The most impactful move made by the Mariners front offices since 2005 has been one they did not make: trading Félix Hernández. For years the M’s were hounded by suitors, mainly from the AL East, and yet they stood firm with The King. This team has been defined by one man for the entirety of this decade, but he could just as easily have been C.C. Sabathia. The choice to keep Félix was as much a business decision as it was a baseball one, of course. A franchise in a nadir not seen twenty years was cautious to sell off its most popular player. This offseason their most impactful move, and biggest gamble, will be another move they didn't make: trading Edwin Díaz.
The Mariners have made so many moves recently that it has inspired musical dedications, and the common thread throughout them all has been the prioritization of airtight defense. The acquisitions of players like Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, and Jean Segura has subsequently rationalized the acquisitions of Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Both Smyly and Gallardo pitch to contact and, if all goes according to front office plans, this new rotation will be able to consistently get through the sixth and seventh innings. When your pitchers are able to consistently go deep into games it allows your bullpen to attack at full strength, and Díaz appears to be the backbone of this strategy.
Viewing the transactions as a whole, you see the thought process form: The free agent class is thin, particularly at starting pitcher and shortstop, so they’ve addressed that through trades. Relief pitching is a crapshoot, so let's pile up high-upside options that C the Z and avoid carrying Joel Peralta onto the Opening Day roster. Outfielders with range and speed are crucial to covering Safeco’s spacious environs. A team with exceptional outfield defense can sacrifice elite upside in the rotation for pitchers who will simply be more likely to be out there every five days.
It doesn’t seem necessary to dwell too long on how remarkable Díaz was in 2016. A 2.04 FIP. 1.9 fWAR in just 51.2 IP. A 15.33 K/9 that tied for the best in the MLB, paired with just 2.61 BB/9. Díaz threw 47.5% of his pitches in the strike zone, yet was tied for the fourth-lowest contact rate among all relievers. He’s sporting two elite pitches: a 96-101 mph fastball that turns right faster than a NASCAR driver looking in a mirror, and an outrageous 84-87 mph slider which pokes its nose up briefly like a groundhog before burrowing down and away from bats. Reports from teammates in the minors and majors endorse his positive attitude and work ethic. All of this is to say that Edwin Díaz is an elite closer, who looks to be a rock at the back of the Mariners bullpen for years to come. At 22 he has little to improve beyond his stamina, and his contract is the epitome of team-friendly, so when should a front office consider trading a player like him?
A quick glance at the money thrown at top-end relievers this offseason offers a suggestion.
Selling high on relief pitchers has been a Seattle staple for years. Turning one year of J.J. Putz into a lifetime of Franklin Gutierrez was a win. Rafael Soriano being flipped for Horacio Ramirez was less pleasant. Sitting too long on a reliever can allow the volatile nature of their job to sap their value, a la Brandon League. Last year the Mariners flipped Carson Smith, following his brilliant first full season, for a starting pitcher with two years of team control, an average of ~200 IP over each of his four full MLB seasons, and coming off a season where he was worth nearly 3 fWAR. Smith ultimately threw 2 and 2⁄3 innings, and underwent Tommy John surgery in May, which forced the Red Sox to shell out more prospects to fill that hole. Selling high on volatile assets like relief pitching is a good process even if the results tend to vary.
We saw this play out to great effect last year, when the Cubs sent the Yankees one of the top prospects in baseball for half a season of Aroldis Chapman, and Cleveland sent two of their top-ten prospects to the Yankees for Andrew Miller. Both deals worked out well for the win-now teams, and New York is sitting pretty with a restocked farm system and three cheap potential stars. Díaz makes for a less conventional sell-high candidate, considering he won’t turn 23 until a week and a half before the season begins. Flipping him would mean dealing a position of strength away to fill another hole, which Dipoto has shown a willingness to do in general, but not in this case. It’s safe to assume the Mariners listened to offers. The defense-focused roster construction, however, coupled with pitchers capable of going deep into games, indicate Díaz is a critical piece for Seattle’s strategy in 2017 and beyond.
