Since Memorial Day, the Seattle Mariners boast the second best starting rotation ERA in MLB. Not so coincidentally, the Mariners are an impressive 30-14 during this span, which happens to be the fourth best record in the majors. Despite this recent success, adding another established starting pitcher prior to the August 2 trade deadline should be a priority for the team.
To date, the Mariners have thrived by essentially relying on just five starters. Robbie Ray, Marco Gonzales, Logan Gilbert, Chris Flexen, and George Kirby, who replaced a struggling Matt Brash a few weeks into the season. Impressive for sure, but it’s becoming clear Seattle’s rotation will need help to get through the second half of the 2022 campaign.
Kirby was recently re-assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma, but not for performance reasons. Instead, he was sent to the minors in an attempt to manage his innings. As we recently discussed, the 24-year-old is approaching a team-determined workload limit likely to affect his availability during the final two months of the season. Not optimal for a franchise striving to appear in the postseason for the first time in two-plus decades.
Then there’s Gilbert, who’s on a trajectory to blow past his career high for innings pitched (135) set in 2019. The 25-year-old has tossed 111 frames this season after logging 124.1 innings last year. It’s unclear what Gilbert’s innings ceiling might be, but one thing is certain. The Stetson product hasn’t been as sharp as he was earlier this season.
This becomes evident when we review the OPS of opposing hitters facing Gilbert. It’s been climbing each month since a stellar April that saw him earn AL Pitcher of the Month honors.
OPS vs Gilbert In 2022
MLB Average OPS = .707
Complicating matters for Seattle, organizational rotation depth is paper thin. There are no minor-league standouts waiting to cover innings or outings for Kirby, Gilbert, or any starter lost to injury. Brash may have been an option earlier this season, but the 24-year-old is fully committed to being a reliever – at least for 2022. Again, suboptimal for a club with playoff aspirations.
Seattle’s most prominent replacement options fall into two distinct groups. The first is a collection of AAA starters with MLB experience, although their 2022 stats don’t look particularly appealing. The other subset is comprised of promising arms enjoying various degrees of success with Class-AA Arkansas. It’s important to note these youngsters are also likely to be innings-constrained.
|Daniel Ponce de Leon|
Realistically, the best way for the Mariners to bolster the rotation is via the trade market.
Easier said than done.
Adding quality starting pitching is always a challenge, particularly in July when the combination of high demand and low inventory inevitably inflates the asking price for starters to ridiculous levels. A year ago, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish alluded to this pre-deadline insanity via Twitter.
Realistically, if you are going to trade away one of your top 5 prospects — Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock or Noelvi Marte — it can’t be for a rental. It has to be for something more.
But in this craziness, that’s exactly who you ask for.
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) July 30, 2021
I can’t recall whether Divish was referring to a specific pitcher or position player the Mariners were pursuing prior to last year’s deadline. But his tweet underscores a harsh reality facing all buyers in July – it’s a seller’s market.
Taking the current state of the starting pitching market into account, I took a stab at compiling s short list of starters potentially capable of the help Seattle’s rotation, That said, I avoided high-profile names like Frankie Montas and Luis Castillo since the current Mariners regime has never been that daring during the regular season. Perhaps the team should be. But I’m going in another direction based on this front office’s history.
Instead, I’m presenting five starters with varying levels of experience, career success, club control, and salary size. I’ve listed them in reverse order with my top choice being last.
Madison Bumgarner – Diamondbacks
Bumgarner is due $23 million this season and next. He’s then set to earn $14 million in 2024, which will be his age-34 season. If Arizona was looking to pare payroll, the team might be interested in dealing the North Carolina native this summer. But it’s important to note he does have limited trade protection – a five-trade no-trade list. It’s possible the Emerald City is one of the destinations he may not prefer.
Assuming the 6-foot-4 southpaw wouldn’t resist joining the Mariners, fans expecting the version of Bumgarner that helped the Giants win three World Series titles are probably going to be disappointed. The metrics suggest the 32-year-old’s productivity has fallen off in recent years. Furthermore, the one-time workhorse has completed the sixth inning in just six of 19 starts this season.
Clouding the situation even more, Bumgarner’s splits signal he’s been far more effective at Chase Field than on the road this year. Could this discourage potential buyers?
Bumgarner’s Home/Away ERA (2022)
Despite the downturn in Bumgarner’s numbers, he does possess an intangible that’s in short demand on the Mariners – postseason experience. Between 2010 and 2016, he had a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 postseason innings for San Francisco. Not only that, “MadBum” earned the MVP award for both the NLCS and World Series in 2014.
Blake Snell – Padres
Snell likely stirs a wide range of emotions for Seattle fans. After all, he’s a local product and a Cy Young Award winner. But the Shorewood High School alum’s ERA and walk rate have been subpar this season. Perhaps more troubling, his availability has been problematic during his career.
Since debuting in 2016, Snell has started 30-plus games just once – his 2018 Cy Young campaign. Injuries sidelining him include shoulder fatigue in 2018, elbow surgery a year later, a groin injury in 2021, and an abductor strain leading to a 37-day absence this season. Still, I do believe there’s a chance the 29-year-old could make a positive impact with the Mariners this season and next.
