No matter what happens the rest of the way, the biggest move of the Mariners’ offseason has already been made. That move, the one with Robinson Cano and a quarter of a billion dollars, did as much to rearrange the to-do list as any one maneuver possibly could for any one team. While the goal prior to that signing may have been to field a competent 2014 team in hopes of further finding out which members of the youth movement are good baseball players, the goal post-Cano became “win a lot, immediately.” The Seattle Mariners have no interest in spending the first and best year of Cano on a team in transition. 2014 is clearly a win-now season.
Since Cano inked his ten-year pact, the Mariners have added Endy Chavez and Manny Pina, to name a few. Okay, so there have been major league additions as well, but Franklin Gutierrez and Corey Hart aren’t exactly guaranteed to add 2014 wins, given their health issues. After those two guys, the biggest impact names added over the last two months are John Buck and Logan Morrison, who were worth a combined 1.0 WAR last season. The Mariners are in the middle of the AL pack and legitimately project as a .500-ish team, which would put them at least six wins shy of being positioned as a Wild Card contender. The Mariners have until the end of March to add six projected wins to their team. Considering the team has spent $415 million on their two best players over the past year, those six wins are going to be in particularly high demand by the Mariners and their fans alike.
That’s where Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez come in. Yesterday, the Mariners had a luncheon, during which lots of important Mariners people talked about the Mariners. Lloyd McClendon and Jack Zduriencik all but outright stated that they intend on at least trying to add a number three starter to the rotation. We’ve long held that the rotation is one of the most important places to add impact talent, and now we have the men in charge saying the right things at the right time. The time is right, of course, because Masahiro Tanaka is a New York Yankee and Matt Garza is a Milwaukee Brewer. The market is moving again.
Due to Tanaka’s lengthy posting process, the free agent market for pitchers has been at a virtual standstill all offseason while top position players have flown off the proverbial shelves. Tanaka signed recently, and was quickly followed by Matt Garza. This leaves Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, two talented starters coming off terrific campaigns, as the best starters available. If the Mariners want to get better without dealing important youth, those two guys are their best bet.
Furthermore, speculation that Tanaka’s huge contract would drive up prices on the “Domestic Three” has probably been quashed by Garza’s four year, $52 million deal. Garza was considered the best pitcher out of those three, and he signed for just about one third of what Tanaka got. Gone are the days when it seemed likely that Ervin Santana would be paid like Jered Weaver. It now appears that Santana or Jimenez could be had for that same four years and $52 million, if not less. In short, these options have become simultaneously more attractive and more realistic.
How much of an upgrade would Santana or Jimenez be? For this we will be using the Steamer projections found on FanGraphs player pages, and my guesstimation of the team’s current depth chart. Right now, the rotation probably goes Hernandez/Iwakuma/Ramirez/Walker/Paxton. Signing one of Santana or Jimenez would push one of the bottom three out of the picture, at least temporarily. Steamer thinks 2014 Ervin Santana is good for a 3.96 ERA and 3.71 FIP, good for 2.7 WAR. Ubaldo Jimenez projects almost exactly the same, with a 4.03 ERA, 3.79 FIP, and 2.5 WAR. Last year, similarly valuable pitchers included C.C. Sabathia, Julio Teheran, and Jeff Samardzija.
As much as we all love the upside of the Mariners young arms, it’s important to acknowledge that development almost always takes time, Jose Fernandez be damned. Steamer sees Erasmo Ramirez as a 4.37 ERA/4.16 FIP guy worth 1.5 wins over 144 innings. Taijuan Walker? 4.38 ERA, 4.21 FIP, and 1.6 WAR over the same 144 frames. Given the same innings total, James Paxton is projected for a 4.59 ERA and 4.20 FIP, good for 1.3 WAR. Comparables from 2013 include Kevin Correia, Garrett Richards, and Dan Haren. The difference between a 2.5 WAR starter and a 1.5 WAR starter sounds small, but is really quite sizeable.
So a $50 million arm would be about a one win upgrade, and that doesn’t sound like much. But this is where depth comes in. Having only five acceptable starters ignores the fact that teams usually give about 32 starts, or a full rotation’s spot worth, to starters outside of their top five over the course of a full season. Injuries and ineffectiveness will happen, and given the current construction of the Mariners roster, those starts would be going to Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. Remember those guys? They’re the worst. Noesi projects as a 0.0 WAR guy, with Beavan coming in at -0.1. Maybe you want to see Brandon Maurer back in the big leagues before those two. Maurer, for all his upside, projects at 0.2 WAR. These are your fallbacks, and research shows the Mariners should be expecting to give them a season’s worth of starts.
The difference between a 2.5 win guy and a 1.5 win guy adds a valuable win in and of itself, but it also takes those 1.5 wins and sticks them in a sixth starter spot that is currently at, around, or below replacement level. Adding Ubaldo Jimenez would mean making James Paxton your sixth starter, and James Paxton is likely a win and a half better than the current sixth starter. There is tremendous value in this, especially given the upside of rotation spots four through six.
Quick and easy summary: the Mariners need to add about six wins to their current roster in order to project as a Wild Card contender. Signing Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana would put them almost halfway there while creating enviable and necessary depth, and would also allow them to hold onto all their most valuable trade chips. Based largely on the contract Matt Garza just signed, these guys should be available for under $15 million a year on long-but-not-too-long-term deals. From their the obvious moves would be to add an outfielder and more pitching depth. The Mariners have a real chance at being good in 2014. If they can land one of the two best remaining pitchers, they should be all the more well positioned to achieve this goal that seemed so wildly unlikely as recently as December 5th.