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Happ-less Mariners make bad trade, dump Saunders

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Jack Zduriencik has done it again, shipping off an undervalued fan favorite because of a myopic focus on what he can't do rather than a balanced understanding of what he can. The Mariners have fixed their rotation depth, but utterly compromised their outfield in the process. It's Jaso-Morse part two for Seattle.

caw caw
caw caw
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Seattle Mariners enraged fans today by shipping off fan favorite [Player X] in a trade for [Player Y]. The left-handed-hitting [Player X], one of Seattle's best performers in a part-time role last year, was a significant part of the Mariners' current roster with multiple years of cheap team control remaining. [Player Y] fills a distinct need for the M's, but comes with only one year of team control and will be paid around $7M for his contributions.

When prompted for the reasoning behind the deal, Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik pointed out [Player X]'s weaknesses - namely, his suboptimal handedness and his seeming inability to contribute for a full season - and [Player Y]'s strengths as a good fit for the roster and park. However, the deal leaves a bigger hole on the roster than the one it fills, and [Player X] has significantly outperformed [Player Y] over the last three seasons. In the months leading up to the deal, the Mariners were curiously reticent to give playing time to [Player X], even when he was obviously superior to the alternatives, leading some to question whether he was shipped out of town for personal reasons. However, [Player X] has a reputation as a good clubhouse guy, so it seems like this is just a case of the Mariners' front office making a bad deal rooted in an unnecessary emphasis on their own player's weaknesses and an inability to break away from traditional roles in roster construction.

Yeah, that's right. Michael Saunders for J.A. Happ is John Jaso for Michael Morse, version two.

To be fair, it's not quite as bad this time around. Unlike Jaso's, Saunders' "part-time player" status is well-earned. The Condor has had legitimate trouble staying on the field over the last three years, and he was certainly no guarantee as a starting right fielder. And Happ is no Morse. The Mariners actually had a need for starting pitcher depth, and Happ has a clean bill of health (aside from a liner to the head he took in 2013, a foot he fractured in 2012, and a fatigued elbow in 2008 OK look I'm trying to be charitable here.) But hey, Jack Z, a tip: a slightly better version of your worst trade ever is still fucking terrible.

This was the Mariners' roster before the deal went down.

Pos Name Salary WAR Pos Name Salary WAR
C Mike Zunino $550,000 2.8 SP Felix Hernandez $24,857,000 4.5
1B Logan Morrison $2,600,000 1.8 SP Hisashi Iwakuma $8,000,000 2.9
2B Robinson Cano $24,000,000 5 SP James Paxton $550,000 1.6
3B Kyle Seager $5,000,000 4.1 SP Taijuan Walker $550,000 1.2
SS Brad Miller $550,000 2.3 SP Roenis Elias $550,000 1.2
RF Michael Saunders $2,900,000 2.4 [SP6] Jordan Pries $550,000 0
CF Austin Jackson $8,000,000 2.2
LF Dustin Ackley $2,800,000 1.9 CL Fernando Rodney $7,000,000 1
DH Nelson Cruz $14,000,000 1.3 LH Charlie Furbush $1,000,000 0.4
RH Danny Farquhar $550,000 0.3
Bench Chris Taylor $550,000 1.4 RH Dominic Leone $550,000 0.1
Bench Jesus Sucre $550,000 0.2 LH Yoervis Medina $550,000 0.1
Bench James Jones $550,000 0 RH Tom Wilhelmsen $2,100,000 0.3
Bench Willie Bloomquist $3,000,000 0 RH Brandon Maurer $550,000 0.2
$65,050,000 25.4 $47,357,000 13.8
$112,407,000 86.9

This is the Mariners' roster now:

