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Trade Retrospective: Mariners trade Michael Saunders to the Blue Jays for J.A. Happ

GM Jack Zduriencik’s ill-advised public criticism of Saunders led to a good old fashioned challenge trade.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

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In early December 2014, the Mariners and Blue Jays executed a rare challenge trade. The Mariners sent Michael Saunders to his native Canada in exchange for J.A. Happ.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Mariners were coming off a respectable 87-win season, but it was probably the most painful 87-win season fans for a team ever had. They fell one game shy of the last Wild Card slot, which resulted in their postseason drought being extended for one more year. Coincidentally, their trade partner was the only team suffering a longer drought, and they would end up snapping it the following season.

Saunders was coming off a season where he played only 78 games but still succeeded in accumulating 2.5 WAR. He had the best offensive season of his career, albeit in only 263 PA, hitting .273/.341/.450 for a 126 wRC+. His defensive metrics that year were surprisingly good, but it was likely a small sample size aberration. He had no business being in center field, but he could provide defensive value in a corner. On top of that, he was actually a pretty good baserunner, too.

Happ was an oft injured player (though one of those injuries was a line drive to the head) who could best be described as a back of the rotation starter. In 2014, he pitched over 150 innings for only the third time in his career and the first time since 2011. He had a 4.50 RA9 and failed to strikeout even 20 percent of batters faced. Happ was going into his age-32 season as well, so there was little reason to believe he would be any better than his 2014 self.

The Mariners were in need of some pitching help, but it did not look like Happ was going to be able to help out much in that regard even if he could provide 30 starts, which seemed unlikely. What GM Jack Zduriencik essentially did was trade two seasons of an outfielder going into his age-28 season, who had just shown the ceiling of a four-win player over a full season, for one year of an aging fifth starter who had trouble staying healthy. So why would he do that?

Zduriencik did a dumb thing. After the 2014 season ended, he made public comments in which he criticized Saunders’ work ethic and conditioning habits. This appeared to damage his relationship with Saunders beyond repair, so he decided to sell low on him and ship him out. When your team has not made the playoffs in 13 years and just missed by a game, executing a trade that appears to be giving away marginal wins is the last thing you should be doing.

As for the Blue Jays, this was a nice get after their blockbuster acquisition of Josh Donaldson. They had a need in left field with the departure of Melky Cabrera, so Saunders could be expected to fill that need nicely.

This trade was definitely a win for the Blue Jays on paper, thanks to Zduriencik not being able to keep his mouth shut. Unfortunately, things did not work out so well for the Jays.

The Results

Sadly, Saunders’ first year in Toronto was a disaster. During spring training, he tore his meniscus stepping on a sprinkler head while shagging fly balls. The injury resulted in Saunders playing only nine games that season. The Blue Jays still succeeded in winning the division, but I am sure they could have used a healthy Saunders in the ALCS where they lost to the eventual World Champion Royals.

Thankfully, Saunders enjoyed about a full season in 2016. He hit well, slashing .253/.338/.478, good for a 119 wRC+. He walked quite a bit too with a 10.6 BB%, but his strikeout rate rose compared to his years in Seattle. His 28.1 percent strikeout rate was nearly six percentage points higher than his last year with the Mariners. Despite his productivity at the plate, he was worth only 1.5 WAR that year because his defensive metrics were down. It could be a small sample size thing, or it could have been the effects of his knee problems from the year before.

Saunders signed with the Phillies the following year on a one-year, $8 million deal. He did not even last half a season. He was hitting an abysmal .205/.257/.360, so the Phillies designated him for assignment in June of that year. He actually landed back with the Blue Jays but did not get any major league action until September call-ups. The Jays gave him barely any playing time, and he did not hit when he did play. It ended up being the last major league action he would ever see.

Quite a few teams signed Saunders to minor league deals in 2018, but nothing ever came of it. His pro career more less ended in March of last year. He is now a minor league coach in the Braves’ organization.

Happ was only in Seattle until the 2015 trade deadline. The Mariners had regressed significantly compared to the year before, so in one of the last trades before he lost his job a month later, Zduriencik traded Happ to the Pirates. He became a new pitcher in Pittsburgh and it revitalized his career, with an outrageously good 1.85 RA9 in his 11 starts with the team, and his previously poor strikeout rates shot up to 27.7 percent.

The Blue Jays believed in the new Happ, so they brought him back on a three-year, $36 million deal, despite the fact that he was going into his age-33 season. It worked out pretty well. He was worth 7.7 WAR total over the first two years of the deal with a 3.60 RA9. It appeared that he lost a step in 2018 when he had a 4.82 RA9 close to the 2018 trade deadline, but the Blue Jays’ defense was brutal. The Jays were not competitive, so they traded him to the Yankees.

Happ was excellent with the Yankees, turning in a 2.83 RA9 and accumulating 1.9 WAR in just 11 starts. Once again, he was able to leverage a hot finish to a lucrative contract, signing a two-year, $34 million deal to stay with the Yankees. He had a 4.91 RA9 last year, so he was only okay, but he did make 30 starts and pitched over 160 innings.

Blue Jays

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Michael Saunders 2 1.3
Baseball Reference

One can’t help but think about how Saunders would have played out in Toronto if not for his freak accident with the sprinkler head. The Blue Jays had a great two-year stretch in 2015 and 2016 anyway, but you still got to feel for Saunders. It is entirely possible that sprinkler head ruined his career.

Mariners Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
J.A. Happ 1 0.7
Baseball Reference

That is basically what one would expect for half a season of Happ, who was really the big winner in all of this because his trade to Seattle led to his trade to Pittsburgh. What would have happened to him if he had never landed with the Pirates and became a new pitcher? Would he even still be in the league? It’s a great what if.

The Blue Jays did a great job leveraging Zduriencik’s blunder. It just did not translate to the field. You could say he got bailed out by a sprinkler head, but he was well on his way to losing his job regardless.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.