The names Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion remind me of a very particular part of the 2019 Season—the Good Part. A time when the team hit dingers at an alarming rate, beat down the Red Sox, slashed through our meager expectations, and gave us a taste of the impossible. They were two men who embodied this errant and beautiful time, both beneficiaries and victims of the same molting roster, both acquired to be given away, and both, despite this, left an indelible impression upon the 2019 Mariner season.
First, before we stroll down Memories of Dingers Past, let us first look at Edwin and Jay from the chilly perspective of baseball as business.
2019 was a season of a purposeful and calculated delaying of gratification. The goal, plainly, was to win in three years, which proved unfortunate when we realized this year was not three years from now. In order to best compete in that open window across the hall, Dipoto Co. acquired veterans strictly to turn them into other, younger assets. Trading on Futures, as my only friend in finance sometimes says while I nod seriously and prepare to say, “That’s so interesting, because every Christmas I trade on presents.”
A successful year for these veterans, then, was to accrue value in the present in order to be flipped for value in the future, all while making sure the return was worth the original investment. Sounds boring!
How did this plan work out for these two?
Let’s Get Down to Bruceness (to defeat the Cubs)
Jay Bruce was acquired as the Mets salary relief in the contentious Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano/Several Good Players trade that evaluators are still unsure who won. A former All-Star in his early thirties, Bruce spent 2018 remaking his swing to raise his launch angle over seven degrees, a good idea. But injuries to his dadus boddious sapped him of the requisite strength to see any pay off. And, as he was owed $26 million on his 2-year contract, which would expire before reaching the Great Window Across the Hall, he seemed unlikely to be an asset.
His primary task was to hit enough to be traded.
Cost: $26 Million ($18 million after trade)
Jay Bruce didn’t “cost” much of anything to acquire as he was the cost for balancing some of the Cano money. His larger cost was occupying a roster spot and potentially taking at bats from younger players while being owed 26 million on a rebuilding roster.
Production: 47 Games, .212/.283/533, 110 wRC+, .5 fWAR
Over his 47 games as a Seattle Mariner Jay Bruce produced .5 fWAR, with -4.8 wins on defense. Average production from a shockingly average looking man.
He was an average performer who reached mediocrity with his stunning .212/.283/.533 slash line, while hitting the ball harder than ever and running a top twenty Barrel Rate at 9%/PA.
Return: 1B/3B prospect Jake Scheiner and negative 18 million dollars.
The Marines ate 18 million dollars (must have been a nice restaurant!) to acquire Scheiner, who wasn’t on the Phillies Top 30 prospect list and is not currently on the Mariners. He turned 24 in September and reports on defense are less than glowing. He wasn’t hitting before the move to Modesto, but in his last 74 games ran a 123 wRC+ driven by a power surge with a career high .233 ISO, indicating there may be more in the bat than previously thought. Ultimately, though, Scheiner is a long shot.
Jay Bruce cost the Mariners 18 million dollars for .5 WAR and a low-probability prospect. That sounds bad. Yet, the Jay Bruce tenure was still a positive. The Mariners needed to win in the future, which meant moving the world to get out from under Cano in exchange for young talent, and taking Jay Bruce and paying him millions of dollars to hit baseballs at clouds for half a season was the price. Or, as Joe put it in his analysis of the trade:
In exchange for Diaz and Cano, Seattle effectively received: Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, Gerson Bautista, Jesse Biddle and Jake Scheiner. They also saved themselves roughly $84.5 million when you balance the contracts of Cano, Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Biddle, and Arodys Vizcaino.
Jay Bruce hit at a Jay Brucian level and the Mariners weren’t swimming in his contract instead of playing their young outfield. It was fine! Much like Jay Bruce!
Sailing Into Strong Edwins
Edwin Encarnación: Mariner, was an accident. Acquired in the Not That Infamous Dipoto Hospital trade, Dipoto flipped Carlos Santana for Edwin and the 76th pick in the 2019 draft to Cleveland, intending to turn around and immediately flip the veteran slugger for another prospect. Thus began the slowest flip since centerfielder/pitcher Flip Lafferty,
whose sprint speed noticeably declined following his death in 1910. Edwin wasn’t traded until June. The expectations, like Bruce, were for Edwin to hit until some team became desperate and yielded an adequate prospect.
