The Mets and Mariners reportedly completed a long-gestating trade on Saturday, with reliever Edwin Díaz and expensive position player Robinson Canó going to New York and less-useful reliever Anthony Swarzak and less-useful position player Jay Bruce going to Seattle. Three prospects will join Swarzak and Bruce in Seattle to make up the talent gap, while the Mariners will add extra money in the other direction.
From a pure dollars-and-cents valuation perspective, the deal makes some sense for both teams. The numerous wrinkles involved complicate matters, but the teams still line up fairly well. If most prospect-for-veteran trades involve some fashion of a Prospect A + Prospect B = Player C calculus, this one forms a more monstrous equation: Player A + Player B - Player B’s Salary + Extra Money = Prospect C + Prospect D + Prospect E - Player F’s Salary - Player G’s Salary. But it’s ugly, and twisted, and almost needlessly complex.
And even if that equation balances, the actual implications might not make a huge amount of sense for either team. It’s a fascinating deal that might well create further ripples this winter. Let’s dive in.
First, the Mariners’ side, which is more understandable from an owner’s perspective — though, crucially, not a baseball operations one. In trading James Paxton to the other New York team over Thanksgiving week, the Mariners signaled their intention to rebuild after their illusory 89-win season in 2018, and Seattle ownership clearly didn’t want to pay the remaining half of Canó’s 10-year, $240 million contract in a period of noncontention. That’s sensible in a vacuum, as Seattle’s payroll has climbed to all-time highs for the franchise in recent seasons (though the team’s most expensive player, starter Félix Hernández, will be a free agent after 2019, so the upcoming overall burden wouldn’t be as arduous even with Canó).
But the Mariners didn’t trade Canó in a vacuum. They couldn’t, because his remaining contract is sufficiently pricey so as to make it untradable by itself. So Seattle tied Canó to Díaz, their best remaining trade chip — and, as an elite closer with four remaining years before reaching free agency, one of the best remaining trade chips in the entire sport — which effectively hamstrung the return they could fetch for the closer.
At the trade deadline just four months ago, the Padres brought back Cleveland catcher Francisco Mejía, a top-30 (or even top-10, depending on the ranker) prospect, for 3.5 years of reliever Brad Hand and 5.5 years of reliever Adam Cimber. And even if Hand’s price was inflated by the midseason deadline, that’s not a disparately valuable haul compared to those in offseason deals for elite closers: The Craig Kimbrel deal in November 2015 netted two mid-top-100 prospects (outfielder Manny Margot and shortstop Javy Guerra) plus two more youngsters for San Diego, and Houston sent Philadelphia five young players, of which two were top-100 talents, for Ken Giles — who wasn’t on Díaz’s level — a month later.
Had Seattle shopped Díaz by his lonesome, who knows what prospect package it might have received in exchange? Instead, the Canó tax, even tempered by Seattle taking back the last two years and around half the worth of his salary (split as $20 million in cash going to New York, plus $26 million worth of Bruce and $8 million worth of Swarzak), limited the Mariners’ possible return.
Outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Justin Dunn are decent prospects but not special ones, whose public perception is perhaps inflated by their draft places (no. 6 overall in 2018 for Kelenic, no. 19 in 2016 for Dunn). Kelenic ranks in the back half of top-100 lists and might become a starting center fielder, but he’s not the prized return one might expect for Díaz, nor is Dunn the kind of can’t-miss pitching prospect who can excite a fan base. The third prospect going to Seattle, righty Gerson Bautista, came to New York at the 2017 deadline for Addison Reed and projects as a middle reliever at best.
The best way to rebuild is to add incredibly talented young players, and the best way to add incredibly talented young players is to maximize the return for the best remaining major leaguers. By muting Díaz’s worth with the Canó contract, Seattle cost itself talent just to save some money — and given the rumors that have them pairing expensive pitcher Mike Leake with shortstop Jean Segura in a similar fashion, this doesn’t appear to be a one-time anomaly, either.
The Mets’ side of the trade, meanwhile, involves so many moving parts and forward-looking assumptions that it’s difficult to encompass in one line, so let’s start with the basics. Barring injury, Díaz will help his new team for the next few seasons. The question is how much he’ll help. In two of his three big league campaigns, he’s recorded strikeout rates north of 40 percent, as he pairs an electric fastball with a darting slider to overpower hitters — but relief pitchers are incredibly volatile, and Díaz himself was more mundane (with a FIP north of 4 and just a 32 percent K rate) in 2017. He might give the Mets 50-plus saves and the equivalent value of an ace next season and the seasons after that, as he just did for Seattle, or he might provide another example of how a tiny step back for a reliever can wreak tremendous negatives. Just last winter, Swarzak looked like a great buy for the Mets in free agency, after his surprisingly dominant 2017, but now he’s an ancillary piece in a trade being shipped out for cost-saving reasons.
Canó, too, should help New York next season, though Mets officials have leaked their concerns that he’ll provide value for the next two years but not the final three of his deal. The second baseman has been a consistent and productive player through his career, and though his final Seattle season was marred by a PED suspension, he hit .317/.363/.497 after returning to the field in August and should stave off age-related decline a bit longer. A Mets infield of Canó, Todd Frazier, Amed Rosario, and powerful first-base prospect Peter Alonso, with Jeff McNeil as a rover, pairs nicely with an outfield that features Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto. That’s an enviable lineup to combine with a new shutdown closer and an even more enviable rotation.
And that’s where the optimistic future hits a potentially massive snag. Rumors that the Mets will trade Noah Syndergaard have swirled for the past week-plus, with FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel tweeting Thursday that the Mets are “motivated” to trade their long-locked starter and that the “expectation is he will be traded this winter.”
Syndergaard’s strikeouts regressed a tad last season, but he was still a 4-win pitcher, and his arm combined with his contract situation (still three controlled seasons left before hitting free agency) make him a top-30 trade asset. Unless the Mets manage to pry away a massive return for Syndergaard — and it doesn’t seem likely, given recent returns for pitchers of his caliber and the rumored prospect negotiations with interested teams — trading him after making a win-now move would represent a strange two-step: forward and then well back in the same winter. The two-pronged plan recalls the Phillies’ series of moves in December 2009 when, after adding Roy Halladay, they traded Cliff Lee to replenish the farm system they had just depleted to add Halladay. That was the rare deal that was so intently focused on the future that it came all the way back around to become short-sighted, and trading Syndergaard after adding win-now pieces would make similarly little sense.
To capitalize on its two new All-Stars, New York must instead add further pieces before spring training. The catcher position is still bare, and the Mets could use another outfielder and reliever, to list just the most glaring needs. Perhaps the offsetting salaries of Bruce and Swarzak won’t prevent New York from adding more contracts plus Canó’s, but with the famously stingy Wilpons making payroll decisions, that’s not a sure thing, either.
In sum, the overall tilt of the deal seems Mets-bound, as New York at least tried to improve its team and added the inarguably most valuable player involved in Díaz. Splitting the messy deal into two parts — the Canó-centric money part and the Díaz-for-prospects part — has the Mets winning both sides, at least for now. And while the Mets could still prove to have blundered, if Díaz regresses and Canó ages poorly and they really have willfully hung a contract albatross around their own necks for the early 2020s, the Mariners definitely did, having squandered their optimal chance to improve a barren farm system. Was that missed opportunity worth cutting just half of Canó’s salary?
Some trades are zero-sum, some win-win, but this might be a rare lose-lose. Or at least a lose-now-lose-later. But the Mets now have the outline of a window for contention, even if it’s temporary — the next question is whether they seize it with more offseason construction or take steps to push it away.