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Denard Span, Álex Colomé, and the deal that’s kept the M’s afloat

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A shrewd mid-May maneuver has meant the world to the M’s this year.

Colorado Rockies v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Let’s travel back to about three months ago, give or take. In the wake of Robinson Canó’s suspension, the M’s had a major gap at second base and a lot of extra cash to spend. General manager Jerry Dipoto has never been short on creativity, and this time his willingness to listen to any and all ideas came through in a big way. A pair of 23-year-old employees, David Hesslink and my former classmate Skylar Shibayama, suggested a trade that could solve two problems at once.

And so it was that on May 25, Seattle swapped Andrew Moore and Tommy Romero, a pair of young pitchers, to the Tampa Bay Rays for reliever Álex Colomé and outfielder Denard Span. These two players have quickly become key cogs for the M’s, as Colomé has slotted in as the eighth inning man ahead of Edwin “Cy Young” Díaz and Span has proved himself a key outfield bat.

Yet this trade has been especially crucial for reasons beyond the obvious. By acquiring this duo in May, Dipoto bought himself two more months of production than the vast majority of midseason acquisitions, and he did so at a cost much lower than deals happening in June or July.

There have been something like 28 major leaguers traded this season who have made substantial contributions to their new clubs. When you compare the production of all those players, Colomé and Span look pretty dang good.

First, the starters and position players:

Position Players & Starters Traded in 2018

Player Team Trade Date fWAR
Player Team Trade Date fWAR
Steve Pearce Red Sox June 28 1.1
Denard Span Mariners May 25 1
Manny Machado Dodgers July 18 0.8
Matt Harvey Reds May 8 0.7
Cole Hamels Cubs July 27 0.7
Brian Dozier Dodgers July 31 0.6
Devin Mesoraco Mets May 8 0.5
Kevin Gausman Braves July 31 0.5
Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox July 25 0.4
Eduardo Escobar Diamondbacks July 27 0.4
Mike Moustakas Brewers July 28 0.3
J.A. Happ Yankees July 26 0.2
Ian Kinsler Red Sox July 30 0.2
Jon Jay Diamondbacks June 6 0
Cameron Maybin Mariners July 31 -0.1
Chris Archer Pirates July 31 -0.1
Jonathan Schoop Brewers July 31 -0.5

And now, the relievers:

Relievers Traded in 2018

Player Team Trade Date fWAR
Player Team Trade Date fWAR
Álex Colomé Mariners May 25 0.3
Jeurys Familia Athletics July 21 0.3
Brad Hand Cleveland July 19 0.3
Keone Kela Pirates July 31 0.2
Seung-Hwan Oh Rockies July 26 0.1
Roberto Osuna Astros July 30 0.1
Brad Ziegler Diamondbacks July 31 0.1
Zach Britton Yankees July 24 -0.1
Joakim Soria Brewers July 26 -0.1
Kelvin Herrera Nationals June 18 -0.4
Adam Cimber Cleveland July 19 -0.4

These numbers don’t reflect the fact that fWAR might not capture these players’ true values. Colomé, for example, is rocking a 2.37 ERA but just a 3.62 FIP with the Mariners. Span has actually been worth 1.2 bWAR, on the strength of his 134 OPS+.

Now, some of these trades went down just two weeks ago, so fWAR numbers aren’t all that meaningful. And it’s true that both Colomé and Span have had many more games to boost those numbers than most other players below them. But that’s the point! Look at the dates of all those moves. Just two relievers were traded before July 19, and just five position players/starters before the 18th. By striking early, Dipoto gave the Mariners much longer with their new toys, and the team is all the better for it.

Additionally, the various plagues that have hit the M’s this season — injuries to David Phelps, Dan Altavilla, Tony Zych, Nick Vincent, and Juan Nicasio chief among them — have been somewhat muted because of Colomé’s presence. Dipoto may have placed a premium on organizational depth, but the Mariners’ relievers have lost the fifth-most days to the disabled list in all of baseball. Every inning that Colomé pitches is an inning that Casey Lawrence doesn’t. (No offense, Casey, I’m sure you’re a swell guy. But we saw what happened last night.) Span has also been a stabilizing presence in the outfield, able to take more plate appearances from Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia when they have slumped at times this year.

Hard to deny the Denard-Dee bromance

It’s also important to note that the prospect cost of this deal pales in comparison to many made later in the summer. A month later, the Royals dealt Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals. Herrera is a similar player to Colomé; though Herrera is inarguably a better player (albeit somewhat inconsistent), he’s also a rental player, while Colomé has two additional years of control after 2018.

Colomé cost the M’s Tommy Romero, who was left out of the Mariners’ top 30 prospects according to MLB.com at the beginning of the season. An oversight, perhaps, but still fairly indicative of his prospect status even in a depleted Seattle minor league system. Andrew Moore, meanwhile, lost his sheen after 59 innings of replacement-level innings in 2017, and the knock on him has always been a low, low ceiling. Neither player figured to play much of a role in 2018.

Meanwhile, the Nationals gave up substantially more for Herrera: Kelvin Gutierrez, their 10th-ranked prospect; Blake Perkins, a former 2nd-round pick ranked 11th; and Yohanse Morel, a 17-year-old righty signed last summer. All this from the 19th-best farm system (per Bleacher Report), which vastly outstrips the toothless Mariner farm system.

And this evaluation ignores the value of Denard Span (and the cash the Rays threw in to help complete the deal). Given his $11 million salary, Span isn’t particularly cheap and doesn’t provide all that much excess value, but players of his caliber are still hard to come by especially in the middle of the season.

All this said, neither Span nor Colomé are game-changing players. Useful? Certainly. Important? You bet. But a guy like Manny Machado clearly provides a bigger boost in the playoffs.

Of course, even in Dipoto’s wildest dreams, the Mariners didn’t realistically have the prospect capital to trade for Machado. By making a swap in May, and not in July, however, the M’s found a way to make up for that gaping hole, and a way to extract more value than a standard July deal. Given how close the AL West is right now, every little edge makes a big difference.