The net result is that the Mets get Robinson Cano for essentially 5 years and $63.5 million - roughly $12.7 million annual average value. They also get one more year of Edwin Diaz at the MLB league minimum. The Mariners eat a good chunk of Cano’s contract by absorbing Jay Bruce’s and Anthony Swarzak’s contracts and send $20 million or so to help pay for years three, four, and five remaining on Cano’s deal.
For the Mets, this clearly looks like a win-now move. They get one of the best young closers in baseball, plus a guy who even at 36 is still an above average second baseman who will likely still be at least league average at 37. Plus, Cano can slide over to first and still be a productive player likely at 38. He’s probably a lost cause for the last two years of that deal. Diaz, on the other hand, comes with 2019 plus three additional years of team control in the form of arbitration eligible seasons.
While Diaz could get pricey, he is probably well worth whatever salaries he gets in arbitration, as long as he doesn’t flame out. Cano gives the Mets a pretty good player while dumping two players who were in dire need of a change in scenery. The Mariners look like they’re going backwards - and they probably are - but as we’ll see as we break this down, they may end up coming out ahead here.
The Mets’ End & Robinson Cano
Obviously, Cano loved the idea of returning to the Big Apple, even if it’s in Queens. Cano instantly makes the Mets a better team by perhaps 3 wins in 2019 and probably 2 wins in 2020 - taking at bats away from the now departed Bruce in the lineup essentially. As we’ve said already, the last three years of that deal may be a lost cause, but while he’s going to decline, it may not be as sharp as the majority of players.
Steamer thinks that Cano will be worth about 3.1 WAR in 2019 with a .283./343 .460 slash line, assuming slightly below average defense. There’s no reason for me to believe that he will be much less than average at first, second, or third base, wherever he ends up playing. But, I think that 3 WAR is reasonable. That’s worth about $24 million, or what he’s actually making on an average annual basis.
If Cano is worth 2 WAR in 2020 and 1 WAR in 2021, that’s $24 million in value. So, can the Mets get about $15.5 million out of his last two seasons? As a bench bat hitting from the left side with power, it’s possible he ekes out a win or win and a half in those last two years. That’s still a slight negative. But, when you consider Bruce and Swarzak dead weight - money you were going to pay anyway over the next couple of seasons, plus the Mariners cash - you’re almost breaking even.
Because I’m a bit more bullish on Cano’s defense, I’d say a 4 WAR season isn’t out of the question in 2019 or 2020. If he has a great 2019 and the Mets fans are smiling and he defies his age at 38 in 2020, this trade is already looking fair for the Mets.
The great news is, this is before you even count Diaz!
It’s well-known that Edwin Diaz was a major part of the Mariners being an extremely lucky team in one-run games in 2018. He was worth 3.5 WAR, a feat that would make him “worth” about $28 million on a one-year deal on the open market. That’s assuming that a 1 WAR player can fetch about $8 million a year. Of course, can we really expect that sort of performance again?
Popular projection system Steamer projects Diaz for only 1.3 WAR next season. The general consensus is that he’s probably more of a 2 WAR player next year even taking a step back. If we’re conservative and say he’s worth 2 WAR in year one, 1.5 WAR in year two, 1 WAR in year three, and 0.5 WAR in year four, that’s $40 million of value over 4 years. His arbitration salaries will likely not amount to that, so that would be considered “excess value” which is always a good thing.
Even if Cano doesn’t live up to being a league average player in each of the three seasons overall - counting 2022 as a potential wash - this still looks to be an even deal for the Mets with a slight chance they come out ahead in the end.
But, even with the Mariners apparently going backwards… are they really?
The Mariners’ End
Jay Bruce was worth 0.1 WAR in 94 games for the Mets in 2018. Yes, that’s pretty dreadful. But in 2017, he was worth 2.6 WAR for the Mets and Indians. That led to a contract that brought Bruce back to New York and paid him $13 million in 2018 and will pay him $13 million in 2019 and in 2020. In 2019, Bruce will be 32. He’s not necessarily washed up.There’s a cause for optimism in that the Mariners scouts saw something that will make him a useful role player on the 2019 and 2020 teams.
The real hope is that Bruce is able to be some sort of respectable in 2019 and 2020, enough to potentially flip him for a fringe prospect as a bench bat for the stretch run in 2020. After all, Bruce’s power is still in there. While .223/.310/.370 is hardly a good slash line, his 11.4% walk rate was a career high and his 20.8% strikeout rate isn’t bad at all - one of his better seasons in that regard actually.
Steamer projects Bruce to be worth 0.5 WAR in 119 games with a .229/.304/.425 slash line which amounts to something like league average but with decidedly below average defense. That’s not worth anywhere close to $13 million in value. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility he hits slightly better and is worth closer to a win. Considering he’s sharing at-bats with Ben Gamel and Ryon Healy means that he may actually - believe it or not - not be a negative. With the Mariners picking up Carlos Santana, too, in a separate trade, Bruce may never have to face a left-handed pitcher in a big spot at all.
