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Mariners on the Rebuild - Fantasy Impact

Over the weekend, the New York Mets and the Seattle Mariners closed a long-gestating agreement to exchange money, pro talent, and young assets.

The M’s continued their descent into “Tank City” by unloading slugger Robinson Cano and his $120 million contract along with cheap All-Star closer Edwin Diaz in exchange for less expensive but less good slugger Jay Bruce, more expensive and way less-good reliever Anthony Swarzak, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, and pitching prospects Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista.

That’s a whole lot of movement with a lot of implications to break down, and Rotoballer will be unpacking each angle from a fantasy perspective. Here, we’ll explore players coming to the Mariners, what it means for other Seattle assets, and how this will impact the 2019 season.

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Big Trade, Small Return

Seattle fans are probably bummed, and they probably should be. After all, trade returns for top relievers have been incredible over the last few seasons. Three seasons ago, the Cubs gave up uber-prospect Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman, and Andrew Miller cost the Indians’ two of their top prospects in Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield. Two seasons ago, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle were dealt for a package that included Blake Rutherford, then considered a top-30 prospect. Even last year, though returns were down, saw Brad Hand and Adam Cimber netting the Padres catcher Francisco Meija, one of the best catching prospects in the last 20 years. So to say that Diaz, either the best reliever in baseball or number two to Blake Treinen depending on who you talk to, would be dealt along with an aging slugger for two prospects that are maybe at the back end of the top 100 prospects in baseball and financial relief is probably a tough pill to swallow for M’s fans.

The two big leaguers, outfielder Jay Bruce and reliever Anthony Swarzak, are here more as line items on a budget than as clubhouse assets. Swarzak, for example, is almost worthless as a fantasy player thanks to a propensity to having his pitches hit hard and far. The two-year contract that the Mets gave Swarzak was almost immediately a disaster, as the then 32-year-old was paid thanks to a career year in 2017 that saw him generate 2.2 WAR. Of course, he had only generated 1.2 WAR over the first eight seasons of his career, but recency bias is a thing. Sure enough, the Mets expecting a pitcher in his 30s to replicate a career year didn't work out so well, and Swarzak's injury-filled 2018 ended with ghastly 6.15 ERA and a career-worst hard hit percentage of 34.3%. Whatever he had in 2017 was gone, and there is little evidence that it'll return. The Mariners are already going to run out a reliever reclamation project in Juan Nicasio. There's little chance that Swarzak sees high-leverage innings, and thus can be avoided and ignored in all fantasy leagues.

Which brings us to Bruce, the most impactful player coming back to Seattle in terms of the upcoming 2019 season. The 31-year-old is the dictionary definition of a replacement level player, save for a 2017 season which saw him put up a .254/.324/.508 with a career-best 36 home runs. He was a better fantasy player than real one, as anyone that can launch 20-30 home runs per season has a place in lineups. But Bruce is kind of like the Blake Bortles of baseball, good counting numbers despite playing all around bad baseball. He's never been a good hitter, and that distinction came to a head in 2018 when his power abandoned him. An ugly .223/.310/.370 with just nine home runs and a career-worst .147 ISO. As soon as Bruce lost the ability to pop the ball off the bat, he became worthless.

Of course, there's always the chance for the aging veteran to get enough run that he becomes valuable, and it's in this context that Bruce is most interesting. It's way too early for reliable ADP data, but don't expect him to show up on many top 300 lists. He'll either be undrafted or a final round selection in 2019, and with results like he had last season, I can't really argue. But Bruce's fat contract all but guarantees that he'll be a Mariner for the next two seasons, and with Seattle tearing it down to the studs they likely won't be a competitive team in 2019, leaving all of those at-bats to Bruce. In fact, they may try to feature him in hopes of him hitting enough to trade, an unlikely outcome. But despite Bruce's replacement-level reputation, this is a guy who has hit 20+ home runs in eight of his 10 seasons in the bigs. It's unlikely that all of that pop just went away, meaning there is a chance to grab a 20 home run outfielder for almost nothing. You'll want to make sure to use him exclusively as a platoon bat, but if he can produce anything close to his .256/.330/.486 against righties, he could be a real bargain.


