The Mariners and Rays had a busy Friday last week, combining to make three trades involving seven players. Seattle got things started with a three-player swap with the San Francisco Giants, shipping Robbie Ray to the Bay Area in exchange for Mitch Haniger, Anthony DeSclafani, and cash considerations. Then the M’s and the Rays exchanged José Caballero and Luke Raley, before Tampa Bay finished off the day by sending Andrew Kittredge to St. Louis for Richie Palacios. Both the Mariners and Rays dealt from areas of strength to address areas of need, giving both teams greater roster clarity as the offseason moves towards spring training.
Just two years ago, the three players involved in the first trade of the day would have garnered much bigger headlines. In 2021, Ray, Haniger, and DeSclafani combined to accumulate 9.4 WAR, with Ray winning the American League Cy Young award. In the two seasons since then, however, the trio has combined for just 3.3 WAR, largely thanks to a litany of injuries. Ray was completely healthy in 2022, but he wasn’t able to replicate his award-winning performance in his first season in Seattle and then made just a single start in 2023 before needing Tommy John surgery. Haniger has never been a model of health — he’s played just two full seasons in his seven-year career — and missed time with ankle, back, oblique, and forearm injuries the past two seasons. DeSclafani managed just five starts in 2022 thanks to a recurring ankle injury, then wore down towards the end of last year with shoulder fatigue and forearm inflammation.
The Mariners haven’t been quiet about the payroll limitations they’re working with this offseason; it’s why they moved on from Eugenio Suárez for a pittance and used Jarred Kelenic to clear the contracts of Marco Gonzales and Evan White. Ray is owed $73 million over the next three years, including $23 million in salary this year. After you factor in Haniger and DeSclafani’s salaries, the cash considerations the Mariners are receiving make the swap cash neutral in 2024, but the savings for Seattle in 2025 and 2026 are much more significant. In addition, rehabbing from his elbow injury will keep Ray sidelined until July or August. The Mariners’ starting rotation is clearly their team strength, and while getting Ray back during the dog days of summer would have been nice, he was a luxury they decided they couldn’t afford. That injury gave the M’s a convenient excuse to clear $50 million in future payroll while still getting some on-field value back for their roster in 2024.
In reuniting with Haniger and adding Raley, the Mariners addressed a clear need in their outfield corners. They had some combination of Dominic Canzone, Cade Marlowe, Taylor Trammell, and Zach DeLoach penciled into the two spots flanking Julio Rodríguez. During his last healthy season, Haniger posted a 120 wRC+, with excellent batted ball quality backing the results. Injuries have wracked his body, but he still managed a 10.9% barrel rate and a 46.9% hard-hit rate last year in limited action, both of which are within the norms he’s established since breaking out in 2018. And despite strikeout and walk rates that looked like they were trending in the wrong direction, his underlying plate discipline metrics all looked unchanged.
Still, while his batted ball peripherals looked fine, it seems like Haniger struggled with the cavernous dimensions of Oracle Park. His batted ball distribution looked fairly normal while he was hitting at home, but his actual wOBA on contact lagged behind his expected wOBA on contact by 60 points. On the road, things were even worse. The gap between his actual and expected wOBA on contact rose to a whopping 71 points, and his batted ball distribution looked pretty out of whack. Haniger has thrived on pulling his elevated contact, but while playing away from home last year, his pull rate fell to 36.6%. Right-handed batters have a harder time hitting at T-Mobile Park, though Haniger has proven he’s capable of overcoming those park factors in the past. It really seems like most of his struggles last year were the result of some pretty poor luck. His expected batting average (.244), expected slugging (.433), and expected wOBA (.317) all outpaced his actual results by wide margins; his 42 point difference between expected wOBA and actual wOBA was the third worst in the majors among players with at least 200 plate appearances last year. The Mariners can’t count on anywhere near a full season from Haniger, but if his batted ball luck improves and his contact quality continues to stick, he’s a solid addition to their lineup.
They’re also banking on Raley’s 2023 breakout to stick. A late-bloomer, he made his major league debut with the Dodgers back in 2021 as a 26-year-old but only received 144 plate appearances over the first two years of his big league career. With an opportunity for more regular playing time as the strong side of a platoon, Raley impressed with a 130 wRC+ last year. In an interview with David Laurila, he attributed his success to a combination of that playing time opportunity and key adjustments he made to his swing during the previous offseason.
Despite the success, there are some concerns about his ability to maintain his production moving forward. Nearly all of his plate appearances came against right-handed pitching — he had just 43 plate appearances against left-handed pitching in 2023 and has just 74 in his major league career. He can absolutely mash when deployed in a platoon, but he might be exposed if asked to fill a full-time role in the middle of Seattle’s lineup. And then there are the strikeouts. His strikeout rate fell by nearly two points to a career low last year, but it was still well above league average at 31.5%. He chases pitches out of the zone a bunch, doesn’t make much contact, and whiffs a ton. His contact quality more than made up for that flaw, but he needs to maximize every single batted ball he puts in play because there simply aren’t that many of them.
