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Breaking down the Robinson Cano trade

How did the Mets do in their biggest trade since acquiring Yoenis Cespedes?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

First-time GM Brodie Van Wagenen has come out of the gates swinging, landing Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz in his first major move. The Mets sent Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, and Gerson Bautista to the Mariners for Cano, Diaz, and $20 million. It’s a very interesting move to dissect, with lots of money changing hands, and it’s hopefully the first positive step towards building a playoff-caliber Mets team for 2019.

The inclusion of Bruce (due $14.5 million in each of the next two years), Swarzak ($8 million in 2019), and $20 million (which will be split over the remaining five seasons of Cano’s deal) from the Mariners effectively makes Cano ‘s contract a five year, $63 million deal. Essentially, the Mets are paying Cano for somewhere between six and eight wins over the next five years. Cano was worth 2.9 fWAR in a half season last year, and he’s projected for roughly three wins in 2019 by Steamer. In other words, Cano is still very good, and while there’s always the possibility that a 36-year-old falls off a cliff, there’s also a decent chance he makes good on the entire remaining money on his deal by the end of 2020.

Diaz is much easier to break down. Over the past three seasons, he is second among all relievers in fWAR, sixth in strikeout rate, fifth in K-BB%, and ninth in FIP. He was even better in 2018, posting an absolutely absurd 3.5 fWAR in 73.1 innings, thanks to a 15.22 K/9 and a 1.61 FIP. Arbitration will reward Diaz handsomely, but he’s due only the league minimum in 2019, and the Mets control his rights through 2022. He’s a premium asset, a better reliever than any on the open market available for significantly less money. If you’ve never seen Diaz pitch before, enjoy this for a moment:

Going the other way, the Mets sent their 2016 and 2018 first round picks to the Mariners. That’s a disingenuous description, however. Justin Dunn was picked 19th overall in the 2016 draft, but he’s underwhelmed scouts. He posted good strikeout rates at Advanced-A and Double-A in 2018, but he’s still probably a reliever and isn’t a top-100 caliber prospect. Jarred Kelenic, meanwhile, is a significant piece, one who will likely appear in the back half of most top-100 prospect lists and someone with significant long-term upside. Still, as a high school outfielder, Kelenic is a ways away from making a major league impact. Finally, Gerson Bautista is young reliever with a hard, straight fastball and no secondaries, and isn’t a piece that should illicit any consternation from Met fans.

Relievers of Diaz’s class have typically required premium returns. Aroldis Chapman fetched Gleyber Torres, Craig Kimbrel was twice traded for a package with two top-50 prospects, though neither deal has really worked out for the selling team, and Andrew Miller fetched two top prospects himself. Diaz is just as good as those relievers, but he’s younger, cheaper, and has more team control. With this context, giving up Kelenic is much more palatable; the Mets gave up a lesser prospect than in other high-profile reliever trades, acquired a better asset, and got a par-value, veteran infielder that significantly improves their offense to boot.

In a vacuum, this is an objectively good trade. Cano lengthens the lineup, bumping Jeff McNeil to third and Todd Frazier to first—and eventually,the bench once Peter Alonso arrives. Diaz becomes the anchor in a bullpen that has all of one reliable option in Seth Lugo at the moment. It’s a very interesting, creative first step towards building a 2019 contender.

As usual, the cloud of the Wilpons and their financial restrictions muddies the waters a bit in terms of assessing the trade in a broader context. The Mets are sitting at roughly $136 million in payroll commitments for the 25-man roster, based on projected arbitration salaries listed at Cot’s. Realistically, that should give the team plenty of room to make further moves and solve holes at catcher, center field, the rest of the bullpen, and starting pitching depth, but you never know with the Mets.

We can imagine three hypothetical paths forward:

  1. This is the only significant move the Mets make this offseason, if cap space is even lower than we expect.
  2. The Wilpons have given Brodie Van Wagenen a hard number, perhaps in the $150-$160 million range, and this is a creative solution to add two great pieces in a cap-neutral manner.
  3. The Mets can actually spend to the cap, but did this anyway, either to allow more room under the cap for further moves or simply because they wanted to be cheap.

Scenario 1 would be disappointing, as the Mets would’ve surrendered Kelenic to add three or four wins to a team where they didn’t matter. Diaz could probably be dealt for more than the Mets gave up, still making the deal a net positive. However, making an all-in, win-now move and not following it up is the sort of inefficient half-measure we’ve grown used to from the Mets, and it’d be nice if they learned something from past mistakes.

Scenario 3 is, as we well know, very unlikely. Debating the merits of trading a prospect for a reliever and Cano rather than signing two or three of the many free agent relievers would be interesting, but the Wilpons will never authorize the spending to make the latter plan feasible.

Thus, we’re left hoping for Scenario 2, and wondering just how much room Van Wagenen has to work with. Will the Wilpons let him hike payroll into the $160 million range? Will he be allowed to reinvest insurance payouts on the David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes contracts? If the Mets have the room to go out and add Yasmani Grandal, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria, and some depth SP/OF options, the three wins added from this trade become very important for pushing the Mets into the playoffs. If it’s Martin Maldonado and Jesse Chavez instead—or an ill-advised trade of Noah Syndergaard—those three wins get the Mets from 80 to 83 wins and mean nothing.

To close, I’m going to echo many of the same sentiments as my colleague Linda Surovich did in this piece. This trade undoubtedly makes the Mets better in the short term, and it’s an objectively good value deal, getting an elite, cost-controlled closer and an good hitter in a cap neutral manner for one significant prospect. In a broader context, the Mets still aren’t good enough, and there’s a lot more more work that needs to be done to make the marginal wins added in this trade matter in the playoff picture.

More generally, it’s a fun way for Brodie Van Wagenen to start off his tenure. The idea of eating money to acquire talent isn’t a novel concept, but this is a more creative move than we’ve seen from the Mets in years, and it hopefully reflects the thinking of a younger, more modern GM who can continue to find interesting solutions to building a contender.