Snell’s .310 xwOBA is the same as Houston’s Luis Garcia and Boston’s Tanner Houck. Both are valuable contributors to their respective teams and pitchers I suspect Mariners fans would eagerly welcome to Seattle. Considering how xwOBA is determined, I can envision Snell having a much better second half.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls without the influence of good or bad defense. It also factors in strikeouts and walks. Essentially, xwOBA captures the key elements for being successful on the mound – minimizing contact, avoiding base runners, and preventing the most damaging batted balls.
To be clear, Snell having a good xwOBA doesn’t guarantee he’ll be successful after the All-Star break. Only that the potential exists for a turnaround. His walk rate would have to improve and the 2018 All-Star would have to remain available. Both have been challenges in recent years. Still, Snell is an intriguing candidate – at least he is for me. Naturally, this assumes his club is willing to move him.
The Padres currently hold the second wild card spot in the NL and are all-in on making the postseason. Therefore, the club may have no interest in trading a starting pitcher. Still, San Diego currently has six starters on its 26-man roster. Perhaps the organization would consider trading Snell, and his salary, to free up payroll to address a more pressing need. The former 1st round pick is making $12.5 million this year and $16 million in 2023 before he enters free agency. There’s also a $1 million bonus if he’s traded.
Acquiring Snell would be a risky move. But imagine a good news story involving a kid from Seattle, Washington returning home to help the Mariners reach the postseason for the first time in over two decades.
JT Brubaker – Pirates
A year ago, the Mariners stabilized the starting rotation with the late-July acquisition of Tyler Anderson from Pittsburgh. Could President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto return to the same well in 2022? Unlike Anderson, Brubaker isn’t a rental. He’s earning $725 thousand this season with 2023 being his first year of arbitration eligibility. The 28-year-old doesn’t reach free agency until after the 2025 season.
Brubaker has produced average-ish numbers in most categories, but is capable of helping a club steady its starting staff much like Anderson did for Seattle’s rotation in 2021. Then again, the low-revenue Pirates may be reluctant to move the right-hander since he’s effective, inexpensive, and has lots of club control remaining.
Brad Keller – Royals
Keller is putting up better-than-average numbers and has proven capable of remaining in games for Kansas City. The right-hander has finished the sixth inning in 11 of his 17 starts. In fact, only 24 pitchers have accomplished the six-plus inning milestone more often this season. Being able to routinely go the distance helps preserve a bullpen during an arduous 162-game schedule.
This season, Keller is making $4.8 million with one year of arbitration eligibility remaining before he hits free agent. That said, it’s plausible the rebuilding Royals will attempt to sign the 26-year-old to a contract extension. Then again, dealing Keller now would maximize his trade value to the organization, if it becomes obvious both sides won’t reach an agreement on a new contract.
It’s worth noting Keller is currently on the restricted list with his team in Canada this weekend – he hasn’t received the COVID-19 vaccine. Could the Georgia native’s vaccination status motivate the Mariners to look elsewhere? Perhaps, but the team didn’t seem to have an issue with signing Ray despite the fact he was unvaccinated. Something else to consider, teams in the AL East may be less inclined to pursue Keller since they play multiple series north of the border. This may deflate his market to some degree.
Vaccination status aside, Keller is the kind of arm the Mariners, or any contender, could use this year and next. The five-year veteran isn’t a front-line starter, but he can solidify a starting staff. That’s something Dipoto’s club could definitely use right now.
Merrill Kelly – Diamondbacks
Kelly’s salary isn’t as pricey as his rotation-mate Bumgarner, but he’s not making league-minimum either. The Arizona State product is making $5.25 million this year and owed $8 million annually in 2023 and 2024. Plus, there’s a $7 million club option with a $1 million buyout in 2025.
Across the board, Kelly has quietly produced solid numbers. Naturally, the most impressive stat for me is a .307 xwOBA that’s essentially the same as Ray and Montas. The right-hander is also providing length to the Diamondbacks with 11 six-plus inning starts in 18 outings.
Kelly’s solid production, ability to remain in games, relatively inexpensive salary, and remaining club control should make him an attractive target for contenders – including the Mariners. The totality of these factors makes the 33-year-old my top choice for Seattle to pursue this month.
Per Spotrac, the Mariners have a $107.3 million payroll – ninth lowest among 30 MLB teams. Therefore, the team has the financial wherewithal to acquire players with a hefty contracts. This ability to absorb payroll should be Dipoto’s superpower leading up to the trade deadline.
Perhaps Bumgarner and Snell won’t make sense for the Mariners. But the organization is capable of acquiring other well-compensated starters from budget-conscious clubs and should do so, if the opportunity presents itself. Naturally, this assumes Seattle’s ownership is willing to obligate considerably more resources towards competing this season.
All things considered, Mariners leadership should be committed to winning now. Their franchise has a chance to capture the hearts and imaginations of fans in a way not experienced in the Pacific Northwest since the days of Junior, Edgar, and Randy.
All they have to do is reach the postseason this year.
My Oh My…
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