In one of the smaller moves of the day, the Mariners dealt Abraham Almonte and another minor leaguer to the Padres for Chris Denorfia. It wasn’t a trade that caught much attention, because neither of the younger guys is of any real consequence, and Denorfia is a rental having a down season. It was just something that flew by, completely under the radar, and now something you should consider is that Almonte began the season as the Mariners’ starter in center field.
So it could be said that, later on Thursday, the Mariners addressed a need that was ever so desperate. They didn’t end up with David Price, but they did get themselves involved in the deal, adding Austin Jackson and subtracting Nick Franklin. Jackson has only another eight months of team control, and it would appear he might’ve peaked in 2012. But while Jackson hasn’t been playing like a star-level player, for the Mariners he ought to be an upgrade of some very real significance.
Let’s look at the familiar FanGraphs leaderboards and split for center fielders. You know which team has been the best? Of course you do. Angels center fielders — Mike Trout — have provided a WAR of 5.7. In the middle, we have the Twins and Cardinals, at 1.9. Way down toward the bottom, the Braves are at a paltry 0.3. Then you have the Cubs and the Mariners. Both teams are tied for last, at -0.8. Both teams, to date, have gotten performances out of center field you might expect from a random decent Double-A glove guy. The Mariners are trying to make the playoffs!
When the Mariners demoted Almonte, they did so without any good alternatives. The first guy to get more playing time was Stefen Romero, who is bad. Then came James Jones, who is also bad. It’s an outfield picture that’s involved entirely too much Endy Chavez, but as easy as it is to pick on the Mariners for Chavez’s presence, Jones has been a younger equivalent. He’s also been getting worse and worse, putting the Mariners in position of needing to find what outfield help they could.
Hence Jackson, who’s going from one contender to another. It’s always easier to go from bad to decent than from decent to good. Around deadline time, not very many contending teams have bad positions, because bad positions indicate bad rosters. You could say the Mariners are fortunate, then, because for them Jackson is a bigger upgrade than he ought to be. He’s a good deal better than Jones right now, and since he’s only 27, he should be good again in 2015, for an organization with almost zero outfield depth. This is a definite move out of short-term interests, but just because the Mariners aren’t the A’s or the Tigers doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to seize whatever kind of opportunity this is.
Jackson is going to be reunited with Lloyd McClendon, his former hitting coach. Just a couple years ago, Jackson posted a 134 wRC+, that dropped to 107, and then to this year’s 100. He’s long been something of a tinkerer, and what he’s missing right now is a bit of power, but he projects as a slightly above-average hitter and early in his career he’s been one of the better BABIP hitters in baseball history. Instead of driving balls over fences, he’s more of the spraying-line-drives sort, and in theory this ought to be his career prime. At least, there isn’t much risk that Jackson is going to fall flat on his face.
Of maybe greater concern is Jackson’s defense in center. We know that defense starts to decline from an early age, but Jackson’s numbers have gotten worse each year from 2011. Since the start of last season, Jackson has been average by DRS and below-average by UZR, and it’s possible he’s just lost some of his range. Yet, he should be flanked by capable defenders, and there’s no reason to believe Jackson is a defensive liability. What he seems like is an average or above-average player, who’s been a 5-win player before and who’s joining a team with a desperate need.
Leaving is Nick Franklin, who’s been undeniably obvious trade bait for the better part of a calendar year. It was a small miracle Franklin survived the winter without getting dealt, and then it seemed like a move in spring training was all but inevitable. At last, Franklin’s going somewhere where he isn’t blocked, as he just didn’t have a future with the Mariners.
Obviously, second base is taken care of. Shortstop is a little more up in the air, with the struggling Brad Miller and the unknown Chris Taylor, but few believe Franklin is a shortstop anyway, and then you’re thinking about a full-on switch to the outfield. So the Mariners almost had to trade Franklin, to get something out of him. Which wouldn’t justify just any deal — Franklin would have value to most other teams — but front offices have known about Franklin’s availability for months. No one was offering anything elite, so the Jackson return seems reasonable.
It’s important to understand that Franklin’s stock is down. He hasn’t hit in the majors, and he hasn’t hit in the minors for two months. It’s also important to understand that Franklin is still a valuable piece, given that he’s 23 and has a Triple-A OPS over .800. He destroyed Triple-A last year, he destroyed Triple-A earlier this year, and there was talk that he was disappointed to be demoted in early June. He’s a fairly disciplined hitter with surprising power for someone his size, and he’s twice been ranked a top-100 prospect. Even if he isn’t a shortstop, he has tools that could translate somewhere else, and it’s within the realm of possibility that he can be Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist after Ben Zobrist.
Years and years ago, Shin-Soo Choo was obvious trade bait. Eventually, he got traded, and the Mariners missed him. The likelihood is that Choo’s skillset back then was underrated, and Franklin profiles to be somewhat underrated as well, but then Austin Jackson is better than Ben Broussard. The Mariners, probably, are prepared for Franklin to be an okay player for a while, but they don’t seem to think he’ll be a star, and they do seem to think that Jackson will help them be a lot better for the next year and change.
The Mariners have dropped out of playoff position, but Jackson’s a big improvement, and Franklin had no role. Jackson will also be around for a similar team in 2015, so this isn’t a one-time shot. The Mariners had no hope of making themselves as good as the best teams in the American League, but that doesn’t mean you just fold up shop, and they upgraded without subtracting too much of the potential future. If Jackson returns to 2012 levels, he’ll be outstanding. If Franklin hits like he hit when he was first promoted to the majors, he’ll be highly valuable. Obviously, there are ways for both sides to come out of this deal a winner. If Jackson plays like he’s expected to, and if Franklin plays like he’s expected to, then it’ll look almost perfectly fair. For the Mariners, they had some real good players and a real bad position. This doesn’t fix them completely, but they’ve at least taken care of one embarrassment.
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