Go ahead, Mariners fans, feel free to indulge a Bavasi Shiver. You’re entitled. The trade of the franchise’s minor league player of the year last season, a hard-hitting outfielder, for a starting pitcher, has the same sidewalk-chalk outline of the Adam Jones-for-Erik-Bedard baseball accident scene in 2008 that cannot be washed out of the memory of long-abused followers.
But there is a difference in the deal that helped end the grim Bill Bavasi tenure as Mariners general manager.
At 29, Bedard, was a veteran of five MLB seasons in Baltimore, where he was 40-34 with a 3.83 ERA. He never had Tommy John surgery, but he made only 15 starts in each of his first two Seattle seasons because of health problems. Never resolved, he became a vagabond, never winning more than seven games in any of his final five seasons.
At 25, Marco Gonzales has pitched in just 12 MLB games for the Cardinals over three seasons, and had the TJ elbow-ligament replacement operation that cost him the 2016 season. He was pitching at AAA Memphis the past three months, and will begin here at AAA Tacoma.
Bedard at least was an able veteran who, after arriving in Seattle, contributed right away to a bad team. But Gonzales brings little MLB experience to a solid team, and enough questions about his durability to give pause to wonder whether he’ll advance this summer to be of help for a presumptive playoff drive.
We say presumptive, because if the Mariners are dealing a prospect with OF Tyler O’Neill’s upside, they should be getting instant help for a beleaguered rotation.
On the surface, the deal seems dangerously on a par with the 2008 debacle, saved only by the fact that Bavasi threw in four other Mariners prospects, one of whom, pitcher Chris Tillman, also became an All-Star.
The deal Friday morning was a straight-up, one-for-one, its saving grace for Seattle apparently being that the Mariners have contractual control of Gonzales through his 2023 season. But if O’Neill becomes an All-Star in St. Louis, as Jones did in Baltimore, and Gonzales becomes the next Bedard, the contract length will hardly be mentioned in discussion of Dipoto’s former Seattle career.
Make no mistake, Dipoto and the Mariners are out there on this one. The trade the previous day for middle reliever David Phelps of the Marlins offered greater logic:
If the 2017 rotation is doomed to an inordinate load of five-inning starts, the bullpen better be armored up with versatile, veteran relievers.
For Phelps, the Mariners gave up four prospects, but all were Class A-level players some years from MLB readiness, if at all. O’Neill may be ready to help St. Louis ASAP. In his last 24 games in Tacoma, O’Neill, whose father, Terry, was a powerlifting champion in Canada, hit 13 home runs and had a .326/.413/.779 slash line.
Scouting reports say that O’Neill is finally learning to stop chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone. Here’s what else Baseball America wrote about him:
O’Neill has a chance to be a middle-of-the-order slugger as long as he keeps his pitch selection and plate discipline sharp, which is not a given. (In the outfield) he reads balls off the bat better in right field than left, but is an average defender with an above-average arm capable of playing both.
The same website said this about the post-surgery Gonzales, who in six starts since June 18 in AAA Memphis was 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA with 33 strikeouts and eight walks:
Gonzales primarily relies on his 90-91 mph fastball with sink, and mixes in a mid-80s changeup and low-80s curveball. He does not generate many swings and misses and fits a back-end starter/long relief profile if he can remain healthy.
A No. 4 starter is what the Mariners need behind Felix Hernandez, James Paxton and Ariel Miranda, because the No. 5 starter is again Yovani Gallardo, returning from a demotion to the bullpen to start in the Sunday finale of the series against the Yankees.
The baseball axiom is that three good starters can serve a team well in the playoffs, but it takes five starters to get the playoffs. So soon after surgery, Gonzales doesn’t sound like an immediate fit.
But given Dipoto’s description Thursday afternoon in the clubhouse of the desperately tight market for starting pitching, the trade of a premium prospect perhaps was the only way ahead.
“We have talked to every team in the league regarding starting pitching,” he said. “League demands greatly exceed the supply. As a result, the asking price — you think we gave up a lot to get David Phelps?
“We’re going to be realistic in what we can afford to let go. If we are to give away the types of asks that are being requested in returning for starting pitching, we want someone who’s not just sustainable for 2017 but for the foreseeable future.”
A reasonable goal, but giving up O’Neill is steep. The risk is eased somewhat by this season’s emergence of OFs Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger as quality major leaguers, along with Guillermo Heredia. The Mariners also have developed more outfield prospects for depth, but gave up one, Brayan Hernandez, 19, in the Phelps trade.
“We are in a pretty good place there,” Dipoto said of the outfield. “So where Brayan would have fit with the Mariners, I’m not entirely sure. But we do have five years now to figure out how to fill that void in the organization.”
By Friday morning, they had two voids to fill, and no certainty they have filled the more urgent one in the rotation.
The remarkable thing is that the Mariners have gone through 30 pitchers this season, including 13 starters, and still couldn’t patch in-house the problems in the rotation or pen. Yet they had a guy who could do both.
But a year ago Thursday, Dipoto traded away Mike Montgomery to the Cubs in exchange for 1B Dan Vogelbach, who has been consistent in his ability so far to not hit major league pitching.
Dipoto has made more progress than his predecessors in finding and developing major-league talents. But the margins are so thin in MLB that when a GM whiffs on one key pitching deal, it’s hard to play catch-up with a subsequent deal.
It is, however, easy for critics in Seattle to go the full Bedard on him.