Prior to last year, when I chose to abandon it mid-season, I was running a website all about Your Seattle Mariners baseball club. If it was still up and running, this would have been a full couple of weeks of posting there thanks to the annual Major League Baseball trade "season" that came to a close on August 1st. A lot of movement there to cover.
For better or worse—mostly better, as the work-to-benefit ratio at that site was pretty sad—I didn't pay as close attention to such things this year since I didn't feel a need to cover it online, but I have been involved in conversations as well as observed other comments regarding the trades made and not made by the Mariners.
Since July 1st, the M's traded away outfielder A.J. Pollock, pitchers Chris Flexen and Trevor Gott, and five minor leaguers of little impact (the most highly regarded of which is OF Jack Larsen, traded to San Francisco for a Player to be Named Later or other compensation to be determined); no one, including me, seems to think those deals are particularly notable. Pollock was a bust on a one-year contract, Flexen had pitched himself out of a job, Gott was expendable to get Flexen's contract off the books, and no real depth was lost from the minors.
They also released second baseman Kolten Wong and traded reliever Paul Sewald to Arizona. Those are the ones people talk about.
Wong was a disappointment with the M's after coming over in an offseason trade with Milwaukee, but to be fair, he was only given one chance, right at the beginning of the year. He started out slow, hit his high-water mark on May 10th (.195, .287 OBP), and then was given an average of 1.7 PAs per game the rest of the way. He might have fought his way out of the slump, he might not have. We'll never know. He hasn't caught on with another team yet, but I'm sure he will before long, and I'd bet he bats better than .250 with that new club. Still, his departure doesn't hurt the Mariners at all.
The Sewald trade is the one people question. Some think it was throwing in the towel on making the ’23 postseason. I disagree, I think it was a great move, selling high on a player who'll never be more in demand and improving the team long- and short-term.
The return for the M's in these deals was two minor-league pitchers of little consequence, a big-league reliever in Trent Thornton, two PTBNL or cash, and the three guys from the Sewald deal with the Diamondbacks: IF Josh Rojas, OF Dominic Canzone, and Triple-A 2B Ryan Bliss.
Rojas is no help. He basically replaces Wong with worse defense. He's versatile, can play four or five positions adequately, but the M's already have a better player like that in Sam Haggerty, currently toiling in Triple-A with a .321/.406/.580 slash line that makes me shake my head—why is he still down there while the M's keep trotting out Dylan Moore and Rojas? Even José Caballero hasn't been that productive, batting just .188/.275/.250 with a near-30% K rate since the middle of June. I'd much rather have Haggs on the roster than any of those three.
Anyway, though Rojas is meh at best, Canzone and Bliss are good players that just need a chance to prove themselves, and they play positions of need for the Mariners. The Seattle outfield is a mess, with last year's Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez the only solid everyday guy in the mix. Teoscar Hernández has been disappointing—though he's shown signs of being his old self of late (batting .302 over his last 10 games)—and Jarred Kelenic got mad and broke his foot while having a tantrum after striking out a while back. Canzone had a traditional development period in the minors, not skipping levels like the Mariners tend to do, and tore it up in Triple-A the last couple of seasons (.939 OPS in 588 ABs) before his recent callup and just needs an adjustment period to find his way in the bigs. Bliss needs a full year at Triple-A to gauge his readiness; he mashed at Double-A, which is promising, but skipping Triple-A is usually a bad move. Still, there's upside to the guy and he should either be a 2B candidate in ’25 or mid-’24 or a good trade chip.
More to the point, relievers in general and closers in particular are, in my view, tremendously overvalued. The number of truly dominant, sustainably effective closers in baseball since the save became a thing is small. There have been maybe a dozen. Half that if you're really strict in your metrics. Every team would like to have Mariano Rivera or Dennis Eckersley at the back end of the ’pen, but plenty of very good teams get by with the sort of effective late-inning relief that lasts for a year or two and/or that is found on some other club's scrap heap. Lots of guys can rack up saves. You know who's 21st on the all-time saves list? José Mesa. Yes, that José Mesa. There are 17 guys that have had 50+ saves in a season and I bet you can't name them all.
