For fans of the NBA, the concept of a “salary dump” trade has become commonplace. The league has a soft salary cap, as well as a salary floor, making spending to a significant a requirement, but by and large capping the possibilities of spending upward (we won’t get into Bird Rights). Teams will often find themselves lacking a competitive roster and take on a player underperforming their contract, along with future draft picks, to help a competing team free up cap space for immediate improvements. It’s an integral part of the sport’s ecosystem that often leads to mutually satisfying outcomes, with contenders free to build title-worthy rosters and cellar-dwellers provided the possibility of future greatness, and even occasionally a big-name player who can drum up some fan interest in the short-term.
MLB, in theory, has no limitations on spending beyond the pockets and, more pertinently, the will of each team’s ownership group to improve their roster. Yet various teams have explicit or implicit self-imposed limitations on their payroll all the same. For the Mariners, like many clubs, it’s explicitly the luxury tax threshold, but they will fall well below that line when payroll is tallied at season’s end. For a few clubs, the tax has not been a dramatic impediment, though this offseason it seems to be troubling a few typical major spenders - the Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees - making for a strange, potentially NBA-esque offseason. Salary dump trades are not foreign to baseball, but as literally every MLB team’s value has doubled at a minimum in the past decade, fans are within their rights to expect them to be less frequent.
Still, going into this offseason several of the major storylines revolve around competitive teams offering elite players with higher salaries to attempt to cut costs. Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, and Francisco Lindor have 11 All-Star Games, two MVPs, and little likelihood of signing contract extensions between them. Several other clubs have spoken of lacking “payroll flexibility” despite a vague intent to compete. It makes for a conundrum, but perhaps this is where the Mariners can come in.
Seattle is staring down the barrel of their lowest Opening Day payroll since at least 2014, when the club set out at $90.2 million. They currently sit at just $59-61 million, counting the guaranteed contracts (Kyle Seager, Yusei Kikuchi, and Dee Gordon), a rough approximation of pre-arbitration players, and the $4 million owed to the Diamondbacks off Mike Leake’s deal. They’ll likely also tender arbitration contracts to everyone but Tim Beckham, pushing them to around $70-80 million. We’re estimating beyond precision, but the gist is the team’s expenses will fall far below previous seasons. “Flexibility” is the term du jour among front offices and ownership groups, and Seattle is limber as a gymnast at the moment. If they are serious about staying out of the upper crust of free agency, there are a few players/teams they should be targeting to help infuse their rebuild with evermore talent.
Ian Desmond - Rockies
Remaining Contract: Two years/$23 million, team option for 2022 at $15 million, $2 million buyout
Desmond’s time in Colorado has been nothing short of disastrous, through injuries, his own poor play, and mystifying defensive utilization. Whether at CF, 1B, or elsewhere, the Rockies cannot enter 2020 intending to compete with Desmond’s name penned into a starting lineup. With -1.7 fWAR, an 80 wRC+, and ever-decreasing defensive versatility in his 394 games across three seasons in Denver, it is time to throw in the towel. Colorado won’t be approaching the luxury tax, but freeing up $17 million guaranteed is an easy way for the Rockies to at least get second lease on competition in the fairly wide-open NL Wild Card.
Mariners get: OF Ian Desmond, 3B Aaron Schunk, 1B Michael Toglia, and RHP Riley Pint
Rockies get: OF Mallex Smith, RHP Brandon Brennan, and RHP Sam Tuivailala
In spite of their dismal 2019, the Rockies have one of the most interesting cores in the game. Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Charlie Blackmon can still pace the top of a lineup, and a healthy Daniel Murphy and David Dahl can easily fit in a contending lineup. Top prospect Brendan Rodgers should be healthy and ready for big league work in 2020. The rotation is enviable - Jon Gray, German Márquez, and Kyle Freeland have all had ace seasons - and the bullpen is made up o veterans with impressive track records.
