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The Rafael Montero trade means something, but what?

What to expect from the Mariners after their first ~win-now trade in a few years.

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Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

What’s in a trade?

This week’s trade for righty reliever Rafael Montero sparked some interest, but was overshadowed by consternation at the return. No, 17 year old RHP José Corniell wasn’t an overpay for a player who projects to be a top-30 reliever in 2021 (pending the quality of the PTBNL), but the timing of the move is curious. Does it portend further adds of impact? More spending? Or something slightly more troubling?

The Mariners are fresh off a .450 winning percentage season, after a .420 campaign in 2019, and at this point have the same core that led them to a 27-33 record, minus All-Star caliber catcher Austin Nola and steady rotation piece Taijuan Walker. While the club has made statements towards their intention of contention, the roster looks, even in an expanded playoff field, like a long shot for a Wild Card behind the Yankees, Rays, Astros, Twins, White Sox, A’s, Angels, and Blue Jays. Even the Royals project ahead of Seattle, aided by some competent signings. How much does a 30 year old under contract for two years do for a club whose most heralded prospects are still in the minors, particularly when it comes at the expense of a player the M’s thought was promising enough to give their biggest non-position player signing bonus during the 2019 international amateur free agent period? And what does Montero deliver that Seattle can’t find in the free agent market for mere money, instead of a trade that saps talent, even ever so slightly? Is this the beginning of the M’s returning to their style of addition during the first few years of the Dipoto era?

I’m not too concerned with the move, at least in isolation. Seattle’s farm is in better straits than it was in 2015, and the best it’s been since at least the early years of the 2010s. Throughout their “step-back”, Seattle has made moves from the low-minors to improve the upper ranks of the farm or even the big league club. RHP Grant Anderson, OF Josh Stowers, LHP Michael Plassmeyer, RHP Noah Zavolas, RHP Jesus Ozoria, and LHP Nick Wells all were moved in the past couple years in small to medium deals for RHP Connor Sadzeck, 2B Shed Long Jr., OF Jake Fraley, OF Mallex Smith, OF Domingo Santana, C Tom Murphy, and RHP Austin Adams, all of whom have played for the big league club, with a couple sticking in a big way or becoming major contributors. Seattle has had good results on those moves on the whole, but bringing back only two years of Montero is a new wrinkle, even if Santana, Sadzeck, and Smith all ultimately were cut loose before their contracts concluded. How much better does Seattle expect to be in 2020 and 2021?

The budget Seattle is at and the goals Seattle has set out would hint at a moderate improvement in the true talent of the club over last year’s, but they will still need a good deal of overachievement or significant development to be true contenders. The club claiming “we’re not done” is encouraging, but what the finishing touches will speak volumes. Is Montero a financially cheaper upgrade because ownership wants to see this group prove it further on rations before they dig into their wallets? Or was there something particular in Montero Seattle liked more than they found in, say, Kirby Yates, and the chance to improve and hold or flip a high-leverage reliever felt worthwhile once again?

For now, I’m hopeful further additions will show a bit more gumption from Seattle’s executives. Putting a young group of players in a position to succeed can be a yearly event, not a time-sensitive practice. I am enthused that Seattle is adding good players, make no mistake, as the pathway to contention requires several more improvements just like the former Texas Rangers closer. If ownership is forcing Seattle to show they can win without spending, it bodes ill for the organization in the short and long term. Hopefully Montero is joined by more players the M’s invest in financially, instead of paying with talent, as the next several years will be brightest with a big, burgeoning farm system and a budget to match.