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Making sense of the Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano trade between the Mariners and Mets

MLB: San Diego Padres at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A relatively boring hot stove season just got exciting, with the Seattle Mariners trading closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano to the New York Mets in a seven-player deal. The full deal is pending physicals and expected to be announced by Monday, per multiple reports.

On the surface this is a trade between two teams on different ends of the competitive spectrum. After all, the Mariners won 89 games in 2018 and were in postseason contention until the season’s final week. The Mets won 77 games and outside of a sublime Cy Young Award-winning season by Jacob deGrom had every thing they touched turn to dust in a lost year.

But a closer look shows these two teams weren’t all that different last year. The Mets were outscored by 31 runs on the season, but the Mariners were outscored by 34 runs. Based on run differentials, these two teams were almost indistinguishable.

A tale of two teams

Team Runs scored Runs allowed Pythagorean win% 3rd order win%* Actual win%
Team Runs scored Runs allowed Pythagorean win% 3rd order win%* Actual win%
Mariners 677 711 0.478 0.506 0.549
Mets 676 707 0.479 0.489 0.475
*projected win% based on underlying statistics and quality of opponents Sources: Baseball-Reference & Baseball Prospectus

The Mets have a new general manager, trying to be an agent of change, believing they can contend despite the last two seasons of contrary evidence. This trade doesn’t make New York a playoff team, but it does make them better in 2019. The only question is, at what cost?

The Mariners meanwhile have decided to reset rather than compete the next few years with the juggernaut Astros in the American League West. Seattle last made the playoffs in 2001, owners of the longest postseason drought in the sport.

Two franchises, two different compass settings, and one enormous deal. Here are the highlights.

Relief in sight

Despite the star power and marquee value of Cano, the centerpiece of this deal for New York was Edwin Diaz, one of the best closers in baseball.

Diaz had a 1.96 ERA and saved a whopping 57 games for the Mariners in 2018, all while striking out 124 in 73⅓ innings. His 44.3% strikeout rate ranked second in the majors, and with only 17 walks his K-BB% mark of 38.2% was tops in baseball. In one-run games alone — the most precarious save chances around — the right-hander was especially stingy. Diaz posted a 0.88 ERA with 53 strikeouts and only five walks in those situations, converting 27 out of 30 nail-biters.

Having such a dominant force to use in close games helped explain at least some of how the Mariners were able to win 89 games despite being outscored on the season. Seattle was 36-21 in one-run games, and Diaz was a huge reason.

At just 24, and with four more years until free agency, it’s easy to see why Diaz is so attractive. The Mets still have deGrom, and are hoping from a healthier season from the immensely talented Noah Syndergaard. Those two plus Diaz are as formidable a trio of pitchers at the front and back end of any staff in the league.

Still some reserve left in the tank

Cano is 36, with five years remaining on his contract, but he’s still an above-average offensive player. He hit .303/.374/.471 with 22 doubles and 10 home runs in 80 games in 2018, a 136 wRC+ that will play just about anywhere. Cano hasn’t produced fewer than three Wins Above Replacement in any season since 2008.

He was limited to basically a half season last year thanks to performance enhancing drugs, getting suspended 80 games in May after testing positive for Furosemide, a diuretic.

The $120 million remaining on Cano’s contract — or even the reported $100 million New York is taking on — might be onerous, but the fact that new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen got parsimonious Mets owners to open the pocketbook even a little bit should be seen as a positive step. Even though in 2019, with Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak headed to Seattle and money coming to New York, the cash is essentially neutral.

The total dollars didn’t exactly match up, but this tweet from five years ago when Cano first signed with the Mariners is remarkably prescient:

Cano gets to return to New York, where he spent the first nine years of his career with the Yankees, where he he made five of his eight All-Star teams. History hasn’t been kind to second basemen in the back half of their 30s, so there is plenty of risk here, but Cano isn’t a Pujols-sized albatross by any means. Not yet, at least.

Emerald City exodus

For the Mariners, this is just another step in the rebuild, a tear down that got started in full when ace pitcher James Paxton was dealt to the Yankees on Nov. 19. Stockpiling as much young talent as possible is the goal now, and outfielder Jarred Kellenic and pitcher Justin Dunn — both top-100 prospects, per MLB.com — provide that in this deal. Reliever Gerson Bautista is also headed to Seattle in the trade.

Whether it is enough for Diaz — who again still has four years before free agency — and Cano remains to be seen.

Getting the bulk of Cano’s contract off the books was another goal in clearing the cupboard for Seattle. There doesn’t seem to be much sense for the financial buffers in the deal — Bruce has two years, $26 million remaining on his deal, and Swarzak is due $8 million in 2019 — on a rebuilding team, but that just means Jerry Dipoto gets to make even more trades, something he has done more than any other general manager since taking over in Seattle three years ago.

Dipoto is such an active GM that in between this megadeal going from rumor to finalized, he made yet even another trade, sending reliever Alex Colome — due a raise from $5.3 million in salary arbitration this winter — to the White Sox on Friday.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing how far the tear down goes. Kyle Seager, Dee Gordon, Mike Leake and Jean Segura are all making eight figures in 2019 and have multiple years remaining on their contracts. Juan Nicasio is a middle reliever making $9 million next year. If I’m a betting man, Dipoto’s busy winter hasn’t even fully gotten started yet.