Theare not out of the race. The race is still going on, zero winners have been declared, and the Mariners continue to participate. But at 12.5 games behind Texas in the division and at 9.5 games behind Tampa Bay for the second wild card, the Mariners are in a position where they'd be getting blue shells if real life were Mario Kart. Real life isn't Mario Kart, and the Mariners can't get a blue shell to take out the guys in first place. The Mariners have to make up all that ground on their own, which they basically can't, which means they are not to be considered a contender. Glad we could get this cleared up.
The Mariners weren't supposed to be a contender, so the expectation was that, come midseason, they'd have some pieces available for trading. Maybe Miguel Olivo. Definitely Chone Figgins, please Chone Figgins, anyone, Chone Figgins. Maybe Jason Vargas. And almost certainly Brandon League. League entered the season as the closer for a relatively weak team, and he was a pending free agent. That's what a trade chip looks like.
Today is June 19, and League is still a trade chip. What League isn't is an acting closer. I was actually away for League's last blown save attempt, on May 25, and after that he was demoted to a more regular relief role so he could try to work out some things. At the time, it sounded like it was supposed to be temporary.
Funny thing about temporarily replacing one reliever with another in the closing role - if the second reliever is successful, there's little reason to switch them back. Tom Wilhelmsen hasn't allowed a run since May 23, and since the date of League's demotion, he's allowed four hits and two walks while whiffing 11 in eight appearances. Eric Wedge acknowledged that he can't really replace Wilhelmsen with League now. He said he wants to get in a position where the team's winning so often they need multiple closers, but what that actually means is that Tom Wilhelmsen is Eric Wedge's closer now. League would be the backup.
From a trading perspective, this is an unfortunate development. Stands to reason that League would have more value as a closer than he does as a setup man. We don't know how the trade returns might be different, and we should be careful not to exaggerate, but suddenly Brandon League is an available reliever who has closed, as opposed to an available reliever who is closing. More importantly, though, stands to reason that League would have more value is he were pitching better.
League's value is down because he's not closing, but he's not closing because his performance is down. I thought now it'd be worth checking on whether things have changed since he lost his job. League was demoted to work on some things, the specific nature of which Wedge preferred to keep mysterious. What do we see in the numbers?
League made 21 appearances through May 25, and has made nine appearances since. He faced 91 batters through May 25, and has faced 41 batters since. Recognize the small samples. Proceed anyway, because I'm giving you permission.
Superficially, League's pitched better, in that he's allowed fewer runs and achieved a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. But, ugh, I don't even know why I included this table, what flawed numbers it has. Let's look at better information:
There we go, those numbers look better. Actually, those numbers don't really look better at all, but the stats look better. Since being demoted out of the closer role, League has basically thrown the same number of strikes, generated the same rate of whiffs, and induced the same rate of grounders. He's thrown a good deal fewer fastballs, which we like to see, but the results haven't overwhelmingly followed. For the sake of reference, a year ago League threw 66 percent strikes, allowed 79 percent contact, and generated 57 percent grounders. All of those rates are stronger than what we've seen from League in 2012.
So League isn't closing, which is bad for his trade value. He isn't closing because Tom Wilhelmsen has taken hold of the job, and he isn't closing because he hasn't pitched very well very consistently. I don't mean to suggest that the team hasn't recommended the right adjustments. They team has probably recommended adequate adjustments, but adjustments aren't automatic, and League hasn't found himself yet. Maybe he will, soon. Maybe he'll even get his old job back in advance of the trade deadline. But whatever dreams you had of the Mariners dealing League for good value in July are currently looking like exactly that. It's currently not looking like reality.