Dee Gordon will slide to second base now, presumably. Bruce will probably find at bats at first base, left field, and designated hitter against predominantly right-handed pitchers. It’s not impossible that Bruce hits .240 with his usual good walk rate and manageable strikeout rate with his typical power. He’ll probably never be worth more than 2 WAR total over the next two years, but that gives you about $16 million in value.
Keep in mind that Bruce could catch fire and be worth 3 WAR. Then another team may be willing to take him if the Mariners eat some of his salary in exchange for a fringe prospect. That’s probably what the Mariners are hoping. But, if he’s a net-zero, the Mariners will live with two years of keeping him on the roster as a decent power option from the bench.
Swarzak has been mightily inconsistent. However, there’s plenty of reason to believe that 2018 was just an unlucky year. After all, a .344 batting average on balls in play is pretty unusual. While Swarzak had a 6.15 ERA and 6 home runs surrendered in only 26 ⅓ innings, his expected FIP (xFIP) was only 4.33. xFIP takes into account the high BABIP and HR/9 rate which aren’t really sustainable.
Positive regression leads projection system Steamer to see a 0.5 WAR mark for Swarzak in 2019. That’s with a 3.64 ERA in 65 innings. While that doesn’t live up to his $8 million salary, keep in mind this guy has been a shutdown reliever before. He may easily recoup $4 million in value here. Plus, it’s only for one year. He may not become the closer of the Mariners, but he well may, being probably the best reliever left on the roster. That’s especially true with Juan Nicasio and James Pazos being traded.
So far, it looks like the Mariners are only recouping about $20 million in value out of the $36.5 million in salary they’re taking on. But, these are short-term commitments.
It’s the other three guys that could make this trade a win for the Mariners.
Kelenic is considered the “get” of the deal for the Mariners. He’s expected to be a regular contributor by 2021, so he’s a couple years away. He’s still raw, but his raw power, arm, and speed make him intriguing. It’s too early to project him accurately, but his debut should come when the Mariners are truly ready to content in a couple of years. That was the idea here.
Dunn is very likely a useful pitcher for the Mariners by 2020, maybe even sometime in 2019. He’s got a good fastball and slider and decent enough curveball. Improvements of his command and of his changeup will determine if he’ll be a mid-rotation starter, back-end starter, or bullpen guy. Even if all they get out of Dunn is a decent reliever, the Mariners could make out well. It’s also possible that the former first-round pick becomes a trade chip.
Bautista may be the most interesting guy in this trade right now. His numbers from 2018 look terrible, but they are based on extremely unlucky numbers on balls in play. His 5 game debut with the Mets last year was atrocious. But, this guy has a big fastball, a decent changeup, and a developing slider. It’s possible that Bautista becomes the Mariners’ closer of the future, in which case losing Diaz doesn’t feel so bad.
The Salary Relief
The real reason that the Mariners made this trade is simple: it was a salary dump. The Mariners save something like $63.5 million over the next five years. The majority of that is in 2021, 2022, and 2023. This means that the Mariners could potentially sign an all-star caliber player to a three-year deal in those years. They also get two major league players who may never play up to their contracts, but could catch lightning in a bottle with one or both of them and flip them for fringe prospects.
Also, while Diaz was making peanuts in 2019, it’s not unrealistic that Diaz was going to make $8-9 million in 2020 in arbitration, and potentially $10-12 million in 2021 and 2022. While great closers are great, obviously, they are not musts for rebuilding teams. Also, as we’ve seen, Bautista could end up being Edwin Diaz lite. Maybe not, but that’s the risk you take in these deals.
What we do know is that the Mariners saved a ton of money. Also, Bruce and Swarzak were buy-low candidates who could certainly just be washed up, but it’s just as likely they’re still useful. They’re selling high on Diaz, and a lot of people think that Diaz alone could’ve netted more. But in the end, the financial flexibility cannot be overstated.
Overall Grade of the Mets-Mariners trade.
I’m actually going to say that I definitely prefer the Mariners side of this trade. A lot of people have graded the Mariners return as a B and the Mets return a C. That’s because three of those five Cano years could be a disaster. Also, Diaz could flame out, although unlikely. The Mariners get three really intriguing young guys. Also, my personal feeling is Bruce and Swarzak are being discounted as mere replacement level players who may actually have real value left in the tank. They will absorb at-bats and innings that the Mariners will have to make up somewhere anyway, without blocking anyone.
As I’m writing this, the Mariners have also traded shortstop Jean Segura, plus relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to the Phillies for shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Carlos Santana, saving them even more money. The rebuild for the Mariners is well underway, and honestly, this team may not suffer nearly as badly as people might think.