Don’t be too eager to part with starting pitching prospects.
I know. The Mariners have a pitching-rich farm system – one of the best in MLB. But teams can never have enough starting pitching. For those who think I’m being overly cautious, I present you the 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Facing possible elimination on its home field in Game 5 of the NLCS, the Dodgers went with an opener – reliever Joe Kelly. Not an ideal situation for any club. Especially one with such a rich postseason pedigree.
That’s not meant to be a slight directed at Kelly, who is a superb pitcher. But you would think that the organization viewed by many as the best in baseball could muster an actual starting pitcher for the most important game of its season. But there was Kelly, giving it his best until suffering an injury after registering just two outs into the first inning.
The Dodgers don’t just have deep pockets. The team’s minor league system consistently churns out players capable of contributing at the big-league level. Yet, despite all these resources, manager Dave Roberts needed to rely on a relief pitcher to start a must-win postseason game. So, what went wrong?
It turns out a lot.
On Opening Day, the Dodgers were in great shape. The starting rotation boasted Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer, Cy Young contender Walker Buehler, and young studs Julio Urías and Dustin May. And that doesn’t even include former Cy Young winner David Price and swingman Tony Gonsolin in the bullpen. An impressive bunch. In the end though, it wasn’t enough.
Not even close.
All told, the Dodgers needed 19 starters, including openers, to get through 162 games.
Dodgers Starters In 2021
Clayton Kershaw – Two IL stints with elbow injury
Trevor Bauer – Placed on restricted list in early July
Walker Buehler – Made 33 starts
Julio Urías – Made 32 starts
Dustin May – Tommy John surgery after five starts
Tony Gonsolin – Two IL stints with shoulder inflammation
Max Scherzer – Acquired in July
David Price – Swingman
Mitch White – Rookie/Spot starter
Corey Knebel – Reliever
Justin Bruihl – Reliever
Garrett Cleavinger – Reliever/On IL with strained oblique
Victor Gonzalez – Reliever
Brusdar Graterol – Reliever
Josiah Gray – Prospect sent to Nationals in Scherzer deal
Jimmy Nelson – Reliever/On IL with elbow discomfort
Darien Núñez – Reliever
Jake Reed – Reliever
Edwin Uceta – Reliever
As you might expect, the Dodgers tried their best to shore up the starting staff once the unplanned losses began to pile up. In July, the team acquired three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (along with infielder Trea Turner) and Royals starter Danny Duffy. It also signed free agent Cole Hamels in early August. Scherzer was Scherzer, but the other guys didn’t pan out.
At the time of the deal, Duffy was on Kansas City’s IL with a left flexor strain. But the desperate Dodgers were willing to take a chance on the southpaw returning to help during the stretch drive. Unfortunately, he never appeared in a game with his new club. Similarly, Hamels never suited up as a Dodger due to shoulder discomfort.
As you can see below, the Dodgers weren’t the only club to struggle with filling rotation spots. In fact, the league-average for starters used this year was 14.
And that brings us to the Mariners, a club needing 15 starters to get through the season. Considering the number of arms Seattle used in 2021, it’s no surprise that President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto identified starting pitching as an area needing help this offseason.
Mariners Starters In 2021
Marco Gonzales – One month on IL with flexor strain
Yusei Kikuchi – Pulled from rotation due to ineffectiveness
James Paxton – IL/Tommy John surgery
Chris Flexen – Made 31 starts
Justus Sheffield – IL with forearm strain/moved to bullpen
Justin Dunn – IL/shoulder strain
Logan Gilbert – Called up in May from AAA
Nick Margevicius – IL for thoracic outlet syndrome surgery
Ljay Newsome – Spot starter/IL with elbow discomfort
Tyler Anderson – July acquisition
Héctor Santiago – Long reliever/Suspended for PED use
Darren McCaughan – Spot starter from AAA
Robert Dugger – Spot starter/DFA
Keynan Middleton – Reliever/DFA
Erik Swanson – Reliever
Bringing back fan-favorite James Paxton was risky due to his injury history. But who expected “Big Maple” would be lost for the season just 21 pitches into his Seattle reunion? That Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales would miss a month? That Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield would both regress and spend part of the season on the IL? Or that the Mariners would burn through its in-house depth by June?
The answer is no one could project such misfortune for the Mariners, Dodgers, or any ballclub. That’s why rotational depth matters. Hence the adage that controllable starting pitching is baseball’s rarest commodity.
Am I saying the Mariners should never trade starting pitching prospects? Of course not. But dealing away promising arms, particularly those close to being MLB-ready, is a risky proposition. Something to consider as you form your opinion on this point, Dipoto routinely stated during the season that AA pitchers were just a phone call away from the majors.
Considering the number of starters used by the Mariners in 2021, it’s highly likely that some of the best arms in the team’s system will earn call-ups from Class-AA Arkansas next season.
In 2021, the Mariners had a 2-8 record in games using an opener. Imagine the possibilities if manager Scott Servais had better options to start those 10 games.
Maybe Servais’ squad manages to steal a few more wins by relying on one or more of the hot prospects listed above.
Maybe a young gun, or guns, from Arkansas mitigates the damage when Yusei Kikuchi drove into a second-half ditch.
Maybe the Mariners’ postseason drought would’ve ended earlier this month.
Having said all that, the Mariners trading starting pitching prospects is inevitable. Doing so absolutely makes sense to land a franchise-changing player. On the other hand, dealing high-caliber talent for instant gratification could haunt the organization and its postseason-starved fan base for a long time.
So, next time you hear or read someone advocating trades involving the names of pitching prospects like Brandon Williamson, Levi Stoudt, or Emerson Hancock for a notable name, remember how a lack of rotational depth almost torpedoed the Mariners’ season in 2021.
If that’s not sobering enough for you, just think about Joe Kelly starting Game 5 of the 2021 NLCS for the Dodgers.
My Oh My…
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