Last Updated on December 16, 2020 by Luke Arkins

Improving the bullpen is an obvious offseason priority for the Seattle Mariners. But adding a veteran rotation arm is likely on the agenda of GM Jerry Dipoto also. The New Jersey native said as much in September.

During the most recent edition of The Wheelhouse podcast, Dipoto told hosts Aaron Goldsmith and Gary Hill Jr. the team would look to add another starting pitcher via free agency or trade. He then noted such a player wouldn’t necessarily be on the young side.

As the conversation progressed, Dipoto cited the current Padres as a club the Mariners could soon resemble in terms of quickly rising in the standings. San Diego went from last place in 2019 to the postseason this year. JeDi then mentioned the 1991 Braves as another example of a cellar dweller rapidly bursting on the playoff scene.

Atlanta went from having the worst record in 1990 to reaching the World Series the following year. Driving the club’s turnaround, a core of talented young players beginning to gel as a unit. Most notably: David Justice, Ron Gant, Mark Wohlers, Mike Stanton, Steve Avery, and future Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.

Complementing the Braves’ youngsters were productive veterans acquired by the team, who were capable of leading and stabilizing a youthful roster. Two players specifically mentioned by Dipoto were starting pitcher Charlie Leibrandt and third baseman Terry Pendleton.

“There’s a time when you go add your Charlie Leibrandt and your Terry Pendleton.” – Jerry Dipoto

Clearly, Dipoto believes now is the time to add a stabilizing veteran presence to the rotation. Someone “who’s been down that road before,” as he put it to Goldsmith and Hill. In his mind, such a move would help increase the Mariners’ chances of competing for the postseason next year.

“We are going to go out and add that veteran presence and stabilizing force that we think can put our team in a position to contend in our division next year.” – Jerry Dipoto on his rotation

Linking those powerhouse Atlanta teams to a potential upstart Mariners squad is fun, although maybe a bit of a stretch at this point. Still, I have to admit my interest is piqued. Who might be Dipoto’s Charlie Leibrandt?

To take a stab at answering my query, I compiled a list of potential candidates based on Dipoto’s comments and the state of the market nearly three decades after those “worst to first” Braves rose to prominence. Since it’s been a few days since Leibrandt played in the majors, let’s quickly refresh on his three seasons with Atlanta.

Charlie Leibrandt's Atlanta Years
Age
GS
IP
ERA
ERA+
FIP
bWAR
1990
33
24
162.1
3.16
128
3.31
3.2
1991
34
36
229.2
3.49
112
3.54
4.5
1992
35
31
193
3.36
110
3.04
1.9
Totals
91
585
3.35
116
3.31
9.6

The Braves acquired Leibrandt via trade prior to the 1990 season and then re-signed him as a free agent a year later. His presence helped give Smoltz, Glavine, and Avery time to establish themselves as big-league starters.

Making $1.83 million in 1991, Leibrandt was Atlanta’s highest paid pitcher. In fact, he earned over $600 thousand more than the young trio did combined. It was money well spent. The Miami of Ohio product’s 4.5 bWAR was eighth best in the NL. Glavine (8.5) led the majors with Smoltz (5.4) and Avery (5.2) rounding out the top-5 in the Senior Circuit.

Although Dipoto mentioned the Mariners could find their Leibrandt via trade or free agency, I chose to focus solely on candidate currently not under another club’s control.

A word of caution, this isn’t an all-inclusive list. You won’t see Trevor Bauer. Instead, with one exception, we’ll be talking about thirty-something pitchers with potentially something still left in the tank. Furthermore, none has a qualifying offer attached to them.

It’s also worth mentioning the Mariners’ plan of using a six-man rotation may not appeal to some free agent starters, particularly those looking to sign a “prove it” deal and re-enter free agency after the 2021 campaign. Then again, a six-man staff may potentially appeal to a pitcher with an injury history or someone returning from an injury in 2020. On that note, two candidates missed most of this year. You’ll see their 2019 stats illustrated.


