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Ex-Mariners C Mike Zunino
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Drayer: Do players really get better when they leave the Mariners? We look at results of the Dipoto era

Mike Zunino's defense and homers helped the Rays make the World Series. (Getty)

After the Dodgers closed out their National League Championship Series-clinching win against the Braves on Sunday night, it took no time at all for Mariners fans on the Twittersphere to dub the upcoming Dodgers-Rays battle the “Mike Zunino/Chris Taylor World Series.”

Almost as quickly, Mariners fans were prompted to revive the familiar “they always get better when they leave” refrain.

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You know the story: Mariner leaves team, said former Mariner goes on to a career year, postseason heroics, All-Star selections, records, you name it. You want to revive your career? Spend a season in Seattle.

Easy as that, right? Well, let’s take a closer look.

We will start with the two former Mariners who will square off for let’s hope will be a highly entertaining, seven-game Fall Classic. And yes, I know they are not the only former Mariners still playing – that, and perhaps a more valid concern, will be addressed further down in the post.

Chris Taylor certainly did get better after leaving the Mariners. A trip to the mountaintop to see hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock and rework his swing no doubt had more to do with transforming Taylor from a “Tacoma Shuttle” player to a near-everyday Dodger than the change in uniforms. One of the earliest buy-ins to the launch angle revolution, Taylor put up career numbers in his first full season in LA, hitting .288 with a 126 wRC+.

Those numbers did not go unnoticed by Mariners fans. What did go unnoticed, however, were Taylor’s NL-high 176 strikeouts the next season. A very solid player posting 113 and 107 wRC+ in 2018 and 2019, but not quite the giant some seem to want to think he is. Still, unquestionably, he got better.

While it has been great to see his postseason success, the same can’t be said for Mike Zunino, who the Mariners led off their rebuild with his trade to the Rays. Behind the plate handling the pitching, a dream. At the plate, frustrating. Although Zunino hit .226/.296/.461 (.757 OPS) with a wRC+ of 105 for Seattle in the two years leading up to the trade, with the Rays those numbers have fallen to .161/.233/.323 (.556) and a wRC+ of 49.

Zunino saw his playing time drastically cut in 2019, but the Rays clearly value the defense as rather than non-tender him following a disaster of a season, they signed him to a two-year, $9 million contract. Good to see him appreciated and the hope remains that he will figure things out at the plate, but you cannot say he got better after leaving the Mariners.

So two players who fall on either side of the spectrum. What about the rest who have traveled through the Mariners organization since Jerry Dipoto became general manager? With Kyle Seager as the only remaining player from his first roster, that’s a lot of names to go through, but throwing out a few dozen relievers the picture becomes somewhat clear.

There are those that got away, those you should be happy went away, and – stealing from the video breakdown of all of Dipoto’s trades that Boy Howdy and I did in the 2018 offseason – a lot of “meh.”

Let’s start with a specific area of impact: the rebuild.

The moves of the winter of 2019 skew heavily in one direction – down. Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz had disastrous first seasons with the Mets. Canó saw his 2018 line of .303/.347/.471 (.818) and 135 wRC+ dip to .256/.307/.428 (.735) and 91 wRC+. Diaz saw his FIP jump from 1.61 to 4.51 and home runs per nine innings from 0.6 to 2.3. Both players rebounded in the short second half of 2020 but both firmly in the “got worse” category.

And the trade with the other team from New York? Somewhat similar with James Paxton averaging a 2.95 FIP, 1.110 WHIP, 11.1 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 in his final two seasons with the Mariners and a 3.92 FIP, 1.187 WHIP, 11.2 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 since with the Yankees. Another Mariner who did not get better.

In Philadelphia, Jean Segura’s slide not as dramatic, but a slide nonetheless. He followed up a line of .302/.345/.421 (.761) and 110 wRC+ in two seasons in Seattle with .276/.329/.421 (.750) and 96 wRC+ combined in 2019 and 2020 with the Phillies.

