The other day, I was texting Jordan Shusterman of Céspedes Family BBQ, and we were talking about how, despite being an intensely imperfect team, the Mariners weren’t far off from being a playoff team in 2020. That led us to talk about how the Mariners pulled off what is perhaps the preeminent fleece jobs of the 2010s in trading Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz to the Mets in exchange for a haul of mostly-prospects. Although public knowledge at this point, a lesser-known fact is that the trade was initially even more favorable for the Mariners, and that’s had quite the ripple effect.
Incorrect. The Mariners are paying $20 million of the deal. They had planned to pay $25 million when Jeff McNeil was initially included in the trade. But the Mets pulled him from the deal after initial fan reaction.— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) May 28, 2020
This is perhaps the most Mets thing ever. Already, the Mariners managed to unload a contract in Canó’s that was said to be unmovable, but then they also managed to get a blue-chip prospect in the process. If it wasn’t for the general adverse reaction from fans, the Mariners would have been able to get Jeff McNeil — who was a reserve in the 2019 All-Star Game. The only difference is they would have kicked in $5 million more in cash, and they wouldn’t have received Gerson Bautista in the deal. This could be the difference between the Seattle Mariners, the team with the longest playoff drought in all major sports, and the Seattle Mariners, not the team with the longest playoff drought in all major sports.
The argument is pretty simple: the Mariners finished just two games behind the Astros in 2020. The addition of McNeil alone may have been enough to push them over the hump. After all, this is a ballclub that fielded the likes of Mallex Smith, Daniel Vogelbach, and Jose Marmolejos, and then Dee Strange-Gordon wasn’t great either; the foursome combined for -1.7 fWAR. Obviously, playing one productive player over a host of not-productive players makes for a rather significant gain in overall team production.
Here’s the 2020 lineup we could have been looking at:
- Jeff McNeil, 2B/LF
- Dylan Moore, 2B/LF
- Kyle Lewis, CF
- Kyle Seager, 3B
- Austin Nola, C
- Danse Marmolegelbach, DH
- Evan White, 1B
- J.P. Crawford, SS
- Tim Lopes, RF
Tim Lopes was a bit of a black hole, and Evan White wasn’t great either, but this is a much more potent lineup than the ones the Mariners ran out in 2020. An added bonus is that they’re able to move guys around to keep them fresh and protect themselves against injury, given the versatility of their players.
But also, imagine for a moment that the Mariners acquired McNeil in the trade package for the 2019 season. He accumulated 7.2 fWAR over 196 games from 2018 to 2019, the highest of all Mets hitters. With McNeil, the Mariners may have felt like they had a more competitive roster; perhaps one in which they actually try and compete some. Ownership probably would have needed more proof to spend money, but the Mariners front office also may have been less inclined to field the roster that they did.
Assuming this to be true — which, I’ll admit is something of a leap, given the frugality of the Mariners over the years — the team may have been in the market for a more competent corner outfielder. They clearly aren’t enthralled with Jake Fraley, and it’s not like any of Phillip Ervin, Sam Haggerty, or Tim Lopes are a significant part of their future. Perhaps that means they sign someone like Avisail Garcia, or more realistically someone a little more inexpensive like our old friend, Brad Miller.
The easiest, most pragmatic change, though, would have been to fix the bullpen. It might not have been super apparent, but the Mariners’ starters ranked ninth in fWAR in MLB last year. That’s quite good! The nail in the coffin was that the bullpen ranked dead-last in fWAR, tied with the Marlins at -1.4. For all the talent that the bullpen featured, it also had 12 pitchers with an fWAR of -0.1 or worse.
It wouldn’t have taken much! Signing, say, Darren O’Day, Yimi Garcia, and Tommy Hunter could have done the trick. They were had for a sum of $4.7 million last offseason, and they rewarded their respective teams by combining for 1.5 fWAR, all on one-year deals.
That alone would have been alone to offset the ineptitude of the bullpen and get them out of the red in fWAR, but, like McNeil, it also would have allowed them to replace their more ineffective pitchers. And so, the bullpen would benefit from having better pitchers, and, again, by not having their shoddier relief pitchers making relief appearances. Addition by addition, and addition by not-subtraction!
Now, I should note that the Mariners’ Pythagorean win-loss record had them as a 25-35 team whereas their actual record was 27-33, but with the presence of McNeil, the Mariners wouldn’t have had to do much work to raise the floor of their roster. It’s good to give young players a chance to show what they’ve got, but it’s also good to field as competitive of a roster as possible. The Mariners didn’t do that, and part of that is because there was a large hole that McNeil would have done a lot to fill, but for an organization that prides itself so much on cultivating a winning, competitive culture, they haven’t tried especially hard at winning games while also giving their young’uns a look.
The Mariners still aren’t where they need to be. There are several successes — look no further than Justus Sheffield, Kyle Lewis, and Dylan Moore — but also, we still don’t know exactly what kind of players they are. We have a better idea, but this speaks to the Mariners’ reasoning for letting their young guys get after it. On one hand, they got the opportunity to do exactly that. And yet, I’m not convinced that they have much more information than if they signed some older, productive journeyman.
There exists a universe in which the internet didn’t ruin the trade and the Mariners acquired Jeff McNeil. This universe that we’re collectively experiencing does not! The former Mariners team is a helluva lot better with McNeil on it, and because of it, they’re probably trying harder too. Either way, both teams are set to get a lot better because of the farm system, but our iteration of the Mariners is simply going to try their best with what they’ve got. The Mariners were able to offload Canó, and they were somehow able to acquire Jarred Kelenic, too. It’s hard to not be happy with the trade that went down! But with the knowledge that we could have had McNeil instead of Bautista, how could you not ruminate on what could have been?