony Bass.
That trade is clearly of a piece with the other two Dipoto has pulled off thus far. On Nov. 5, he sent shortstop Brad Miller (who had finished the 2015 season in centerfield), first baseman Logan Morrison and righty reliever Danny Farquhar to the Rays for righthanded starter Nathan Karns, lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser and minor-league centerfielder Boog Powell (no relation to the former Orioles great). Last Thursday, he sent a pair of minor leaguers to the Padres for setup man Joaquin Benoit. The result has been a rapid turnover of personnel in centerfield and the bullpen.
Dipoto told FanGraphs' David Laurila last week that “overall team defense [is] our biggest area in need of improvement,” and the acquisition of Martin speaks directly to that. Despite playing just 92 games in the field in 2015, Martin ranked third in Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved among major league centerfielders with 15 runs saved against average, and over the last three seasons, he has averaged 15 DRS per season at a rate of 18.9 runs saved per 162 games. Other defensive statistics are only slightly less enthusiastic about Martin’s value in the field, which is a result of both excellent speed (he has stolen 81 bases at a 76% success rate over the last three seasons) and arguably the best centerfield arm in baseball, racking up 13 assists last year. Ultimate Zone Rating credits him with 29.2 runs saved over the last three seasons (12.3 per 162 games), and Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Against Average, typically the most conservative of the three statistics, credits him with 16.5 runs saved over that span (6.9 per 162 games).
Regardless of the exact figure, Martin represents a dramatic upgrade defensively for the Mariners. Their primary centerfielder in 2015 was Austin Jackson, who started 99 games in center for Seattle before being traded to the Cubs in August in anticipation of his current free agency. Jackson graded out well in two of the three aforementioned statistics this past season, but looking at his last three years in combination, he appears to be no better than average in center. As for Jones and Miller, the latter of whom was second on the M’s in games started in center this past season with 20, both were awful despite their athleticism. Per DRS, Jones was 14 runs below average in center over the last two seasons in a mere 105 games, and Miller was 10 runs below average in center in a mere 20 games this season—a seemingly ludicrous figure supported by UZR, which had Miller as 10.8 runs below average in center.
Despite his excellent play in the field, Martin is coming off a terrible season at the plate; he hit a mere .219/.264/.313 and lost his centerfield job to Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields in July. Optioned to Triple A in early August, he fractured the hamate bone in his right hand ten days later, made just three starts in center for the Rangers after the All-Star break, did not make the postseason roster and did not report to the Instructional League in Arizona when told to do so in order to be available as an alternate in October. A productive hitter in Cuba and a career .316/.377/.488 hitter in 104 games at Triple A, Martin has never delivered on his offensive potential in the majors. His .268/.319/.374 line across the 2013 and '14 seasons, however, was enough for his glove to make him a four-win player on average over those two years.
The Mariners are clearly hoping that Martin's poor 2015 was in part due to the sprained left wrist he suffered in the field in May, and that two healthy hands and the chance to work with hitting coach Edgar Martinez can restore his value in his age-28 season. If Martin does rebound, he could solidify centerfield in Seattle for the next three years; despite the expiration of his initial five-year, $15.5 million contract with the Rangers, he is under team control for three more seasons as an arbitration-eligible player.
Assuming the player to be named in the deal is incidental, the key piece heading to Texas is Wilhelmsen, a former bartender who saved 53 games for Seattle over 2012 and '13 and rebounded from his struggles in the latter season to remain a prominent late-game reliever for the Mariners over the last two years. Wilhelmsen, who will be 32 in December and has two team-controlled seasons remaining at arbitration prices, was made expendable by the acquisition of Benoit, who is older (39 in late July), more expensive (owed $7.5 million in the coming season) and entering his walk year. Benoit has been one of the best setup men in the game since returning from rotator cuff surgery in 2010, posting a 168 ERA+ and striking out 10 men per nine innings over the last six years thanks to mid-to-upper-90s velocity and a nasty splitter, the latter of which he throws nearly 1/3rd of the time.
As for the players given up to get Benoit, righty Enyel De Los Santos is a lottery ticket arm, a skinny Dominican starter with excellent strikeout rates in the low minors who won’t turn 20 until Christmas Day and has made just eight starts above rookie ball. Nelson Ward, the Mariners' 12th-round pick in the 2014 draft, is a second baseman out of the University of Georgia who hit .282/.362/.436 in high A this past season at the age of 22. That’s a nice haul for Benoit's walk year, especially given the unlikelihood of the Padres contending in 2016.
As for Miller, he was made expendable by 21-year-old Ketel Marte—the team’s No. 3 prospect coming into the 2015 season, per Baseball Prospectus—who pushed the 25-year-old off shortstop in August and projects to hold down the position for the remainder of the decade. With Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager locked in at second and third base, respectively, and with Miller proving to be a brutal centerfielder, Dipoto was almost forced to make a trade. What he got was five team-controlled years of Karns, who as a 27-year-old rookie for the Rays this past season made 26 starts and struck out 8.9 men per nine innings. Karns is no better than a mid-rotation arm—he throws in the low 90s with shaky control and is homer-prone—but if he can eat innings in the rotation at pre-arbitration prices, he’ll be more valuable than a player without a position.
The remaining players changing hands in these deals are largely leftover parts. Of the two additional players the Mariners gave up, Farquhar will be 29 in February, has seen his velocity drop in each of the last two seasons and saw all of his peripherals head in the wrong direction in 2015, resulting in a 74 ERA+ in 43 relief appearances. As for Morrison, who is entering his walk year, he was a replacement-level player in 2015 and was unlikely to see much playing time in Seattle with Mark Trumbo likely taking over first base to accommodate Dipoto’s efforts to improve the team’s outfield defense.
The remaining return from the three deals is equally mixed. Bass, who just turned 28, has struck out only six men per nine innings in 129 major league games, posting an 85 ERA+ along the way. Riefenhauser will be 26 in January and has been awful by every measure in 24 major league appearances. Powell shows the most promise: The 22-year-old, whom the Rays acquired from the Athletics in last winter’s Ben Zobrist trade, finished the 2015 season in Triple A and has hit .308 with a .401 on-base percentage over four minor-league seasons. His OBP regularly bests his slugging percentage, however, and he’s a terror to his own team on the bases, getting thrown out in 41% of his 90 career attempts. There's also the fact that just 62 of his 107 starts came in centerfield last year, which suggests that he may not occupy that position by the time he reaches the majors.
For Seattle, the off-season has already yielded results: Centerfield is filled, Franklin Gutierrez has been re-signed to platoon with Seth Smith in left, Karns will flesh out the rotation and Benoit should upgrade the bullpen. But Dipoto still has plenty left to do this winter. His next move will likely be to find a defensively-strong rightfielder who can keep Cruz at designated hitter and Trumbo at first. He also needs to sign a veteran catcher to allow Mike Zunino time to find his swing in Triple A, and he should make every attempt to continue improving the depth of his bullpen. Indeed, after the Benoit trade, Dipoto told the Tacoma News Tribune’s Bob Dutton that he was not done bolstering his bullpen, and that was before the team traded Wilhelmsen. Dutton also reported that Seattle was close to signing former Angels catcher Chris Iannetta last week, though the rumored contract has yet to materialize.
As for rightfield, Dipoto appears to be exploring further trade options there, with rumors linking the Mariners to the Yankees’ Brett Gardner and the Red Sox’ Jackie Bradley Jr., both outstanding defenders. In either case, the Mariners would likely have to part with one of their young starting pitchers to make a deal happen, with 27-year-old lefty James Paxton the most likely to be dealt.