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Analysis: Mariners’ trade for Marco Gonzales another hedged bet by Jerry Dipoto

UPDATED: Wed., July 26, 2017, 9:20 p.m.

The Seattle Mariners obtained LHP Marco Gonzales from the St. Louis Cardinals for OF Tyler O’Neill on Friday. Gonzales will report to Triple-A Tacoma and is expected to start on Monday. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
The Seattle Mariners obtained LHP Marco Gonzales from the St. Louis Cardinals for OF Tyler O’Neill on Friday. Gonzales will report to Triple-A Tacoma and is expected to start on Monday. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The Seattle Mariners on Friday traded top slugging prospect Tyler O’Neill to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for left-handed starter Marco Gonzales.

It’s an old-fashioned “baseball deal” where both teams dealt from a perceived position of strength to address a position of need. You actually don’t see too many of these types of deals at the MLB trade deadline.

Where to start? I usually like to look at trades to start with by assessing what the very top level the individual players’ talents could achieve, then work backward, figuring in contract status, injury history, possible playing time opportunities and myriad other factors that go into it.

The contract status is negligible since both players still qualify as MLB rookies.

Marco Gonzales was once a very heralded pitching prospect. He was a first round pick, No. 19 overall, of the St. Louis Cardinals out of Gonzaga, where he shared West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Year honors with the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (University of San Diego) as a freshman in 2011 and as a junior in 2013 and was the WCC Pitcher of the Year in 2012. He won the John Olerud Award as the nation’s top collegiate two-way player in 2013 after being a finalist for the award in 2012.

The 6-foot, 199-pound lefty has twice been listed by Baseball America as having the “best changeup” in the Cardinals organization (2013 and 2014). In 2014, he was named the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

As with many pitching prospects, however, there is the injury component. Gonzales missed part of the 2015 season after suffering a severe left pectoral injury. He was out all of 2016 recovering from ligament replacement surgery – more commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery – on his left elbow following surgery on April 15.

Gonzales is essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He has a low 90s fastball that has good arm-side action with sink and a plus changeup he uses as an “out” pitch. He also has an average-at-best curveball which he shows occasionally to prove he still has it.

Where Gonzales shines is his control and command. It’s excellent. Well, it was excellent before the injury. And it’s been good this season in 12 starts (2.1 BB/9) as he rebuilds his arm strength after Tommy John surgery. He’s been able to throw the fastball and change for strikes and can move both around in the zone to generate swings and weak contact.

If he’s fully recovered and there’s been no degradation of arm strength, action, control or command, Gonzales’ projectable ceiling is that of a third starter for a contending team. He just isn’t dominant enough (velocity, strikeout rates) to project any higher than that.

Gonzales’ ceiling is much like that of Drew Smyly, the pitcher GM Jerry Dipoto traded for during the offseason, before Smyly fell victim to the dreaded Tommy John surgery himself. Or Ariel Miranda, another lefty plucked from another organization.

However, if there is any degradation to his skill set he profiles as more of a back-of-the rotation guy or even a bullpen arm. Plus, he’s in his age 25 season already, so he’s not a youngster.

There are several bonuses here on Gonzales, though. He is a local guy – he went to Gonzaga and makes his offseason residence in Seattle. Also, he’s an excellent fielder and athlete. And he already has Division Series and Championship Series experience, in 2014 with the Cardinals. So he has all that going for him, which is nice.

Now, Tyler O’Neill. O’Neill can be summed up in one word: Power.

He hit 32 homers for High-A Bakersfield of the California League in 2015 as a 20-year-old. He hit 24 homers for Double-A Jackson last season to earn Southern League MVP honors and after a slow start this season, was up to 19 homers and 56 RBIs for Tacoma as a 22-year old this year. O’Neill has been on fire of late, smacking 13 homers in his past 24 games.

O’Neill, a third round pick of the M’s in 2013, shows impressive raw strength and explosive bat speed to generate plus-plus power to all parts of the park. He has good plate discipline (draws his share of walks) but gets “swing-happy” (strikes out a lot), as a lot of sluggers do. His above-average arm strength is a perfect fit in right field and he grades as an overall average fielder. And he runs a little, with 16 and 12 stolen bases the past two seasons, and nine so far this year.

If all goes right for O’Neill, he could be a legitimate cleanup-hitting corner outfielder for a decade.

So we’ve established the ceilings for the two players.

For the Cardinals, the deal is easy to make. Because of the injury, Gonzales had been lapped by several pitching prospects in their system. That’s what the Cards do – churn out pitchers. It’s impressive.

Anyway, Gonzales was completely expendable for them, especially if after watching him closely for half a season after surgery they’ve decided that something isn’t quite what it used to be.

For the M’s, it’s certainly more dicey. While still productive, their MLB power (Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz) is aging considerably, and they have no one else in the system that profiles as an MLB power hitter, especially with the luster dulling on Dan Vogelbach.

Dipoto had pretty good luck obtaining Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel, two guys that needed a place to show off their bona fides from other organizations, so maybe the M’s think they are flush with young outfielders and that O’Neill was expendable.

Here’s the thing: if you (or, more appropriately, Dipoto) are convinced Haniger is a potential or near All-Star caliber right fielder, and that Gamel is going to hit .340 every year going forward, you make this deal, I guess.

But Gamel has no power and is not much of a stolen base threat, so in order to extract every ounce of value from his skill set he has to hit for a high average to maintain starter status.

And Haniger is – and I might take grief for putting this out there – just a better, more complete version of Gamel with some pop. If you squint you can see a guy that could hit 20 homers in the bigs with a decent OBP and defense. But he better do it quickly, because he’s already 26.

You want a bottom line?

I think Dipoto is trying to build for the future but also appear to be “going for it” this year. I don’t think Gonzales is an asset which will help the M’s get to the playoffs this year. He’s going to be on an innings limit in his first full year back from TJ and even if the M’s make the playoffs I don’t think they’d use him in the postseason.

Even if Gonzales pans out in the long run, it’s hard to see the M’s dealing their most legit power prospect for a pitcher that most likely grades out as a 4-5 guy. My most obvious comp for Gonzales is Ariel Miranda. And he’s already on the roster.

What the Mariners really need is a top of the rotation guy to go along with James Paxton. But the asking price for those types of players – especially ones under contract – are out of the M’s price range, as far as prospects to return in a deal.

So Dipoto is left to deal around the edges and in the shadows, hoping these No. 3s he’s acquiring somehow turn into aces.

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