The Final Piece Departs

Last summer when the Padres extended outfielder Seth Smith without a full-time general manager in place, I wrote:

The problem, like Dave Cameron said yesterday, is the opportunity cost. There are only so many roster spots and, more specifically, so many outfielders that can play in one game. Like Hundley, Smith might end up getting in the way of a youngster like Rymer Liriano or, soon enough, Hunter Renfroe. Smith seems more like a guy you want to bring in to a ready-to-contend situation as a, wait for it, … Final Piece. And the Padres probably aren’t there yet.

Who would have thought that, just six months later, Smith would be crowded out of the mix not by Liriano or Renfroe, but by a new outfield triumvirate consisting of Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton. It only took one week for AJ Preller and the new Padres front office to turn Smith into an offensive cornerstone of the 2015 roster to an afterthought, and now they’ve moved him to Seattle for a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher named Brandon Maurer.

Smith, who apparently met with Ron Fowler and Mike Dee to gauge their commitment to winning prior to signing his extension back in June, was ultimately made expendable by just that — the Padres suddenly shifting desire to compete sooner rather than later.

All told, the (sort of) puzzling extension didn’t work out too badly. Smith hit enough in the second half to retain plenty of trade interest heading into the offseason, and his contract was reasonable enough that even if a team viewed him as a platoon player rather than an everyday starter — like the Mariners probably do — there was enough meat on the bone to get something of value in return. Further, the no-trade promise that was offered to Smith if he signed the deal was unlikely a major obstacle once he realized his playing time in San Diego would be limited.

The return in Maurer is an intriguing one. Like Shawn Kelley, who the Padres acquired yesterday, Maurer is a right-handed power arm with numbers that don’t jump out at first glance. In 2013 and 2014 with the Mariners, Maurer tossed 159 and 2/3 innings, striking out 125, walking 46, allowing 22 home runs, and posting a 5.58 ERA.

There are a number of “bad luck” factors Maurer’s dealt with in his first two big league seasons, however. He’s allowed a .329 BABiP, a 64.5 left-on-base percentage, and a 10.8 home run per fly ball percentage, all numbers that should improve given more innings. Like Kelley, he’s underperformed his FIP in each of the last two seasons, posting 4.90 and 3.49 marks in ’13 and ’14, respectively.

It’s always dangerous to slice-and-dice an already small sample size, but take a look at Maurer’s splits as a starter vs. as a reliever:

Role IP ERA Strikeouts Walks Home runs K-to-BB ratio
Starter 102 6.62 69 35 17 1.97
Reliever 57.2 3.75 56 11 5 5.09

Some pitchers simply aren’t cut out for starting, whether it’s due to stamina issues, arsenals that aren’t deep enough to withstand multiple trips through the batting order, or a myriad of other potential factors. Those same pitchers can often go on to find success out of the pen, masking weaknesses in one innings bursts. Maurer, for what it’s worth, has been a completely different pitcher when coming out of the bullpen, striking out almost a batter per inning while posting a gaudy 5-plus strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Out of relief pitchers with at least 30 innings in 2014, here’s how Maurer ranks in various categories:

Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 7.60 (5th out of 209)
Strikeout percentage: 25.3 (66th)
Walk percentage: 3.3 (5th)
FIP-: 51 (11th)
Fastball velocity: 96.4 mph (13th)
Swinging strike percentage: 13.4 (33rd)
Out-of-zone contact percentage: 57.9 (60th)
Contact percentage: 73.2 (54)

The bonus with Maurer is that he was brought through the Mariners system with the goal of starting, and he stands 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. As recently as 2012, when both Baseball America and Baseball Propsectus ranked him as the sixth best prospect in Seattle’s farm system, he was tabbed as a potential innings-eating, front-line starter. A good chunk of that hype has rightfully evaporated, as Maurer’s struggled in the majors (and to a lesser extent Triple-A) as a starter, but there’s still a reasonable shot that he’ll get another chance to start at some point with the Padres. For now, though, he’ll likely slot into a bullpen suddenly crowded with right-handed power.

With this move, Preller’s managed to shed the $13 million owed to Smith while acquiring the rights to a hard-throwing, young reliever/(maybe)starter who doesn’t hit arbitration until 2017 and is under control for the rest of the decade. It isn’t a brilliant move, per se, as trading a position player for a reliever (if that’s what Maurer ends up being) isn’t generally good practice, but once you consider the contracts changing hands, the idea that Maurer has the upside to turn into a shutdown late-inning guy, and Smith’s odd-man-out status, it’s hard not to appreciate the job Preller’s done turning over the roster while sticking to a (relatively) tight budget.

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