Are you, or have you ever been, in a position to make decisions about major league team personnel? Do you like trading? Have you ever held a dime and wished it were two nickels, or vice versa? If so, stay where you are, remain calm, and Jerry Dipoto will be calling you soon to make some deals. Like this one:
MLB righties Anthony DeSclafani and Justin Topa along with prospects OF Gabriel Gonzalez and RHP Darren Bowen is the four player return for Polanco, per sources. Believe cash is also involved. https://t.co/GQDKtwaogh
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) January 30, 2024
Prospects! Relievers! Reclamation projects! Everyday regulars! This one has a little bit of everything. But it’s more complicated than that, because it’s not your standard offseason trade, where one team is downgrading to look for the future while the other builds for today. Both of these teams have playoff hopes this year, and they’re each using this trade to improve their chances. It’s a weird one.
See, this trade helps the Mariners get good – or at least better. Before making this deal, they were planning on heading into 2024 with Josh Rojas and Luis Urías covering second and third base between them. I’m as big of an Urías fan as you’ll find, but that’s too little coverage. Rojas was bad last year, and Urías was worse. Sure, they both picked it up after changing teams mid-season, but we’re talking ugly stats – a 78 and 83 wRC+, respectively. Our projection systems think Urías will recover to around league average, but they’re less optimistic about Rojas; he’s more of a platoon piece.
Plugging Jorge Polanco into the mix makes everything work a lot better. Now there are three guys for two spots, which gives the team plenty of options. Rojas can rest against lefties, Polanco can spell J.P. Crawford at short with someone filling in for him at second, and Dylan Moore can get into the mix as well when he’s not playing the outfield. If you can’t get superstar infielders, getting a nice big mix of options is a solid plan B.
To be clear, Polanco isn’t a superstar. He’s a first-division regular, a second baseman with above-average offense thanks to some sneaky power. He launched 14 homers in half a season last year, though he’s normally more doubles than bombs. Defensively, he’s a little below average at second, though I’m surprised by how negatively Statcast grades him (–16 Outs Above Average over the last three seasons) and think he’s better than the numbers there. (DRS agrees with me.) I think the Depth Charts projection looks right over a full season: 2.9 WAR in 602 plate appearances. The one downside? Polanco has logged a combined 788 plate appearances over the last two years.
Still, the M’s have backups at the ready. Losing a month’s worth of Polanco production is less of a pain when you can plug in Urías or Rojas instead of a minor leaguer. Also, Seattle gave up very little in terms of projected 2024 production to get Polanco – a swingman who would only crack the rotation if things went wrong and a medium-leverage reliever. This is a clean way to add wins right away.
Sure, getting Polanco is nice, but you can’t look at this deal in a vacuum. Before the Mariners acquired him, they needed to add someone to play second or third because they previously had traded away a different version of Polanco — third baseman Eugenio Suárez. Like Polanco, Suárez has been a much better offensive player than the Rojas/Urías duo. They flipped Suárez for backup catcher Seby Zavala and reliever Carlos Vargas; in doing so, they saved roughly $13 million dollars. Then they picked up Urías in exchange for a potentially good reliever (Isaiah Campbell) and paid him $5 million. The net deal: plus one Urías, minus one Suárez, plus one backup catcher, and $8 million in savings.
The Robbie Ray trade with the Giants that landed Anthony DeSclafani in Seattle furthers the big combinatorial muddle of the Mariners’ deals. As Ken Rosenthal and Dan Hayes reported, they will cover an aggregate $8 million of DeScalfani’s $12 million deal – the $6 million that San Francisco was already covering plus $2 million of their own. Justin Topa is earning a bit more than the major league minimum. Polanco, on the other hand, will make $10.5 million this year before he has the option to reach free agency. That means the Mariners added roughly $6 million in 2024 salary in this trade – they’ll save $500,000 by replacing Topa with someone making the league minimum and $4 million by not paying DeSclafani, then pay Polanco $10.5 for a net gain of $6 million.
