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Does any general manager make more old-fashioned baseball trades than Jack Zduriencik? Whether it's Jason Vargas-Kendrys Morales, Carlos Silva-Milton Bradley, or Saunders-Happ, Zduriencik loves simple, tidy veteran-for-veteran swaps.
Unfortunately, the cause to this trade appears to be anything but tidy. Long story short, Saunders' relationship with the Mariners soured after Zduriencik critiqued his conditioning habits—comments that, according to the exec, were meant in a general sense. Saunders, who missed time in '14 due to oblique and shoulder issues, took offense to the team's head honcho questioning his work ethic, and the partnership between the two sides was either irreconcilable or not worth the salvaging attempt. So that's that.
The return on the unhappy Saunders is Happ, who will qualify for free agency following the 2015 season. He fits the Safeco archetype—the Washburn, if you will—as a southpaw with fly-ball tendencies. Happ ought to find Safeco more pleasant than the other home ballparks he's pitched in, all of which have been hitter-friendly. His stuff is nothing special—low-to-mid-90s fastball, curve, change, and cutter—yet it's worth noting that he threw more strikes than usual last season, perhaps due to mechanical alterations.
More concerning than Happ's limited upside or time remaining under team control is his reliability. Though he hasn't missed time due to arm trouble, he has visited the DL in each of the past three seasons. (In fairness, once was because he was hit in the head with a line drive.) If Happ can remain on the mound, he should provide the back of the M's rotation with a boost. Zduriencik sure hopes so, because the latest speculation has him shopping a young pitcher for an upgrade in the outfield. —R.J. Anderson
Happ’s overall performance last season wasn’t the best for mixed league purposes, and yet it really wasn’t the worst for AL-onlies either. He altered his mechanics and managed to both boost his velocity a couple notches and rein in his troublesome control to post a career-low walk rate. It helped him overcome at least enough of his persistent gopheritis to return $9 worth of value and sneak into the top 50 among AL starters. The ballpark and division jump is decidedly positive for a fly-ball pitcher. Still, holding out hope for much more value than he produced last year is probably wishful thinking. Even with the improvements, his strikeout rate remained just a tick above average and he was still a significant WHIP liability. Seattle has a bunch of other back-end options in Roenis Elias, Erasmo Ramirez, and eventually Danny Hultzen kicking around, so while Happ’s expensive price tag probably buys him the inside track to breaking camp in the rotation, as with most back-end types job security is not a given here. The upshot is an ERA around four, a WHIP hovering in the 1.30 range, and 150 strikeouts over a full, 180-inning season. Those numbers aren’t what they used to be, though, and he’s still best left for medium-depth AL-only draft sheets.
Roenis Elias/Erasmo Ramirez
The other side of the coin to Happ’s moderate “up” arrow, these two are now all but officially on the outside looking in at Seattle's rotation. Elias is a Cuban southpaw, and I will therefore roster him in all leagues unconditionally regardless of his situation, but he’s now going to have to earn an encore to what was a very solid rookie season. His limited service time and remaining options make him an attractive candidate as a sixth starter, though a trade sending away Taijuan Walker or Hisashi Iwakuma for another bat could change the equation again right quick. And Ramirez will be an interesting case, as he’s out of options and hasn’t really been able to recapture his mojo after a stellar debut in 2012. His home run issues limit his value as anything more than a swingman option, and starting in Seattle seems an increasingly unlikely proposition given the growing logjam.
Jones was the odd man out after the M’s acquired Austin Jackson last summer, but at least for the time being he appears to be the most likely in-house beneficiary of additional playing time with Saunders out of the picture, even with Nelson Cruz now in it. Jones was one of the most efficient base-stealers in baseball last year, and he is exactly the kind of speed option that can produce outsized value in roto formats despite limited playing time. If Jones can find a way to hang around Seattle for an extended period of time next summer he’s a fantasy-relevant name, so any move that even nominally increases that likelihood is a very good one for his value.
|TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Acquired OF-L Michael Saunders from the Mariners in exchange for LHP J.A. Happ. [12/3]
The Jays needed a new left fielder and at least one left-handed bat to wedge into a predominantly right-handed lineup. Saunders not only quells both desires, but completes the hat trick by virtue of being a native Canadian.
The angular Saunders, who won't qualify for free agency until winter '16, ought to provide value for the Blue Jays at the plate and in the field. His swing mechanics might remind fans a little of Josh Hamilton, and true to form his game features a lot of empty contact (though, unlike Hamilton, he's willing to take a walk). Saunders also has above-average speed, however, his efficiency on the basepaths isn't going to spur Rajai Davis comparisons. Factor in his ability to play each outfield position, and he deserves points for versatility.
Of course the degree of that versatility is worth questioning in one regard. The Mariners never inserted Saunders into a timeshare, yet his so-so numbers against left-handed pitching could prompt the Jays to handcuff him and Kevin Pillar (or whatever right-handed outfielder makes the Opening Day roster). Either way, Saunders is a solid starter who improves the Jays in each facet.
On a related note, Happ's departure means Marco Estrada should start the season in the rotation. —R.J. Anderson
Ever since Jack Zduriencik openly criticized the outfielder’s work ethic at season’s end Saunders seemed destined to move by 2015, and Toronto is among the better-case scenarios for a landing spot. When healthy, Saunders has shown himself capable of decent OF3 production in medium-depth leagues, with a moderate power/speed combo and a solid ability to draw walks and get on base. He’s averaged 14 homers, 15 stolen bases, and 111 R+RBI per 150 games thus far, and it’s obviously worth noting that he’s done that while playing half his games in Safeco with a generally weak supporting lineup. His career OPS is 74 points higher on the road, and he should stand to see a nice boost in his counting stat production, both from Rogers Centre and from a Blue Jays lineup that figures to be among the best in the American League next year. The caveat for all this newfound optimism, however, is that any expected increase in productivity is contingent on Saunders staying on the field. And that is not something he’s been particularly adept at doing over the past several seasons. His medical file could give Craig’s collection of pie recipes a run for its money, and it heavily features the kind of nagging, day-to-day bumps and bruises that drive fantasy owners—particularly those in weekly leagues—absolutely nuts. There’s ostensible upside for an OF2 here if he can log a full season in that park and lineup, but given the injury risks owners shouldn’t feel comfortable investing if the price tag starts to match that ceiling.
It’s likely a temporary arrow, as Toronto seems to have found a bunch of money under the couch cushions to spend in free agency and their moves to date this offseason suggest an all-in. But in dealing Happ management has taken another step toward gutting the back-end of the team’s rotation after Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin were shipped out in the Josh Donaldson deal. Liam Hendriks, Kyle Drabek, and possibly Marco Estrada are all that remain as in-house options for the fifth slot, and that combination does not make for a particularly formidable roadblock if brass deems its top left-handed prospect ready to step into the rotation. Aaron Sanchez probably deserves a mention in the same breath here, though given the significant possibility that he remains in the bullpen it is Norris’ standing that receives a larger bump at the moment. It would be pretty surprising if Toronto doesn’t plug this hole with an external stop-gap between now and the start of spring training, but for the time being Norris climbs another rung on the depth chart and sees a nominal boost in his fantasy potential for 2015.
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