Adding Haniger and Raley to the lineup certainly fills the hole left by the departure of Teoscar Hernández, but Seattle’s roster is still in a bit of an awkward spot. Of the six outfielders who could see time in an outfield corner — Haniger, Raley, Canzone, Marlowe, Trammell, and DeLoach — five are left-handed, with Haniger the only righty. That doesn’t present many natural platoon options to protect Raley, and it means that if Haniger gets hurt again, Seattle will definitely be using Raley as a full-time outfielder. Trammell’s lack of options also presents some roster flexibility issues, though he hasn’t shown enough at the big league level for that to be a true hindrance. Both Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty could potentially be used in the outfield, but their value is tied to their positional flexibility, and the former will likely be used in some sort of infield platoon to spell Josh Rojas at second base.
The Mariners lineup is definitely better than it was a week ago, but there’s plenty of risk at play. There is potential for reward if Haniger is healthy and Raley manages to repeat his success, but their refusal to spend on a big free agent acquisition continues to hamper their ability to significantly improve their roster. They’re finding creative ways to get better, but it’s been a convoluted process to get them to this point.
The third player the M’s added to their roster provides some much needed depth to their starting rotation. Both Logan Gilbert and George Kirby crossed the 190 innings threshold last year and their workloads won’t be limited in any way this year, but Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo are still young starters who haven’t handled a full major league workload yet. Putting DeSclafani in the bullpen as the long man and having him on standby as a spot starter gives Seattle insurance if the club’s young starters need a breather or if injury strikes. Given his lengthy injury history and the way he wore down towards the end of last season, it’s a role that probably suits him better than a full-time role in the rotation.
Thankfully, DeSclafani has an arsenal that could play well out of the ‘pen. He has increasingly relied on his slider over the last few years, throwing the pitch 44.8% of the time last season. That’s good because his breaking ball is clearly his best pitch and was a big reason why his 2021 was so successful. Deemphasizing his fastballs has helped him continue to be effective, as he’s lost a bit of oomph on his hard stuff. And if he wanted to tinker with his fastballs, the Mariners have developed a well-earned reputation as an organization that can help pitchers maximize their stuff.
It was a bit surprising to see the Rays give up Raley for Caballero straight up, especially since both players have five years of team control remaining. But with Wander Franco currently on administrative leave while under investigation in the Dominican Republic for the alleged sexual abuse of a minor, Tampa Bay’s shortstop position is in flux. Junior Caminero seems better suited to third base and Taylor Walls underwent hip surgery at the end of October. That left the roster pretty thin up the middle.
Caballero was never a highly regarded prospect in the Mariners organization. He came over from Arizona in the Mike Leake deal back in 2019 and struggled through two injury plagued seasons after COVID wiped out the 2020 minor league season. He was pressed into service after Kolten Wong was benched last year and ran with his opportunity. He played fantastic defense at both second and short, and held his own at the plate with a 96 wRC+. He drew plenty of walks, crushed left-handed pitching, and was a master of manipulating the pitch clock to frustrate opposing pitchers. Depending on Walls’ injury timeline, Caballero has a shot at beginning the season as the Rays’ starting shortstop.
With Raley shipped off to Seattle, the Rays quickly found a left-handed outfielder to take his spot on the roster in Palacios. He’s seen limited action the past two seasons thanks to the Cardinals glut of outfielders, though he did produce a 120 wRC+ in just 102 plate appearances last year. Much of that success was due to a huge jump in power output; he posted a .258 ISO, far higher than he had produced in any single season in his professional career.
Both Caballero and Palacios have a few offensive traits that are shared by one of the Rays’ biggest recent development successes: Isaac Paredes.
The Rays Development Special
|Isaac Paredes (2021)
When Paredes joined the organization ahead of the 2022 season, he was a well-regarded prospect who had good bat to ball skills and could take a walk, but he didn’t have the off-the-charts contact quality that could have made him really standout. The Rays had him start pulling a ton of his elevated contact and the results speak for themselves: a 128 wRC+ and 51 home runs over the last two seasons. The two newcomers both possess a mature approach at the plate with good contact rates, but except for Palacios’ breakout last year, their power has been lacking.
The reason Palacios enjoyed newfound success in 2023 was because he started pulling a ton of his elevated contact; 44% of his fly balls were hit to the right side and he produced a 1.286 wOBA on those batted balls, well outpacing his expected .636 wOBA. That’s the exact recipe Paredes used to break out two years ago. Caballero also pulls a ton of his elevated contact, though his actual results weren’t nearly as impressive. With a strong approach at the plate as a foundation, both Caballero and Palacios could thrive in a development environment suited to making the most of their swings.
The Rays’ penchant for conjuring high-leverage relievers seemingly at will, you can see why they were willing to trade Kittredge. He’ll turn 34 in a few months and is in his last year of salary arbitration. After an outstanding 2021 season, injuries derailed most of the past two years. He returned from Tommy John surgery last August and pitched decently well, though his strikeout rate never returned to its lofty heights from his All-Star season. He’ll give the Cardinals a veteran reliever with high-leverage experience to supplement the options at the back of their bullpen.