Quality relief pitching is baseball’s most valued commodity come July. This year, the Mariners will likely reap the benefits of the impending run on bullpen arms.
Left-handed relievers, in particular, are even harder to come by around this time of year. Contenders love themselves a LOOGY, but they’ll go crazy for a southpaw who’s a little more untraditional. And that’s what the Mariners have in Roenis Elías.
To describe this season as ‘rough’ for the Mariners’ bullpen would be a massive understatement. Even ‘gruelling’ feels undermining of their struggles this year, as it more so pertains to the experience of watching it all happen rather than actually living it.
A group made of scraps that has been frequently supplemented with other scraps as the year progresses. After Edwin Díaz and Álex Colomé were shipped out, amongst other bullpen regulars from last season, there was minimal carryover.
Elías was one of the few Mariners relievers to survive Jerry Dipoto’s wrath in the offseason, and he’s been a bright spot in a bleak position group this year. Even then, Elías has ultimately been serviceable at best; yet, he may be one of the more valuable trade pieces on Seattle’s 25-man roster.
Over the last month, Seattle’s bullpen unit has climbed out of the cellar of reliever fWAR. At one point, they were at a -0.7 clip, which ranked second-worst in the league. Now, they’ve managed to work their way near the top-20 with a +0.2 group fWAR.
Two teams they passed on the way there are the Atlanta Braves (24th) and Philadelphia Phillies (27th), who currently sit in first and second place of the National League East, respectively. Bad relief pitching isn’t just a “Mariners problem” this year, nor is it just affecting the bottom of the barrel.
It’s always been incredibly hard to build a quality bullpen, but the market feels even wider than it’s ever been this season. While that doesn’t mean that just any average reliever will suddenly snag you a wealthy package of prospects, it does mean that a reliever with unique qualities and/or above-average success this season will be even harder to come by than in years past, which will, in turn, raise prices.
Elías is a great example of how the relief market may tilt even further into madness. The 3.60 ERA and 9.26 K/9 isn’t necessarily going to astound anyone, but Elías’ left-handedness and ability to succeed against right-handed hitters is not something you can easily find.
In fact, Elías has been a significantly better pitcher against right-handed hitters than lefties this year. The 48 lefties Elías has faced this year have slashed .325/.426/.500 off him, while 105 righties have struggled to the tune of a .168/.248/.274 line. It’s only taken half the amount of left-handed hitters to eclipse the number of runs (eight) righties have scored against Elías (six).
Not every left-handed reliever needs to be a LOOGY, however. And Elías is still far more valuable to a contending team than your run-of-the-mill LOOGY. Why? Because Elías isn’t limited to face just one side of the plate.
Teams desire flexibility and that’s exactly what I’ve described here with Elías. His handedness is an added bonus, not just for matchup purposes but to create different looks for any and all hitters. Despite the relatively average numbers across the board, Elías’ skillset and effectiveness versus right-handed hitters makes him one of the more valuable relievers on the market.
So what would a return package look like for the Mariners? For as much as I’ve hyped up Elías over the last few paragraphs, he’s not going to command anywhere near the returns Díaz, Aroldis Chapman, or Brad Hand did.
Elías, however, is in the unique position of being under club control until the end of the 2021 season. Given how inconsistent relievers are, club control isn’t as big of a deal as it is with any other position, but it’s still going to slightly increase his value even more.
So, like I said, the Braves have big bullpen problems. The Mariners already sent them Anthony Swarzak early in the year, and that’s worked out pretty nice for them thus far. But outside of Luke Jackson and Grant Dayton, the Braves just don’t have the depth to fill out a competitive bullpen for a postseason run.
The Braves already kind of have their own Elías in Sean Newcomb, but the 26-year-old lefty is just coming back from a concussion and may be first in line to re-enter their rotation if an injury occurs. I don’t think Newcomb’s presence would ever stop Atlanta from potentially acquiring Elías, but it should at least be mentioned.
In the end, the Braves have an elite roster and just one real glaring need: the bullpen. They have to get better in that department and have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball to trade from in order to do so.
From that organizational depth, I have the Mariners getting super-utility Travis Demeritte and right-handed pitcher Jasseel De La Cruz. Both players were considered to be near the bottom or just outside of Atlanta’s top-30 rankings entering this season, but are quickly changing those opinions with a pair of exceptional years up to this point.
Demeritte is a former first-round pick of the Braves from 2013, but has seen his stock diminish over the years as he’s failed to consistently produce at the plate. He’s always featured plus power, but there’s been a lot of swing-and-miss in his approach and, in 2017 and 2018, he struggled to get on base.
The transition to Triple-A Gwinnett has done wonders for Demeritte this year. He’s been a monster at the plate, slashing .303/.398/.601(!!!) with 15 home runs and 57 RBIs. Each and every one of those numbers in his line are career highs.
What makes him even more exciting is that he should be able to play second and third base, as well as both corner outfield spots, effectively at the big league level. So with the bat looking the way it is now, Demeritte is due a promotion, but the Braves are so stacked that they can’t really afford to give him one at this time.
De La Cruz, on the other hand, has been met with skepticism about his durability and chances of being a starter pitcher at the highest level for a while now. He’s a power pitcher with two plus pitches in his fastball and slider, but doesn’t have great command and control of his repertoire.
He never eclipsed the 100-inning mark through his first four seasons in the Braves’ organization and dealt with three separate IL stints last year, further adding to the notion he was bullpen-bound. But now in his fifth year, De La Cruz is already at 77.1 innings pitched and has received two promotions along the way, going from Low-A to Double-A in the span of three months.
The location issues have subsided a bit, but still show up every once in a while. The strikeout numbers aren’t as high as you’d like given how volatile his stuff can be, though he’s found more success with the changeup and is generating weak contact that way.
What especially makes De La Cruz an attractive fit for the Mariners is that he, like Demeritte, fits their timeline. It likely won’t be until late 2020 or early 2021 until he’s pitching on a Major League mound, but that works perfectly for Seattle. And even if he doesn’t reach his ceiling as a back-end starter, he has the stuff to be a high-leverage reliever in the MLB.
Whether or not the Mariners are able to turn Elías into a package like this, something greater, or something worse, they’re going to get significantly more value for him than what they spent last year, which was just cash after Eric Filia failed his physical with Boston. That’s a massive, out-of-nowhere win that an organization like the M’s needed and they got it.