The updated trade tree looks like this: minus Suárez, plus Polanco and Urías, minus one reliever (minus Topa and Campbell, plus Vargas), plus one backup catcher, plus $2 million in savings… and minus two prospects. For 2024, I think that’s inarguably a success, even if it’s a finicky and trade-heavy way to achieve it. I’d clearly take Urías and Polanco over Suárez; I like each of them about as much as him on their own. Backup catchers and relievers are roughly equivalent in value. The Mariners seem to be really good at working with relievers to improve them, too, so I wouldn’t read too much into how the two guys they traded produced in 2023, or the one they added, for that matter. The $2 million in savings is nothing to sneeze at; that could fund a remodel of owner John Stanton’s office (I’ve been watching a lot of Love It or List It recently) or maybe be put back into the team.
But the Prospects
Right, but the prospects! Wondering about their long-term value, I did what everyone does in this situation: got detailed notes from Eric Longenhagen about them. Wait, you guys don’t do this? You’re really missing out. Here’s Gabriel Gonzalez, the more highly regarded of the two:
I’ve tended to be a little lower than the consensus on 20-year-old outfielder Gabriel Gonzalez because he’s a physically mature corner outfielder with 30-grade plate discipline. Gonzalez had a 55% swing rate and 37% chase rate in 2023. He enjoyed the Cal League hitting environment to the tune of a 150 wRC+ prior to a promotion to High-A Everett, after which his performance came crashing down to Earth. Up until then he had crushed the lower minors despite these underlying issues, which make his profile a prospect Jenga tower. Gonzalez is not without merit as a prospect; he has good in-zone feel for contact and above-average exit velocities for his age. Because he’s a stocky guy I’m not inclined to project a ton on his raw power (108 mph max exit velo in 2023, good for a 19-year-old but below MLB average). He’s going to have to keep raking as he climbs to be an impact regular. It’s more likely he turns into a Harold Ramírez type of role player.
That’s not a very exciting report. We’re lower on him than a lot of the other prospecting outlets, but for what it’s worth (not very much, perhaps), I’m with Eric on this one. If I’m getting a bat-only prospect, I’d prefer louder pop, more projectability, or a more discerning eye at the plate. That’s not to say he 100% won’t pan out, but despite the torrid numbers in A-Ball, he’s still a project. A 40+ grade sounds about right to me; he’ll slot in at 13th on our Twins list.
As befits my hipster tendencies, I like Darren Bowen more, even though he is a less exciting prospect. Again, Eric:
Bowen was a Division-II draftee out of UNC Pembroke who had a strong pro debut as an old-for-A-ball starter at Modesto, where he had a 3.88 ERA in 15 starts. He began the season working just a couple innings at a time with a fastball that was averaging 95 mph. As he was stretched out across the rest of the season, he would sometimes work as many as five or six innings, and his fastball velocity fell into the 91-94 mph range on average, though when he executes his fastball to the top of the strike zone, it has a very shallow angle that’s hard to hit, even at 92 mph. Bowen’s upper-70s slider has huge natural action and could be a premium weapon if his command and overall consistency improve. Either his mid-80s cutter or changeup has to improve if he is going to have the repertoire depth to start. I’m not usually inclined to project heavily on the changeups of pitchers whose arm swings are this long, but it’s not unusual for small school prospects like Bowen to develop substantially upon receiving pro instruction for a while. He is also so lanky and such a smooth on-mound operator that it’s plausible he could end up throwing harder deeper into his 20s. He’s a good developmental starting pitching prospect who might have just been scratching the surface in 2023.
Thirteenth-round picks who walk 11% of batters in A-ball at 22 usually don’t pan out. Let’s not go crazy just yet. But I buy Eric’s point about small school pitchers having lower-hanging fruit available for development teams, and Bowen’s raw stuff is intriguing. There are plenty of flat-plane fastball guys who live in the lower 90s, particularly if they have multiple useful secondaries to go along with it. Dart throws like this usually don’t work out, but if you can take 10 of them, one will probably hit. There’s a lot of probabilistic thinking involved in running a farm system, and Bowen is the right kind of guy to bulk up your odds.
Are either of these guys integral to Seattle’s future? Definitely not. The most likely outcome is that neither will ever be a major league regular. But that’s just how the prospect game works. In getting Polanco, the Mariners’ future got a little bit worse in expectation, and their ability to swing similar trades went down somewhat. I actually think it’s a reasonable exchange, but the Mariners might have been able to do better if they were a little more flexible in what they were willing to accept in return for multiple interesting prospects.