Garrett Richards – RHP

Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
33
4.03
21.6
8.0
.244
.308
.315
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

On one hand, Dipoto is familiar with Richards. His best seasons were 2014-15 – the final years of Dipoto’s tenure as Angels GM. Then again, those best years were over a half-decade ago.

Unfortunately, injuries have plagued Richards throughout his career. As a result, he’s made 30 starts just once in 10 big-league seasons. Matters worsened for the former Oklahoma Sooner when he underwent Tommy John surgery during the summer of 2018.

This year was Richards’ first “full” season back on the mound since the surgery. He posted a respectable .315 xwOBA in 14 appearances, including 10 starts, for San Diego. In a way, was Richards the Friars’ Charlie Leibrandt this year?

It’s plausible undergoing TJ surgery helps Richards put his long injury history behind him and propels him to a strong second act to his career. If that’s the case, being in a six-man rotation with the Mariners in 2021 could prove beneficial to both player and team.


Mike Fiers – RHP

Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
36
4.58
14.4
6.2
.275
.326
.320
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

Fiers’ numbers won’t blow anyone away. His 14.4-percent strikeout rate in 2020 was a career-low, while his .320 xwOBA was league-average. Still, the veteran has been a dependable performer during his 10-year career.

From 2015 through 2019, Fiers averaged 30 starts and 172 innings. This year, the Floridian completed at least six innings in six of his 11 outings with Oakland. For context, only Marco Gonzales (7) had more on the Mariners with Justus Sheffield also finishing with six. Adding another arm capable of providing length, like Fiers, would help take pressure off the young rotation and its supporting bullpen.


Adam Wainwright – RHP

Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
39
3.15
20.6
5.7
.221
.273
.314
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

Wainwright is in the twilight of his career, but he put together a solid 2020 campaign as a 38-year-old. Originally a first round pick of the Braves in 2000, the Georgian eventually made his MLB debut with the Cardinals in 2005 and remained with the team until now. Considering his longevity in the Midwest, would Wainwright consider a move from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest in 2021?

If the answer is yes, perhaps Dipoto can woo Wainwright to the Emerald City. Adding a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover with a postseason pedigree could help such a young rotation. The 2010 NL Cy Young Award runner-up has 15 playoff starts with 109 innings pitched. As a rookie, he notched a save in the deciding games of the 2006 NLCS and World Series.

Sounds like someone “who’s been down that road before” to me.


J.A. Happ – LHP

Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
38
3.47
21.4
7.7
.208
.280
.270
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

The former Mariner doesn’t have a lengthy history with the team – the previous regime traded him after a half-season in 2015. But a reunion would certainly benefit Seattle, especially if Happ repeats his 2020 production.

Happ’s .270 xwOBA ranked twenty-fifth among pitchers facing 150-plus hitters this season and bested all Seattle starters this year. He’s also proven durable throughout his career. Between 2014 and 2019, the Northwestern product averaged 29 starts and 168 innings annually.


José Quintana – LHP

2019 Stats
Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
32
4.68
20.4
6.2
.282
.321
.333
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

This year totaled four outings and 10 innings for Quintana. Hence, the 2019 stats on the preceding table. The left-hander’s problems started with thumb surgery prior to the season opener due to a dishwashing injury. He returned in late August with a pair of relief appearances to build up arm strength before developing lat inflammation.

Assuming the lat inflammation isn’t a precursor of bad things to come, Quintana can help the Mariners. Before this year, he averaged 32 starts annually dating back to 2013, while his career .317 xwOBA is league-average. Essentially, the Colombian won’t be the main attraction in a rotation. But he’s a veteran capable of solidifying a starting staff.


Taijuan Walker – RHP

Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
28
2.70
22.2
8.4
.214
.286
.325
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

The 2010 first round pick holds the dubious distinction of being traded twice by Dipoto. First in November 2016 in a deal bringing Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura from Arizona to Seattle. Then, this August he joined the Blue Jays in a swap for minor leaguer Alberto Rodriguez. Could three times be a charm for Walker and the Mariners?

