More than two weeks have passed since the Kendall Graveman trade (or what history might one day refer to as the Abraham Toro trade. Or the Mariner Mutiny).
That’s enough time to take a sober, non-reactionary look at exactly what the Mariners accomplished, or didn’t accomplish, at the MLB trade deadline (as opposed to the hysterical, knee-jerk response in real time). Not just the shocking deal with the Astros, less than 24 hours after their scintillating comeback win, but the two that followed.
Warning: It’s complicated. Much will depend on how deeply you believe in team chemistry, and how realistic you thought the Mariners’ playoff chances were when they pulled within one game of the second wild-card spot July 26 on Dylan Moore’s electrifying grand slam. And, of course, your assessment of the progress of their rebuilding plan, and the level of trust in general manager Jerry Dipoto to complete the job.
If you’re a Mariners player, it depends on how much your affection for Kendall Graveman and possible enmity toward Dipoto tempers your ability to give a fair look at the long-term justification for the deal, removed from the immediate sense of betrayal. And if you’re a fan, it depends on how many years, even decades, of failure, disappointment and letdowns have led to a default setting of always assuming the worst.
In other words, it depends on imponderables, so there is no definitive answer. Further complicating matters is that sometimes it takes years for the true outcome of trades to reveal itself, and the winners and losers often aren’t who you initially thought they were.
That said, I’ll give it a go. To review, Dipoto made three deals in a five-day span: Graveman and Rafael Montero to the Astros for Toro and reliever Joe Smith on July 27; Two minor-leaguers (Carter Bins and Joaquin Tejada) to Pittsburgh for starting pitcher Tyler Anderson, also on July 27; reliever J.T. Chargois and minor-league infielder Austin Shenton to Tampa Bay for reliever Diego Castillo on July 30.
There is absolutely no question in my mind that the collective jolt of seeing Graveman, a highly effective late-inning reliever as well as a team leader, traded amid the giddiness of that epic win, dealt a major psychological blow to the team. And I believe it was contributory to the tailspin that followed: nine losses in the next 13 games to drop from one game out of the wild card to 5 ½ games out (they were 4 ½ games out entering Friday’s game). The Mariners lost six one-run games in that span and blew a lead in the sixth inning or later in six of their losses.
That said, it’s also possible, if not probable, that a tailspin was coming anyway. There’s a reason FanGraphs metrics gave the Mariners less than a 10 percent chance to make the playoffs, even after the stretch of 10 wins in 14 games that preceded the Graveman trade. Their formula of winning a disproportionate amount of one-run games despite one of the worst offenses in baseball was likely unsustainable.
Yet players are humans, not robots. They look to their front office to make a statement at the trade deadline, and the statement the Mariners players perceived was that the suits didn’t believe in them, or at least didn’t properly value the chemistry that had developed. It’s instructive that three other teams in the wild-card chase — the A’s, Blue Jays and Yankees — made unambiguously aggressive “go for it” trades at the deadline and got immediate dividends. The A’s went 11-2 after acquiring outfielder Starling Marte, the Jays went 10-4 after landing pitcher Jose Berrios, and the Yankees went 10-4 after picking up sluggers Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. The Red Sox, perceived by many to have had a lackluster trade-deadline period, went 3-11 in the aftermath.
Obviously, the new players contributed to the surges. Marte, in particular, has been a revelation with Oakland (.415/.456/.585 slash line, two homers, nine RBIs, 9 of 9 stolen bases). But the new Mariners have made positive, if not excellent, contributions as well.
Next to Marte, no position player acquisition across MLB has contributed as much as Toro, who entering Friday was hitting .364/.444/.618 in 15 games for Seattle with eight extra-base hits and just seven strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. Toro looks like a future fixture in the infield, if not a budding star, with five years of club control. Graveman would have been a free agent at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Anderson has solidified what had been a highly problematic fifth starting spot. Instead of often-disastrous bullpen days or minor-league fringe starters, Anderson has worked at least five innings in his first three Mariners starts for a 3.45 ERA. He has given up three, two and one runs to give the Mariners a chance to win each game.
Finally, Castillo got off to a gruesome start in Seattle by giving up a walk-off, two-run homer in his second appearance — but that’s the only hit he has allowed in seven appearances. The 37-year-old Smith, who arrived with a 7.48 ERA, has been something of an unexpected bonus, giving up just one hit and no runs in six appearances.
I think it’s impossible to conclude the Mariners aren’t better off long-term by the moves, considering that Toro and Castillo have years of club control. And if you can put aside all the initial incredulity over the Graveman trade, caused by the worst timing imaginable, and instead look at it all in a vacuum, they are almost certainly better short-term, too.
Ah, but Mariners baseball doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of 20 years outside the playoffs. It happens in the context of players feeling like they had the wind knocked out of them via an unforced error by the GM. It happens in the context of inherent distrust in management to make the right moves, or of ownership to green-light the spending on player acquisition that is absolutely vital this offseason to push them over the top.
On one magical night in late July, it looked like this might finally be the year. And now, barring a late surge, it looks like it won’t be, yet again.
Ultimately, that’s the most powerful context hanging over this trade deadline for the Mariners. And for that reason alone, it might require longer than two weeks before a grudging acknowledgement is given that the trade deadline wasn’t the abject disaster it was initially portrayed to be. And that if the M’s fall short again, it wasn’t those moves that sealed their fate.
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