Seattle's Plan (They Have One, Right?)

But make no mistake, the crux of this deal lies with Seattle’s ability to develop outfielder Jarred Kelenic and starter Justin Dunn. Both players were first-round picks of the Mets from 2018 and 2017, but their lofty draft status covers up less than ideal scouting profiles for both. Kelenic was drafted eighth overall and was considered the most advanced high school bat available. He plays center now, but isn’t likely to stick there long term. Unlike many highly drafted high school bats, however, the 19-year-old lacks the loud tools common among the more exciting prospects in the game. Kelenic’s ceiling is lower, but the feeling is that his floor is high. He’ll very likely be a big leaguer, but just how good of a big leaguer is entirely dependent upon him developing better game power.

As far as 2019 is concerned, the only name to know from the Seattle perspective is Dunn. College relievers tend to move quickly as long as they continue to develop and their stuff plays, and both are true in Dunn’s case. The 23-year-old has a 93-97 mph heater with good movement, two above-average breaking pitches, and a developing but potentially nasty changeup. Some scouts think that three of his pitches, specifically the fastball, changeup, and curveball, could be legitimate out pitches, which gives him a larger repertoire than most relievers. He has strong command of all of his pitches, and he struck out more than 10 batters per nine in 134.4 innings last season across high A and double A. And all that is great, but Dunn may be a better asset for deep keeper and dynasty leagues. Seattle is firmly entrenched in a total teardown and, if Dunn turns out to be a high-value reliever as the Mariners certainly hope, there’s no reason to move start the service time clock earlier than they need to. At this point, Dunn is a name to watch for late 2019 and nothing more.

Unfortunately for M’s fans, a “low-ceiling, high-floor” high schooler and a potential backend reliever are pretty light returns for Diaz, who is under team control for the next four years and will make just $570K in 2019, which is also 16 times what Swarzak will make. Had the Mariners waited until the trade deadline to deal arguably the most valuable reliever in baseball, they might have received a similar haul to what the Cubs sent the Yankees during the 2016 season. If I were an M’s fan, I’d be furious over this deal. Of course, none of that matters for your fantasy team, so I’ll get down off of my soapbox now.


Bottom Line

In terms of the fantasy impact for 2019, you can expect many more Mariners to get dealt as the off-season drags on. Shortstop Jean Segura is already expected to be dealt to Philadelphia in exchange for J.P. Crawford and other prospects. Along with catcher Mike Zunino, starting pitcher James Paxton, utility outfielder Guillermo Heredia, reliever Alex Colome, players like Mitch Haniger, Nelson Cruz, Marco Gonzales, Juan Nicasio, Dee Gordon, and perhaps even Felix Hernandez should expect to spend all or parts of 2019 with a different organization.

That leaves a metric ton of holes in the lineup, and you might have heard that Seattle had the worst farm system in baseball before the Diaz deal. With a desire to clear as much salary as possible and no incentive to promote their few good prospects, it is unclear who will be filling all of these vacancies. It is most likely that a mix of inexpensive veterans such as Denard Span or Cameron Maybin, both of whom finished last season in Seattle, and more limited prospects like designated hitter Dan Vogelbach, middle infielder Donnie Walton, and starters Rob Whaley and Max Povse. Expect to see a lot of names that you’ve never heard from getting at-bats.

Of course, this creates an opportunity. Every team that runs out older and less regarded prospects to “see what they have” occasionally runs into a player that becomes genuinely useful in fantasy. Players like Tommy Pham, Jose Pirela, Ryan O’Hearn, and Jake Cave became important contributors on fantasy championship teams over the last few seasons despite receiving little to no buzz when they were called up. Baseball is littered with success stories that scouts never saw coming. Whether or not Seattle will run one of these surprises out and who that will be is anyone’s guess, but you can count of Rotoballer to keep an eye out.