Right, the Twins
It’s fun to look at everything from Seattle’s perspective because they’ve been on a trade bonanza this offseason. I got to make a home renovation joke in there, too. What’s not to love? But the Twins have had an interesting offseason of their own, and this trade just continues to muddle the mixture. On the surface, trading Polanco doesn’t hurt their 2024 chances much. Edouard Julien will handle second, with Willi Castro and Kyle Farmer providing backup coverage. Top prospect Brooks Lee is already in Triple-A and might debut in the majors this year; he’s blocked from shortstop by Carlos Correa, so he’ll play second and boot Julien to a more fitting defensive home.
If everything goes right, in fact, the team might hardly miss Polanco. A cascade of younger options could fully replicate his value. But there’s a pretty clear problem with that: a lot of things have to go right for Polanco to be rendered unnecessary. It’s not clear that Julien can handle second base full-time. Sure, Lee is in Triple-A, but he batted .237/.304/.428 there, and it’s no guarantee that he’ll be an average hitter in the bigs right away, or even ever. Injuries matter, too; subtract one of these guys from the mix due to injury and another due to underperformance, and the Twins could be looking at a pretty bare cupboard when they’re interested in winning the AL Central.
If it weren’t for DeSclafani and Topa, I’d hate this trade for them (well, obviously). But even though they’re trading a solid regular in the middle of a competitive cycle, I think they got enough in return that the deal works. They inarguably need pitching. The back of their rotation is full of “yeah, maybe” types. Chris Paddack looked great last year – in exactly 14.2 innings of work across four levels. Louie Varland looked like the real deal in Triple-A, but got hit hard in his second bite at the major league apple. Bailey Ober – OK, I like Ober quite a bit in fact, so I’m not gonna say anything mean about him, but my point is that the Twins have both a thin and risky rotation.
DeSclafani gives them an insurance policy of sorts. I wouldn’t expect him to be available all year, because he’s had his fair share of injuries, but 15-20 starts and a bit of relief work will raise Minnesota’s floor considerably.
Likewise, I’m not sure what they’ll get out of Topa, but it’ll probably be better than whoever he’s replacing. The Twins relief corps closed last year on fire – but they did so with a lot of help from Paddack and Varland. Their bullpen is nice at the back end, with Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, Brock Stewart, and Caleb Thielbar all good options. But it gets thin quickly after that, and Topa fits nicely into that gap.
Is Topa as good as his 2023 numbers (2.61 ERA in 69 innings)? Almost assuredly not. He had the kind of home run luck you rarely see, allowed the lowest BABIP of his career, and walked almost no one. Betting on some regression is prudent. I do like his new cutter, which gives him more utility against opposite-handed batters (40% usage against lefties, 6% against righties), but I have him down as a 3.75-4.00 ERA kind of guy, not a lights-out stopper.
Overall, I think DeSclafani and Topa increase Minnesota’s chances of making the playoffs. In the same way that losing Polanco challenges its offensive depth, adding two feasible options to the pitching staff alleviates some issues there.
As a bonus, the Twins are just as budget-constrained as the Mariners, so saving a tiny bit of money really helps. GM Derek Falvey told Hayes that he planned to put the cost savings from this deal back into the roster. Sure, it’s only $6 million, but if you’re just looking for some offensive depth, $6 million goes a long way. Sign a utility infielder of some type, or even an outfielder that frees Castro from his duties there, and you can probably make this whole thing close to a wash on offense considering how many good hitters Minnesota had to squeeze into a nine-man lineup last year.
I’m giving the Mariners a standalone C- but a contingent B+. They traded a lot to get Polanco — the going rate for prospects like Gonzalez and Bowen is a bit higher than this — but they didn’t have much of a choice because their trade-spree offseason had left them too light on offense. They badly needed a first-division regular, and they didn’t give up any 2024 equity to get one. Will this trade hurt them down the line? I mean, maybe. But I think they’re right to live for the now, even if the cost is a little eye-watering.
The Twins just get a straight A. They were in the position of not getting that much marginal value out of Polanco because they just so happened to have a pile of viable second basemen waiting behind him. They also needed pitching depth, far more so than your average playoff contender. The obvious move was to deal Polanco for pitching help or salary relief, and they did both. Getting two interesting prospects in the mix is a huge bonus. 10/10, would trade again.