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The Mariners turned a box of red paperclips into an elite bullpen trio

A Baseball Prospectus Transaction Analysis style account of how the Mariners got here

Matt Brash looks in the distance, coyly Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

6/10/2016: The Seattle Mariners select SS Donnie Walton in the fifth round of the Rule 4 Draft

As a high schooler, Donnie Walton was drafted by the Mets in the 36th round, but didn’t sign, opting instead to fulfill his commitment to Oklahoma State. After struggling in his two summers in the Cape Cod League, the Brewers took him in the 23rd round of 2015’s draft. But Donnie thought he could do better, so he decided to finish his degree and try again the next year. It paid off for him with the Mariners taking him in the fifth round as a senior sign a year later, Jerry Dipoto’s first draft as General Manager of the Seattle Mariners.

Senior signs are expected to move quickly lest they become org guys, and Walton hit on schedule. During a monster year at AA in 2018, he earned the nickname Barrel Monkey for how often he got the good part of the bat on the ball. He got called up for a cup of coffee in 2019 and spent the next few seasons consistently on the 40-man, filling in for a few games here, a few games there and doing a respectable, if unremarkable job for a guy in that role.

11/8/2018: The Seattle Mariners sign C/1B/SS Austin Nola as a minor-league free agent

Heading into the 2018-19 offseason, the Mariners plan was to rebuild (excuse me, “reimagine”) the roster. Part of that was pouncing on guys who just needed an opportunity to play at the MLB level, something the Mariners were suddenly in a position to offer. So at 9 am on the first day of minor-league free agency, Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander personally made calls to secure Dylan Moore and Austin Nola. Nola, the less famous, older brother to the Phillies’ star pitcher, had spent most of his career as a shortstop in Miami’s minor league system, only rarely hitting better than average for the league he was in, and then only barely.

But Nola recognized that learning to catch would give him more opportunities to get to the Show and the Mariners’ metrics loved him. He played a good amount of first base in 2019 and by 2020 was the primary catcher, filling in for a departed Omar Narvaez and injured Tom Murphy. He excelled there, posting a 124 wRC+ in his 108 games with the Mariners, doing everything well on offense while showing surprising aptitude behind the plate. It seemed as if the Mariners had found their catcher of the future, and they did it with a minor-league free agent.

2/21/2020: The Seattle Mariners claim RHP Taylor Williams off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers

Taylor Williams had been a depth reliever for a couple years in Milwaukee when they were suddenly out of roster spots after signing Brent Suter. Williams was a Pacific Northwest native, the Mariners had to fill innings. What the hell, right?

But then he ascended the bullpen depth chart during the abbreviated season, recording six saves in his stylish high socks. Someone had to close out those games.

6/11/2020: The Seattle Mariners select OF Zach DeLoach in the second round of the Rule 4 Draft

In the very weird draft year of 2020, the Mariners used the 43rd overall pick on an outfielder whose swing they loved. DeLoach always did exactly enough to be a Guy, but never enough to climb prospect rankings. As the Mariners started shifting to win-now mode, it became a running joke to throw DeLoach into mock trade proposals because he was good enough that another team might want him, but not good enough that fans weren’t extremely willing to give him up.

8/31/2020: The Seattle Mariners trade C Austin Nola, RHP Austin Adams & RHP Dan Altavilla to the San Diego Padres for OF Taylor Trammell, 2B Ty France, RHP Andrés Muñoz & C Luis Torrens

Jerry Dipoto’s made a lot of trades. But when the history of the Dipoto Era is written, there are only a few that absolutely must be included. This is one of them.

Riding a hot year from Fernando Tatís, Jr., the Padres were competitive for the first time in ages, and AJ Preller was looking to seize the opportunity. Their one weakness was at the backstop. As Dipoto tells it, Preller harassed him about Nola for days with Dipoto consistently saying that Nola was unavailable. Eventually Preller asked Dipoto, “Tell me what would be an overpay?” After thinking it through with his crew, Dipoto came back with the four names above and Preller said something along the lines of “be serious.” But Dipoto was serious, and they eventually tossed in a couple depth relievers to even out the trade: the gum-chewing wild thing Austin Adams and quadzilla Dan Altavilla.

It’s hard to remember now, but Taylor Trammell was probably the headliner of this trade. A top-100 prospect, he’s now out of options, but has had some great moments with Seattle, including a grand slam in his first at-bat of the 2023 season. Ty France eventually settled at first base and turned into an All-Star. Despite a down year in 2023, he’s been an everyday rock for three competitive Mariners teams, and is the 15th best hitter in team history. Luis Torrens, well, Torrens covered Nola’s playing time as a backup catcher and turned into a not-so-bad reliever himself before being released.

