3 Things to Know: Mariners’ trade of Kyle Lewis for Cooper Hummel
The Mariners made a trade Thursday that Mike Salk of Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk called “the mortal lock of this offseason,” shipping away Kyle Lewis, the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year.
Despite Lewis’ clear upside and flashes of brilliance for Seattle in the big leagues, injuries – chiefly multiple ones to the same right knee – have unfortunately played a big of a part in his career. As a result, Seattle’s 2016 first-round MLB Draft pick appeared in just 18 games for the Mariners in 2022, spending the majority of his time when healthy enough to play with Triple-A Tacoma, and according to Salk the relationship between the two sides had soured.
That relationship ended with Thursday’s deal that sends Lewis to Arizona and brings catcher/outfielder Cooper Hummel to Seattle. Salk discussed the swap Friday morning, which you can listen to at the start of the podcast at this link or in the player below. After that, we’ll look at three things he said you need to know about the trade.
1. What the trade of Lewis says
According to Salk, the Mariners couldn’t afford to move forward with Lewis on their roster, which is actually a good sign in terms of where they currently stand.
“While it was painful, hard to swallow, (the trade) might actually show how much better this team has gotten,” he said. “… I do think that what the Mariners did yesterday shows kind of how far they’ve come.”
Lewis was noticeably hindered by his knee throughout the 2022 season, which limited him to just 12 appearances in the outfield between the M’s and Rainiers compared to 45 combined games as designated hitter. While Lewis’ bat has a lot of potential, Salk said the Mariners’ roster isn’t built to carry a player who can’t play the field – or at least not one with a more proven track record against MLB pitching.
“This year was a complete waste unfortunately for him between the knee injury and the head injury (a concussion suffered on May 28), and honestly the fact that he just couldn’t play the field. And that to me is ultimately what severs this relationship,” Salk said. “Because if you’re the Mariners, you can’t have a guy that can’t play the field right now who doesn’t have a more consistent track record for success than Kyle Lewis does. He may very well end up as a DH who has a lot of success in the National League with the Diamondbacks, but you can’t take that chance right now.
“The Diamondbacks are in, like, permanent rebuilt mode. You’re not. You’re going for it. You’re right in the middle of things, right? You have one of the better rosters in the American League, you played the Astros as tough as anybody, and you’re trying to go from good to great this year. You cannot afford to bet on a guy who doesn’t play a defensive position right now and had an OPS of .529 last year with three home runs.”
Not that it makes it any easier to see Lewis, who looked like a superstar in the making in 2019 and 2020, move on to another team.
“By the way, this whole conversation about where he’s at is built in reality, but the other part of it is kind of ‘what a shame.’ Good kid, bright smile, everybody likes him, ‘face of the franchise’ kind of potential,” Salk said. “… I guess the last piece of bad news is you had a guy who was the Rookie of the Year just a couple of years ago who you just gave away for not a lot, and that stinks. It’s a bummer. And at 26 years old – he’ll play next year at 27 – he may get it in Arizona. And you’ll just have to shrug your shoulders because guess what? You don’t have room.”
2. What the Mariners are hoping for out of Hummel
While the Mariners’ return for Lewis was, as Salk said, “not a lot,” that doesn’t mean you should rule out Cooper Hummel having some kind of impact for the team. As a player who was an older rookie this year (Hummel made his MLB debut in April and will turn 28 later this month), can play multiple positions including catcher, and posted strong on-base numbers throughout the minors, Hummel has a lot in common with a diamond in the rough-type player the Mariners had a few seasons ago.
“I think the hope is that he’s kind of another Austin Nola,” Salk noted. “The reality is he’s not really proven that yet and so it’s kind of a flyer, almost a lottery ticket that they get back from Arizona.”
The switch-hitting Hummel slashed just .176/.274/.307 for a .580 OPS in 66 games with the Diamondbacks last season, but the Portland native and University of Portland product has a career .397 on-base percentage and .842 OPS over six seasons in the minors.
Salk mentioned that he “did some digging” about Hummel by talking to some friends in Arizona and shared a bit of what he found out.
“He is the kind of player I was told that analysts like and scouts don’t. Great swing decisions, control the zone, all that type of stuff, but scouts don’t like his swing. So when he comes up to the big leagues after crushing the minors and falters, scouts are like, ‘See? Told you. Bad swing.’ But scouts don’t like anything so don’t worry about it. Scouts are super negative.”
It sounds like Hummel’s ability to get on base is the main draw.
“Not a great defender, although he does play multiple positions and that may have hurt his (overall) defense,” Salk said. “Look, he’s not a big time prospect and he’s not a dream return for a guy who has as much upside as Kyle Lewis still does, but Lewis’ stock has fallen. This is unfortunately what the value is, and if things work out, you’ve got yourself another Austin Nola. I think that’s the goal. Similar (in that he would have) kind of figured it out late, catcher who could also play other positions, athletic, etc., gets on base. ”
For what it’s worth, Salk also pointed to a pretty glowing take on Hummel by sports reporter Jessica Kleinschmidt, who has covered the Oakland Athletics.
I believe it was Drey Jameson who said pitching to Cooper Hummel was like throwing a ball into the ocean when he catches. Had the plate protected — also has a lot of power at the plate. Can play the outfield well also. https://t.co/eebYRSotkD
— Jessica Kleinschmidt (@KleinschmidtJD) November 18, 2022
3. How this impacts the Mariners’ backup catcher role
Update 5:16 p.m.: Catcher Luis Torrens was one of three players the Mariners non-tendered Friday.
The last point Salk made has to do with Hummel’s ability to catch, because the M’s already have two veteran options behind starter Cal Raleigh, who had a breakout year in 2022. Luis Torrens and Tom Murphy both have question marks and are arbitration-eligible this offseason, so the M’s could non-tender either of them to save money.
Salk mentioned that despite Raleigh’s emergence in 2022, particularly in the second half of the season, the backup catcher spot is one the Mariners need to put some thought into.
“What does this mean now for the backup catcher spot if you’re the Mariners? Because as much as I love what Cal Raleigh did last year – as did you, as did everybody, it was awesome – I’ll admit, I’m a little concerned about a backslide there, that the league adjusts (to him) in Year 2,” he said. “Saw what he did well, saw what he didn’t do well, and looks for ways to try to attack him differently in Year 2, and it’ll be up to him to adjust. I’ll worry a little bit about that. I’m also going to worry that he played a lot… and that wears you down. Physically big catcher, kneeling behind the plate all those games takes a lot out of you… so you’d really like to get him out of the lineup a little bit more.”
As for Torrens and Murphy?
“Torrens has some of the same skills as Hummel but he’s at least proven it a little bit more in the big leagues, (and) I know they like Tom Murphy’s leadership and his toughness but he’s been injured now two of the last three years. … So maybe there’s some significant value here in bringing in another player at that position who’s cheaper, cost-controllable, younger, and you can go out and just play him a little bit more often and see what you got.”
The good news with Hummel, though, is because of his positional flexibility (he has played each of the corner outfield and corner infield positions as a pro), the Mariners could afford to carry a third catcher on their 26-man roster while still having other positions covered.