The list of relievers the Mariners have used as closers—effectively!—includes names like David Aardsma, J.J. Putz, Brandon League, Tom Wilhelmsen, Steve Cishek, and Mike Schooler. Even Bobby Ayala was decent at it in 1994. Paul Sewald is not out of place on that list, guys that were good for a while then flamed out or just had a couple of fine years in otherwise average careers. Point being, closers are easily replaced and Canzone/Bliss/Rojas is a more than solid return for a name from that list in general and Canzone is more important to the team right now by himself than was Sewald.
Sewald himself was a scrap-heap find. Picked up off the Mets' discard pile, he'd been a middling to poor relief option in New York, 14 losses and a 5.50 ERA over 147 innings. In his first opportunity with the Diamondbacks, Sewald blew the save while surrendering a pair of homers. The Mariners will plug someone else into the role—likely Andres Muñoz, who fits the classic closer "profile"—two-pitch type with fastball near or at 100mph and a favored breaking pitch—a lot more than Sewald did, but scrap-heap pickups like Justin Topa or Thornton might do just as well.
Seattle is now eight games above .500 and a better bet to make the playoffs now than they were a week ago. Good job.
Elsewhere in the baseball world, I happened on a section of baseball-reference.com that attempts to track the effects of Commissioner Rob Manfred's rule changes that went into effect this year. To my great non-surprise, so far the results are not such that it makes me change my opinion on them—on the whole, I still think they do more harm than good.
The pitch clock has shortened the overall time of games. To date in 2023, the average time of game is two hours and thirty-eight minutes. To my mind that's an overcorrection—2:45-2:50 seems about right for an average to me, and that was the norm from 1998, when MLB expanded to its current 30 team structure, through about 2011. From 2012 through last year it hovered around the three-hour mark. So Manfred has cut 22 minutes or so from the typical game, the most significant effect of his changes, mostly by reducing the time between the start of one plate appearance and the start of the next by 15-20 seconds. (The most striking number might appear to be the percentage of games over 3.5 hours—a minuscule 0.3% this year—but some of that is because of the inane, detestable zombie-runner-in-extra-innings rule that should be excised from the game immediately if not sooner, along with the at-least-equally detestable designated hitter rule. The zombie runners were a thing in 2020-2022 also, and there were a lot of 3:30-plus games in those years, so one could infer the pitch clock to be the primary factor, but I'd need to see data on the number of extra-inning games in each year.) I submit that this can be tweaked to make the change less severe by making the pitch clock a standard 20 seconds, not 20 seconds with runners on and 15 without.
The larger bases and the restriction on pitchers keeping runners close to the base has resulted in an uptick in stolen base attempts to roughly 0.9 attempts per game, or about what it was in 2012. The big difference is in the success rate: 80%, or about 10% higher than used to be the norm when attempts were that frequent. (Even my favorite team of all time, the 1985 Cardinals, which has that honor in part because they stole tons of bases, had a then-elite success rate of 77%.) This I attribute to the bigger bases and I feel like it cheapens the play. (Although, it may also be attributable to the newish more-common practice of catchers resting on one knee; the traditional catcher crouch is faster when it comes to getting a throw off to second base.) I love me a stolen base, don't get me wrong, but it loses something when it's not just the speedy guys that can get them.
The change that netted almost zero change is the ban on defensive shifts. Maybe a few individual players have benefitted form this, but overall it's been a big nothing:
|Yr||Gms||BA||BAbip||H/9||1B/9||HR/9||K/9||R/9||Ground Ball BA||LHB Ground Ball BA||RHB Ground Ball BA||Line Drive BA||LHB Line Drive BA||RHB Line Drive BA|
The ’23 numbers are more than ’22's, sure, but you only have to go back to 2016-2017 for higher ones across most columns (or lower in the case of Ks per 9 innings). Was the shift really that big a factor from 2017-2022 or is that dip within a statistical expectation?
Obviously, less than one full season's worth of stats isn't going to be definitive of anything, we'd need to see a few years' accumulation to really see if anything really changes much.