Could the Seattle Mariners Acquire David Price Without Taijuan Walker?
By Robbie Knopf
As the Tampa Bay Rays continue to wait for a team to acquiesce to their lofty asking cost for David Price, news has broken that one obvious suitor will not give in quite yet. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that the Seattle Mariners will not include right-hander Taijuan Walker or even lefty James Paxton in a possible trade, and will instead hope to acquire Price using position players. Unless that shift changes, does that effectively remove the Mariners from the running for Price?
On the position player front, there are several players that the Rays could be interested in from the Mariners. With Robinson Cano in the fold, Nick Franklin or Brad Miller is expendable, and one of those middle infielders would look like the headliner of the deal. Without a Walker or Paxton in the trade, however, the Mariners would have to give up several more talented players. Before we talked about a package of Walker, Franklin, a low-minors arm, and a couple of throw-ins to get a deal done. Replacing Walker in that package would be daunting task, especially with Paxton not an option.
One player that could interest the Rays could be Justin Smoak. Smoak has already been involved in one blockbuster trade for an ace left-hander after the Mariners acquired him in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010–could we see him dealt again? Smoak, 27, is coming off his best season so far in the major leagues, hitting to a .238/.334/.412 line (113 OPS+) with 19 doubles, 20 homers, and 50 RBI in 521 plate appearances. All three slash stats marked careerhighs, as did his 20 home runs. Smoak has not become the player he was expected to be after emerging as a top prospect in the Rangers organization, with issues against offspeed pitches limiting his ability to get on base. Adding to Smoak’s deficiencies is that he has never been regarded as a good defensive first baseman and struggled mightily against lefties in 2013 (.584 OPS). However, we cannot totally ignore that the switch-hitting Smoak was excellent against right-handed pitching this past season, slamming them to a .260/.361/.477 line. Combine that with his previous success against lefties (OPS over .700 in 2011 and 2012), and maybe you have something.
The other thing to worry about with Smoak, though, is that he is arbitration-eligible for the first time this season. Smoak is projected to make $2.8 million, not exactly peanuts by Rays standards, and the Rays would only have him three seasons. Essentially, Smoak is a less than premium talent who the Rays would have for less than half the time they would have a top prospect. With that in mind, Smoak would be a minor piece in any deal and seems unlikely to be included at all.
The next player deserving consideration is former number two overall pick Dustin Ackley. Ackley, who will turn 26 in February, was able to finally generate some positive results after returning from a month in the minor leagues in late June, hitting to a .285/.354/.404 line in 256 plate appearances the rest of the season. The irony was that he came back at a centerfield and received poor reviews defensively, a sharp contrast from the stout defense he showed at second base. But if the Rays truly believe Ackley has broken through at the plate, they can worry about his defensive position after they acquire him. Ackley will make $1.7 million in 2014 as part of the major league contract he signed after the draft before being arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2015. Ackley’s value is also less than a top prospect’s, but combining the upside he still carries with four years left under team control still makes him an interesting option.
To fill the gap between a player like Walker and Ackley, the Mariners would have to get a little creative. One thing they could do is add in one of two former top prospects whose value has slipped even below Smoak and Ackley: Jesus Montero and Danny Hultzen. Montero has just a .252/.293/.377 line in 663 plate appearances as a Mariner to go along with a performancing-enhancing drug suspension while Hultzen, another former number two pick, underwent shoulder surgery at the beginning of October. They both still have talent, but you have to wonder what the Rays think of Montero and Hultzen at this point. A package of say Franklin, Ackley, Hultzen or Montero, and highly-touted Rookie ball lefty Luiz Gohara would be loaded with names but it would still lack the type of high-end talent the Rays are looking for. Players like Ackley and Hultzen would be interesting reclamation projects, but the Rays are hoping for a lot more than that in a potential Price trade.
There are various players the Seattle Mariners could add in an attempt to sweeten the deal, but the Rays recognize that one star player is worth exponentially more than a group of unimpressive ones and seem unlikely to be swayed. A package without Walker could be theoretically enough to get Price, but only if the Mariners reconsider their stance on the other player they declared off-limits, lefty James Paxton, and even that would be far from a certainty. The Mariners are not going to get desperate as they attempt to add Price to Robinson Cano and get their fan base even more exhilarated for next season. Unless that changes, we are left with no obvious suitor for Price and the Rays will continue to wait.