I have company in town for the weekend and Jerry is a twitchy, smiley, midnight hour wheeler and dealer who hates sleep, me, and you. Steve Cishek has been a major league reliever for five seasons. Here is what my reaction would have been if the Mariners had acquired him during any of the offseasons of his career:
2011 - "Hey good young reliever, strikeouts and upside, not a household name but good pickup. Way to go Jack, you're sure to redeem yourself now!"
2012 - "Let's see hmmmmm FIP is up from last year and so are the walks, but the stuff is still good. The jump in home run rate is probably flukey. Good get."
2013 - "Fantastic acquisition for a still young, premium relief arm. Cut walk rate substantially and saved 34 games. Should be a great candidate for setup or closing."
2014 - "Holy crap we got Steve Cishek!"
2015 - "Um, holy crap, we got Steve Cishek........."
Relievers are volatile, you don't need me to remind you. But I will. Are you ready? Relievers are volatile. Steve Cishek had the best year of his career in 2014, saving 39 games in Miami and racking up a reliever-elite 2.0 fWAR. 2015 was the worst year of his career, as he posted a career low in K%, and career highs in BB% and FIP. After starting the season as Miami's closer he ended the year as an effective if below average member of the Cardinals bullpen.
This is, wait for it, a clear attempt by Jerry Dipoto to buy low on a candidate for positive regression. The Steve Cishek of 2013-2014 would almost certainly be this year's closer. In fact, here's a comparison:
Player A - 30.6 K%, 7.6 BB%, 2.17 FIP, 2.0 fWAR
Player B - 32.4 K%, 7.8 BB%, 2.12 FIP, 2.1 fWAR
Player B is 2015 Carson Smith, with whom you are well acquainted. Player A is 2014 Steve Cishek. So, if you want to look at things from a happy, optimistic, Jerry Dipoto worldview then with some good fortune the Mariners may have just reacquired Carson Smith!
If you want to look at things from a more realistic perspective you know that the likelihood of Cishek ever returning to his 2013-2014 levels of dominance are at best a 50/50 proposition and in reality probably far less than that. However, while Cishek's 2015 was indeed his worst he still finished the season a somewhat effective member of a playoff team. Giving him 2 years is scary, and a bit disconcerting. But we live in the age of the Great Reliever Gold Rush, where pitchers like Ryan Madson, Mark Lowe, Shawn Kelley, and many others have all received contracts for more years and/or more money than this deal. Taken in context, I deem it "fine".
Cishek could bounce back and provide the Mariners with an above average closer at a bargain. Barring injury he should worst case provide help navigating innings 5-8 during James Paxton starts. The Mariners' bullpen needed pitchers. I'd expect them to grab 1-2 more before it's all said and done.
I don't love this deal, because giving 2 year contracts to players who weren't very good in 2015 isn't very exciting and the team has acquired precious little "sure thing" pitching talent this offseason, while parting with a fair amount of it. It's clear the Mariners will sink or swim based on their ability to correctly identify and develop positive regression. They may well be very good at that, or they may fail spectacularly. It's just one of many things we won't know until the season starts. Meanwhile, this deal follows Dipoto's other clear agenda which is to avoid longterm commitment while retaining future flexibility, young talent, and draft picks. It's a perfectly fine longterm strategy, even if swallowing it is going down a bit rough at the moment.