The trade between the Mets and Mariners that will send Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz and $20 million to New York in exchange for Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak and three prospects is seismic. But the impact of this mega-move goes beyond the two teams making it. Its effect will be felt across the league and throughout free agency as it raises plenty of questions for the Mets, Mariners and a whole host of other folks. In short: It’s an absolutely fascinating transaction full of twists and with a lot of ramifications. Let’s run down some of the biggest storylines created by the deal.
Who won this deal?
In the short-term, the Mets: Adding Cano and Diaz makes them a better team. (Welcome to Sports Illustrated, home of hard-hitting analysis like “Edwin Diaz is Good.”) Beyond that, though, things get hazy in Queens. The Mets are banking on “Robinson Cano will remain an All-Star–caliber hitter at age 36 and beyond,” against the counter-evidence of “The career path of every non-Barry Bonds player in history.” And while they don’t have to worry about the age curve or paychecks of Diaz, he’s still a reliever, and they’re as unreliable as it gets. All it takes is one twinge in the elbow of a guy who throws 97 mph with max effort on every pitch to turn this deal into a smoking crater for the Mets.
(One potential Diaz wrinkle: If he stays healthy but the Mets remain trash, he suddenly becomes a massive midseason trade chip—one who should easily return more than New York gave up for him.)
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While it’s risky though, such is baseball; you have to take those chances if you want to win, and it’s clear that, through this trade, the Mets think they can. They gave up plenty to make that happen, surrendering two former first-round picks in Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, but this is a more inspiring start to the offseason than the franchise’s previously trod paths of “Get the cheapest over-30 first baseman available and hope he’s magically good.”
The Mariners, meanwhile, have made themselves worse, unless you’re a really big believer in Jay Bruce being the one to conquer Safeco Field. But Seattle is all about the long view. Speaking of which!
Where does Seattle go from here?
The tank is officially on in Seattle, which has now lost Diaz, Cano, James Paxton, Nelson Cruz and Mike Zunino. Now Jerry Dipoto has to figure out who’s next.
Suffice to say that Dipoto is more than game to make some deals. (In fact, while the Cano/Diaz trade was still pending, he swung another that sent reliever Alex Colome to the White Sox for catcher Omar Narvaez, because Dipoto was cursed by a witch to vanish into thin air unless he makes at least one transaction every day.) Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger, the best players left, are likely goners. Dee Gordon and Mike Leake, owed a combined $58 million over the next two years, are headed to Salary Dump City if anyone is willing to house them.
Will anyone else go? Kyle Seager (three years, $57.5 million to go) is probably a bridge too far. What about Felix Hernandez? The former ace is a shell of himself at 32, with a 5.55 ERA and 73 ERA+ in 155 2/3 innings last year and a demotion to the bullpen that felt like watching the family dog get put down. King Felix still has one year and $27.8 million left on the gigantic extension he signed in 2013; will the Mariners let him finish his run in Seattle before saying goodbye next winter, or will they push him out sometime this offseason?
Regardless, there are no half-measures in rebuilds. Whether or not a teardown is the correct call for Seattle is a tougher question. The true talent level of the 2018 Mariners was closer to last season’s bummer of a second half (31–34) than the hot streak before it (58–39), so it’s understandable that Dipoto felt that this team couldn’t compete as constructed. But in an age where everyone is tanking and where it’s harder to get premium prospects for established stars both because there are fewer contenders and because teams hoard cost-controlled young players, you may simply be better off going for it. Either way, Dipoto can’t (and almost certainly won’t) stop here.
The question of whether the Mariners got enough for a truly elite asset in Diaz, though, remains to be seen. From here, the package of Kelenic and Dunn—the third prospect, Gerson Bautista, is a middling throw-in—feels light. Stapling Diaz to Cano’s contract almost certainly led to a lower return than had Dipoto simply moved Diaz alone. That’s the one complicating factor in Seattle’s would-be rebuild: Is it more important to the front office to get the most talent possible, or simply to get rid of as much salary as it can?
Does this blow up a potential Noah Syndergaard trade?
