A couple of interesting moves on Monday as teams try find pitching help in a pitching-thin market: The Seattle Mariners traded former No. 1 pick Alex Jackson to the Atlanta Braves for pitchers Rob Whalen and Max Povse, while the Miami Marlins reportedly signed Edinson Volquez to a two-year, $22 million deal.
Let's start with the Mariners-Braves deal. Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto dealt Jackson, the sixth overall pick in 2014 -- a legacy pick of former GM Jack Zduriencik, and also one of the reasons Zduriencik was fired in 2015. This follows last week's Taijuan Walker-Jean Segura trade. Dipoto has traded away two players once viewed as future foundation pieces.
Over at the U.S.S. Mariner site, Marc W. was writing about the Walker trade, but his thoughts apply to trading Jackson as well:
"So far, we've been focused on players *entering* an org, but there's something just as critical about how and when players leave it, too," he wrote.
Poor player development results in trading an ex-prospect for pennies on the dollar and watching him develop into Jake Arrieta. Misjudging one's own talent leads to disasters like the Erik Bedard trade. Hold on to a struggling player too long, and suddenly your scouts are flinging frozen foods at them on some low-level field, but trading a player after a surprisingly good season or two can result in Josh Donaldson for some fifth starters and a shortstop prospect. The result seems like a kind of baseball Anna Karenina principle (great moves are all alike, while bad moves are each bad in their own way), but is really a restating of the principle we just discussed. A GM needs to plan for each player's possible role, but must have -- and enact -- contingency plans.
In trading Walker, Dipoto is betting that Walker won't develop into an ace, as he was once projected to be, at least not in the current Robinson Cano-Nelson Cruz window of contention. I've long thought Walker is a little overrated. People talk about his athleticism -- he was a good high school basketball player -- but he's always seemed a little stiff and mechanical on the mound to me. He throws hard and throws strikes, but doesn't always pitch with command and has had severe home run problems at the major league level. The Mariners basically questioned his mental toughness in August via a short-lived demotion to the minors. Dipoto's gamble is that Segura's 2016 wasn't a fluke and that Walker, while good, won't be great.
Dipoto is making a similar bet on Jackson. The GM decided to extract value while he can rather than wait on Jackson's development. A high school catcher from San Diego, Jackson was the best high school bat in the 2014 draft. The Mariners converted him to the outfield, where he suffered through a terrible stretch in the Midwest League in 2015, hitting .157 and earning a trip back to short-season ball. Returning to Clinton in 2016, he hit .243/.332/.408 in 92 games with 11 home runs, 103 strikeouts and 34 walks, hardly promising results. He has a strong arm in right, but projects otherwise as a below-average defender.
Even given Jackson's age (20), I see little-to-no star potential here. At the minimum, he's several years from the majors. You never know when things may click, of course, and you can look at Cruz -- who didn't reach the Midwest League until he was 22 and hit .238 -- as an example of a late bloomer. Jackson is a reasonable gamble for the Braves, who have pitching depth in the minors but fewer bats with power potential.
The Walker trade actually led to this one, as the Mariners suddenly needed rotation depth. They pick up two interesting sleepers. MLB.com rated Whalen, who turns 23 in January, as the Braves' No. 22 prospect. He throws a 90 mph sinker and a good curveball, plus a slider and a changeup. The scouting reports on him mention a deceptive delivery and bulldog mentality; in other words, a guy who pitches above his raw stuff. In 2016, he had a 2.40 ERA in the upper minors and had five starts for the Braves, holding batters to a .217 average with 25 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. The profile suggests a limited upside, but he's the kind of pitcher prospect lists often underrate, and I could see him winning a rotation spot out of spring training.
Povse is a 6-foot-8 right-hander who reached Double-A, ranked as the Braves' No. 20 prospect -- a deep depth candidate for 2017 with better velocity than Whalen but less polish.
It may seem like a disappointing return for Jackson, but he's no longer a top-100 prospect and there's no reason holding on to somebody else's mistake, especially if you believe his upside limited. Indeed, Dipoto's legacy in Seattle will be measured not just by wins on the field, but what happens to Walker and Jackson.
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The Volquez signing is more straightforward. The Marlins needed innings to replace the late Jose Fernandez, and Volquez has started 30 games in each of the past four seasons. He's coming off a 5.37 ERA with the Royals, thanks in part to the second-worst strand rate among qualified starters. Of course, one reason he had a bad strand rate was that he gave up so many hits. He still averaged 93.2 mph with his fastball, so he looks like a decent bet for a bounce-back performance and he's certainly better than the C.J. Wilson/Justin Masterson/Jon Niese types the Marlins had been linked to (although they'll probably still take a flier on at least one veteran off the scrap heap).