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Surveying the market: starting rotation depth

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Even if Hisashi Iwakuma returns to the Mariners, they could still use some additional starting pitching depth. Let's take a look at what's available on the free agent market.

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Last week, Michael laid out the state of the Mariners’ starting rotation in plain terms: it needs help. After announcing the signing of Chris Iannetta yesterday, Dipoto stated that his top priority is now re-signing Hisashi Iwakuma. It’s not a foregone conclusion that Iwakuma re-signs and Michael did a great job of laying out some of the comparable alternatives. But if the Mariners are intent on getting their man in Iwakuma, there is very little room to add another mid-tier pitcher from the free agent market. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look towards the low end of the market, however.

You can never have too much pitching depth. It’s become a mantra around baseball and the Mariners suffered from a lack of depth in 2015. It was so bad that the team turned to Edgar Olmos to make two starts towards the end of the year. Let’s assume that the Mariners will end up re-signing Iwakuma—what then? James Paxton gets pushed to the back of the rotation and Roenis Elias, Vidal Nuno, and Mike Montgomery are left to pick up any slack. I don’t know about you, but I would feel a lot more comfortable with another pitcher in the pile in case of emergency.

Jerry Dipoto has made it clear he’s comfortable finding value through the trade, and it’s entirely possible that the Mariners’ rotation depth will come through that route. I wanted to examine the bottom of the free agent market to see if there were any potential bargains out there that could fill the role of swing man in 2016.

I’ll be using the crowdsourced contract projections and Steamer projections from FanGraphs to make educated guesses about these free agents. I've split twelve pitchers into three tiers based on their projected salary and projected performance. This is meant to be an overview, not a deep dive, so I’ll just provide the basics.

Tier 1

Name

Age

2015 fWAR

2016 sWAR

Proj Years

Proj Salary

Mat Latos

27

1.5

2.7

2

$11.0

J.A. Happ

33

3.3

2.5

3

$11.0

Doug Fister

31

0.3

1.7

2

$10.0

Mike Pelfrey

31

2.0

1.7

2

$8.0

These four guys could be plugged into the fifth spot in the rotation and would push Paxton to the role of swing man. Latos is just two years removed from a 4.9 fWAR season and has posted a 3.69 FIP since then. He struggled through some poor BABIP and LOB luck last year but the rest of his peripherals look fine. He’s also the youngest of this bunch and could be a decent buy-low candidate.

Happ showed some real improvement after being dealt to the Pirates at the trade deadline but he’s also projected to be the most expensive of this bunch and I doubt he’d be interested in returning to Seattle.

Fister suffered through the worst year of his career in 2015, fueled by injury and ineffectiveness. He’s still relatively young and a small cushion contract could help him rebuild his value before hitting the open market again. A precipitous drop in his velocity is concerning, however, and the Mariners would have to make sure he’s healthy before committing to even a short-term contract.

Pelfrey enjoyed perfect health for the whole year and probably reached his peak value. He’s an innings-eating, back-end starter who fits on a rebuilding team. There is no upside with Pelfrey, just mediocre consistency.

Tier 2

Name

Age

2015 fWAR

2016 sWAR

Proj Years

Proj Salary

Alfredo Simon

34

1.0

0.9

1

$7.0

Bud Norris

30

0.0

2.1

2

$6.0

Tim Lincecum

31

0.3

0.8

1

$6.0

Chris Young

36

0.9

0.3

1

$6.0

These four guys would probably compete with James Paxton for the fifth spot in the rotation but could also fit in as the swing man. Of these four, Bud Norris has the highest projected sWAR total. The Orioles pushed him to the bullpen and the Padres kept him there. His strikeout rate spiked to almost 30% in San Diego (in just 16 2/3 innings) but he also struggled to prevent batters from reaching and scoring.

Tim Lincecum recently had hip surgery and is targeting a January showcase for interested teams. Many assumed that he would simply return to the Giants but he may be interested in testing the open waters, seeking a short-term contract to rebuild his value. There’s a lot of risk here, but if he’s healthy, there could be some upside as well.

Chris Young has done everything he possibly could to rebuild his value the last two years, including winning a World Series. He was the swing man in Kansas City and will probably fill that role again wherever he ends up.

Tier 3

Name

Age

2015 fWAR

2016 sWAR

Proj Years

Proj Salary

Brandon Morrow

31

0.5

2.0

1

$4.0

Kyle Lohse

37

0.2

0.9

1

$0.5

Edwin Jackson

32

0.0

1.2

1

$0.5

Cliff Lee

37

--

3.3

??

??

We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. There’s no telling what the Mariners would get with any of these guys. Morrow hasn’t been able to stay healthy since 2011 and is coming off another shoulder surgery. Jackson was cut by the Cubs and they’ll take on the majority of his $11 million salary owed in 2016. And who knows if Cliff Lee is going to be ready to pitch in 2016 but why not take a flier and see if he can get back on the mound.

* * *

There are a number of bounce-back candidates on the market who could fit on the Mariners’ roster. The biggest problem is weighing the amount of risk involved with each of them. Ideally, someone like Doug Fister or Chris Young would come in and compete with James Paxton for the last spot in the rotation and the loser could be sent to the bullpen. Short-term contracts to help them rebuild their value could entice a number of these pitchers, but because the pitching market looks so thin after next year, the Mariners might be better off trading for someone with more team control. Either way, the Mariners could probably use another starting pitcher to throw onto the pile.