In a weekend that was filled with football, college basketball, and leftover turkey, the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners hooked up for a trade that pulled us back into the clutches of the simmering Hot Stove – the deal saw Tampa trade 28-year-old catcher John Jaso to Seattle for 27-year-old right-handed reliever Josh Lueke and a player to be named later (or cash considerations).
Jaso is a very solid, buy-low acquisition for the Mariners. He endeared himself to the sabermetric community by hitting .263/.372/.378 as a rookie in 2010, but followed that up by hitting only .224/.298/.354 this past season. That .288 wOBA, however, was largely due to a dip in BABIP to .244, which should see some natural correction next year.
The left-handed hitting catcher possesses a keen eye for balls and strikes at the plate and is extremely selective when swinging. He has walked more than he has struck out over his career, while swinging at a mere 34.9% of the pitches he sees over his 687 plate appearances in the big leagues. Only Bobby Abreu, Brett Gardner, Joe Mauer, and Jamey Carroll take the bat off their shoulder less often than Jaso.
Those are very desirable peripheral statistics for an offensive player, especially a catcher with fringe-average power who will not be eligible for arbitration until next winter.
Of course, all is not sunshine and roses surrounding Jaso. He is largely considered below-average behind the plate defensively and has never thrown out a large percentage of potential base stealers. Some reports suggest that he calls a good game behind the dish and that pitchers build a strong rapport with him; though one could easily argue that is belied by his inability to adequately frame pitches and suppress the opposing team’s running game. He is not terrible defensively — we’re not talking Ryan Doumit level of bad — but he will have to produce with his bat to be anything more than the +0.5 win player he was in 2011 due to his limitations with the glove.
With that said, if Jaso can produce at his career average mark of .245/.340/.365 — and, once again, his .244 BABIP in 2011 suggests that should be no problem — the Seattle Mariners will have a solid back-up catcher at the league minimum. If he can outproduce his career average and replicate his 2010 season, the Mariners will be able to utilize Miguel Olivo more sparingly against right-handed pitchers and trot out a catching platoon that maximizes the strengths of both players.
In return for Jaso, the Rays received right-handed reliever Josh Lueke. He has big-league stuff with a mid-90s fastball, a low-80s splitter, and a slurve-type pitch that sits 79-80 MPH, but he is more well-known amongst the baseball community for his legal issues back in 2009, when Lueke plead no-contest to a charge of false imprisonment with violence and spent 42 days in jail as a result. It should be noted that the Rays are not feigning ignorance, as the Mariners did in 2010 when they acquired him from Texas. GM Andrew Friedman released the following statement (via Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times):
“We researched the 2009 incident that Josh was involved in thoroughly and in great detail,” Friedman said in a statment [sic]. “We’re satisfied that he is going to be the kind of person and teammate that we look for and we expect him to contribute positively to our group.”.
And that is probably all you will hear from the Rays’ front office on the subject.
Lueke was acquired by Seattle in 2010 in the Cliff Lee deal and was seen as a future contributor at the back-end of a big league bullpen. Those expectations for his on-the-field performance are still largely in place after his improved second-half last season, but his trade value likely dropped significantly due to the public outcry exploded after the acquisition by Seattle. GMs across the league likely had to wonder how their ownership groups would act if a trade for Lueke spurred a larger public outcry than expected, which is likely why we’re talking about Lueke being traded for a reserve catcher and not as a piece to acquire something more significant.
On the field, though, Lueke should serve as a middle reliever and a bridge-man to closer Kyle Farnsworth. His ability to throw strikes needs significant work, but his control sharpened as the season wore on in 2011 and showed signs that he can be a useful cog in a bullpen. If he can ever begin to consistently throw quality strikes, though, the Rays could have a cheap reliever with some upside for the next five years.
He did post a rather dreadful 6.06 ERA over 32.2 innings last season. However, that number is rather misleading. His FIP was 3.24, and his FIP- was 84 (and remember that a number less than 100 is above-average). That ERA/FIP split is largely due to his .327 BABIP and extremely low 56.6% LOB%. Expect his ERA to drop significantly next season, though perhaps a move to the difficult AL East will temper the improvement a bit.
Overall, it’s difficult not to prefer this trade for the Mariners. At best, they acquired a +2 win starting-caliber catcher — which has been a need in Seattle for years — for a fungible reliever with significant baggage and command issues. At the very least, the Mariners acquired a platoon bat that should help limit the plate appearances for Miguel Olivo and his .273 wOBA.
And that, in itself, is a small victory.
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