Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is a man on an island. Not literally, but in a figurative sense.
You see, the 49-year-old executive appears comfortable entering the upcoming season with his current stable of starting pitchers. Few outside his organization feels the same way.
By and large, fans and local media members believe the rotation is the Mariners’ weakest link. If it is not addressed in a big way, the club’s 16-year postseason drought will drag into 2019.
Naturally, Dipoto pushes back against such criticism. He routinely points out his team will be getting a full season from two pitchers acquired last summer — Mike Leake and Erasmo Ramirez. That in of itself improves the rotation.
On top of that, Dipoto projects a positive attitude when it comes to his medical staff’s approach to keeping starters James Paxton and Felix Hernandez available for a full season. Both made just 40 combined starts in 2017 due to injuries.
Perhaps, Dipoto’s confidence in his top starters turns out to be well founded. Maybe, some combination of unheralded holdovers Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Moore have breakout seasons. If all of this happens, the rotation could keep the club in contention throughout the summer — maybe longer.
Still, the optimism emitting from the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way is not shared by the Mariners’ fan base. They want the club to acquire top-shelf rotation help right now. Marquee names such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and Alex Cobb are frequently mentioned — all are free agents.
This is where the journey to Dipoto Island begins.
Dipoto routinely remarks that he prefers constructing teams through a blend of acquisitions via trade and the flow of player assets from the minor league pipeline. From his viewpoint, free agency is a means to “accent” a roster; not build it.
When he has signed a free agent during his tenure in Seattle, Dipoto has resisted long-term commitments. He has not signed anyone to a deal longer than two years with the exception of Hisashi Iwakuma, technically a free agent when he re-signed with the Mariners in 2015.
While I believe the Mariners need another quality arm for their rotation, I share Dipoto’s aversion to long-term free agent commitments. Most assuredly, many fans — and some in the media — disagree.
My view of premium free agents remains the same, particularly with starting pitchers. Their appeal is largely based on the back of their baseball card. Too often though, teams end up overpaying for a player’s inevitable regression.
Making matters worse, virtually every starting pitcher in this year’s free agent class is a thirty-something. Recent history suggests starters begin declining near age-30.
To see what I mean, take a moment to review the following chart, which encompasses the last decade.
Included are all instances when a starter pitched at least 100 innings in a season and had an adjusted earned run average (ERA+) of 100 or greater. Totals are organized by the age of the pitcher during the season he met the criteria.
Please note, I limited the chart’s coverage to ages 20 through 40. Randy Johnson, Bartolo Colon, Jamie Moyer, Andy Pettitte, and Tim Wakefield (twice) met the criteria at age-41 or older, but were excluded. No one under 20 qualified.
For those not familiar with ERA+, it standardizes ERA by factoring in league and ballparks. League-average ERA+ is always 100. With that in mind, a pitcher with a 120 ERA+ would be 20-percent better than the league average.
As a whole, the most productive age period for pitchers was during their twenties. Conversely, the number of average-or-better performances steadily declined for those in their thirties.
That does not mean a 30-plus free agent cannot help a team, especially early in a deal. Zack Greinke is proof of that.
Prior to his age-32 season, Greinke signed a six-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks worth over $206 million. In two seasons, the 14-year veteran has a 125 ERA+ and 8.3 wins above replacement (WAR).
Thus far, Greinke is living up to his billing as a staff ace. But history suggests his value on the field will not match his compensation level by the latter half of his contract.
That may be why Arizona is reportedly shopping Greinke and his contract that runs through his age-37 season. It appears the steep price tag ownership okayed in 2015 has become too exorbitant. Perhaps, Arizona finds an interested buyer, but it will not be easy.
Am I suggesting the Mariners should ride out the 2018 season with their current cadre of starters?
No, the Mariners certainly need another established arm. But fans should not expect a presser introducing a top free agent starter to Seattle any time soon. Unless, of course, the market depresses to unexpected lows.
A more realistic scenario would be the price — in terms of years and dollars — dropping for names discussed less often. Under those circumstances, Dipoto adding a free agent arm becomes more plausible.
There are others, but this quartet is representative of what the market has to offer beyond the big names. All have the ability to deliver value to a club in 2018, but each comes with blemishes and varying degrees of risk.
After missing significant portions of 2015-16 due to Tommy John surgery, Vargas had a strong first half last year. The former Mariner had a 2.62 ERA at the all-star break, but posted a 6.38 ERA during the last three months of the season.
Still, Vargas did post career bests in ERA+ (108) and WAR (3.8). That said; the issue with the southpaw, who turns 35 next month, is whether his post all-star game production is a sign of things to come.
Lynn missed the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, although he did log 186.1 innings last year. Overall, the right-hander had a 124 ERA+ and delivered 2.8 WAR of value.
The 31-year-old Lynn also surrendered the fewest hits-per-nine innings in six big league seasons, but his home run and strikeouts rates trended in the wrong direction. Furthermore, he notched the seventh worst walk rate and plunked 10 hitters too.
The left-handed throwing Garcia has an extensive injury history. He has undergone Tommy John surgery, plus he has been under the knife for thoracic outlet syndrome and a shoulder problem.
Having said that, Garcia has averaged 28 starts and 164 innings since 2016. Prior to that, the 31-year-old had not started 20-plus games in five seasons. The nine-year veteran finished last season with a 99 ERA+ and 1.4 WAR.
After several sub-par seasons, Cashner posted career highs in ERA+ (138) and WAR (4.6) with the Texas Rangers last season. However, the 31-year-old had the eighth highest walk rate and second lowest strikeout rate among qualified major league starters.
On the other hand, Cashner has averaged 161 innings over the last three years. He also had the third lowest home run rate in the majors. An impressive feat considering he played home games in homer-friendly Globe Life Park.
Adding one of these pitchers or another with a similar profile could help the Mariners to some degree in 2018 — assuming they buck history and stave off age-related regression.
How confident are you of that happening?
Will Lynn and Garcia — both predominantly National League pitchers — successfully transition to the junior circuit? More importantly, will they remain healthy?
Can Cashner repeat his 2017 success or will he revert to career norms? Has Vargas already seen his best days?
An additional factor to consider is the advancing ages of Seattle’s top starters.
King Felix (32 in April) appears to be already regressing, while Paxton (29) and Leake (30) are approaching the point when their best years will be behind them. Even “young” Ariel Miranda is 29-years-old.
Does adding another thirty-something to the Mariners enigmatic rotation really make sense?
Not to me.
The again, Dipoto could use his JeDi skills to swing a trade for a proven mid-rotation arm.
Considering Seattle’s limited number of trade chips, such a move may prove problematic. That assumes a trade partner exists, who is willing to accept what Dipoto has to offer.
Still, difficult as it may be, a player swap would be a more reasonable approach to helping the rotation than overpaying for a free agent starter.
At least that is how I see it.
Perhaps, I belong on the same island as Dipoto.
Maybe I am already there.
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