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Photo of Logan Gilbert by Mark Wagner/Arkansas Travelers

The business of baseball continues evolving, yet one aspect of the industry remains constant. Premium, controllable starting pitching is the rarest of commodities. Based on his actions and words, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto grasps the concept.

Before digging into Dipoto’s approach to building a postseason-worthy staff, let’s consider how other teams are confronting the challenge of constructing rotations. Perhaps doing so provides us with perspective on what awaits the Mariners.

Sizzling Stove

Since the end of the World Series, teams have wasted little time locking up free agent starting pitchers. Even the two most prominent (and expensive) names on the market were no longer available by baseball’s Winter Meetings.

Gerrit Cole, just 28-years-old and one of baseball’s best pitchers, agreed to a record-setting nine-year/$324 million contract with the Yankees. The price tag and length of the deal may seem steep, but the Bombers haven’t been to a Fall Classic in a decade – a big deal in the Bronx.

The Nationals enticed Stephen Strasburg to remain with the only club the former San Diego State Aztec has ever known with a $245 million deal through his age-37 season. There’s a risk this pact ages poorly. However, the Nats were willing to pay top-dollar to keep their World Series MVP.

In the City of Brotherly Love, the Phillies inked Zack Wheeler for five years and $118 million despite the fact he’s never been an All-Star or received a Cy Young vote. That said; Wheeler has been an above-average performer with growth potential. Philadelphia is literally banking on the Georgia native’s upside.

To date, clubs have committed just over a billion dollars to starters this offseason with Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Michael PinedaDallas Keuchel, and Wade Miley also receiving multi-year deals. For teams still looking for help, Hyun-Jin Ryu remains available and is certain to cash-in.

Oh, and the Rangers just traded for two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to go with a pair free agent starters added in recent years – Mike Minor and Lance Lynn.

Internal Affairs

The preferred (and cheaper) method to add starters is via the draft or amateur free agency and then develop organically. Yet, clubs routinely go outside the organization to round out their rotations out of necessity.

Evidence of teams’ reliance on exterior resources comes into focus once we consider how they acquired this year’s 30 best starting pitchers (based on FanGraphs WAR).

How Teams Acquired 2019’s Best Starters

“Homegrown” players are individuals still with the club originally acquiring them via the draft or amateur free agency.

The homegrown names are impressive. Three – Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, and Jacob deGrom – have signed long-term deals with the teams drafting them. But free agents and trade acquisitions collectively outnumber organically developed arms two-to-one.

In 2019, clubs collectively accrued 341.3 WAR from starting pitchers with only 29-percent derived from homegrown starters. This applied to most top rotations also.

The following illustrates the total and homegrown WAR baseball’s six best staffs received from pitchers with 50-plus innings as a starter.

Even Top Rotations Need Outside Help

Teams receiving significant value from homegrown players included the Dodgers, Indians, and Mets. Conversely, the Astros reached the World Series without appreciable WAR from internal sources.

It’s worth noting Houston acquired a pair of perennial Cy Young contenders and a former winner of the award via trade – Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. Few organizations have both the financial and prospect wherewithal to acquire so many marquee names in a short period.

Meanwhile In Seattle

Finding and developing elite-level talent are monumental tasks. Moreover, the cost of acquiring it via trade or free agency can fall outside a franchise’s comfort zone.

For these reasons, Dipoto is constantly looking for opportunities to improve his stable of young pitchers through every means available – trades, free agency, finding and developing homegrown talent.

Sample Of Promising Arms Added During JeDi Era
Trade / Free Agency Draft / Amateurs
Marco Gonzales Logan Gilbert
Yusei Kikuchi George Kirby
Kendall Graveman Isaiah Campbell
Justus Sheffield Brandon Williamson
Justin Dunn Damon Casetta-Stubbs
Ricardo Sánchez Sam Carlson
Juan Then

Among the players on our list, only Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi were full-time major leaguers this year. Everyone else are up-and-comers; reason for hope in the Emerald City.

Dipoto shrewdly acquired Gonzales from the Cardinals for former top prospect Tyler O’Neill in a 2017 deadline deal. The former Gonzaga Bulldog was this year’s Opening Day starter and Seattle’s most dependable player. The trade is one of the Mariners’ best made during the JeDi era.

Kikuchi arrived from Japan last offseason receiving the largest free agent contract brokered during Dipoto’s four-year tenure as GM. Unfortunately; the propensity to surrender home runs spoiled his rookie campaign. Despite the struggles, the 28-year-old remains entrenched in the club’s long-term plans.

Justus Sheffield debuted with Seattle this year after the team acquired him for former ace James Paxton last winter. Sheffield projects to be in next year’s Opening Day rotation.

Right-hander Justin Dunn was a September call-up and has a chance of making the roster out of Peoria. The remaining players spent all of 2019 in the minors.

