Updated: Jan 16
Way back on November 23rd, 2016, the Seattle Mariners shipped off two young up-and-coming talents over to the Arizona Diamondbacks for all-star shortstop Jean Segura, platoon outfielder and catcher Mitch Haniger, and left hander Zac Curtis. The M’s perhaps correctly believed that the incoming Segura would prove to be a long-term solution at the six hole, having not had a stable player at that position since Brendan Ryan left the friendly confines of Safeco Field midway through the 2013 season.
Segura would end up being that answer the team needed for the next two campaigns. Not only did he finish both of his years with a bWAR over 3.0, he also played well enough in 2018 to get voted into the All Star Game for the second time in his career. He finished his short term up north with a .302 batting average over almost 1200 at bats, an OPS+ of 112, meaning he was 12 percent better at hitting than the average player, and he was also one of only two players to steal at least 20 bases each year from 2013 to 2018.
Before last season, when Segura left to play with Bryce Harper and the Phillies, you could argue that the Mariners actually won a trade for once in their existence. They were able to get two good, if not great, years out of Segura, and they also got Mitch Haniger, who developed into an all star and AL MVP vote recipient in his own right before injuries got in his way last year.
But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone say that anymore because while the Mariners did receive some value, they also lost some in return. One of the players they sent down to the desert was Taijuan Walker, the Shreveport native who was once one of the game's most exciting prospects. He had a pretty okay maiden season in Arizona, finishing with a 9-9 record, a 3.49 ERA, and a 2.6 bWAR, but he was later forced to undergo Tommy John Surgery which all but destroyed his 2018 and 2019 campaigns.
As of writing, Walker is actually back with the Mariners after he signed with them over the winter. It appears that if baseball returns this century, he will be available to pitch once again. But while he didn't pan out down in the Southwest, the other guy sent in the trade, Ketel Marte, certainly did in spades, even if it did take a few years.
Over his first two seasons in Arizona, Marte sported a below average .260/.336/.424 slash line, 19 home runs, an OPS+ of 97, and a 5.4 bWAR. He wasn’t totally underwhelming, he did have a league leading 12 triples in 2018 and actually became a pretty good option at second base, but he wasn't lighting the world on fire. He didn't pack any punch in a lineup that didn't have much punch to begin with. In 2018, the club as a whole finished 27th in batting average, 23rd in on base percentage, 22nd in slugging, and 20th in runs batted in. And their prospects from the hitting side got worse after the season when they shipped off their best player, Paul Goldschmidt, to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Marte's own future in Arizona also found itself in some jeopardy around the same time because the club also made a move for Mets second baseman Wilmer Flores, ensuring at least for a moment that Marte didn’t have an everyday home at either his primary or secondary position. He wasn’t viewed as being nearly as good as Flores, who was finally going to receive an opportunity to play at his own primary position, and he couldn’t hold a candle to the squad’s starting shortstop Nick Ahmed, who not only led the NL in Defensive WAR in 2018, but also won his first Gold Glove.
It was then that manager Torey Lovullo had an idea, he would place Marte in centerfield. The club had just lost AJ Pollock after the 2018 season, and Marte was willing to take on the challenge. Lovullo told the press during Spring Training that he was confident Marte would prove he belonged in the outfield, and that he could also find time in the infield during the season if necessary.
And luckily for the club, finding a spot for Marte was probably the best thing they could ever do. He ended up being a sturdy force at center field, ending the season with a solid DRS, or Defensive Runs Saved, of six, which would have placed him in the top five of players at his position had he played enough innings there. He also played a sizable number of games at second base, where he finished with a less than great DRS of 3.
But that last fact could be forgiven, because Marte finally found his swing and absolutely torched baseballs all around Chase Field. The once underwhelming hitter finished the 2019 campaign in the top 10 in several league categories. Some of the major ones included:
3rd in Batting Average (.329)
5th in Triples (9)
6th in Slugging (.592) and Hits (187)
7th in OPS (.981) and Total Bases (337)
8th in OPS+ (149)
10th in bWAR among all players (7.2)
His incredible transformation into an all-around slugger helped galvanize the players around him. The D'Backs finished the season 13th in batting average, 15th in on base percentage, 13th in slugging, and 11th in runs batted in, all of them way better than how they did a year prior. Now maybe that's just a correlation, but it definitely helps clarify how a guy on a team that won only 85 games and didn't even sniff the playoffs finished 4th in the MVP voting, ahead of league superstars like Nolan Arenado, Pete Alonso, and former D'Back Paul Goldschmidt.
I decided I wanted to talk about Ketel Marte today for two reasons. The first is that I want to help illustrate something that I believe is really important, that history is never set in stone. People are so fast to count out people for whatever reason. In this case, I think it was because the Mariners received what they were looking for almost immediately. Jean Segura was a success, if not a minor one, for the club. That allowed experts to say that they had won the trade. But no one is saying that anymore because of what Ketel was able to accomplish last season.
Marte was able to reinvent himself in a way that both he and the club felt was a good risk to take. I don't doubt for one second that he took the good faith that his manager gave him during that Spring Training last year and was able to give back to such a degree that he was one of the league's elite players. If he wasn't allowed the opportunity to do so, then who knows where he'd be at right now?
The other reason why I felt compelled to talk about Marte is because he's one of several players in the league right now who is grossly underrated and more importantly under discussed. While many of us in the baseball sphere love to talk endlessly about Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, and Mookie Betts, there are countless other intriguing players who also demand our attention.
If we consistently talk only about the players we always talk about, it frankly makes the league seem smaller than it really is. But if we all try and find guys like Ketel Marte, who was able to reinvent himself and become a player who can challenge the best, then I believe it'll only enrich our appreciation of the greatest sport in the world.
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