Still, the outfield of Coors needs immense range, something Mallex Smith has, and his improvements in the second half defensively would help his viability. Brennan and Tuivailala are young, cost-controlled relievers with stuff that can potentially cut through the thin air of Coors. Colorado takes their lumps in this deal on the farm, dealing a couple of their top picks from 2019, as well as their erratic top pick from 2016. Still, the savings could (and SHOULD) go into a long-term deal for Yasmani Grandal, which would make a staggering difference for their roster. If Colorado intends to make the most of this impressive core, their time is the next couple seasons, and none of the players they’ll deal away will help them for at least a couple seasons more. If they need to clear an even greater sum, Seattle could look at taking on one of their high-priced relievers like Wade Davis as well, in exchange for a slightly larger prospect return of course. As it is, though, a young center fielder, two decent relievers, and the cash to make a run at a massive catching upgrade is how Colorado can put themselves firmly back in contention, giving Seattle a leg up on their efforts to contend in the next several years in the process.
New York State of
Mind Extreme Injury
Jacoby Ellsbury - Yankees
Remaining Contract: One year/$21.1 million, team option for 2021 at $21 million, $5 million buyout
Ellsbury may tragically be remembered more for his high-paying contract than his oft-brilliant play. Since signing with the Yankees in 2014, he’s played two mostly-full seasons, two more seasons of around 110 games, and has not played a professional game either of the past two seasons. Already, the team has conveyed uncertainty if he’ll be available in 2020. Moving Ellsbury would free up a little over $26 million for the Yankees over the next two seasons. The luxury tax implications - which are actually impactful for the Yankees - are even greater, as Ellsbury’s option year counts for the even spread of his salary on the luxury tax, opening up $42 million of potential luxury tax space.
Mariners get: OF Jacoby Ellsbury, RHP Albert Abreu, OF Antonio Cabello, and RHP Michael King
Yankees get: RHP Matt Festa and $250k in International Bonus Pool Space
The Yankees don’t particularly have a need for Dee Gordon any more than the Mariners do, so this deal could quite easily be a nearly fully one-directional deal. With his money off the books the suddenly spendthrift Yankees can feel more comfortable digging an inch deep into their coffers for the immediate upgrades like Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg their rotation desperately needs. Both Abreu and King command 40-man spots, something the Yankees are perpetually struggling with, but will clearly require more seasoning in the minors. Cabello is a curious case, signed as an outfielder but reportedly with some catcher potential. Regardless of position, he could immediately fit into Seattle’s low minors, where the position player depth is thinner thanks to the pitcher-heavy 2019 draft.
Big Money Backtrack
Tyler Chatwood - Cubs
Remaining Contract: One year/$13 million
The Cubs have been crying poor for the past couple seasons, despite the well-deserved boost in interest, attendance (and ticket prices), and goodwill from their draught-breaking World Series victory in 2017. The club made a few splashes, signing Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to multi-year deals to augment their established core, but they now face an impasse. The big league club drastically underperformed in 2019, but their roster is still suited to be the class of the NL Central with some slight improvements. Getting there will take money, however, something the Cubbies seem unwilling to part with. Chatwood’s three-year, $38 million deal hasn’t gone well, as they’ve been unable to unlock more consistency from the talented but erratic righty. In his final year of the deal, there’s a $12.667 million luxury tax hit in addition to the straight cost. Clearing both would help Chicago restock before Kris Bryant’s departure.
Mariners get: RHP Tyler Chatwood, 2B Chase Strumpf, and $12 million of Dee Gordon’s contract
Cubs get: 2B Dee Gordon (and the remaining $2 million of his contract)
This is less of an earth-shattering move, but a simple positive for both sides. Chatwood’s move to the bullpen makes him a prohibitively costly situational player for the contending Cubs, and adding Dee Gordon gives them a more established option at 2B, as well as the polar opposite in terms of reputation to Addison Russell. Gordon can be a full or part-time player, but at just $2 million for a single year, he’s sensible for any roster. For their trouble, the Mariners clear the way for Shed Long to start and can add a well-regarded middle infield prospect to their low minors in Strumpf. The UCLA product was the Cubs 2nd round pick in 2019, and could slot into the thin West Virginia lineup easily. Chatwood is an interesting 2020 piece himself, as with some improvements and better health he could at least draw a small return at the deadline himself.
The particulars of each deal could be shifted, but these are a few frameworks I not only think Seattle would be wise to push forward on, but that they could quite plausibly be seen pulling off. Jerry Dipoto has been nothing if not creative when whipping up trades, and so long as ownership is willing to spend some money in the short term to improve the likelihood of future success, a move of this nature could do wonders to improve the depth of Seattle’s system. Tomorrow, I’ll add a look at three more moves - one from each category - as we move towards our full offseason plan.