Just a day after acquiring reliever Rafael Montero from the Rangers, the Mariners have again pilfered from an AL West rival, signing free agent reliever Keynan Middleton, formerly of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, Disneyland, USA, Planet Earth. In order to make room for Middleton on the roster, OF Phillip Ervin was DFA’d. Please send your condolences to Connor, LL’s greatest Phillip Ervin Stan.
Unlike the Montero acquisition, which felt like a bit of a head scratcher to me and some others as well, this one feels like a slam dunk, and not only because I called for it in the non-tender targets piece.
What made Middleton a desirable target is a combination of factors: the velocity on his fastball, his age, and limited mileage on his arm. Middleton is just 27, and has pitched fewer than 100 innings in the bigs despite having been in MLB for the better part of four seasons. He’s a recent Tommy John veteran, because Angels pitcher, and the one-time closer was slow to regain his form after surgery in 2018, leading the Angels with an expensive decision to make on a player who had pitched fewer than 20 innings over the past two seasons. It was still somewhat surprising as a non-tender for the pitching-poor Angels, however, especially as Middleton’s velocity in 2020 was back to—and better than—his pre-surgery average, at 97.1 mph. Middleton’s slider also jumped back up (87.4, well over his 2019 average of 82.7), as did his firm changeup (88 from 84).
this will play from Keynan Middleton pic.twitter.com/C7CxGGKCJq— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) July 29, 2020
So why, with all these clear indications that Middleton’s arm is healthy, would the Angels—who aren’t exactly afraid to spend money—pass on re-signing their erstwhile closer? Despite possessing great raw stuff, Middleton’s numbers have never been stellar; his career FIP sits at 4.38, a reflection of his lack of consistency. Despite looking dominant in flashes, Middleton has just never put it all together; at times he’s struggled with command, or given up hard contact, or gotten bitten by the home run bug, as is a danger for a flyball pitcher like Middleton. I remember watching Middleton in a spring training game in 2017 and being utterly terrified of him, and that pitcher did emerge in flashes; he just wasn’t always on the field, both figuratively and literally.
Keynan Middleton's 100mph Fastball with life on the black to freeze Aaron Judge pic.twitter.com/aZSYzetjRU— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) June 21, 2017
It seems lazy to point the finger at the Angels’ recent lackluster track record in developing pitching but also, it’s hard to square a pitcher with this kind of raw stuff with Middleton’s middling results. The Mariners have made somewhat of a game of picking up other team’s castoff relievers and bringing them to Jerry Dipoto’s Home for Wayward Pitchers, and the loud stuff contained in Middleton’s knapsack is similar to another rehab project in Austin Adams. Let’s hope for similar results, without the part where he gets traded.
Speaking of Dipoto, it was he who actually drafted Middleton, a Portland native, out of Lane Community College back in 2013, and Dipoto who was instrumental in bringing Middleton to his rightful place with the Mariners, the team he grew up rooting for:
Keynan Middleton said signing with the Mariners was a "no brainer" because of the location of the team, the direction the team was heading and his relationship with Jerry Dipoto— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) December 16, 2020
Let me amend that list of factors that made Middleton a desirable target. Yes, the velocity on his fastball, his age, and limited mileage on his arm are all appealing, but so is the opportunity to potentially stick it to the Angels. That drama is dialed up a bit by some comments made by Middleton on Twitter regarding Angels fans’ enthusiasm (or lack thereof) which ruffled some Orange County feathers. That, plus the fact that Angels fans spent the past four years cursing Jerry Dipoto’s name, gives us some ripe opportunity for drama that has been sadly lacking from this Mariners team for the past two years, and I for one am here. for. it. The skies might be rainier up here in the Northwest, but the outlook for Middleton, and Mariners fans, is much sunnier.