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Mariners acquire Smyly in three-team trade

A pair of trades today saw the Mariners improve their 2017, the Braves focus on the future, and the Rays spin their wheels to save some money.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Dipoto kindly took it upon himself to singlehandedly break us out of the winter doldrums today, making a quick pair of interesting trades. First, he picked up two players from the Braves, right-handed reliever Shae Simmons and outfielder Mallex Smith, in exchange for Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows, left-handed pitchers who finished 2016 at A and Low-A, respectively. Then just as quickly as he arrived, Smith was sent to Tampa Bay, along with 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Vargas and 25-year-old lefthander Ryan Yarbrough, with Drew Smyly going to the Mariners.

Got all that? Let’s break it down team-by-team.

Braves: acquire Luiz Gohara, Thomas Burrows for Shae Simmons and Mallex Smith

The Braves’ winter continues to confuse, though it might be taking some more shape. Early in the offseason, it wasn’t clear what Atlanta thought their timeline for competition was. Their roster looked like a wasteland, but then they signed Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to one-year deals, inked a two-year deal with Sean Rodriguez, and acquired Jaime Garcia from the Cardinals. They were even rumored to be interested in a Chris Sale trade, all of which seemed to evince a belief on the part of the Braves that they could compete as soon as 2017.

Everyone else in the baseball world thought that was nuts, and seemingly with good reason; FanGraphs currently projects the Braves to win 75 games, nowhere near what’s required to have a decent shot at the playoffs. With this trade, however, the Braves' plan might be coming into focus. Simmons and Smith are both fine players; they're not blue-chip prospects, but guys who already have made the majors and probably have a floor (to the extent anyone has a floor) somewhere above replacement level. Low-upside guys are not what a rebuilding team wants, however, and low-upside guys are not what the Braves got in exchange.

Neither Gohara nor Burrows have cracked AA yet, but both have been electric in their limited time as professionals. Gohara is 20, and finished 2016 with 10 starts at A-Ball, throwing 54 1/3 innings with 12.3 K/9, 1.76 BB/9, and a 1.76 ERA. Burrows is two years older, and having gone through college, debuted in 2016 at Low-A, but over at Baseball Prospectus, Chris Crawford thought he could be a major league pitcher in a heartbeat:

If you’re looking for a southpaw who could move quickly and give lefties fits, Burrows is that guy. Both the fastball and slider are plus, and because of his arm slot it makes for a real uncomfortable at-bat if you’re hitting from that side. It’s reliever all the way, but it’s a pretty good one.

The Braves seem to have started collecting high-upside lottery tickets, in the way that rebuilding teams often do. The signings from earlier in the winter weren’t in pursuit of a playoff-worthy roster, probably, but in pursuit of a new stadium-worthy roster, as the team tries to give fans a reason to come out to the new Sun Trust Park. And if they can flip Rodriguez or Colon at the trade deadline and get some prospects in return, all the better; none of the veterans they acquired cost an arm and a leg. This trade seems to suggest that the Braves' focus truly is on 2019 or 2020, and that’s probably a good thing.

Rays: acquire Mallex Smith, Carlos Vargas, Ryan Yarbrough for Drew Smyly

From a narrow perspective, the return on this is about what you would expect. Smyly is a roughly league-average starter who will get got $3.75 million in 2017 2016 and has one more trip through arbitration after this year; he's valuable, but not unimaginably so [Ed: Oops]. On the other side of the ledger, Smith is an MLB-ready player with very good speed and defense and some pop that might develop; Vargas is a 17-year-old shortstop signed out of the Dominican in 2015; and Yarbrough is a 25-year-old pitcher who hasn’t moved past AA (but did have a 2.95 ERA in 128 1/3 innings in 2016). If you accept the budgetary constraints the Rays have imposed on themselves, trading a major leaguer who is getting steadily more expensive for younger players, with decent amounts of talent and lots of years of control, looks reasonable.

But that’s a big if. If we return to those FanGraphs projections (which, as I’m writing this, still include Smyly on the Rays), Tampa Bay is projected to go 82–80 in 2017, and finish third in the AL East and only two games out of a Wild Card spot. Conventional wisdom holds that a team in the Rays’ position should be aggressively pursuing players with present value, as an additional two or three wins could easily catapult them into the playoffs.

The Rays don’t usually abide by conventional wisdom, however, and there are two basic ways that could be true in the context of this trade. Maybe they really like Mallex Smith, and see something in him that the rest of the league missed and that leads them to believe this trade will actually improve their chances in 2017. That’s possible, but it seems unlikely, given what we know about Smith and what we know about Smyly.

The other explanation, and the more convincing one to me, is that the Rays are sticking to their shoestring budget, and made this trade to get cheaper and only slightly worse. Most teams would never make such a move, especially not over a few million dollars; the Rays are not most teams. Given that they had the second-lowest payroll of 2016, at only $67 million, it’s a real disservice to their fans to pinch pennies in this way.

Mariners: acquire Shae Simmons, Drew Smyly for Luiz Gohara, Thomas Burrows, Carlos Vargas, Ryan Yarbrough

The Mariners are not unlike the Rays, in that their 84-win projection puts them squarely in the midst of the fight for the AL West and Wild Card. (To see them value their present and future so differently from the Rays really drives home how out-of-line the Rays’ priorities are in comparison to the rest of the league.) And this is the kind of move(s) that we expect 84-win teams to make, and generally think they should make. Of the players the Mariners parted ways with today, Gohara is probably the best, and the one most likely to turn into a quality major leaguer. But even he is at least two and probably three years from making the majors, if he ever does. Similarly, Vargas has some pedigree, but he can’t even get a tattoo yet. If things go right for Burrows and Yarbrough, one of them might make the big leagues sooner, but things would really have to right.

The odds that the Mariners traded away a player who would have positively impacted their outlook in 2017, 2018, or even 2019 is very low. There’s good reason to think that, beyond those three years, things might get very bleak, very quick in Seattle, so Jerry Dipoto’s lack of interest in 2020 and beyond looks very smart.

And in return for giving up very little performance in the near future, they received a major league-ready reliever, and Drew Smyly. Smyly has had a heckuva career, with numerous twists, turns, and trades. He’s careened from Cy Young predictions to injuries and poor performance. It’s easy to overlook, however, that he’s been relatively consistent performance-wise. By fWAR, he’s been worth between 1.7 and 2.2 wins for four out of his five seasons as a big leaguer, and in the fifth, when injuries limited him to 66 2/3 innings, he was worth 0.9 wins, almost precisely on track for two-ish wins over a full season.

Smyly is not only a solid pitcher — projected for 2.5 WAR in 164 innings by Steamer, and 2.0 WAR in 143 innings by ZiPS — but he comes to a Mariners rotation that is in desperate need of depth. While Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are both very good, neither has looked especially durable in recent years, and behind them, the rotation only got thinner. Before today’s trade, the next three slots went to James Paxton, Yovani Gallardo, and Ariel Miranda. You don’t need to think about those players in too much depth to realize that every inning Smyly will throw in 2017 is one less inning going to, at best, a replacement-level pitcher.

The Mariners come out of this looking pretty good. They addressed a glaring weakness and got substantially better, recognizing that they’re exactly the kind of team that should value improvements like this one. And they did it without hurting their immediate outlook. Seattle fans will care a lot less about the bleakness of 2020 if the team has some real success before then, and Jerry Dipoto took some real steps in that direction today.