You’ve already heard the hot takes. “The Mets are IDIOTS for giving up top prospects to get a washed-up cheater and a reliever.” Or, alternatively: “Jerry Dipoto is practically giving away two All-Stars!”
What do I think? By trading Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, Gerson Bautista, Jay Bruce, and Anthony Swarzak for Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, and $20 million in cash, the Mets got significantly—possibly transformatively—better for 2019. On the flip side, they are now without their highest-upside prospect, center fielder Kelenic, as well as their best pitching prospect, right-handed starter Dunn. It’s an ambitious, creative move by the Mets, one that addresses their two biggest issues—bullpen and offense—while risking backlash if Kelenic and Dunn hit their ceilings. For the Mariners, the future just got brighter.
The biggest fish in this trade is Edwin Diaz. The Puerto Rican righty just put up about as good a season as a closer can have: in 73 innings, he walked 17 batters and struck out 124. His 1.61 FIP—Fielding Independent Pitching, which gets closer to a pitcher’s “true” performance than ERA—was actually lower than his 1.96 ERA. If you’re into saves, Diaz notched 57 of them! Watching on TV, you marvel at the 99 mph fastball and wipeout 90 mph slider; if you see him in person, you’ll be amazed by his whip-like arm speed.
For the Mariners, who are committed to a tear down, this is the perfect time to sell high on Diaz, especially since he’ll make only the minimum in 2019 before 3 years of arbitration (which should net him a total of around $35 million). For the Mets, they’ve just acquired a pitcher who would command close to $100 million on the open market right now. Diaz does not have the massive frame of the game’s highest-paid relievers, Kenley Jansen (5 years, $80M) and Aroldis Chapman (5 years, $86M), but whereas Jansen was 29 and Chapman 28 at the time of signing, Diaz is only 24 years old. If, instead of this trade, the Mets had chosen to drop $70 million on the offseason’s most coveted free agent reliever—30-year-old Craig Kimbrel—they still would not be as intimidating in the 9th as they are with Diaz. To convince you with one stat, Diaz’s 7-1 K/BB ratio in ‘18 more than doubled Kimbrel’s 3-1.
The much more talked about player in this deal is Robinson Cano, and guess what? This guy is still a VERY GOOD baseball player. Over the last 3 seasons, he has batted .292 with a .350 OBP and an .840 OPS (72 home runs over 391 games in a pitcher’s park). Defensive metrics still have Cano slightly above average the past 2 seasons, so serviceable defense at 2nd in 2019 and 2020 is plausible. Like the Nationals when they signed Daniel Murphy, the Mets can accept poor defense at the end of the contract given the overall value they expect these first few years. Is WAR your go-to statistic? Cano has been almost a 5-win player these past 3 seasons, and that’s held down by the 80-game suspension this year. As encouraging as any Cano stat, his average exit velocity of 93.1 MPH was 5th in baseball in ‘18 (among hitters with a minimum of 150 batted ball events). The power he produces with that iconic, languid swing is truly incredible.
Much has been made of the fact that Cano was busted for PED’s this year, but none of us really knows how that will affect him going forward. What drugs was he taking, and for how long had he been taking them? We’ve seen players test positive then struggle, and we’ve seen players keep on raking. Take Nelson Cruz, who has 203 home runs and an .897 OPS in 5 seasons since being suspended at age 32 in 2013.
By adding an All-Star to the infield, the Mets now have options like benching Todd Frazier to play the promising Jeff McNeil at 3rd, or moving Cano to first if Peter Alonso gets hurt. If we value Bruce and Swarzak, who are owed a combined $36.5M, at just $6.5M, the Mets are saving $30M on top of the $20 million in cash Seattle sent over. So New York is really paying Cano $70M over 5 years. The 36 year old probably won’t be worth what they pay him the last 2 or 3 years of the contract, but he might well be worth more than the $14M annual salary the first few years. The Mets probably view this contract the way the Cubs viewed their 4 year, $56M pact with Ben Zobrist for his age 35 through 38 seasons, and Cano has been better on both sides of the ball than Zobrist was going into 2016.
So, why isn’t this an unqualified win for New York? Because they had to sacrifice their top draft picks from 2 of the past 3 seasons. Kelenic, taken 6th overall this June, was the Mets’ earliest selection since 2004 and has the highest upside of anyone in their system. Listed at 6’1”, 196 lb., the 19-year-old lefty has strength, speed, a good arm, and a beautiful power swing. Rookie ball stats are often misleading, but posting an .839 OPS (6 homers in 220 ABs) between the Gulf Coast League and the Appy League was a great start.