Cost: Carlos Santana, ~$8 million.
The trade was all about offloading the to-be-flipped Santana and picking up a draft pick, which became the Mariners #11 (per MLB) prospect Isaiah Campbell (who has yet to make his debut after pitching in the College World Series). Besides actual cash, the cost was opportunity, as Santana was the younger, more valuable player under control (if a bit pricey at $60 mil over three years). There was a chance he could have netted more than the ~3.5 mil in value from the 76th draft pick and the services of a 36 year old DH.
Production: 65 Games, .241/.356/.531, 135 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
Edwin hit like vintage Edwin in his time in Seattle. His 1.6 fWAR ranked 6th on the 2019 Mariners tied with Daniel Vogelbach (wow). Using the $9 mil/WAR calculation, Edwin accumulated about 15 million in value in only 65 games, easily earning out his salary. Why do they always get slightly better?
Return: Juan Then, negative ~8 million dollars.
In return, the Mariners returned a familiar face in pitching prospect Juan Then while eating 8 million of the remaining Encarnación salary. Juan slots in at 15th in the Mariners Top 30 according to MLB and had a strong season with an ERA under 3, and 48 Ks to just 13 BBs in 46 innings. He finished at West Virginia at 19 years old.
Grade: I guess.
Edwin performed precisely as the Mariners hoped he would and netted a decent pitching prospect while showing off several of his show-parrots. This was an ideal outcome given the market for a half season of a 36 year old slugger. However there is a caveat, and that caveat is the performance of Carlos Santana. While using it as evidence is results-based-y, Carlos Santana just put up the best season of his career, racking up 4.4 fWAR.
For the trade, Carlos Santana became, eventually, Isaiah Campbell and Juan Then (while not having to pay him the 20 million a year). Would a mid-season trade have netted more than the two 40 FV prospects the Mariners wound up with? Or perhaps this offseason? Or does he even perform at this level in Seattle? There are too many what-ifs to make a conclusion but I find it difficult to imagine “Carlos Santana: Mariner” without pangs of longing and regret.
Jay and Edwin, Memory Makers
Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnación were acquired as mercenaries, stop-gaps, fill-ins, assets to be traded at peak value. How it must feel for your purpose to be to sustain a machine about to break down, like how imagine any part I replace on my 2002 Mazda Protege must feel.
Evaluating players and trades can sometimes bury the actual feelings they roused in you. Our compulsion to look into the future and reduce the game into an equation to balance sometimes makes it hard to remember that this is fun. The game is fun, these two were fun. And these two were fun during the winningest point of the season!
Who amongst us doesn’t remember the Marinerds t-shirt interview where Jay Bruce swore? Or that 15 of his first 19 hits were for extra bases? Or that for most of the first half he rocked an ISO over .300 with a sub .200 BA? For about one month Jay Bruce could only hit home runs and it was utter nonsense.
And Edwin Encarnación, get this, did a parrot thing with his arm.
Honestly I will leave the Edwin Encarnación appreciation to Kate, who expressed it in unsurprising clarity and power after he clobbered his 400th career home run for a team he was never supposed to be on.
There is so little joy to be had on the big-league club this year, and Encarnación destroying a baseball and then taking a second to admire his handiwork is a thing that sparks joy.
Both of these men were over-30 former all-stars who played “defense,” “ran,” hit over 50% fly balls, were in the top ten in average launch angle, and the top 50 for barrels per plate appearance. They were sluggers, this is what you think of when you think of sluggers. Together they hit 35 home runs in 112 total games, meaning every game had a 31% chance of one of these two hitting a dinger. They were so much like that 13-2 start. They put on a show. While they were here, they were great and for a while, we loved them—even though we knew it wouldn’t last, even if we fear their presence on the team was pointless.
Once, after a nasty break-up, I was complaining over coffee about how meaningless our time felt together if it was always going to end. My friend leaned across the table, put her hand on mine and said, some people are only meant to be in our lives for a season. It sits with me. Sometimes, people are only around for a season. For others, it’s even less than that. But that doesn’t make the time any less meaningful.