The streets of Chicago are still buzzing with the Cubs’ long-awaited World Series title that ended the 2016 baseball season just days ago. But as soon as the final out nestled itself in Anthony Rizzo’s mitt, front offices around the league clicked on their hot stoves and prepared for the long winter ahead.
The Los Angeles Dodgers wasted no time.
In the grand scheme of offseason moves, trading a veteran backup catcher for a veteran middle reliever isn’t much to write home about, but it’s still a trade. It means the wheeling and dealing has officially begun. And despite the lack of star power in the deal, there are layers of implications for both teams.
First, the Mariners: Ruiz, despite his age (38 when next season begins), is a quality backup option and a marked improvement over Chris Iannetta. He still does a pretty good job defensively and can punish left-handed pitching. If his hitting performance in the NLDS for the Dodgers (2-for-4, HR, 3 RBI, 2 R) is any indication, Ruiz can still come up big in clutch situations, too.
For a team constantly fighting to get over the hump and back into the playoff picture, Ruiz will be a nice complement to Mike Zunino and will likely make a positive impact on the Seattle pitching staff.
The Dodgers swung A.J. Ellis to the Phillies late in the season to get Ruiz in the first place. Moving the incredibly popular Ellis was a move that drew a fair amount of criticism at the time, despite the team improving its actual talent level. Ruiz’s postseason performance wiped away any fear of missing value in the trade, but now the Dodgers have flipped two months of Ruiz into a bullpen upgrade.
Three things the front office has been focusing on in recent years are finding depth, saving money and getting younger. With Nuno, they hit every category. First, the lefty is 29 years old and can add insurance to a group of bullpen lefties that was hit with injuries and has questionable consistency.
J.P. Howell used to be the most reliable of the bunch, but has seen his stuff drop off sharply in recent years. He is a free agent anyway, and likely won’t be back with the Dodgers. Luis Avilan provided quality innings down the stretch, but has been very hit-or-miss in his years with the Dodgers. Adam Liberatore was brilliant before getting injured, and given the team’s track record with injuries lately, adding insurance makes a ton of sense.
Other than that trio, Grant Dayton is the only healthy, consistently-productive arm they can count on. Adding Nuno to the mix gives them a nice touch of depth to work with. Nuno has also started in the past and could be stretched out again to do that if necessary.
Nuno will likely only see a slight raise in his first try at arbitration this season, which could still double his salary to just over $1 million for 2017 (MLBTradeRumors.com predicts a salary of $1.1 million next year). A savings of $3 million or so isn’t huge for a team with a payroll like the Dodgers, but it shows they’re committed to finding bargains wherever possible to become more sustainable.
The final piece to the Nuno-Ruiz swap is how it will affect the Dodgers’ backup catching plan. Yasmani Grandal is the obvious starter (his 27 homers led all MLB catchers in 2016), especially given his elite pitch-framing abilities. What moving Ellis and Ruiz has created is a full-time opportunity for prospect Austin Barnes, whom the Dodgers acquired from Miami in the big Dee Gordon trade.
Barnes is a versatile catcher who can also play a little infield and gives the Dodgers a chance to really evaluate his plus bat against major league pitching. In the past, Barnes has gotten stints here and there but rarely saw game action. In just 61 MLB at-bats, Barnes has scuffled to a .180 batting average and only has three extra-base hits to his name.
But, the Dodgers are hopeful. In parts of six minor league seasons, Barnes has slashed .299/.388/.828 and has torn up Triple-A pitching over the past two years. Even if he’s just a role player fighting for a starting spot, the 26-year-old will finally have a chance to prove himself with consistent at-bats. He’ll likely become an upgrade over Ruiz, too, which is all the Dodgers could ask for when making a move.
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