Dunn was New York’s #19 overall pick in 2016, but given the value the Mets are getting back, it probably counts as “prospect hugging” to object to his inclusion in the deal. Listed at 6’2”, 185 lbs., he should contribute in the big leagues: some scouts see him as a #3 or 4 starter, others see him coming out of the ‘pen late in games. Dunn has a live arm and a good slider—105 Ks in 90 innings at AA this year were promising, while a 4.22 ERA and 1.36 WHIP at 23 years old warrant some concern.
Fans of New York’s end of the deal stress that it’s now or never for a team that has Zack Wheeler for just 1 more season, Jacob deGrom for 2, and Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz for 3. I agree—the Mets need to go for it while they have a rotation this talented. My reservation is that if you’re going to give up your highest upside prospect, someone you committed to with the #6 overall pick after thousands of hours of draft prep, you typically expect to get back a valuable young starter or position player, ideally with All-Star upside.
Two examples from last year are Gerrit Cole and Christian Yelich. The Mets are giving up more for a premier reliever and a valuable-but-costly veteran infielder than Houston did for one of baseball’s best starters, who made only $7 million last season (the ‘Stros sent Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, and Jason Martin to Pittsburgh). And given Monte Harrison’s and Lewis Brinson’s struggles for the Marlins, Miami’s haul for Yelich, a proven All-Star at the time signed below market value, might have been worse than what Seattle is getting here (Milwaukee also sent Isan Diaz and Jordan Yamamoto to MIA). Obviously, the Cole and Yelich trades worked out as well as they possibly could have for Houston and Milwaukee, but even at the time, we knew these two players had superstar upside. The Mets’ best case scenario here still doesn’t get them a Cy Young or MVP caliber player, and unlike Houston, the Mets are ALSO sacrificing $70 million in free agent budget.
Then again, it’s not uncommon for a team trading prospects for major league talent to take on significant salary. In fact, it’s customary. Yelich is obviously a younger, better player than Cano, but the Brewers still have to pay him real money—$58M over 5 years. The Yankees took on an outrageous contract while also giving up prospects when they absorbed 10 years and $260M of Giancarlo Stanton’s Marlins contract. And the struggles of Harrison and Brinson highlight the risks associated with what seem like “can’t miss” prospects. Lastly, while you expect to acquire a young starter or position player when you package multiple top 100 prospects, the Mets are getting TWO players, not one. Even if Diaz and Cano are 30% worse next year, a full season for Cano would mean we’re talking 6 combined WAR, which would be a terrific output for one young starter or hitter.
A skeptic might counter by emphasizing the irony of parting with Kelenic when New York’s best position players are left-handed outfielders that they took in the first round. The Mets selected Brandon Nimmo with the 13th pick in 2011 and Michael Conforto with the 10th pick in 2014; holding on to these excellent talents—for instance, keeping Nimmo out of their trade for Jay Bruce in 2016—has set them up to compete in 2019. Of course, Conforto was also a crucial piece to New York’s 2015 World Series team.
So, where are we? The Mets have made two highly valuable additions and suffered an acutely painful loss. Here is the key question: what were their other options? What avenues did new GM Brodie Van Wagenen have to improving his team’s infield and bullpen without losing Kelenic?
One strategy could have been ponying up 2 years, $45M with a player opt-out to beat Atlanta’s 1 year, $23M offer to Josh Donaldson—a 5 WAR player in 2017 before shoulder and recurring calf injuries ruined his 2018. That’s $25 million less than what the Mets will pay Cano, and Donaldson at 3rd with McNeil at 2nd could provide comparable value to Robbie at 2nd and McNeil at 3rd…if the 33-year-old Donaldson were to stay healthy. Of course, given how many Mets veterans have gone down with injuries, you can understand why they’d prefer Cano, who logged 150+ games for 11 straight seasons before suspension this year, to someone who’s only played 165 games the past two seasons. Talking heads love to criticize Cano for his seemingly effortless style, but guess what? It’s helped him stay healthy, whereas Donaldson’s all-out play has taken a toll on his body. And let’s not forget that while Cano will be 38 heading into year 3 of the contract, that doesn’t mean he’ll be worth ZERO dollars. Given how well his swing has aged, he might make up a good bit of that $25 million gap over years 3-5, when Donaldson would no longer be under contract.