It should! A Syndergaard deal never really made sense in the first place—not with the rumored packages that were being reported, at least. Consider this nugget from Fancred’s Jon Heyman:
To recap, that’s San Diego—which digs out top prospects from between the couch cushions in A.J. Preller’s office—saying, “Would you be interested in a defense-first catcher and some pitchers who have about a 25% chance of ever being as good as Syndergaard is now?” That doesn’t exactly seem like a fair return for a guy who can do this:
That’s not to say the Mets can’t find a better offer for Syndergaard. But if that’s what a prospect-rich team is leading off with, then you’re going to have a real hard time talking other front offices into surrendering their even more rare jewels.
Regardless, the only rationale for a Syndergaard trade would be as part of a rebuild. (Though let’s be honest: The real reason the Mets would be dealing him is because he’s about to get expensive via arbitration.) But adding Cano and Diaz doesn’t jibe with turning around and shipping out one of your best starters. New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen clearly believes this team can win now; he wouldn’t have traded for Cano and Diaz otherwise. If that’s the case, then Syndergaard has to stay. Otherwise, why make this trade?
Then again, this is the Mets we’re talking about. Divining this franchise’s direction is like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles that’s also on fire. Maybe Van Wagenen still wants to pull off some convoluted swap where he deals Syndergaard for prospects, then signs someone like J.A. Happ in free agency. But what would be the point of that? (And yes, again, I know: the Mets.)
Who’s left to contend in the AL?
The Mariners won 89 games last season; safe to say they won’t come close to that total in 2019. Only six other teams had winning records in the Junior Circuit last year: the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros, A’s and Rays. To that sextet, you can add the Twins and Angels as possible contenders—and that might be a stretch, given that both finished below .500 last year and have a lot of work to do to get better.
And that’s it; that’s your entire group of AL postseason hopefuls as of this moment. Three of those teams will win divisions, leaving five—and more likely three—to fight it out for the two wild cards. Now consider that, barring the team bus careening over a cliff, one of the Yankees or Red Sox will almost certainly be one of them. The race for the final playoff spot might end up more of a slow jog where the least bad team ends up winning.
Given the state of the AL’s power elite, you can understand why the Mariners would pull back. If you’re not first, you’re last, and it’s going to be awfully hard for any mid-tier contender to outpace the likes of Boston or New York. But again, there are maybe—maybe—six actual contenders in the whole league. There’s room for someone to take advantage of a bunch of free wins against the tankers, hope for better teams to get unlucky/suffer a lot of injuries, and sneak into a playoff spot. All it requires is some gumption and creativity this offseason, or at least a willingness to spend and build on your existing base of talent. (Looking at you, White Sox.)
Is the NL East actually good now?
It wasn’t exactly bad last season, but the Braves’ division title did have the feel of a good team that backed into first place because everyone else fell apart. The Nationals were a mess all season. The Phillies were in the race until they apparently fell into a giant sinkhole at the end of August. The Marlins … well, bless their hearts. In between lay the Mets, who started 11–1 and then spent the rest of the season spitting up on themselves.
But aside from the Marlins, currently rowing out to some distant horizon in snazzy new jerseys, the rest of the NL East has contender upside. The Phillies have money to burn and, more importantly, actually want to spend it (stupidly, no less). The Nationals should improve with better health for Stephen Strasburg and full seasons from Juan Soto and Victor Robles (and maybe the return of Bryce Harper). The Braves added Josh Donaldson to a 90-win core. And now the Mets have one of the best closers in baseball and a second baseman who was born to hit. New York still needs to add some help, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see a team that can hang with Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington.
How does this affect the reliever free-agent market?
Diaz was easily the best reliever available not just by the stats, but also by his age and contract. He won’t start making anywhere close to real money until after the 2020 season, and he’ll still only be 26 when that happens. But with him off the table, if you need a ninth-inning guy this winter, you’re signing a free agent. Lucky for you, that market is completely reasonable post-Diaz.
Okay, that’s not a great sign, but there are more arms out there beyond Kimbrel. Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Kelvin Herrera, Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Sergio Romo and Joakim Soria all have closing experience and have been anywhere from good to elite within the last five years. Adam Ottavino is a terrific setup man; Joe Kelly could be that. But Kelly is probably the last name you can talk yourself into as reliable or worth it. From there on out, the market has a lot of question marks. That was the case before Diaz, but his departure from the scene squeezes things that much more for those who need relief help.