Should The Seattle Mariners Sign A Top Free Agent Pitcher?


The 2014 Seattle Mariners were a good team. Nobody yet knows what the 2015 Seattle Mariners will be, but one would hope that the answer is “a great team.” The Mariners, certainly, hope as much, and are expected to pursue upgrades to the lineup, bench, and starting rotation between now and the start of spring training.

Seattle’s starting pitching was, of course, a major strength last season. Felix Hernandez was himself, classically, and Hisashi Iwakuma turned in another excellent season. James Paxton overcame shoulder noise to make a big impact down the stretch, while Roenis Elias emerged from almost-literally nowhere to stabilize the back of the rotation. Chris Young was just named AL Comeback Player of the Year. And Taijuan Walker was the freakin’ sixth starter. Yeah, a good group for sure.

But you never want to get too comfortable. There’s no realistic way the team can look at it’s current options and feel absolutely certain that they’re going to receive the same level of excellence they did a season earlier. Paxton and Walker have had injury scares and are still getting their feet wet at the big league level. Elias is a good number five, which doesn’t necessarily make him someone you want to guarantee a spot to. And Young’s a free agent. There’s work to be done if this rotation is to be stabilized, let alone upgraded.

There’s been talk of bringing back Young, though of course there are plenty of other interesting names on the free agent market. Francisco Liriano, Justin Masterson, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana… there are tons of interesting arms heading into free agency. But for all the depth in the class, there’s also plenty of upside at the top.

James Shields, Jon Lester, and Max Scherzer have all made their way to free agency, somewhat amazingly. This is the era of the extension, yet each of these three aces will soon start receiving contract offers on the open market. There’s going to be a ton of interest in each of the three. Should the Mariners be one of the clubs tossing around seven-figure offers?

Maybe the best place to start is the free agent market for bats. Top names this year include Nelson Cruz, Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez, Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, and Adam LaRoche. Yikes! The best of those guys is 35 and the whole lot of them are famously inconsistent. Plus, there’s the whole the-Mariners-won’t-even-think-about-signing-anyone-with-the-slightest-steroid-ties thing. So there’s a need for a bat, but apparently not much in the way of free agent fits.

The next place to look is the team’s payroll. There’s about $50 million tied up in Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez, but aside from that the team has no sizeable commitments. Those two will be eating into the budget ~forever, and it might not make much sense to add a third mega-contract to a team who’s most comfortable payroll range is probably around $100 million. Spend all your money on a few stars and you find yourself filling out the roster with total scrubs. Plus, there’s always bust potential, even at the top of the market.

That said, wins are wins, and the best way to add more wins is to add the best players available. Scherzer, Shields, and Lester may well represent the three best available players. Scherzer and Shields will cost a draft pick to sign, but Lester is free of compensation due to his being traded mid-season. Any other big upgrade would come with the cost of acquisition via trade, and that means subtracting talent from the team. These guys are the best way to get better for money only.

Still, the cost is tremendous. Shields’ age will probably keep him from the $100 million mark, if not by much. Lester and Scherzer will probably blow way past that figure, and it’s easy to see either of those guys falling somewhere in the six year, $120 million range. That’s pretty close to fair market value, but the hindrance of having to pay Felix and Cano means that signing any of these guys would put the M’s at $70 million a year for three guys, for a lot of years. That’s the kind of risk that can cripple a franchise unless everything goes perfectly.

In baseball, as in life, things rarely go perfectly. Let’s say the M’s sign Scherzer, only to see him miss a year. The M’s are out $20 million that could have gone towards making their team deeper and stronger at multiple positions, with nothing to show for it. Cano could start to decline any minute now. Felix is as close to invincible as we’ve seen, but that could change with an unforseen injury. Big contracts are big risks, and the more of them you collect, the more risk you take on.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Mariners throw caution to the wind and just go for it with one of these guys. Sign V-Mart, sign Lester, and make a run at the world series. But look at the two teams still playing baseball – are these superteams made up of the best players in the world? No, and those so-said superteams in Los Angeles are sitting at home after being bounced early from the tournament. The postseason is all about getting hot at the right time. V-Mart, Lester, Felix, Cano, and an imaginary, majestically-improved eight-win version of Kyle Seager wouldn’t be enough to guarantee the Mariners anything.

The wisest strategy in terms of free agency is probably to spread the wealth around, as signing a few of the McCarthy/Masterson/LaRoche/Rasmus guys would fill more holes and mitigate more risk for the same price as one ace. The Mariners already took their big gambles, and even though they’re paying off, it’s best not to triple down.