Friday afternoon is traditionally the time when organizations dump unpleasant news. The week before the Winter Meetings, it’s also the time when organizations finally get rid of players they’ve been trying to trade. To that end, the Seattle Mariners have acquired second baseman Kolten Wong, along with $1.75 million in cash, from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for infielder Abraham Toro and outfielder Jesse Winker.
The appeal of this trade is obvious for Seattle. The Mariners broke their postseason drought last year and played the World Series champion Astros tough in the ALDS despite getting basically zip from their second basemen. The outgoing starter was Adam Frazier, whose stock skyrocketed after half a good season with the Pirates in 2021. Frazier was not the All-Star .320 hitter he was supposed to be after he was traded to San Diego, and remained subpar after being traded to Seattle a year ago. In 156 games, Frazier hit .238/.301/.311, which — not to put too fine a point on it — is pretty bad.
Frazier’s a free agent anyway, but the other internal options to replace him were less than inspiring. Dylan Moore had a .368 OBP as a utility guy last year, but he’s 30 years old, has never been a full-time starter in the majors, and his offensive track record is such that you’d expect president of baseball ops Jerry Dipoto to explore other options. I’ll get to Toro in a minute, but he was no better in 2022.
Wong, who’s 32 and has one year left on his contract, has a far more impressive CV. Since arriving in Milwaukee two seasons ago, he’s hit .262/.337/.439. Wong has had his ups and downs with the bat as well, but he’s set career highs in home runs and ISO each of the past two years, and posted a walk rate of 9.3% against a strikeout rate of 17.7% in 2022. He contributes defensively and on the basepaths as well. He has two 20-steal seasons in his career, as well as two Gold Gloves; Wong is generally regarded as one of the best defensive second basemen out there.
At least for now. The most concerning thing about Wong is the fact that his advanced defensive numbers fell off a cliff in 2022. It’s only one season after nearly a decade of solid glovework, and he was trending upward at year’s end. But if it’s a fluke or a mirage, it’s a fluke or mirage that shows up across DRS, UZR, and OAA. All three metrics show his 2022 campaign being at least 15 runs worse than his peak in ’18 or ’19. My view on this issue is that if Wong can post another 497 plate appearances’ worth of 116 wRC+ offense in 2023, he can go out to second with a concrete mitt for all I care. Nevertheless, it’s a concerning trend for a player whose bat hasn’t always been consistent.
A day before the trade, Dipoto drew mild public criticism for a local talk radio interview in which he explained that the Mariners would most likely be both unable and unwilling to pursue a top free agent infielder. Other teams had more money, and the Mariners prefer to draft and develop players internally, he said. Whether this should or should not be so is another question; the Mariners would look outside the organization for a second baseman, but it probably wouldn’t be a big name.
Once you get past the big four shortstops (or big three, plus Dansby Swanson, if you prefer to look at it that way), there aren’t many options as appealing as Wong. Maybe Jean Segura, depending on cost, but after that the options get really Aledmys Díaz-y really quickly. Iffy glove or not, Wong is at least an average starter at the position, and he’ll make just $10 million in 2022. If he could be pried from Milwaukee for relatively little — and the Brewers seemed motivated to move him — he’d be a better get than most other mid-tier free agents.
It turns out the Brewers, despite interest from the Dodgers and others, only wanted Toro and Winker. In fact, Milwaukee was willing to kick in the cash to cover the difference between Winker’s 2023 salary and Wong’s. The Mariners not only didn’t give up much, they’ll probably be better off without the two players they traded away.
Winker came to Seattle last March as the centerpiece in a six-player trade. He’d just come off a career year in which he’d hit .305/.394/.556 and made his first All-Star team. But while his travel buddy, Eugenio Suárez, found a new lease on life after leaving Cincinnati, Winker struggled. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. Looking at Winker’s 2022 numbers, I think the real Winker was abducted last spring and replaced by a clone in a DARPA experiment to see how bad a baseball player can be with a 15.4% walk rate and a 108 wRC+. His power evaporated, and his defense, never a strength, was among the worst in baseball. Somehow, a hitter with a .344 SLG was an above-average offensive player, and an above-average offensive player was nearly a replacement-level hitter overall.
The strangeness of Winker’s year-long slump makes him an ideal buy-low candidate. Brewers GM Matt Arnold said Friday night that he believes Winker is well suited to the Brewers’ ballpark and will hit again while not battling the back, neck, and knee issues that bugged him in 2022. Certainly Arnold would not have gone out and acquired Winker if he weren’t confident his coaches and analysts could rehabilitate his bat. (Or, going back to the DARPA experiment theory, kill the clone, break into the secret lab under the Pentagon where the real Winker’s been held in stasis for the past 15 months, thaw him out, and get him back to hitting .300/.400/.500 by April.)
While there were highlights to Winker’s Mariners tenure, such as the Pizza Incident, by season’s end it became clear that both Winker and the Mariners were ready to wash their hands of the whole experiment and move on. Maybe Dipoto wouldn’t have come right out and released him, but getting anything of value back — and coming out ahead in the deal financially — is a win for Seattle.
Toro has relatively little in common with Winker, other than he too came to the Mariners in a controversial trade. This was, of course, the infamous Kendall Graveman deal, in which the Mariners — an outsider in the 2021 playoff race but not completely out of it — came back from 7-0 down to beat the Astros, after which Dipoto turned around and dealt Graveman and Rafael Montero before the next day’s game. At the time Dipoto argued that the trade was necessary because the team was unlikely to make the playoffs, Graveman would be a free agent at year’s end, and Toro was the latest in a line of players the Mariners could develop into stars: Mitch Haniger, J.P. Crawford, Ty France, and so on.
Well, he was two-thirds right. In 308 plate appearances with the Astros, Toro hit .193/.276/.350. In 605 plate appearances with the Mariners, he hit .213/.276/.342. Toro was in the top third of the league in contact rate this past year, but the quality of his contact leaves much to be desired.
Abraham Toro, By The Numbers
*Out of 277 hitters with 300 or more plate appearances
Because I came of baseball maturity as defense-independent pitching statistics were reaching mainstream acceptance, I look at a .198 BABIP over half a season and a part of my brain can’t help but go, “Man, Toro’s just the unluckiest guy in the world.” But he also has a .224 career BABIP in more than 900 career plate appearances. At some point it’s not a fluke. Look at his hard hit rate, or the fact that last year he had two pop-ups for every three line drives. I wouldn’t say he’s getting the bat knocked out of his hands, exactly. What I will say is the kind of big league hitter who draws that kind of criticism — Ben Revere comes to mind — is actually a much more productive hitter than Toro.
The Brewers are either doing the Mariners a solid by freeing up a roster spot and whatever money Toro will make in arbitration, or they genuinely see something they can salvage in Toro. Because the Brewers sit in the uncomfortable middle of the Venn diagram where “wants to win” converges with “won’t run a $175 million payroll,” they have to play in the sandbox of reclamation projects more than most teams. And to their credit, they’ve profited from doing so in the past.
But as much as Winker’s no longer a sure thing, Toro is even less so. In order to acquire them, they’ve given up a quality regular at a valuable position and spent as much in cash as it would’ve taken to acquire a comparable DH to Winker in free agency. The logic behind this deal for Seattle is obvious. For Milwaukee, understanding it requires a belief that the Brewers know something about Winker and Toro that everyone else doesn’t. And hey, maybe they do.
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