Mariners Need: Pitching depth

Just last week, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill highlighted starting pitching and the bullpen as two deficiencies that the Mariners will need to address during the offseason. Jason opined that the team needed two pitchers to follow ace Felix Hernandez so that young arms Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, and Mike Montgomery could compete for the final two spots in the rotation with the losers being used as trade bait or needed depth.

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto and Jason may share a brain because Dipoto made his first major deal yesterday and it involved adding pitching depth. Seattle acquired right-handed starting pitcher Nate Karns and southpaw reliever C.J. Riefenhauser – along with well-regarded outfield prospect Boog Powell – from the Tampa Bay Rays for shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison, and reliever Danny Farquhar.

Karns doesn’t fit the bill as a one of the starters that Jason referred to in his piece, but the 27-year-old adds much needed depth and you can never have enough starting pitching. Look no further than the Mariners 2015 season as proof.

As the season opened, it seemed like the Mariners had plenty of starting pitching. Walker had won the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation and Elias was dispatched to Class-AAA Tacoma to serve as a back-up plan. Plus, the team had flipped Erasmo Ramirez for Montgomery adding more minor league depth. Then, the season began.

Injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Paxton limited them to 20 and 13 starts respectively. Plus, there were inning limits placed on Walker and Montgomery. On top of that, Walker, Elias, and J.A. Happ struggled with consistency and Happ was dealt at the trading deadline. All in all, the Mariners used 10 starters last season.

2015 Seattle Mariners Starting Pitchers
Felix Hernandez Taijuan Walker Hisashi Iwakuma J.A. Happ James Paxton
Roenis Elias Mike Montgomery Vidal Nuno Edgar Olmos Tony Zych

All of this upheaval certainly made the stomachs of fans churn as the 2015 season unraveled. But, needing so many starting pitchers shouldn’t be considered a “Mariners thing.” History shows us that every team needs many more arms than their projected starting five to survive a 162-game season.

Since the 2000 season, major league teams have used an average of 10 starting pitchers during each season. The lone team to use only five starters since then were the 2003 Mariners. That staff was comprised of Ryan Franklin, Freddy Garcia, Gil Meche, Jamie Moyer, and Joel Pineiro.

Conversely, the 2006 Kansas City Royals, 2004 Texas Rangers, and 2003 Cincinnati Reds are tied for using the most starters in one season at 17. You may be thinking that those three teams couldn’t have been very good. That was my first thought. But, that’s not completely accurate.

Yes, the Royals and Reds had losing records with the Kansas City losing 100 games. But, the 2003 Rangers won 89 games under manager Buck Showalter and only finished three games out of first place.

So, what about this year? Let’s take a look at the ten postseason entrants to see how many starters they needed.

# SPs  Team(s)
16    Los Angeles Dodgers
13    Houston Astros
12    Texas Rangers     /   Toronto Blue Jays
10    Chicago Cubs      /    Kansas City Royals      /   New York Mets      /   New York Yankees   
9    St. Louis Cardinals
8    Pittsburgh Pirates

It may be a surprise to some of you that most of this year’s playoff teams were in double-digits with starting pitchers. Despite all of the fanfare that the New York Mets’ staff received during the postseason, they needed 10 starters to get through the season – just like their World Series opponent and the Mariners.

Okay, so it’s clear that the Mariners will need more than five or six starters to make it through a six-month season and a potential postseason run. But, that’s only part of the challenge that awaits Mariners management.

Look at how many relief pitchers that each playoff team used this year. Bear in mind that I’m only counting pitchers who pitched 100-percent of their innings as a reliever – starters used out of the bullpen or a reliever used as a spot starter are not included below.

# RPs  Team(s)
23    New York Yankees   
19    Chicago Cubs        /   Texas Rangers  
16    New York Mets    /   Toronto Blue Jays
15    Los Angeles Dodgers
14    St. Louis Cardinals   /   Kansas City Royals   
13    Pittsburgh Pirates
11    Houston Astros

Even the best teams needed lots of relief help to get through the season. That was the case in Seattle too. Mariners fans are well-versed on the club’s relief corps regression from 2014 excellence to 2015 unreliability. In total, the Mariners used 18 pitchers who appeared exclusively in the relief role. As with the starters, the need for bullpen depth can’t be overstated.

Help can come from the trade market – like it did yesterday – or the waiver wire like right-hander Cody Martin who was picked from the Oakland Athletics last month. But, the competition is steep because every team is trying to augment their bullpen.

There’s no guarantee that Martin will make the 25-man roster or even be with the Mariners organization when next season begins, but acquiring multiple arms – like Martin and Riefenhauser – increases the chances of building the major and minor league depth needed to compete well into the postseason. That’s why the minor leagues is the first place teams look for help. Unfortunately for the Mariners, that a bit’s of a challenge.

Anyone familiar with the organization already knows that Seattle has lagged behind with player development in recent years. This has contributed to the club not having the necessary depth to properly react to injury or poor performance at the big league level. Both GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have both touched on this during their introductory press conferences.

A lack of minor league depth poses a challenge for any front office, especially a new one with many needs that go beyond pitching. Here’s a look at who’s available to the new regime on the Mariners 40-man roster. Free agents Iwakuma and Joe Beimel aren’t listed.

Pitchers on Seattle Mariners 40-man Roster
Felix Hernandez Carson Smith Mayckol Guaipe Jose Ramirez
Taijuan Walker Vidal Nuno Charlie Furbush
J.C. Ramirez
Hisashi Iwakuma Edgar Olmos Nate Karns
Cody Martin
Roenis Elias James Paxton Edgar Olmos
Danny Hultzen
Mike Montgomery Tony Zych David Rollins
 C.J. Riefenhauser
Tom Wilhelmsen Tyler Olson Rob Rasmussen  

When fans read that Seattle has added the likes of Martin, they should be encouraged that club is aggressively trying to add the depth needed to compete. Yes, it’s true that these minor moves aren’t sexy. But, they can be difference makers in a time of need. Most will not work out, but a few will.

Last year, the Mariners added the likes of David Rollins, Beimel, Sam Gaviglio, Edgar Olmos, Joe Saunders during the offseason and then Vidal Nuno in the Mark Trumbo deal in early June and Rob Rasmussen, J.C Ramirez, and Jose Ramirez prior to the deadline. Some never pitched in the big leagues and others didn’t perform well with the Mariners. But, Beimel and Nuno made positive contributions in 2015.

The challenge for the new Mariners front office will be balancing the need to add position player depth without compromising pitching depth. Assuming that the team Dipoto-Churchill mind-meld continues and Seattle adds two more starters to the rotation, the “excess” starters would be attractive commodities in the trade market and could help Dipoto fill-out needs at other positions.

Whether the team opts to hold onto their depth or use it in the trade market will be one of the tougher choices facing Dipoto during his first year on the job. Holding on to Iwakuma would make it easier to dispatch a young arm in a deal. But, the return of “Kuma” isn’t certain.

Regardless of what the Mariners GM decides, you can bank on the team needing much more pitching than the 12-13 hurlers who make the 2016 Opening Day 25-man roster. There’s no doubt that Dipoto is banking on it too.

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