Even if a significant overhaul is in their near future, the Mariners still have the pieces to be competitive in 2019. Subtracting from one area to supplement another may be a route the M’s take more than once this offseason, which is what we’re going to look at today.
At some point in time this Winter, the Mariners and Rays will link up for a trade. We all know it’s coming. Now entering Jerry Dipoto’s fourth offseason in Seattle, the GM has already swung nine trades with Tampa that have often featured some big names swapping jerseys and coasts. The biggest of which being last May’s four-player deal between the two teams that saw Álex Colomé and Denard Span head to the Pacific Northwest.
In most cases, these two teams have executed deals that benefit one another equally. Some have wound up lopsided, sure, but that’s the risk every team takes with every trade. Taking everything into consideration, any future Seattle-Tampa deal may have a similar makeup of equal value distribution. The inclusion of a big name or two may very well be in play, especially in the move I’m about to propose.
These two teams have very big question marks at two of baseball’s most important positions. After trading Wilson Ramos to the Phillies this July, the Rays are without a solid successor to manage their exciting pitching staff on a consistent basis. Currently bolstering a backstop tandem of former Mariner Jesús Sucre and rookie Nick Ciuffo, the potential upside in acquiring Mike Zunino would go a long way for a young team looking to contend in the American League.
Zunino is coming off of an injury-plagued season in which he, once again, appeared abysmal at the plate. However, despite the .201/.259/.410 line, the former third overall pick still put 20 balls over the fence and had his best year defensively, per FanGraphs metrics. This comes off of a 2017 season in which the 27-year-old had a career-best season at the plate, posting All-Star-worthy numbers across the board.
The significant regression Zunino experienced this past season could very well be attributed to the separate oblique and ankle injuries that landed him on the disabled list twice. The oblique definitely had the biggest toll, occurring during batting practice before the Mariners’ first game of the season. It hindered Zunino from getting things going in a timely manner, resulting in him reverting back to his old inconsistent ways at the plate.
Kevin Kiermaier has dealt with the same level of inconsistency, but with his health. The 28-year-old outfielder has only played one full season in the five he’s appeared in, barely cracking 100 games played in 2014 and 2016. Over the years, Kiermaier has been regarded as one of the MLB’s premier defenders in centerfield, winning back-to-back Gold Glove awards and the Platinum Glove in 2015.
The 2018 season was Kiermaier’s worst, both offensively and health-wise. Beginning the season with a torn ligament in his right thumb, then enduring a season-ending right foot fracture, the frustration has come to a boiling point for both Kiermaier and the Rays’ fanbase. While Kiermaier’s glove was still as good as ever, a 78 wRC+ and a .282 OBP is a far fall from the offensive success he’s managed over the course of his career.
With their deadline acquisitions of Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows, who join the impressive Mallex Smith, Tampa now has an excess of talent in the outfield and Kiermaier appears to be the odd man out. Given that the Rays are currently dead last in payroll in the MLB, and have historically never been a team to burn cash, paying $8 million for a fourth outfielder doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Rays moving forward, especially when that number will only increase over the final three years of his deal.
Not only would the Rays get a young, high-upside starting catcher in Zunino, but they would also receive an underrated reliever in Nick Vincent who would fit perfectly as an option for their “opener” role in the event Sergio Romo departs in free agency. The payroll distribution evens out, as Vincent and Zunino’s projected arbitration salaries nearly account for all of Kiermaier’s $8 million salary for 2019.
Even with Kiermaier’s injury history, Vincent and Zunino likely won’t be enough to snag one of baseball’s most talented centerfielders. That’s where Eric Filia and Joey Gerber come in, giving the Rays two talented prospects on the verge of making their Major League debuts.
The Mariners have shown a willingness to part ways with Filia in the past, agreeing to send him to Boston in the Roenis Elías deal before Filia failed his physical. Entering his age 27 season, Filia is the prototypical fourth outfielder, offering a solid bat and glove combination that should translate well to the MLB.
Gerber, on the other hand, was Seattle’s eighth round pick in last year’s MLB Draft, and projects to be the first of their draft class to reach the Major League level. That could be as soon as mid-2019, as Gerber’s experience as a collegiate reliever at the University of Illinois should speed up the process exponentially. In that case, the Rays very well may wind up with four relatively immediate MLB players in this deal.
Joining Kiermaier in Seattle would be Rob Refsnyder, the former New York Yankee utilityman. Despite struggling over the past two seasons, Refsnyder has shown the ability to produce off the bench in the past. After clearing waivers in June, Refsnyder would not count against Seattle’s 40-man roster, presenting himself as no more than a mere option for them moving forward.
Now, of course, swinging this deal would then leave the Mariners with a hole at catcher. To put it simply, it will be a lot easier — and a lot cheaper — for Seattle to supplement their catcher position instead of centerfield. For starters, it shouldn’t be a challenge to replace Zunino’s lack of offensive production. In fact, it should be relatively easy to upgrade in that department, even if it means a dip in power. At the very least, it’s no secret that the upcoming free agent class of catchers is wealthy in defensive talent, giving the M’s plenty of options to choose from. Expect some content focused on a few potential catchers the Mariners could target this offseason later in the week.
With a restrictive payroll, the Dipoto regime will be creative in the ways they construct next season’s Mariners roster. That means adding in areas by subtracting from others, in places that you can supplement elsewhere for a lot cheaper. This is a clear case of that, and the Mariners may find themselves better for it if that is the route they take.