Andrés Muñoz was included in this deal as a could-be-anything kind of player. Although he had hot hot heat on his fastball, he hadn’t pitched in a while and was recovering from his second Tommy John surgery at the time of the trade. He lost nearly all of 2021 to that rehab and was hit or miss to open 2022. But after re-shaping his slider midseason, he was dominant in the second half, the best reliever in the best bullpen in baseball. Over the past two years, he’s struck out 35.5% of opposing batters while walking just 8.1%. That’s the fourth best strikeout-rate-minus-walk-rate in baseball, while also collecting ground balls at a well above-average clip. Basically every public projection system pegs him to be one of the 10 or 15 best relievers in 2024 too.

In 2021, Adams hit more batters in a single season than anyone had since 1909 and is now with the Mets. Altavilla pitched 10 replacement-level innings for San Diego before getting Tommy John surgery in mid-2021 and hasn’t appeared in the bigs since. And the centerpiece of the deal, Austin Nola, turned into a pumpkin almost immediately and was non-tendered this offseason. The 0.7 fWAR that Nola put up in his entire Padres career is equalled by what Muñoz did in last year’s second half.

8/31/2020: The Seattle Mariners trade RHP Taylor Williams to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later

9/17/2020: The San Diego Padres send RHP Matt Brash to the Seattle Mariners to complete the Taylor Williams trade

The Padres couldn’t fit Williams into the Nola deal, but with the clock winding down toward the deadline, they agreed to send Seattle a PTBNL.

The circumstances of 2020 made it impossible to scout opposing teams’ minor league systems, but the Mariners had liked what info they had on Matt Brash, a fourth-round pick out of Niagara University in 2019. Turned out it was a smart bet. His slider is one of the nastiest pitches in baseball, collecting the second-most swords among relievers and sending hitters as good as Jose Ramirez tumbling to the ground. Pairing it with an equally brutal curveball and triple-digit heater, he’s been elite since being converted from a starter midway through 2022. Despite getting wild on occasion, he’s pitched to a 2.84 ERA as a reliever over the past two years. Among relievers who pitched at least 65 innings, Matt Brash’s 2023 had the third highest BABIP of the last 100 years. But he’s so good that despite that historic bad luck, he still managed an ERA of 3.06.

Williams pitched 6.1 innings over a year and a half with San Diego and eventually signed a minor-league deal with Seattle before the 2023 season.

5/11/2022: The Seattle Mariners trade 2B Donovan Walton to the San Francisco Giants for RHP Prelander Berroa

Now a second baseman going by Donovan, Walton had been leapfrogged as a utility player by several better options and he was getting a bit long in the tooth to hold that role on a competitive 40-man. So Dipoto, now President of Baseball Operations, sent him to San Francisco for a reliever he liked. Walton appeared in 24 games for the Giants, with an OPS+ under 35 (incidentally, he also threw two pitchers slower than 35 mph).

Despite tantalizing stuff, Berroa struggled with command in the Twins system, he struggled with command in the Giants system, and he struggled with command in the Mariners system. But Seattle had coached him up enough to be a credible MLB-caliber reliever, pitching to a 2.89 ERA at AA last year, though in the admittedly pitcher friendly Dickey-Stephens Park.

2/3/2024: The Seattle Mariners trade RHP Prelander Berroa, OF Zach DeLoach & the 69th overall pick of the 2024 Draft to the Chicago White Sox for RHP Gregory Santos

This weekend, the Mariners completed their high-leverage relief corps. To Muñoz and Brash, they now add Gregory Santos, with some of the nastiest stuff you’ll see for a guy who’s more gound-ball generator than strikeout machine.

Despite some hiccups in his projections, Santos is the real deal. We’ll have more on him in the coming days. For now, we’ll end with how noteworthy it is that he’s the third relief ace in the bullpen added in exchange for minor-league signings and org filler. All three are under club control through 2028.

When you consider the cost it took to acquire them, it ranks among the Dipoto regime’s greatest success stories. This front office has made trades it’s lost too, but this series of transactions is impeccable.

Much of the Mariners’ recent bullpen success has been built differently. Max Weiner, Trent Blank, and the Mariners pitching development staff have been appropriately praised these past few years for maximizing the potential of journeyman relievers. Paul Sewald was a minor-league free agent. Gabe Speier was claimed off waivers. Penn Murfee was a 34th-round pick.

On the other side of the pitching staff, the farm-to-table rotation speaks volumes about the whole organization. And we love to see the rotation headed by Luis Castillo, acquired in the most chips-in move of the Dipoto era.

But at the top of the bullpen depth chart sits a drool-worthy three-headed monster acquired through some of the savvier trade trees you’ll find. It’s debatable whether there’s a better bullpen trio than Muñoz, Brash, and Santos, and if there is, there aren’t many.

When you see that as a centerpiece of one of the game’s elite pitching staffs headed into 2024, it demands the obligatory “imagine what they could do with a real budget” (because imagine what they could do with a real budget!). But the Mariners Baseball Operations staff deserves a victory lap on this one. Dipoto is often teased for trying to turn a proverbial red paperclip into a Commissioner’s Trophy. He hasn’t done quite that, but this ain’t bad.