The Seattle Mariners haven’t done much this winter as they head in Year 2 of The Rebuild. They did add right-hander Kendall Graveman (up to 96 mph) to the rotation mix and CJ Edwards (plus curveball, up to 96 mph) was an interesting add to the bullpen. The rest of the ‘additions’ have been minor. But there’s still a decent chance the club goes down the free agent route before the start of the season.
Here are six current free agents (as of January 29, 2020) that make sense for Seattle, and vice versa.
Taijuan Walker, RHS
Walker makes the most sense among free-agent starting pitchers, and not simply because he’s a former Mariners hurler.
He’s a better bet for full health than the pitcher discussed below — elbow and Tommy John have better track records than shoulder labrums, both in timelines and level of performance regained — and Walker, having pitched once in the majors since surgery, could benefit greatly from the soft landing a non-contending club offers. The 27-year-old can focus on getting back strength, command, and not feel the pressure at the same level to perform, at last early in the year.
In his one inning of work for Arizona in 2019, his fastball touched 95 mph, sitting 92-94, and feeling comfortable enough to throw four split-changeups. By my count, he threw one cutter, but no curveballs.
In a perfect world, Walker finds Seattle the best fit, works through the typical challenges coming off Tommy John in terms of performance — mainly command and the movement on pitches, certainly more so than raw velocity — and either ends up in the longer-term plans for the Mariners as they prepare to start winning more in 2021, or he pitches well enough to become a trade chip in July. More the former than the latter, particularly because he’s likely to be on some kind of workload limit, having pitched 14 innings and facing all of 16 batters since the 2017 season.
There is concern among fans about Walker’s rehab — he had surgery in late April, 2018 and didn’t get back til September of 2019. But last spring, days to weeks before he was slated to return, he sprained his shoulder capsule, pushing his return to the final day of the regular season.
Walker is expected to be fully healthy and ready to roll when pitchers and catchers report. He just needs a place to pitch.
Aaron Sanchez, RHS/R
Before the should problems, Sanchez was on his way to frontline starter status with the Blue Jays. But 2017 was a disaster and the 47 starts he made between 2018 and 2019 — split by time off due to injury — were well below average.
He’s still throwing 93-95 mph and mostly his secondaries are back in terms of movement, but he’s not commanding anything consistently, starting with the fastball.
Clubs have to be concerned the shoulder isn’t going to allow Sanchez to get back, but if there was ever a club in a position to give him a chance, it’s Seattle in 2020.
Sanchez is 27 and coming off a 131.1-inning, 5.25 FIP season, but the strikeout rate was actually up a smidgen from his better days, but the walks hurt, especially as home run rates climbed across the league in 2019.
UPDATE: Minutes after publishing, the Pirates announced the signing of Robbie Erlin.
Robbie Erlin, LHR/S
Erlin found some traction last summer in San Diego, pitching in relief for 36 of his 37 appearances and posting a 3.61 FIP in 55.1 innings.
He comes with versatility, having been a starter his entire pro career prior to a 2018 transition to primarily relief work, and the two-pitch arsenal is pretty good.
The fastball is up to 93 mph and the curveball is plus. He also throws a cutter and a changeup.
Erlin makes sense for a lot of clubs, but is still available, suggesting perhaps he’s looking for a chance to start. The Mariners have that opportunity to give.
Collin McHugh, RHS/R
McHugh has a World Series ring and three straight playoff appearances, so he likely has his eyes on another shot at the postseason, but if he wants a chance to start — he started just eight games for Houston the last two season and hasn’t been a regular rotation option since 2016 — the 32-year-old could see the Mariners as a strong option.
The right-hander pushed a 4.423 FIP a year ago (2.72 in 2018), but a lot of the difference can be traced back to control issues and the home run ball. His walk rate spiked more than 2% from ’18 to ’19 and his HR/9 rate nearly doubled.
The stuff is very similar, despite a tick and a half drop in velocity last season (which explains the sink in fastball value), but the cutter, slider and changeup remain big-league pitches.
McHugh, as long as he enters February healthy, makes as much sense as Walker or Sanchez.
A.J. Ramos, RHR
Ramos had labrum surgery two summers ago and missed all of 2019. When he was healthy, the left-hander sat 92-95 mph with a cutter, changeup and curveball, as well as a true slider. He has closing experience — 99 career saves — and a 27.5% career strikeout rate.
Health and the outlook for his shoulder obviously is a major concern, but he’s had a year and a half since surgery and one would think, barring a setback, he’d have a good chance to return to the mound in 2020.
Lonnie Chisenhall, RF
Chisenhall spent most of 2019 on the shelf with lower-half injuries, but slashed .321/.394/.452 in 29 games for Cleveland in 2018 and .288/.360/.521 in 82 games for them the previous season. Health will be a concern, of course, and Chisenhall isn’t lilkely an everyday option, but could serve as a nice fill-in option for Seattle during and after Mitch Haniger‘s absence.
If the 31-year-old Chisenhall appears to be healthy heading into spring training, he’d be a sensible signing for the Mariners with a bit of upside, albeit as a platoon player rather than a regular.
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