Pos Name Salary WAR Pos Name Salary WAR
C Mike Zunino $550,000 2.8 SP Felix Hernandez $24,857,000 4.5
1B Logan Morrison $2,600,000 1.8 SP Hisashi Iwakuma $8,000,000 2.9
2B Robinson Cano $24,000,000 5 SP James Paxton $550,000 1.6
3B Kyle Seager $5,000,000 4.1 SP Taijuan Walker $550,000 1.2
SS Brad Miller $550,000 2.3 SP J.A. Happ $6,700,000 0.8
RF Stefen Romero $550,000 0.4 [SP6] Roenis Elias $550,000 1.2
CF Austin Jackson $8,000,000 2.2
LF Dustin Ackley $2,800,000 1.9 CL Fernando Rodney $7,000,000 1
DH Nelson Cruz $14,000,000 1.3 LH Charlie Furbush $1,000,000 0.4
RH Danny Farquhar $550,000 0.3
Bench Chris Taylor $550,000 1.4 RH Dominic Leone $550,000 0.1
Bench Jesus Sucre $550,000 0.2 LH Yoervis Medina $550,000 0.1
Bench James Jones $550,000 -0.7 RH Tom Wilhelmsen $2,100,000 0.3
Bench Willie Bloomquist $3,000,000 0 RH Brandon Maurer $550,000 0.2
$62,700,000 22.7 $53,507,000 14.6
Salary/Wins $116,207,000 85

The WAR values are from Steamer. Yes, that's right: Steamer thinks the Mariners just traded away $4M in 2015 AND Michael Saunders in 2016... for negative two wins in 2015. What the fuck? What the fuck.

The Mariners are in win-now mode. Sure, this was a team with an alarming lack of depth anywhere on the roster - more on that this weekend - but when you're a win-now club, you don't bolster your depth by trading from your starters. Now that Saunders is out the door, Stefen Romero is the starting right fielder, and James Jones is about to be forced into more playing time than he probably deserves. Whereas previously the Mariners needed to add one outfielder, now they need to add two - because it's not as if Dustin Ackley or Austin Jackson are surer things than Michael Saunders was.

Damningly, although the Mariners have now forced themselves into acquiring an outfielder, Michael Saunders projects for a higher WAR than every free agent outfielder left on the market. Only Melky Cabrera comes close, and he's likely to require a commitment north of $50M over 4 years. Saunders was going to cost about $7M over two. This was about offense, you say? OK! Michael Saunders also projects for a higher wOBA than almost every free agent outfielder left on the market. There are only three exceptions. One of them is Melky Cabrera, and the other two are glorified DHes Kyle Blanks and Michael Morse. Steamer certainly isn't the be-all end-all, and I'll take the under on its projection for Saunders myself, but that doesn't change the fact that the outfield free agent market is just barren.

Before this trade, the Mariners needed to acquire a starting pitcher for depth and an outfielder for depth. Now they've gone and traded an outfielder for a starting pitcher, fixing their starting pitching depth issue, but in the process compromising their outfield depth even further. Now they need a bench piece and a starter. The outfield free agent market is exceedingly weak, so the front office will probably have to trade for Saunders' replacement... but all of their best trade chips are starting pitchers!

And how, you ask, should the Mariners have resolved their dual need? Well, it should've been easy! See, unlike the outfield free agent market, the starting pitching market is both deep and strong. There were better pitchers than J.A. Happ available, and there were mildly worse pitchers than J.A. Happ available for roughly the same amount of money. Once the starting pitching depth was signed, the Mariners could've easily grabbed a competent fourth outfielder (like Alex Rios) or used their prospect depth to trade for one.

But nope. Fuckin', nope. They've traded away an outfielder better than any of the free agent options, and now they need to add a starting outfielder in a market without any good ones available. Any leverage they may have gained by filling their obvious need for a right-handed hitter has now been compromised by their newly obvious need for a starting right fielder. Dave Cameron observes that this could make Taijuan Walker available for what would probably also be a terrible trade.

If there's a silver lining here, it's J.A. Happ. Happ (who goes by "Jay") is a legitimately interesting piece and an excellent fit for Safeco Field. A left-handed flyballer with a historically solid popup rate and component skills better than Jason Vargas', he's a better version of Chris Young with a more fortuitous handedness and a likely cheaper contract. I expect him to handily outpace his Steamer projection and perform meaningfully better than he did in Toronto. He has a good bit of surplus value, and I'm glad that he's a Mariner.

But in a vacuum - independent of what moves have passed, or what moves may come - J.A. Happ was not worth Michael Saunders. If the Mariners wanted interesting starting pitching depth, they should've signed a free agent, not traded a starting outfielder away. If the Mariners didn't think Saunders was up to the task of starting full time, they should've added something behind him, not shipped him out of town entirely.

And if the Mariners' front office wanted the team to contend in 2015, they should've made a move to actually improve the team - not recreated the most ill-conceived trade of their entire tenure.

Fly free, Condor. Caw caw.