Optimizing The Seattle Mariners Starting Rotation


Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a fun week for the Seattle Mariners. Robinson Cano! Corey Hart! Logan Morrison! Geoff Baker! The Mariners are a much better team now than they were just a matter of days ago, and no amount of Seattle Times skeletons in the closet can change that reality. That’s not to say that the “revelation” that Jack Z might not be so highly qualified isn’t a big deal, as far as the franchise’s continued improvement is concerned. It certainly is a big deal, in that the people in charge apparently really are as blindly obsessed with power hitters as most of us thought. Right when we were all felling good after the Cano signing, the Mariners signed some DH’s to play the field. Improved offense be damned, this is still a team with holes.

For all the talking we do about the Mariners offensive holes, there’s another area where the team could use improvement. No, I’m not talking about the defense, though it certainly is looking bleak. No, I’m not talking about the bullpen, though it certainly is looking bleak. And the offense is still a question mark… okay, so maybe the Mariners could stand to get better just about everywhere. Including the rotation. Which is what we’re going to talk about today.

Given all the other weaknesses of the team, the rotation is often overlooked as an area in need of an upgrade. The David Price rumors have been exciting, sure, but that’s more because Price is a star than anything. The Mariners rotation is often considered a strength, but that’s probably out of habit more than anything. Because last year the Mariners rotation was… not good, aside from the excellent front two of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Mariners rotation was 20th in baseball by ERA and 15th by FIP. Middling numbers, to be sure. Not the kind of numbers that should be acceptable from a team’s position of strength.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit how the M’s rotation ended up where it did. Felix and Kuma were awesome all year, of course. The back three spots in the rotation were a nightmare all year, stinking it up enough to drag the collective unit down towards the bottom half of the sport. Brandon Maurer was aggressively promoted and responded with a cover-your-eyes terrible campaign. Erasmo Ramirez was almost as bad, silencing many of us who had long touted his potential. Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang were brought in as stopgap innings eaters, and each pitched so poorly for so long that they’re likely to settle for minor league deals this winter after years of providing value to teams.

Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, of course, came up in September and pitched brilliantly. The thing with young pitchers is that while the upside may be dazzling, it’s foolish to expect sustained excellence over the first year (or few years) of a kid’s career. It’s easy to look at Hernandez/Iwakuma/Walker/Paxton and think “four aces.” But what we should probably really be seeing is an ace, a maybe ace/maybe regression candidate, and two volatile youngsters. The team simply can not depend on getting big contributions from Walker and Paxton. They could perform at a high level, but that should not be assumed going in. An ERA in the fours from one or both of those guys wouldn’t be disappointment, it’d be an expected adjustment.

Iwakuma similarly shouldn’t be counted on to do again what he did last year. For one, his ERA beat his FIP by almost a full run, which is a big warning label. And for two, 314.2 innings as a not-young starter simply isn’t enough of a track record to bank on. The Mariners got 4.2 wins from Kuma last year, and while that was great, it shouldn’t be expected to happen again.

Pencil in Felix and Iwakuma for 200 innings or so apiece, then give 300 to Paxton and Walker and the Mariners are halfway to a rotation. Let’s say Erasmo opens the year as a swingman, serving as a multi-inning relief weapon who can start when needed. Given his ability to start and my continued faith in his arm, he could presumably soak up 100 innings as a decent starter. What we find, then, is that even with five non-horrible starting pitchers already in the organization, the Mariners could use two more quality arms for rotation spots.

The free agent market has some solutions, none more appealing than Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka. Assuming Tanaka is posted, which is not even a given, he could presumably be had for something in the neighborhood of six years, $100 million and a $20 million posting fee. If the Mariners want to stick with domestic guys, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, and Matt Garza represent the next tier in terms of probably quality and price. David Price and Jeff Samardzija lurk as appealing trade options, though each would be coming from a smart organization that wouldn’t give them away for a Doug Fister-like price. Whether it be young talent or big money, adding a good starter is likely to be a costly endeavor.

Should it be a priority? Not over the outfield, but likely over just about everything else. If the Mariners were to add one of the top available arms they would likely still have money for an innings guy to act as Ramirez/Walker/Paxton insurance. The team presumably has enough room left in the budget for a good starter, a fine starter, an underrated reliever, two outfielders, and a backup catcher. That would then result in all the holes being patched. That would give the Mariners their best shot at being a good baseball team in 2014.

Most importantly, adding a couple starters would give the rotation some much-needed depth in the likely event that somebody gets hurt or sucks. The goal should be to have a depth chart that forces Walker and Paxton to pitch their way past established arms and onto the roster. Something like Hernandez/Iwakuma/Garza/Capuano/Walker/Paxton/Ramirez/Maurer would all but assure that the team wouldn’t have to turn to a sub-replacement level guy like Blake Beavan or Hector Noesi. And as far as resource displacement goes, it would keep the expendable youth like Smoak and Franklin available in trades for outfielders.

The rotation could use some work. The whole team could use some work, really. But the rotation is the closest thing the Mariners have to a bona fide strength, so that’s the area the Mariners should be most concerned with perfecting. A strong rotation takes the load off the bullpen and makes the offense’s job easier by limiting runs allowed. If contention is truly the plan for 2014, the Mariners are going to need to make upgrades everywhere. It is critical to their success that they not overlook the rotation.