SEATTLE — It took a few years, but J.P. Crawford turned out to be mostly what the Phillies thought he was: a stellar defensive shortstop with on-base skills and leadership qualities in the clubhouse.
OK, so remind us why they traded him four years ago?
It’s a fair question, one that should be explored as the Phillies open a three-game series here Monday night against Crawford’s Mariners. And make no mistake, the 27-year-old shortstop is the face of a Seattle club that, notwithstanding the misery of 10 losses in 12 games, may be on the rise in the American League West.
The Phillies drafted Crawford with the 16th overall pick in 2013. They developed him in the minors, brought him to the big leagues in September 2017, made him the opening-day shortstop in 2018 — and then swapped him eight months later in a five-player deal that netted Jean Segura and excised Carlos Santana.
Segura has been steady for the Phillies since 2019. But team officials would flunk a lie-detector test if they denied wanting a do-over with Crawford, batting .340 with four homers and a .981 OPS despite dealing with back spasms. Since the start of last season, he’s a .282/.352/.399 hitter and ranks 11th among shortstops in OPS+ (114), nearly on par with Bo Bichette (116) and Javier Báez (115) and well ahead of the Phillies’ Didi Gregorius (76).
No wonder the Mariners locked him up with a five-year, $51 million contract extension on opening day.
“It’s awesome seeing what he’s doing,” said Phillies outfielder Mickey Moniak, to whom Crawford has been “like my older brother” since they met in 2016. “I knew it the whole time. There was a reason he was a top-10 prospect in baseball. He’s a stud. To see what he’s doing right now, I’m definitely not surprised.”
The Phillies had reasons for trading Crawford. And Crawford concedes he’s unsure he would have succeeded in Philadelphia, where he felt pressure to fulfill the expectations of a first-round pick. In the news conference last month to announce his extension, he said “getting traded was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
But the swap with the Mariners really came down to timing, multiple sources familiar with both sides of the trade recalled last week. Specifically, the Phillies believed they were poised to win and unwilling to nurture the development of a young shortstop at the major-league level.
Hindsight tells us they were wrong. This is a look back at how the Crawford/Segura trade came about.
(Stupid) money talks
Going into 2018, the Phillies regarded Crawford as their future shortstop. But he missed three months of that season with a strained right forearm and broken left hand, complicating the team’s internal evaluation of him.
When he was healthy, Crawford made eight errors in 27 starts at shortstop. And although some within the organization remained bullish on the strength and accuracy of his throwing arm, others were no longer as certain.
Earlier in the rebuilding process — say, 2016 or 2017 — the Phillies likely would’ve been more patient with Crawford. But they always targeted the 2018-19 offseason, with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper headlining a bumper free-agent crop, as the time to pivot from rebuilding to contending. Not even a 16-33 stretch drive in 2018 made them rethink that timeline.
And then, on Nov. 16, 2018, something happened to kick their aggressive offseason into overdrive.
“We’re going into this expecting to spend money,” Phillies owner John Middleton told USA Today as he left the owners’ meetings in Atlanta. “And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.”
Even now, it’s often referred to as the “Stupid Money Offseason.” Middleton’s words went viral, and then-general manager Matt Klentak became newly popular with agents and rival executives. As Klentak put it in December 2018, “We’re not having any trouble getting meetings.”
But it also charted the Phillies’ course. Ready or not — and it’s clear now they weren’t ready — Middleton’s words were interpreted by the front office as a mandate to pursue win-now upgrades wherever possible, from left field (signing Andrew McCutchen), to catcher (trading for J.T. Realmuto), to right field (a $330 million contract for Harper). Shortstop was no different, and they pursued Machado before signing Harper.
In Seattle, the Mariners were stepping back. Although they won 89 games in 2018 and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2001, they doubted they could overtake Houston or Oakland in a tough AL West. It was time to reset.
General manager Jerry DiPoto, known for wheeler-dealing, let it be known he would move on from Segura, Robinson Canó, James Paxton, Mike Zunino, and even 57-save closer Edwin Díaz.
Klentak and DiPoto worked together a few years earlier with the Los Angeles Angels. They talked often and easily. And once they set their respective offseason sails, they were natural trade partners.
Let’s make a deal
Initial conversations between Klentak and DiPoto involved Díaz. The Mariners had interest in then-Phillies pitching prospects Sixto Sánchez and Spencer Howard. But they were hyper-focused on Crawford.
In the midst of talking with the Phillies, DiPoto pulled off a blockbuster with the New York Mets. The Mariners gave up Díaz, but also unloaded Canó's enormous contract and landed prized outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic.
But Segura remained available, and Segura-for-Crawford fit both the Phillies’ and Mariners’ goals.
Segura was owed $60 million through 2022 and had increasingly rocky relationships in Seattle after a fight with teammate Dee Strange-Gordon and a benching by manager Scott Servais. But he was an All-Star shortstop in 2018, and the Phillies estimated he represented a two- to three-win upgrade over Crawford in 2019.
It was difficult to argue. Crawford batted .214 with a .692 OPS in 225 plate appearances after getting called up late in the 2017 season. The injuries and struggles were starting to wear on him.
“I was in a really dark place during that time,” Crawford told reporters after signing his extension. “I underperformed. You try to not look at the media [coverage], but it’s everywhere. You just see all the negativity around, and it wears on you.”
The Mariners took on Santana, then flipped him to Cleveland 10 days later, freeing up the Phillies to move Rhys Hoskins back to first base. The Phillies also got relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos, whom they believed would add depth to the bullpen. (Pazos didn’t make the team out of camp and got traded.)
But the trade boiled down to the shortstops. Segura has been a lineup fixture and a .282/.337/.426 hitter with a 103 OPS+ in 352 games for the Phillies. He also moved to second base after one year when they signed Gregorius.
The Phillies were right about Crawford. He wasn’t ready to be an everyday shortstop for a contending team in 2019. He batted .226 with a .684 OPS, and the Mariners lost 94 games.
But Crawford won a Gold Glove in 2020 after working with Mariners infield coach Perry Hill. He batted .273 with a .715 OPS last season before this year’s hot start. And he has cost the Mariners a total of $8.6 million since 2020. Gregorius’ three-year cost to the Phillies: $42 million. Four years after Crawford, their future shortstop may or may not be Bryson Stott.
And if the Mariners, the only team with a longer postseason drought than the Phillies, wind up making the playoffs first, well, the trade scorecard will really be settled.
“Getting over there, getting a chance to play every day, I mean, it didn’t happen overnight, but J.P. just needed to get the at-bats, get the playing time,” Moniak said. “Once he got that, he’s just being himself.”