This is the first in a series of under the radar options for the Red Sox to target in trade talks this offseason. The goal is to look for players whose teams may be looking to unload them for various reasons, which the Red Sox may not need to empty the farm system to acquire. This week’s target is Seattle Mariners left fielder Jesse Winker.
After a breakout 2021 campaign in Cincinnati, Jesse Winker arrived in Seattle via trade in March of this year, along with Eugenio Suarez, in exchange for OF Jake Fraley and Ps Justin Dunn, Brandon Williamson, and Connor Phillips. While this seemed like a light prospect return for the Reds as Winker still had two years of arbitration remaining, Seattle was taking on the three years and $35 million remaining on Suarez’s deal which benefitted the Reds who decided to punt on the 2022 season. The Mariners bought out the final two years of arbitration for Winker by signing him to a two-year, $14.5 million deal.
In year one in Seattle, Winker’s 28-year-old season could be classified as either a disappointment or a disaster, depending on your expectations. From 2019-2021 in Cincinnati, Winker played in 277 games (910 at-bats) and had a .284/.379/.523 slash line with 52 HRs, 132 RBI, and 155 runs, good for a 133 wRC+ over those three seasons. 2021 was a particularly stellar campaign, slashing .305/.394/.556 and hitting 24 bombs. In 2022, however, he contributed an fWAR of 0.4 and a bWAR of -0.3. Average out the two and Winker was, quite literally, a replacement-level player, with 89% of his plate appearances coming within the top-five lineup spots. Winker slashed .219/.344/.344, with the slugging percentage particularly shocking after the previous three seasons. Winker’s 57 extra-base hits in 2021 were cut in half to 29 this past season.
His eye at the plate was as good as ever, as he sported a 15.4% walk-rate, which was bested only by Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, and Max Muncy in the entire league, alongside an above-average 18.8% K-rate. Winker’s chase rate on pitches outside of the zone sat in the 99th percentile, as well. In the worst-case scenario, which is seemingly what we saw in 2022, Winker has a decent OBP to fall back on.
The batted ball data was very unlucky. Entering the season, Winker’s career Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) had been .313, but in 2022 his BABIP was .251. As a result, Winker was the 8th unluckiest hitter in baseball in terms of Batting Average (Actual: .219, Expected .249) and 10th unluckiest on Slugging (Actual .344, Expected .403) out of a total of 252 qualified hitters, per Statcast.
Winker was also heavily involved in the most entertaining brawl of the season, between the Mariners and the Angels. On the way off the field, Winker flipped the “double bird” to the Angel crowd, which is a move that I, for one, would like to see more of in the league.
At the plate, Winker’s Ground Ball percentage has been going down every year since 2019, from 49.3% to 38.8% (2022), while his Launch Angle increased conversely from 7.2 degrees (2019) to 16.8 degrees (2022). This finally went past the break-even point in 2022 and his rate of pop-ups jumped to an alarming 9.8%. It seems to me that he was pressing to hit home runs in a new city after a slow start and could never find the 10-11 degree launch angle swing from 2020-2021 that led to such great success.
In the field, the advanced metrics are not kind to Winker. He has always been a subpar outfielder, but his negative-10 Outs Above Average were the worst of his career and land in the 2nd percentile in MLB, to go along with an Outfielder Jump rating in the 1st percentile. His negative-16 Defensive Runs Saved are no better.
In terms of staying on the field, Winker has missed 30 or more games in three seasons (2018, 2019, 2021) with shoulder, back, and intercostal injuries, and while mostly healthy in 2022, he was left off the playoff roster with a neck injury.
The Shrug Emoji:
The left-handed hitting Winker’s 2022 season splits run counter to his career splits in multiple ways. First, the LHP vs. RHP platoon splits:
Entering 2022 as a notably worse hitter against left-handers, Winker was far better against lefties than righties in just about every relevant metric this past season.
Winker also slugged only .345 against fastballs, a pitch that he had no previous issues with throughout his career. Entering his age-29 season, it’s unlikely that his bat has slowed down to the point that he is washed up, but rather that an injury or a swing adjustment is necessary.
The Trade Partner:
At the time of the pre-season trade, moving from the small confines of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati to T-Mobile Park in Seattle would almost surely cause a power decline for Winker but it was more drastic than expected. After Winker was left off the Mariners’ playoff roster due to a neck injury that ended his season, reports questioning his work ethic have come out as well. With an $8.25 million salary and only one year remaining on his contract, the Mariners could be inclined to move the player and go a different direction in 2023 and require a small minor league return. Along with Rookie of the Year favorite Julio Rodriguez, fellow young outfielders Jarred Kelenic, Taylor Trammell, and Kyle Lewis will likely man one, or both, of the corner outfield spots in 2023. It remains to be seen if free-agent Mitch Haniger will return or if a different veteran presence will be brought in.
The Fit in Boston:
If Tommy Pham does not return, the Red Sox not only have an opening in Left Field but also at Designated Hitter. In general, 2022 was a strange, outlier season for Jesse Winker but for 2023: never underestimate the power of the Contract Year. Assuming Winker’s splits go back to his career norms, he could be a “strong-side platoon” LF/DH bat, who would be more likely to play in the field at home. While the defensive metrics aren’t great, Manny Ramirez once competently patrolled the grounds at Fenway with a similar Defensive Runs Saved rating as Winker has. Jose Abreu would be my preference for a DH signing to replace J.D. Martinez but this is a cheaper direction that the team could go. Provided, of course, that they acquire a right-handed bat to complement Winker, in order to spend (and offer extensions) in more urgent areas of need, of which there are many.