Blue Jays WUTS: Encarnacion for Walker + Smith?


Alex Anthopoulos’ recent comments about upgrading the Jays’ rotation and bullpen, together with the anonymous comment about the Jays “pulling something spectacular in the next few weeks” have led to renewed speculation about what magic the Ninja might have in the works.

Could the Jays have finally reconciled themselves to trading top prospects in a high-powered rental deal – such as the once-rumoured Hoffman+ for Cueto + Chapman trade?  Or has ownership decided to dig into their piggy bank to get a Papelbon or to take on the contract of a Hamels?

Or have the Jays decided to approach the problem another way – to trade some of their hitting for help in the rotation and in the bullpen?

Cue the Seattle Mariners, and today’s Wildly Unfounded Trade Speculation (WUTS).

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Seattle is in a difficult position.  They signed 31-year-old Robinson Cano to a

10-year, $240-million contract

in December 2013.  They then signed 34-year-old Nelson Cruz to a

4-year, $57-million contract

a year later.  In each case, they knew that by the end of the contract it was unlikely that they would be realizing full value.  But they were coming off a 87-75 year in 2014, which was within one game of a wild card spot.  Their 2014 team ERA of 3.17 was the second best in baseball, led by perennial Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez’s 2.14 (and 6.1 fWAR).  They were close.

So far, the 2015 season has been disappointing for Seattle.  They lost Hisashi Iwakuma to a strained lat muscle on April 25th, and James Paxton to a strained finger tendon on May 29.  And their hitting has not met expectations – the Mariners are 22nd in team fWAR from hitters, and 25th in team OPS.

But things are looking up.  Their staff pitched to a 2.53 ERA in June – second best in the majors – and with both Iwakuma and Paxton expected to return to the rotation shortly, the Ms might actually have more starters than they can use.  Despite Seattle’s poor start, they are only six games out of a wild card spot, and with better hitting they could have a legitimate chance.

So Seattle has too much pitching, and needs hitting.  And Toronto has too much hitting, and needs pitching.  Could there be a fit here?

May 24, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Seattle Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker (32) pitches against Toronto Blue Jays in the third inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Taijuan Walker was ranked the #11 prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2014 season.  He pitched to a solid 3.68 FIP in 2014, albeit in only 38 innings.  So far in 2015, he has pitched 85 innings with a 4.64 ERA and a 4.15 FIP.  But in his last few starts he has started to emerge as a solid-or-better rotation option.  In his five starts in June, he has gone 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA and a 3.26 FIP, and he has averaged almost seven innings per start.  It is unlikely that he will be able to maintain this pace (his BB/9 is 0.79 and his left on base percentage is 93%) but he appears to be coming into his own.  And even with regression, he should be a solid, innings-eating mid-rotation starter with upside for the remainder of 2015 and beyond (he does not become a free agent until 2021).

Feb 26, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Carson Smith poses for a portrait during photo day at Peoria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Carson Smith is 25-year-old reliever who is currently a junior member of Seattle’s “closer by committee”.  He is currently pitching to a 1.45 ERA and a 2.42 FIP, and he has converted five of six save opportunities.  His fastball and slider are both rated above-average to plus, and he pitches well to both left and right-handed batters.

Edwin Encarnacion is of course Edwin.  Since 2012, his 128 HRs are tied (with Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis) for the highest in baseball, and his 144 wRC+ over that period is the 10th highest in baseball.  If Seattle needs a stud hitter, Edwin clearly meets the definition.  Edwin has a very reasonable $10 million team option for 2016, and is a prime candidate for an extension beyond that.

May 27, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) is congratulated by shortstop Chris Taylor (1) and second baseman Robinson Cano (22) after he hit a 3-run home run during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Why would an Edwin for Walker + Smith deal (plus perhaps a few pieces on either side) work for Seattle?  Their window is now.  Cano and Cruz are both in their 30s, and almost certainly in decline.  King Felix is only 29, but has already pitched almost 2,200 innings. He is still brilliant, but even he can not keep up this level of performance forever.  Clearly, it behooves the Mariners to carpe the diem.  And with Felix, Iwakuma, Paxton (returning soon), Happ (whimper), Montgomery and Elias the Mariners should still have one of the best rotations in baseball, even without Walker.

Why would this deal work for Toronto?  Obviously, no team wants to give up a talent of Edwin’s calibre.  But right now the Jays are an unbalanced team, leading the known universe in hitting but with serious questions about their pitching.  And they face an interesting problem, in that Edwin, Dioner Navarro, Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello are all competing for ABs at 1B and DH.  Trading for Walker would allow the Jays to keep prospects like Hoffman and Norris, but still get a #3 starter with upside for 2015 and beyond.  The bullpen would be enhanced, both by Carson and by whichever of Estrada and Sanchez was pushed out of the rotation.  And the savings of roughly $5 million in 2015, added to the existing war chest, might make the difference in other acquisition opportunities.

The bottom line?  A good article by Max Carter identified ten possible players that Seattle could target in a Walker trade.  One of those ten was Edwin.  Max said:

"I don’t need to say too much about Encarnacion. He has established himself as a prolific home run threat in five seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, although the Jays do play at the offensive-friendly Rogers Centre. Encarnacion is 32 years old, which is a bit of a concern, but Nelson Cruz is almost 35 and he is doing just fine. A fairly expensive option, but the first baseman/DH would add even more star power to the Mariners’ stacked roster."

Next: Blue Jay Bullies: Can They Hit Good Pitching?

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