Walker’s 2.70 ERA looks impressive, although his 4.87 expected ERA (based on launch angle and exit velocity) doesn’t paint the same rosy picture. Furthermore, his .325 xwOBA was basically league-average – he’s never had an xwOBA below .320. Unlike previous candidates, the Yucaipa High School product has never made 30 starts in a season and has topped 150 innings just twice (2017 in Arizona and 2015 with Seattle).

Still, 2020 was Walker’s first season since undergoing Tommy John surgery early in the 2018 campaign and experiencing shoulder issues during his recovery last year. It’s reasonable to expect he’ll be better in 2021. How much better is the question potential suitors will have to determine.

For the Mariners, Walker is a known commodity. Management has previously suggested he was a good fit with the club’s cadre of developing young arms. That said; does his production warrant a multi-year deal? Assuming good health, I would say yes.


Jake Odorizzi – RHP

2019 Stats
Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
31
3.51
27.1
8.1
.234
.289
.304
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

This year was an injury-plagued disaster for Odorizzi. First came a back injury, followed by an abdominal injury from being struck by a line drive, and then a blister in September. Overall, he made four starts and logged 13.2 innings with a 6.12 ERA. Still, 2020 was probably an outlier.

During the six seasons leading up to 2020, Odorizzi averaged 30 starts and 165 innings. Moreover, he’s just a year removed from an All-Star campaign with the 2019 AL Central division champion Twins. The Illinois native’s .304 xwOBA would’ve led all Mariners starters, including Gonzales (.315).

To be clear, nothing on the back of Odorizzi’s baseball card suggests he’s an ace. Among the 204 starters facing at least 1,000 hitters since the Statcast era beginning in 2015, his .324 xwOBA is middle of the pack. But he could serve as the stable presence Dipoto craves.


Masahiro Tanaka – RHP

Age*
ERA
SO%
BB%
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
32
3.56
22.3
4.1
.257
.314
.297
MLB
4.28
22.9
8.2
.247
.315
.314
* Age on July 1, 2021

Perhaps Tanaka eventually re-signs with the Yankees. But let’s assume he and New York don’t come to terms on a new pact. In that case, he’d be a tremendous get for the Mariners.

In 2014, Tanaka was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. To date, he hasn’t needed the usual fix for such an injury – Tommy John surgery. Certainly, his elbow would require close scrutiny by any potential buyer’s medical team. Still, the native of Japan has been a model of consistency and durability.

Among starters throwing 1,000-plus innings since Tanaka’s 2014 debut, only Clayton Kershaw (4.3-percent) and Mike Leake (4.7-percent) have a lower walk rate than Tanaka’s 4.8-percent. During 2016-19, he averaged 30 starts and 179 innings annually.

Is Tanaka a front line starter? Perhaps not, but he’d offer the Mariners an experienced starter possessing pinpoint control and postseason experience.


Finally

Our list included two left-handers – Happ and Quintana. In 2020, the Mariners 208.2 innings from lefty starters. That was most in the majors with Oakland trailing them by 85 innings. Currently, the team has four projected southpaw starters – Gonzales, Sheffield, Yusei Kikuchi, and Nick Margevicius. Will Dipoto want to add another lefty to starting staff?

We don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps the Mariners aren’t concerned about the number of left-handers in the rotation, although I suspect they do. Then again, having too much of anything isn’t necessarily a problem in December. A lot can change between now and Opening Day, particularly with a GM proficient at making trades.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing any of the names on our list joining the Mariners for 2021. But my top choices would be Tanaka, Odorizzi, or Walker. Each potentially provides an opportunity to stabilize the club’s rotation and deliver positive results for Seattle in 2021 and hopefully beyond.

If Dipoto succeeds at adding a pitcher of Leibrandt’s ilk, will his team eventually develop into a juggernaut like the Braves of the Nineties? 

Time will tell. For now, the Mariners simply reaching the postseason for the first time since 2001 would suffice for its playoff-starved fan base.

My Oh My…

Image courtesy of Elaine Thompson | AP Images
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