Last week, appearing on 710 ESPN, Jerry Dipoto discussed the team’s approach at the trade deadline. What stood out to me is the heavy focus Dipoto placed on the idea of shopping for 2018 as opposed to getting an expensive rental for the year, which leads me to believe the front office is taking 2017 as—whatever 2017 has been—and focusing on stocking up for a run in 2018. Dipoto used the phrase “impact performer” several times when discussing the pitching staff, and looking at players who will be a long-term good fit for the club. He re-affirmed that he’s already making phone calls to clubs who have players the team feels might be that good fit. With that in mind, John and I did a little bit of guesswork on the podcast this past week as to which teams we think might make good trade partners for the Mariners. Over the next few weeks leading up to the trade deadline, we will be profiling some prospects from teams we think are strong candidates for a trade. I’ve chosen to focus on high-level prospects (AA/AAA) because Dipoto’s comments about finding someone who is a long-term fit for the club suggests he won’t be looking at picking up an expensive veteran; yet teams are often hesitant to trade young, controllable talent with proven MLB success.
The St. Louis Cardinals, known for their strong record in player development, are especially successful in drafting and developing pitchers. Their system is ridiculously loaded with pitching talent: of the Cardinals’ Top Thirty prospects on MLB.com, 17 of the 30 are pitchers. Only seven are outfielders, and only two of those seven are in the organization’s top ten. Currently, the team has Dexter Fowler signed to a five-year deal, Randal Grichuk signed for four years, and Stephen Piscotty for five years. After a strong debut in 2015 in which he posted a 133 wRC+, Piscotty has gradually fallen off, landing at 115 in 2016 and 109 this year so far. Piscotty’s value is almost entirely in his bat; he has a -3.6 BsR score on FanGraphs and his outfield defense grades poorly on both FG and BP. Randal Grichuk is almost a mirror image of Piscotty; after a dazzling 2015, he has fallen off sharply and is currently boasting a wRC+ of 78. He also offers no plus defense. Dexter Fowler has been the most valuable member of the Cards’ outfield, but has had trouble staying on the field, and at 31, one would have to expect his time in center field is drawing to a close. St. Louis’s top outfield prospect, Magneuris Sierra, was impressive in a brief call-up this year, but he is still a developing prospect with a lot of swing-and-miss and the fact that St. Louis needed to call him up from High-A speaks to the dearth of MLB-ready outfielders in the organization.
So the Cardinals, currently sitting in third place in the NL Central, make sense as a trade partner for the outfielder-rich Mariners. Now the fun part: examining the goods. It’s fair to assume recently-called-up Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes—not just the top prospect in the Cardinals system but one of the top prospects in all of baseball—are off the table, and while the Cardinals may hear offers on Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara if the team falls further out of contention, realistically the Mariners don’t have the prospect capital to trade for a name like that. (Which is sad, because I love Jack Flaherty a whole, whole lot.) That might change if the Cardinals make a playoff push and suddenly find themselves in desperate need of a center fielder who can actually play center field, say, or can I interest you in a gently-used Nick Vincent? But for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to keep it to prospects I think the Mariners might feasibly have the capital to acquire. Weaver (ranked #2 in the system by Baseball America, #3 by MLB), Flaherty (#5), and Alcantara (#7 MLB, #6 BA, #9 over at Minor League Ball) would both probably have asking prices well over what the Mariners could afford, if the Cardinals were willing to part with any of them at all, which they probably won’t be, as the aging back end of their rotation is part of their problem this season.
In the next tier are players the Mariners could maybe acquire. It would cost, and the cost would hurt, but it might be doable. Dakota Hudson, ranked as the #9 prospect by BA, #6 by MLB, and #13 over at Viva El Birdos, is someone who it’s a little hard to get a read on. The 6’5 righty is pitching well at AA-Springfield, and has moved quickly through the Cards’ system after being drafted out of Mississippi State in 2016 in the first round. Hudson features a four-pitch mix with his fastball sitting 92-95 and a nasty cutter, although he’s still developing his curve and change. He’s had command issues at times, and ran a BB/9 of 6.75 last year in High-A. His 2.66 ERA is belied by an FIP of almost 4, which is what probably leads to the wide variation in where he’s ranked by different sites. My gut instinct on Hudson is the asking price will still be too high for what he is thanks to his first-round status and shiny pretty ERA.
The most intriguing player I see in the Cardinals’ system is Austin Gomber. Ranked as the #14 pitching prospect by MLB (#7 at VEB), Gomber’s ceiling is supposedly that of a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. The 23-year-old, 6’5” lefty is on his second tour of Double-A Springfield after finishing up 2016 there, and so far has improved his K/9 up to 9, a number he hadn’t seen since low-A. Along with that, however, he’s seen a spike in walks to double his previous levels, at 4.24/9, and he’s also suffering a dinger problem, with a 12.7% HR/FB rate. The walk rate is surprising, as Gomber has always been known as a command pitcher; scouting reports on him paint him as a tall, left-handed version of Andrew Moore, a high-pitchability guy with some funk in his delivery and an ability to locate all over the zone with a fastball that sits 89-91. Gomber’s current struggles might cause his asking price to fall to something the Mariners could afford, and he seems like a good fit for the organization’s philosophy. He’s not going to blow anyone away with a big fastball, but Gombers is a solid player who could be a steady major league contributor soon, and that’s just what the Mariners need.
The next tier is of players who should be attainable, even for the Mariners. Marco Gonzales, a Gonzaga grad, is a former first-round pick who has made a few starts for the Cardinals at the MLB level and they...have not gone well. He made one start this year on June 13 against the Brewers and gave up five runs in just 3.1 innings. He also got a call-up in 2015 and went 2.2 innings, giving up four runs on seven hits. Gonzales’s longest stay in the majors was in 2014, when he posted an FIP of 4.75 over 34 innings pitched. So what’s appealing about a seeming first-round bust? First, there’s the potential that Gonzales’ early performance was dampened by injury, as he went under the knife for TJ in 2016. Secondly, Gonzales has a good arsenal: he features a five-pitch mix with a plus changeup. The problem is getting to the changeup from his weaker other offerings, specifically his poor sinking fastball. Gonzales is a reclamation project, but could probably be had for relatively cheap, and at just 25, there’s still time.
Zac Gallen, a former third-rounder, is another intriguing prospect; despite being drafted in 2016, he’s already making appearances in Triple-A. Gallen is seen as a low ceiling/high floor college arm, drafted out of UNC in 2016. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and none of his pitches are described as plus pitches with the exception of his cutter, which is especially effective against left-handed batters. But he has exceptional command to both sides of the plate, doesn’t walk anyone, and this year has posted an exceptionally high strikeout rate. The Mariners probably don’t need a slightly-less-good Andrew Moore, but if they’re looking for stability in the rotation, Gallen would provide it, and at a price they could afford.
At the major league level, the Cardinals have been said to be shopping young but inconsistent and injury-plagued Michael Wacha, but his asking price will probably be well beyond what the Mariners can afford. There are a few other “non-prospect” pitchers in the Cardinals organization who might be worth a look, but if the Mariners are seeking an impact arm, they’d probably be shopping for someone off the prospect list. Getting an unheralded player can work out too, though; Sam Gaviglio wasn’t considered much of a prospect when the Mariners traded Ty Kelly for him back in 2014, and just think of where we’d be right now without him.