Back on Wednesday, just 24 hours after throwing water on the wildfire that was a rumored Seattle Mariners Teardown™, Jerry Dipoto shipped Wilson Defensive Catcher of the Year back home to the Sunshine State (along with Guillermo Heredia and Michael Plassmeyer) in exchange for Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley. Almost as quickly as the trade developed, speculation started swirling that James Paxton would soon follow his former battery-mate out the door as the M’s look to re-tool (NOT rebuild) for the 2019 and, more accurately, 2020-21 seasons. Dealing Paxton creates a hole of its own, but could position the Mariners to be a legitimate threat in 2020, and perhaps no club matches up better to make a deal for his services than the ring-hungry LA Dodgers.
Dodgers receive: LHP James Paxton
Mariners receive: OF Alex Verdugo, RHP Ross Stripling, and C Keibert Ruiz
The Dodgers have one of the most loaded Major League rosters in the game, and they back it up with a top-10 farm system that’s chock-full of prospects. Importantly for the M’s, many of LAD’s top talents are carving their way through the upper minors, and would be starters in many other organizations were it not for impediments at the MLB level. The poster child for this is OF Alex Verdugo, who MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline has dubbed the #32 prospect in baseball. Following a 2017 season at Triple-A where he slashed .314/.389/.436 with a 118 wRC+ and walked more than he struck out, the 22-year old was sent back to repeat the level. Still, the Dodgers opted to carry Matt Kemp, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig in addition to Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor to open the 2018 season. Verdugo essentially repeated his 2017 production through 91 games with the AAA-Oklahoma City Dodgers before forcing his way onto the field in September. He slashed .260/.329/.377 with a 98 wRC+ in 86 PAs while playing solid defense in both center and right field.
#Dodgers No. 1 prospect Alex Verdugo hit his first @MLB homer of the season and it was an absolute blast -- 404 feet out to straightaway center. Watch live: https://t.co/7KEC7h0W0h pic.twitter.com/Ko878KkpM8— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 28, 2018
While some have questions about his ability to cover the ground necessary to man center field at the big league level, the acquisition of Mallex Smith means the Mariners could slide Verdugo and his “plus-plus” arm to left field, giving them an entire outfield full of players who are a) capable of manning center field in a pinch, b) under the age of 28, and c) cost-controlled through at least 2022.
Alex Verdugo can cover a lot of ground pic.twitter.com/YxMG6RPr61— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) May 6, 2018
Like their outfield situation, things are a bit crowded on LA’s pitching staff, as they appear slated to head into 2019 with at least seven starting pitchers rostered that would likely fill a rotation spot for most any major league club. That’s without making any additions this offseason, where they figure to spend big, even if staying under the luxury tax. An arm that could be squeezed out of a clear role in Los Angeles but would fit a re-tooling Mariners team quite well is Ross Stripling. After making 14 starts in his debut season with the Dodgers in 2016 at the age of 26, the Texas A&M alum was relegated to a relief role for the 2017 season, tossing 74.1 innings over 49 games (including two starts) for the Dodgers in 2017, accumulating just 0.7 fWAR. Thrust back into a starting role for much of last season, Stripling’s produced career best numbers of 10.0 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 3.02/3.42/2.99 ERA/FIP/xFIP, and 2.3 fWAR over 33 games (21 starts) thanks in large part to the addition of a hard breaking curveball to his arsenal. Despite his age (he turns 29 later this month), Stripling is controlled through 2022 and doesn’t even enter his first year of arbitration until after next season. He’ll no doubt want to build as much of a case for himself as possible before in advance of becoming arb-eligible, and unlike the Dodgers, the M’s have the need and opportunity for a guy to come lock down a rotation spot. While LA would love to keep Stripling around for all the same reasons Seattle would like to acquire him, swapping him for Paxton gives them another ace-type arm to add to the front of their rotation come playoff time, not to mention he’s flashed a little more durability than Stripling over the past couple of seasons.
While the Dodgers’ embarrassment of riches at the outfield and starting pitcher positions might make it easier for them to deal their #1 prospect and a 2+ WAR pitcher than most teams, it’s for a different reason that they might be willing to part with #2 prospect Keibert Ruiz.
#Dodgers No. 2 prospect Keibert Ruiz had one at-bat and made it count with this RBI single.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) November 4, 2018
How all teams' prospects fared in the @MLBazFallLeague's Fall Stars Game: https://t.co/UUbYL6TnGT pic.twitter.com/H34XU5xYFL
There’s a lot to like about the switch-hitting Venezuelan catcher who just slashed .268/.328/.401 with a 100 wRC+ as a 19-year old at Double-A. While his walk totals aren’t by any means through the roof--he posted a 6.3% walk rate last season--he rarely goes down on strikes, doing so just 8.0% of the time last season despite playing at nearly five years younger than the league average age. Reports are that he receives the ball well, but his footwork and catch-and-throw abilities need some improvement. What makes Ruiz expendable to the Dodgers is that while he rates as the third-best catching prospect in baseball, Los Angeles is flush at catcher. In addition to a decent option in Austin Barnes at the MLB-level, they’ve extended a qualifying offer to Yasmani Grandal, and also have another prospect in Will Smith who checks in as the league’s #8 catching prospect according to Prospect Pipeline. Smith struggled badly through 25 games with Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2018, but torched the Texas League with a 141 wRC+. Of the two backstops, Smith is regarded as the more advanced defender and as such, likely figures more immediately into the club’s plans for the position at the major league level.
It’s a big haul, but the type of deal we see from contending teams looking to get over the hump all the time. If Paxton puts together a healthy season or two, it’s difficult to imagine the Dodgers being frustrated, particularly considering they’ll further ensure their standing as the class of the NL for the next two years. Since LA seems interested in avoiding the luxury tax, adding an cost-controlled ace-level arm who they are uniquely equipped to keep healthy over a full season is an ideal fit. Despite numerous conflicting reports, Jerry has maintained throughout this young offseason that the club is not tearing this club down to the studs and rather just “re-tooling”, and a Paxton-for-Verdugo, Stripling, and Ruiz deal fits that mold exactly. In Verdugo and Stripling, the Mariners wind up with two guys who’d be counted on for contributions immediately in 2019, but would both be around in 2020 (and well beyond) when there’s more cash on hand to fill out a competitive roster. The addition of Ruiz gives the Mariners a potential successor to Mike Zunino that Fangraphs projects to be ready to contribute by 2020.
While shipping Big Maple creates a sticky situation for the atop the Mariners’ rotation in 2019, Stripling levels out the rotation slightly, and the team could take a flier on a couple veterans and endure the “small step backward” Jerry mentioned, before making a big splash in the 2019-20 free agent pool that’s set to consist of Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, and Stephen Strasburg or make another deal involving SS Jean Segura or RP Edwin Díaz. The Yankees, Braves, Padres, and numerous other teams could benefit from adding Pax, but L.A. has what Seattle needs most.