The team’s most notable dilemma; an injury-ravaged rotation slogging through a disappointing year with 17 different starters.
Trouble initially surfaced when Drew Smyly went down with a season-ending elbow injury in Spring Training. At least the southpaw had a strong start for Team USA during the World Baseball Classic in March.
Not surprisingly, Seattle’s replacement arms couldn’t adequately fill-in; no team could withstand losing 80% of their Opening Day rotation.
In the end, the starters collectively ranked 25th in major league baseball. Even worse, the Mariners missed the postseason for a sixteenth consecutive year.
Despite his rotation’s struggles this year, general manager Jerry Dipoto is signaling a willingness to stand pat with his current stable of starters.
Dipoto recently told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN, “We have depth, we have quality pitchers on this staff. We have a lot of quality, we just have to figure out how to put it all together in a different way.”
If Seattle does opt to build a rotation from within, they’ll have multiple candidates to choose from: Hernandez, Paxton, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore, and Andrew Albers.
Not So Fast
Still, the prevailing belief among fans and many media members is that Seattle needs outside help to reconstitute their rotation. That’s if the club intends on contending in 2018.
James Osborn (aka Boy Howdy) of 710 ESPN Seattle echoed a similar sentiment in an August tweet.
The Ms have a #2 (Paxton), #3 (Leake), a #4 (Felix, when pitching) and 6 #5’s in their rotation next year. Arrieta only proven #1 available.
— Boy Howdy (@BoyHowdyESPN) August 31, 2017
Osborn suggests Seattle doesn’t have an ace to anchor their rotation. He also identifies Jake Arrieta as the lone prospective free agent with ace credentials.
Regardless of who’s out there, Howdy’s comment rings true. The Mariners don’t have a staff ace on their roster. Moreover, their GM doesn’t sound interested in pursuing one.
Perhaps, Dipoto’s public comments are just GM speak. On the hand, what if the team took a more unconventional route to bolster its rotation?
What am I talking about? Building a more robust bullpen to offset a limited starting staff. Dipoto’s remarks to Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune hint at such a strategy.
“We are adjusting toward what the world looks like now for starting pitchers, which is a 15-to-18-out starter (rather) than the complete-game starter,” opined Dipoto.
Considering what awaits in the starting pitcher free agent market, taking a new approach has some merit — at least to me.
Sure, Seattle could pursue one of the free agents I’ve mentioned. But, each is likely to command at least $20 million annually for at least five years. That’s a lot of money for pitchers likely to show signs of regression within a year or two.
This isn’t a reaction to what we’ve been seeing this postseason. “Bullpening” is fascinating in October, but having a Justin Verlander pitching deep into games remains optimal.
Having said that, top-tier pitchers like Verlander are hard to come by. Even if one were available via trade, the Mariners would struggle to outbid the competition.
Rather than inking long-term/high-dollar deals with starters on the wrong side of 30, why not pursue relievers?
It hasn’t been Dipoto’s style to spend heavily on his bullpen. But, he suggests it’s time to evolve. Perhaps, that includes obligating more money to his relief corps.
Keep in mind, the cost of most reliever deals pale in comparison to those signed by starters. More importantly, the duration tends to be much shorter. Mistakes won’t hang over an organization like a black cloud for 3-5 years.
Essentially, the Mariners would pursue free agent relievers with a proven record of reliability; a trait in short demand last year.
To see what I mean, let’s review the club’s most accomplished relievers. Some were dependable, others not so much.
Nick Vincent — The righty logged a career-high 69 appearances and was the club’s best bullpen arm. Still, what’s more likely? A 31-year-old reliever repeating his best season or regressing?
Edwin Diaz — The bullpen’s most electric arm battled bouts of inconsistency and briefly lost his closer job. If Diaz hones his delivery so it’s more repeatable, the 23-year-old can be an elite-level closer.
Marc Rzepczynski — The southpaw held lefties to a .171 batting average in the first half, but saw that balloon to .343 post all-star break. Rzepczynski also surrendered too many walks to right-handers, as he did in 2016.
David Phelps — If he were a free agent, Phelps is exactly the kind of reliever I’d expect Seattle to pursue — a high-leverage arm capable of missing bats and going multiple innings. Despite suffering an elbow injury in September, the 31-year-old projects to be ready by February.
James Pazos — The 26-year-old was particularly effective against left-handed hitters, although his power arm stymied righties in the first half too. After the break, Pazos scuffled against all hitters thanks to command issues.
Dan Altavilla — When on, the 24-year-old is capable of missing bats. Unfortunately, he goes through spells when he can’t find the strike zone.
Let’s assume the Mariners do jump into the free agent reliever market. Here are the candidates who, intrigue me most.
Addison Reed — The 29-year-old possesses pinpoint control (1.5 BB/9) and has served as a closer and setup man for postseason teams. Reed could serve as insurance for Diaz or settle into a complementary role.
Pat Neshek — Despite playing home games in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Ball Park and Coors Field in 2017, the side-arming righty avoided the long ball (0.43 HR/9). The 37-year-old setup man isn’t likely to command more than a two-year deal.
Anthony Swarzak — The versatile right-hander made 24 multiple-inning appearances, including 10 of two-or-more frames. He misses bats (10.7 K/9) and can serve in middle relief or setup roles.
Mike Minor — Assuming the Kansas City Royals don’t exercise his $10 million option, he’ll be on the market. The southpaw proved effective against both lefty and righty bats (.204 batting average). Like Swarzak, the 29-year-old can go multiple frames.
Bryan Shaw — Cleveland’s setup man appeared in a league-leading 79 games and can go multiple innings or occasionally close a game. The 29-year-old’s 55.9 % ground ball rate was 20th best among MLB relievers.
Other notable relievers hitting the market include Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Tommy Hunter, Brandon Kintzler, David Hernandez, Seung-hwan Oh, Matt Albers, Yusmeiro Petit, Joe Smith, Brandon Morrow, and Juan Nicasio.
Speculating about potential free agent relievers makes for great hot stove conversation, but it’s unlikely the Mariners go on a buying spree. The team also needs upgrades at first base and in center field and has a finite amount of resources.
Having said that, blending relatively inexperienced, cheap arms with established, pricier veterans could yield dividends for Dipoto’s club in 2018.
Optimally — at least to me — adding a pitcher with closer experience and two versatile multi-inning arms would establish a more dependable bullpen and take pressure off the rotation.
I expect Dipoto acquires the kind of arms I’ve been describing. Whether he delves into free agency or makes trades will likely depend on the market.
Bear in mind, every team would benefit from augmenting their bullpen. The competition will be steep, which will drive up the asking price.
Finally, it doesn’t matter whether Mariners improve their staff via new relievers or starters. But, more is needed for the club to seriously contend.
Otherwise, there will be a 17th consecutive year of no playoff baseball in the Emerald City.
That’s the kind of misfortune weary Mariners fans are hoping to avoid in 2018.
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