10:10am: The Mariners have announced the trade.
9:49am: TSN’s Scott Mitchell tweets that the Blue Jays will be getting bullpen help in return for Hernandez. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times tweets that known trade candidate Chris Flexen is not a part of this deal.
Hernandez, who turned 30 a month ago, will give the Mariners a heart-of-the-order slugger who’s posted a stout .283/.333/.519 batting line with 73 home runs and 71 doubles through 1337 plate appearances over the past three seasons. Hernandez has been a Statcast darling since the time of his big league debut, regularly posting top-of-the-scale exit velocity and hard-hit rates; that was no different in 2022, when Statcast ranked him in the 94th percentile or better in hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, max exit velocity, barrel rate and expected slugging percentage.
That penchant for elite contact and plus power output from Hernandez comes at something of a cost, it should be noted. While he’s curbed his once-sky-high strikeout totals to an extent, Hernandez still fanned in 28.4% of his plate appearances last season. He got the strikeout rate all the way down to 24.9% in 2021, so there’s perhaps hope for some further gains, but as of right now that number is an outlier with regard to the rest of his career. His walk rate, meanwhile, has steadily clocked in between six and seven percent over the past few seasons — a good bit shy of the league average.
Beyond the huge power potential, Hernandez possesses deceptive speed. He’s only tallied 24 steals (in 32 tries) over the past three seasons, including just six in 2022, but Hernandez’s sprint speed ranks in the 84th percentile of MLB players, per Statcast. With slightly larger bases expected to perhaps spur a bit more running in 2023, Hernandez is among the many players who could conceivably start to take off with a bit more frequency. Hernandez is also known for having one of the game’s strongest throwing arms. Despite that speed and arm strength, however, he draws consistently below-average grades for his glovework in right field; Defensive Runs Saved and Outa Above Average have pegged him as a negative defender in each of the past four seasons. In 2022, he tallied minus-3 DRS, minus-5 OAA and a minus-3.1 Ultimate Zone Rating.
Even if his speed and arm don’t translate to plus right field defense, however, Hernandez has been a well above-average all-around player in recent years, when looking at the sum of his parts. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference peg him right at eight wins above replacement in his past 324 games. Those 324 games have come across three seasons, although one was the shortened 2020 campaign. Generally speaking, Hernandez has avoided major injuries. He missed three weeks this season due to an oblique strain and was sidelined in 2021 by a positive Covid test (plus a few games on the paternity list). Overall, however, he’s played in 84.3% of his team’s possible games since 2020.
Barring an extension, Hernandez will be a one-year rental for the Mariners — and a relatively expensive one, at that. Hernandez will reach six years of service time in 2023 and become a free agent next winter. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects a sizable $14.1MM salary for him this season.
Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said at last week’s GM Meetings that he sought at least one outfield upgrade this winter, if not two. Hernandez should slot into right field alongside center fielder Julio Rodriguez, but his presence in Seattle creates some additional questions. The club opted not to make a qualifying offer to Mitch Hanigerfor instance, and while Hernandez’s acquisition doesn’t squarely rule out Haniger returning to rotate through the outfield corners, today’s trade inherently makes a reunion feel less likely.
The Mariners will have to determine whether they’re comfortable with a combination of former top prospects Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis and Taylor Trammell in left field. Jesse Winker is another left field/DH option, though as of yesterday, the Mariners were discussing trade packages involving Winker. It’s easy enough to envision that group, with some help from utilitymen Dylan Moore and Sam Haggertyholding down the fort in the corners and at DH, but further additions shouldn’t be ruled out.
The Mariners, after all, are squarely in win-now mode. And even with Hernandez aboard, they have ample payroll capacity; acquiring Hernandez is a roughly $12.7MM net add to the payroll, as Swanson had been projected by Swartz to be paid $1.4MM. They’re projected for a $143.5MM payroll following the swap, and that’s a ways shy of the $162MM peak they trotted out in 2018. A return to the playoffs has likely boosted revenue a bit, and MLB has agreed to various lucrative streaming deals that afford each team considerable sums of money in the five years since that previously established record payroll.
Turning to the Blue Jays’ side of the deal, they’ll simultaneously add a much-needed power arm to the bullpen and shed that aforementioned (and approximate) $12.7MM in payroll. They’re still projected for what would be a franchise-record Opening Day payroll in the $176MM range, but the trade gives them some more flexibility while adding a crucial arm to the relief mix. Swanson, originally acquired by the Mariners in the trade that sent James Paxton to the Yankees, struggled as a starter but has broken out as an absolute powerhouse in the Seattle bullpen.
The 3.31 ERA, 24.3% strikeout rate and 6.9% walk rate Swanson logged in 35 1/3 innings during the 2021 season were a step in that direction, but it wasn’t until this past season that he became a dominant late-inning force. . Swanson’s 2022 campaign resulted in 53 2/3 innings of 1.68 ERA ball with a massive 34% strikeout rate against just a 4.9% walk rate. In all, since establishing himself in 2021, Swanson owns a 2.33 ERA in 89 innings of relief — a mark that is largely supported by fielding-independent metrics (2.59 FIP, 2.87 SIERA).
Swanson is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, so some may have concerns about his transition from a pitcher-friendly setting at T-Mobile Park to the homer-happy confines of Toronto’s Rogers Centre, but the fact is that very few of the fly- balls he yields are hit with authority. Among the 385 pitchers with at least 80 innings over the past two seasons, Swanson has induced infield pop-ups at the sixth-best rate in MLB.
Swanson was also a batted-ball deity on the mound in 2022, ranking near the top of the league in terms of average exit velocity (98th percentile), hard-hit rate (96th), “expected” ERA and wOBA (97th), “expected” slugging percentage (94th), overall strikeout rate (96th) and opponents’ chase rate on pitches off the plate (93rd). He may not be a household name, but for the 2022 season at least, Swanson can lay claim to legitimately being one of MLB’s most dominant relievers.
Unlike Hernandez, who’ll be a free agent next winter, Swanson is a relatively long-term piece for the Blue Jays. With three-plus years of Major League service time under his belt, he’s controllable through the 2025 season. And, because his breakout was of the “late blooming” variety, he did not build up the type of long track record that would reward him handsomely in his first trip through the arbitration process. The Jays will almost certainly pay Swanson less over the next three seasons than they’d have paid Hernandez in 2023 alone.
It’s the same timeline to free agent shared by Toronto closer Jordan Romanowho’s also controlled through 2023. Swanson figures to serve as the primary setup option to Romano, though he’ll be joined by veterans. Yimi Garcia, Anthony Bass, Adam Cimber and Tim Mayza in what already looks like a deeper and more formidable relief corps.
More to come.