Anyone who regularly watches the Seattle Mariners knows the club needs rotation help. Entering today’s play, Mariner starters rank in the bottom third of the American League in numerous categories including fWAR, ERA, strike outs, and home runs allowed.
Despite the starting staff’s struggles, Seattle continues to remain within striking distance of contention. Having the fifth best offense in the American League helps. So does playing in the wide-open American League where seven teams are within five games of the second wild card spot.
With a reasonable mathematical chance of earning a wild card berth, how will Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto address his rotation needs prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade non-waiver trade deadline?
Only a select few know the answer, but it won’t be easy. Virtually every contender needs pitching and many of Dipoto’s peers have deeper minor league systems with more appealing prospects.
Still, it’d be foolish to underestimate Dipoto’s deal-making ability. Few envisioned the Mariners could swap Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte and receive two starting position players in return — Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger. Yet, they did.
One way to potentially add established starting pitching is to take on expensive contracts. In theory, paying all of an acquired player’s salary should reduce a seller’s asking price.
What I’m proposing isn’t necessarily easy to accomplish. Ownership has to be willing to add payroll and sacrifice a measure of long-term financial flexibility in the process.
Equally important is finding a willing partner. Some sellers aren’t looking to dump salary. We saw that yesterday in a swap between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees.
The rebuilding Sox traded relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, along with infielder Todd Frazier to New York for minor leaguers Ian Clarkin, Tito Polo, and Blake Rutherford, plus veteran Tyler Clippard. By accepting Clippard and the remainder of his $6.1 million salary, Chicago was able to up their asking price.
Assuming Mariners CEO John Stanton and his fellow owners give Dipoto the okay to add payroll, who could the team pursue in the coming weeks?
It’s hard to know exactly who’ll be available, but I’ve cherry-picked several intriguing names. Most have blemishes of some sort; age, injuries, or performance.
Next to each player’s name, you’ll see how long they’re under team control and money owed. This figure includes 33-percent of their 2017 pay. If a player has a vesting or opt out clause, I’ll point it out as I go.
Edinson Volquez Team Control: 2018 Owed: $16MM
The right-hander has a tendency of yielding free passes. His 13.4-percent walk rate is highest among 74 starters currently eligible for the ERA title. But, he’s adept at keeping the ball in the park with the league’s fifth lowest home run percentage (2-percent).
Volquez has been has pitched 170-plus innings in each of his previous four seasons, but is currently on the Miami Marlins’ disabled list with left knee tendonitis. He’s currently able to play catch on a flat surface and projected to return later this month.
Ervin Santana Team Control: 2018 Owed: $19MM
Santana ranks third in the American League in ERA, but his strikeout and walk rates are in the bottom third among peers. Still, the 34-year-old is averaging 6.6 innings/start and has tossed 170-plus innings every season since 2010 with the exception of 2015 — he served an 80-game PED suspension that year.
Whether the Minnesota Twins are willing to part ways with the 34-year-old is debatable. The Twins are just 1.5 games out of first place in the American League Central division and the same distance back from both wild card spots.
Ian Kennedy Team Control: 2020 Owed: $54MM
The Kansas City Royals hurler is an extreme fly ball pitcher. His 48.7-percent fly ball rate is second only to Mariners’ starter Ariel Miranda (51.4-percent). Compounding matters, his 5-percent home run rate is among the worst among qualified starters.
Kennedy can opt of his deal after this season and receive a $6 million buyout as a parting gift, which presents a considerable risk for interested buyers.
Some may suggest the 32-year-old wouldn’t dare walk away from so much guaranteed money. That may be true. But, it’s worth noting his agent is Scott Boras and right-hander’s 2017 numbers resemble what he produced the season prior to signing with Kansas City.
Jeff Samardzija Team Control: 2020 Owed: $66MM
The right-hander’s 4.86 ERA doesn’t look appealing, but he owns the lowest walk rate (2.7-percent) in the National League and is capable of missing bats. Moreover, Samardzija is on pace for his fifth consecutive 200-inning season.
While the San Francisco Giants are out of contention this season, management may not want to part with the mid-rotation workhorse. Especially if they intend on contending in 2018.
Johnny Cueto Team Control: 2022 Owed: $99MM
After finishing sixth in 2016 National League Cy Young Award, Cueto is surrendering home runs, hits, and walks at the highest rate since his sophomore season in 2009. Despite the 31-year-old’s troubles, he’s averaging 6 innings/start.
The righty is currently on the Giants’ disabled list with multiple blisters on pitching fingers. While this issue doesn’t appear serious, no return date has been set.
Like Kennedy, Cueto has an opt out clause. The combination of his contract uncertainty, blister problem, and sub-par performance will certainly factor into the 10-year veteran’s current trade value.
Justin Verlander Team Control: 2019 Owed: $65MM
Last year’s American League Cy Young Award runner-up is having a less impressive campaign for the Detroit Tigers in 2017. The 34-year-old is averaging under 6 innings/start for the first time in his career and he’s allowing the most hits and walks since his first full season in 2005.
On top of the $65 million already owed to Verlander, there’s a $22 million vesting option for 2020. The clause is activated, if the right-hander finishes is a top-five finisher in 2019 Cy Young voting.
Mike Leake Team Control: 2020 Owed: $36MM
At age-29, Leake would be a perfect long-term replacement for Iwakuma in many ways. The right-hander doesn’t strike out a lot hitters, but he’s relatively stingy with walks and has the fourth best ground ball percentage among major league starters this season.
Acquiring Leake is probably a pipe dream. The St. Louis Cardinals are just 4.5 games out of first place and may be buyers at the deadline. Even if the club falls out of contention this year, they’ll want to be competitive in 2018.