Now for the bullpen. Could free agents Adam Ottavino and Joe Kelly combine to approximate Diaz’s value in 2019? Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors predicts 3 years, $30 million for Ottavino and 3 years, $27 million for Joe Kelly. If you don’t want those 2, you can swap in Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, David Robertson, or Kelvin Herrera for a similar duo at around $60M total. Again, you can see why the Mets did not like this option. All of these relievers have question marks in that they’re either old (Ottavino and Robertson are 33), have seen their stuff diminish (Familia, Herrera, Britton), or have mediocre control (Ottavino: 75 BBs in 131 innings ‘17-18; Britton: 39 BBs in 78 IP ‘17-18; Kelly: 83 BB in 163 IP ‘16-18; Familia: 74 BBs in 174 IP ‘16-18). Whereas many of these guys could hit 100 mph 3 or 4 years ago, Edwin Diaz currently does, averaging 97.4 with his fastball. And while Diaz probably won’t walk as few as he did in ‘18, he has career rates of 3 BB/9 and 14.2 K/9.
Put together, how do these hypotheticals compare to what Van Wagenen actually did? For something like $105 million, the Mets could have gone into 2019 with two good veteran relievers instead of the game’s best closer and a riskier infield in which so much depends on Donaldson’s balky shoulder and calf. This would allow them to keep their highest upside prospect and their best pitching prospect. Unlike Cano’s money, all of that $105 million would be off the books after 2021, allowing the Mets to more aggressively pursue extensions with such players as Wheeler, deGrom, Syndergaard, Conforto, and Nimmo.
Instead, the Mets get the most coveted reliever in baseball not named Josh Hader, and they get a durable infielder who was good in 2018, not just ‘17. And let’s keep in mind how much we don’t know. Maybe Donaldson was dead set on going to Atlanta, whose GM Alex Anthopoulos gave him a career-defining opportunity in Toronto back in 2014. If you can’t get Donaldson, do you know which other infielders you’re looking at in free agency? Marwin Gonzalez, Jed Lowrie, Daniel Murphy, Brian Dozier, DJ LeMahieu, and Mike Moustakas. If the primary goal is to win in 2019 and ‘20 while deGrom is under contract, do any of these guys offer you the offense and durability that Cano does? Only Lowrie has provided comparable value the past two years, and given that value, there will be many suitors, one of whom will probably value him more highly than you do.
Finally, a word about the draft. Let’s pick a random year—say, 2012. The first pick was your prototypical shortstop phenom, Carlos Correa, who’s already etched his name in franchise history as a leader of Houston’s only World Series Champion. The 2nd pick was the eminently talented Byron Buxton, who posted 5 WAR in 2017 but has a career .OPS of .672. And then? Mike Zunino, Kevin Gausman, Kyle Zimmer, Albert Almora, Max Fried, Mark Appel, Andrew Heaney, David Dahl, Addison Russell, Gavin Cecchini, Courtney Hawkins, Nick Travesio...and so on. There’s talent there, but no one except Russell has made an All-Star team, let alone changed the fate of his franchise. Remember, every one of these teams was PUMPED about their pick at the time. So as enticing as I find Kelenic’s swing, it would be a mistake to view this as if the Mets just gave up Alex Kirilloff or Kyle Tucker, someone who’s demolished the competition at the mid or high minors.
When I first drafted this piece, I argued that, “with good alternatives in free agency, new Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen had leverage against a Mariners front office desperate to sell, one that had just taken back a disappointing haul for James Paxton.” I thought this was one of those situations where the Mets could have kept Kelenic off the table and dared Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto to find something better. But after accounting for an uninspiring infield market and the fact that big relief contracts are the worst investment in baseball, this seems like an easy bluff for Dipoto to call—and lord knows “Trader Jerry” had backup options with other teams.
While this trade sparked frenzied criticism of the Mets and Mariners, it actually strikes me as one in which both sides thought carefully about team needs and risk before making bold decisions, decisions that they knew people would lambast them for. The next several years in Seattle will be dark (as if the city weren’t overcast enough already), but the farm system is markedly better. For New York, a healthy Diaz will completely change their bullpen and Cano will be an offensive weapon for at least two years—a time when they’ll have the best pitcher in baseball doing all he can to get the team back to the playoffs. Mets fans just have to pray that Kelenic isn’t the next Conforto.
Follow Jacob on Twitter @thereeljz