Dunn and Logan Gilbert are the most prominent pitching prospects in the Mariners’ system. Both rank in the MLB Top-100. Gilbert finished the season with Class-AA Arkansas, but he likely sees action with the big-league club sometime in 2020.

It’s plausible Gilbert’s rotation-mate with the Travelers – Ricardo Sánchez – gets an opportunity too. The southpaw is on the 40-man roster.

Although only drafted this year, George Kirby is already impressing scouts and Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill, who believes the Elon alum could move quickly through the Mariners system.

You can read Jason’s assessment of Kirby and all of Seattle’s top prospects in his more recent rankings.

Do The M’s Have Enough Arms?

The answer depends on the future development of the Mariners’ young guns.

We know Gonzales has been a top-30 pitcher in terms of WAR during the last two seasons. But advanced metrics suggest the soon-to-be 28-year-old shouldn’t be the featured act in a postseason rotation. Perhaps Marco proves the nerds wrong.

Kikuchi will be an enigma until he isn’t. If he rebounds from this year, the southpaw is a vital piece in Seattle’s rotation when the club enters its projected competitive window in 2021-22. Otherwise, he risks becoming an afterthought and a reason to seek outside assistance.

With debatable upside present on the big-league roster, a lot of hope is resting on the unproven shoulders of Sheffield, Dunn, Gilbert, Kirby, and other key pitching prospects.

Hopefully, one or more of these talented pitchers blossom into a front-end starter or demonstrates enough value in the trade market to get that elite arm.

Still, hope is not a course of action.

Contingency Plans

Assuming hope doesn’t deliver results, Dipoto will look elsewhere again. Let’s discuss potential options.

If Seattle utilizes free agency to add a high-profile arm a year from now, several notable names may be available. Potential candidates include Minor, Paxton, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Bauer, Cole Hamels, Charlie Morton, Marcus Stroman, and Masahiro Tanaka.

A word of caution to fans salivating over these recognizable players. It’s possible some sign extensions with their current team. Others may have a down year making them less appealing next November. Finally, all will be thirty-something in 2021 with two closing in on age-40.

Financially, there’s no evidence suggesting current ownership wouldn’t pony-up the money for a free agent front-line starter or an ace acquired in a trade. That said; it’s unlikely Seattle gets into a free agent bidding war. Never say never. But that tactic wouldn’t align with the front office’s view of free agency.

Dipoto has repeatedly voiced a reluctance to overpay for a player’s past performance, which teams often do. This helps explain why the Mariners have signed very few multi-year deals since September 2015.

If Dipoto’s previous efforts don’t produce a staff ace, the 51-year-old executive likely turns to his preferred method of player acquisition – the trade.

It’s important for fans to remember there will always be strong competition for top-end starters in the trade market meaning the cost could skyrocket. Realistically though, the greatest challenge facing buyers isn’t price, but finding teams willing to part with an ace.

Based on the 2,637 trades Dipoto has already made as Mariners GM, he’ll be reluctant to deal significant prospect value unless the pitcher he’s receiving is under club control for multiple years. Therefore, deadline rentals are less likely.

Never say never though.

Finally

Dipoto and his staff deserve a lot of credit for injecting so much talent into the Mariners system in a relatively short period. But there’s more work to be done. I suspect they know this since they’re living it every day.

Ultimately, Seattle will have to construct a competitive rotation capable of deep postseason runs – notice I used plural form. Although having a top-10 pitcher headlining the staff doesn’t guarantee reaching the World Series, it’s uncommon for teams to enjoy October success without such a pitcher.

To see what I mean, look at the top pitchers (based on WAR) since 2015. Each of these studs appeared in the Fall Classic with their 2019 club.

Best Starting Pitchers Since 2015
WAR 2019 Orig
Max Scherzer 32.6
WSN
ARI
Chris Sale 28.3 BOS CWS
Jacob deGrom 28.0 NYM NYM
Clayton Kershaw 25.9 LAD LAD
Justin Verlander 25.7 HOU DET
Gerrit Cole 24.4 HOU PIT
Corey Kluber 23.8 CLE SDP
Stephen Strasburg 21.5 WSN WSN
Zack Greinke 20.7 HOU KCR
Noah Syndergaard 18.7 NYM TOR
Carlos Carrasco 18.7 CLE PHI

Some fans suggest the Mariners should’ve be more aggressive this offseason pursuing Cole, Strasburg, Bumgarner, Ryu, and Bauer. Understandable sentiment, but management is averse to committing significant money until knowing what they already have in-house.

This is a sound approach.

Considering the strong start to their rebuilding effort, the Mariners deserve the benefit of the doubt for now.

Dipoto’s deals produced a top-30 starter (Gonzales) plus top-100 prospects Sheffield and Dunn. Similarly, the draft is delivering promise in the form of Gilbert, Kirby, Campbell, and Williamson.

Sure, there’s more hope than substance thus far. But practicing patience in the short-term provides the Mariners’ rebuild with its best chance of success in the long run.

As I said, sound approach.

My Oh My…