Many of the comparisons the 2017 Mariners have drawn are to the Royals of the past few years. Beyond specifically adding former Royal, Jarrod “Where I go, the champagne flow” Dyson, The Mariners have assembled an outfield that looks capable of erasing the idea of bloopers from our memory. Yesterday at The Hardball Times, Casey Boguslaw wrote up a piece discussing the value of negating line drive base hits, and balls that would usually drop. It's a great read, and draws a few comparisons that I would like to add onto. The first is the Royals, who built their success on the exceptional range of Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon, and a world-beating back of the bullpen of Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrara. The ace of the 2014 Royals rotation was James Shields, who accrued 3.2 fWAR and had a solid 3.59 FIP. He, alongside Yordano Ventura, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie, started at least 30 games and ran K/9 under 7.75. They were unremarkable but dammit they were out there every five games. A lack of upside but an ability to provide consistency is why the mercurial Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns have been replaced by Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo.
Not a single one of the nine pitchers on Kansas City who threw over 50 innings in 2014 allowed a BABIP over .300. Even more absurdly, every single one of those pitchers had an ERA that was lower than their FIP. We tend to prefer FIP in evaluating pitchers, as it removes the variables of the ability of the other eight players on the field, for the most part. These Royals teams, however, were built with the explicit intent for the other eight players to lift up their unremarkable rotation and help them ferry the game to their bullpen's lair. The 2012 Rays featured a slightly better rotation, but every member saw their ERA outperform their FIP, and they joyfully munched up inning after inning until they could deliver the game to Wade Davis, a good Joel Peralta, and an unhittable Fernando Rodney for a 90-win season. The 2004 Angels were less defensively gifted, but rode Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, and Kevin Gregg to 92 wins and a playoff berth, while only using six starting pitchers the entire year, none of whom exceeded 2 WAR.
As Boguslaw notes in his piece, ideal team construction conjures an image like the Cubs of this year, with a dominant rotation and powerful, balanced hitting. Seattle has checked the boxes next to "defensive excellence" and "consistent, if unremarkable rotation (if healthy)." Every position offers the promise of offensive competency, but beyond the stars there are few players with an extensive track record of full-time MLB success. Fangraphs projects the bullpen to be the 9th best unit in the league in 2017. That'd be a solid leap from their 15th place finish last year, in which Díaz accounted for literally half of the entire value, by WAR. This year's bullpen will be better from top to bottom, but it all begins and ends with Edwin.
This is not an ideal team. It is a team constructed within a year and a half out of a threadbare farm system and a leftover roster built antithetically to the style of baseball most likely to succeed in Safeco Field. It is now a team built on speed and defense, the two least volatile skills in baseball. There are no superprospects in the reeds, nor are there the pieces to acquire them. Dipoto could have blown it all up when he took over, but he believes in “always being in win-now mode.” Winning now, with this team, means emulating the teams listed above. It also follows in the footsteps of the teams that have succeeded here before.
The equation lacks the breakout variable of Ichiro, but collectively the roster is a decent homage. Robbie in place of Boone. Cruz in place of Edgar. Segura in Guillen’s stead. Zunino for Wilson. Seager as Olerud and a trio of Tron-like blurs ranging the outfield that was built by Cameron and Ichiro. 2001 is often discussed as a fluke, and offensively there are plenty of anomalies, but the defensive dominance was real. The pitching staff ran a 3.54 ERA despite an FIP of 4.12. The starting rotation lacked a single pitcher with a K/9 over 6.60, but it featured three men who threw over 200 innings, and four over 160. The defense swept across the face of the team like a cool washcloth, wiping away their blemishes and revealing beauty and greatness. The bullpen, 3rd in the league that year by fWAR, asked only that the rotation get the game to them intact. Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki poured boiling oil on opponents as they were funneled between their towers of the 8th and 9th innings. It is frustrating that the 2017 team seems beholden to traditional relief pitching roles, but if that is how they intend to operate, relying on "Sugar" is their best option.
He’s already shown himself to be better than Kaz. Now, after an offseason of preparation to be a reliever, Seattle will set their gameplans up around just getting him the ball with the lead. That's a big load to put on a 23 year-old, even one as unfazed by the moment as Díaz. It’s a gamble I wish we didn’t have to make, but it will be fascinating as it unfolds.