It took until the last day of the Winter Meetings, but Jerry Dipoto finally made a move. On Thursday morning, as teams were filtering out of Las Vegas and with the Rule 5 draft in full swing, the Mariners compiled a three-way trade with the Indians and Rays, acquiring veteran first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and sending Carlos Santana to Cleveland, which also picked up first baseman Jake Bauers from Tampa for infielder Yandy Diaz. The trade reunites Santana with the team he left last year and continues Seattle’s winter-long teardown, though the exchange likely won’t matter one bit for the Mariners’ season.
This trade is like Dipoto Bingo. A multi-team trade? Check. The Rays are somehow involved? Check. A player who was on the roster for maybe a week is being dealt away? Check. It’s practically parody at this point. Santana, who went from Philadelphia to Seattle back on Dec. 3 as part of a package for Jean Segura, didn’t even last the month as a Mariner. Not that that should come as a surprise: In grading the Segura deal, I called Santana a placeholder who wouldn’t be in the team’s future plans. Fast-forward a week, and he isn’t.
Not that Santana would’ve been a piece for the tanking Mariners to build around. The Dominican infielder is coming off a rough 2018 with the Phillies, having hit .229/.352/.414 for a 105 OPS+ in 679 plate appearances and a meager 1.7 bWAR. Turning 33 in April and with two years and $41 million left on the deal he signed last winter, Santana isn’t a particularly hot commodity, especially when you factor in his mediocre defense at either first or third base.
That last bit will be less of an issue in the AL, though, particularly with Cleveland having a hole at designated hitter that he fits neatly into. And while Santana is on the downswing of his career, last season’s poor numbers were more the result of a bad March and April (.153/.295/.275). From May through the end of the year, he hit a more respectable .245/.364/.444, which is almost a carbon copy of his career line (.247/.363/.442). His overall contact, strikeout and hard-hit rates, meanwhile, were also of a piece with prior, more productive campaigns. Santana has taken a step back, for sure, but he can be a useful bat atop or in the middle of the order.
In Cleveland, his task will be to replace Encarnacion, another aging Dominican slugger. Set to turn 36 in January, Encarnacion has seen his production slide over his two years with the Indians. Across 579 plate appearances last year, he hit .246/.336/.474 with 32 homers, a 115 OPS+ and 1.9 bWAR—his worst marks in all those categories since 2011. He also saw his walk rate dip and his strikeout and swing-and-miss rates rise. Encarnacion can still put a charge in a ball, but he’s no longer the fearsome presence he was in Toronto during his prime—and he brings you no value with the glove or his feet, ranking below average on both defense and on the base paths.
But none of that matters for the Mariners, because Encarnacion’s true worth lies in his contract. He still has one year and $21 million left on the three-year deal he signed with the Indians back in 2017, as well as a $20 million team option for 2020 that carries a $5 million buyout, but that’s one year and $20 million or so less than Santana’s still owed going forward. Seattle, then, gets out from the second year of Santana’s deal, saving money in 2020. It’s in line with the rest of Dipoto’s rebuilding moves, which have seen the team frantically scramble to divest itself of its remaining long-term deals.
And like Santana, you may not see Encarnacion even suit up as a Mariner. As the trade was coming together, rumors were already flying online that Seattle was going to spin the veteran off to Tampa in a separate transaction. Those were shot down, but it’s more likely than not that Encarnacion is eventually dealt to a contender needing a righthanded bat at first base or DH, probably after all the major free agents have signed. In essence, Dipoto is laundering bad contracts, constantly flipping in order to make the 2020 Mariners cheaper (and, by extension, worse). (The great irony, by the way, is that after years of trotting out noodle bats and nobodies at first base while aiming for contention, Seattle landed two of the game’s better veteran options at the position amid a tank in the same winter and then promptly dealt them away.)
Regarding on-field results, the bigger impact will be in Cleveland and Tampa. We’ve recapped Santana’s numbers, but it’s worth mentioning Bauers. A former seventh-round pick of the Padres, the 23-year-old Bauers went to Tampa as part of the big Wil Myers/Trea Turner trade back in 2014 and made his MLB debut last year. Across 388 plate appearances from June onward, he hit .201/.316/.384 with 11 homers, a 94 OPS+ and 0.6 bWAR. That may not look like much, but he was a top-50 prospect preseason last year by Baseball America’s rankings. A lefty-swinger, he could either displace Yonder Alonso at first in Cleveland or slot into the outfield mix.
To get Bauers, the Indians had to send Diaz to the Rays. The 27-year-old Cuban received sporadic major league playing time with Cleveland, totaling just 299 plate appearances over the last two years. He hit well in limited appearances last year, though, slashing .312/.375/.422. He’s also absurdly strong, with an average exit velocity of 92.1 mph in 2018; if he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify, that would’ve ranked 19th in the majors, ahead of the likes of Manny Machado, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt.
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That makes sense, given how yoked Diaz is. The problem is that all those screamers go directly into the dirt. Diaz’s ground-ball rate last season was an enormous 53.3%, which would’ve been top 10 among all qualified hitters. His launch angle, meanwhile, was 4.4 degrees, which would’ve ranked bottom 10 in the league. It’s easy to understand, though, what’s appealing to him for the Rays. If they can get him to put the ball in the air with any kind of regularity, he has the tools to become an impact player. And even if not, he’s still a decent young hitter who can play both infield corners and some outfield. That’s not a bad piece to have.
If you’re an Indians fan, you’re probably happy to have Santana back; if you’re a Mariners fan, you’ve probably justifiably stopped paying attention to Dipoto’s machinations by this point. But while this trade changes nothing for them, it does signal a bit of where Cleveland and Tampa Bay are headed this winter. The Indians have instead gone in the same direction the Mets did when they acquired Robinson Canó, choosing to acquire an aging yet still effective bat with some offsetting money instead of paying full freight for a free agent. That’s disappointing for a team with a real championship window in a division it’ll win without trying, but it’s par for the course in Cleveland, where rumors of a Corey Kluber trade have floated all winter.
As for the Rays, Bauers was pegged as recently as yesterday by GM Erik Neander as the team’s primary first baseman following last month’s release of C.J. Cron. Scratch that plan. There are plenty of other first base options on the roster, including Ji-man Choi and top prospect Nathaniel Lowe. But does this make Tampa more likely to add another corner infield or DH bat—perhaps Nelson Cruz, to whom the team has been linked in recent days? It would be a sensible addition, particularly with the Rays signaling a willingness to spend (relatively speaking) by signing Charlie Morton on Wednesday.
There’s more work to be done in Cleveland and Tampa, and this trade is a step in a better direction for both. As for Seattle, expect Dipoto—who, in true Dipoto fashion, finished this deal while in the hospital—to keep on churning. No man is safe.