Ben Gamel has hit a homer here or there and has had some go ahead RBIs that has perhaps caught your eye on highlight shows the the last couple of years, but the overall numbers for him in Milwaukee are down from his time in Seattle, following up wRC+ numbers of 99 and 107 in Seattle with 87 and 93 in Milwaukee (the flow is still a 150, however).

In the “meh” column, Guillermo Heredia has pretty much been Guillermo Heredia in three different uniforms since leaving the Mariners, and Alex Colomé, who was very good for the Mariners in his short stay, continues to be very good for the White Sox.

The one “got better” comes in the form of Nelson Cruz, who has been continuing to get better since he landed in Seattle in 2015. The ageless wonder has bettered his four-year average line in Seattle of .284/.362/.546 (.909) and 145 wRC+ by hitting .308/.394/.626 (1.020) and 163 for the Twins. Long live Nellie.

Away from the tear down, Ketel Marte probably stands out as the biggest one that got away, taking his two-year average of .267/.309/.349 (.658) and 83 with the Mariners to .289/.354/.486 (.841) and 119 (and a fourth-place MVP finish in 2019) with the Diamondbacks.

Steve Cishek posted a 3.86 FIP, 26 saves, 1.012 WHIP, 1.2 HR/9 and 9.8 K/9 in 64 innings with Seattle, and since has a 3.44 FIP, four saves, 1.038 WHIP, 0.6 HR/9 and 10K/9 over 70.1 innings for the Rays, Cubs and White Sox, indicating he was perhaps better in a different role.

Others who have gotten better include Chris Iannetta, who matched his Angels wRC+ of 78 in Seattle before jumping to 120 with the Diamondbacks the next year, and Adam Lind, who saw a similar jump after his one year with the Mariners. Both players saw a steep decline after, but you could say both got better.

Finally, one to keep an eye on in the better category: Matt Wisler, who the Mariners purchased from the Padres in 2019 as a find by the analytics department. They liked the slider and saw mixed results after asking for a change in usage. The Twins kept him on the same path in 2020, having him throw the pitch 83 percent of the time, and saw very good results with some of the best contact and whiff numbers in baseball in a small sample.

That’s about it from the big league roster. There simply hasn’t been a ton of “they got better” in recent years. On the other side, outside of the 2018 trades, not a lot of dramatic changes either.

Domingo Santana would qualify. His non-tender drew the ire of some Mariners fans after he hit 21 bombs in 2019 and put up a 107 wRC+ while striking out 164 times. He couldn’t get it going with the Indians in 2020, however, hitting .157 with a 64 wRC+ before being DFA’d and sent to the Indians’ alternate site.

Tom Wilhelmsen, who owns a lifetime FIP of 3.52 as a Mariner, stands out as another whose fortunes reversed after leaving Seattle, posting a FIP of 7.93 with the Rangers and 5.32 in Arizona.

More recently, Omar Narváez saw a big drop this year hitting .176 with the Brewers, and after Edwin Encarnación put up his best wRC+ since his Toronto days with 135 for Seattle in 2019, he saw that number drop to 121 following his trade to the Yankees and then to 71 this season with the White Sox.

It is in the “meh” category where most of those who left the Mariners can be found. Leonys Martín had the same struggles in Cleveland that he had in Seattle. Older players like Jarrod Dyson continued their declines. Nori Aoki continued to be Nori Aoki when he left. Wade Miley had a terrible first season after and mixed results the next two years. Yovani Gallardo continued to be awful. But the great “breakout” players from the big league roster appear to be limited to just a few.

They don’t all really get better. And while we are on the topic, might as well dispel another myth we still hear far too often.
The Mariners are not the farm system for the Yankees. Don’t believe me? How many former Mariners who came up through the system were on the Yankees’ playoff roster? If you want to go that route, you would be better served looking at the Rays. On that note, it might be time to ditch them as a trade partner. We can get more into that when we get the white board out again later this winter.

Follow Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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