Jerry Dipoto has said he wants the rotation to be “10-11 deep” this season. A few weeks ago that seemed like a stretch. Even from the man who spent the last few months blowing smoke up the behinds of Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker, “10-11” seemed like a stretch for a rotation that had just one starter reach the innings limit to qualify for awards last year. Fast forward to the present, and as we head into the winter meetings the Mariners have assembled a collection of arms that would be the envy of Dr. Frankenstein. If recent rumors are to be trusted, they are likely in the market for another veteran starter to provide a level of consistency in the back end of the rotation. The Mariners front office has decided that with the offensive prowess this team has, their focus in the rotation doesn’t need to be on finding a single ace in a depressed market. Dipoto and Co. are betting that raising the floor and creating an environment where Wade Leblanc does not have to start eight games will be enough to allow this team to hit their way into the playoffs.
As it stands, here are the members of the current 40-man roster who have started an MLB game in their career:
Beyond those eight, there are also a few players who still have to prove it at the AAA level, but could contribute at the MLB level later in the season if complications arise. Max Povse, Ryan Yarbrough, and Andrew Moore, Ryan Weber (who has MLB starting experience but was recently DFA’d), and potentially others may be able to provide a boost to the Major League club. If we add a placeholder pitcher in the silhouette of a 6’8, 210 lb veteran who should be worth around 1 win above replacement, that 10-11 number begins looking more plausible.
Considering that none of these pitchers, save for an aged and historically brittle Hisashi Iwakuma, pitched a full MLB season as a starter last year, that number becomes essential. When Félix Hernández went down and Nate Karns struggled/was hurt last year, James Paxton stepped up and put up a 3.5-win season. He honed his fastball-cutter combo into the Kobayashi Maru for hitters and kept the M’s afloat. If you have enough leaks, however, you need more fingers to plug the holes, and last year the Mariners ran out of stoppers.
Hernández, Iwakuma, and Paxton are good players. If the Mariners have a season of 30+ starts from each of them, they will make the playoffs. There is little, even as a staunch believer in Félix and his #wintersquatwatch, that would lead me to believe that trio will physically hold up for 162 straight games. There will be leg strains and back spasms and broken fingernails. If they all happen to spread out through the season, a healthy Nate Karns or Ariel Miranda or Rob Whalen could easily slot in several times. However, if they all happen at the same time, as more or less occurred last year, Jerry Dipoto has reinforced the hull of the ship to the point that the Mariners will be able to choose their best options, which may even be a decent one. With a crop of position players that looks, on paper, like an improvement offensively and defensively from last year, decency may be enough.
Last year the eight best starting rotations got their teams to the playoffs. For the Mariners to have reached that echelon, they would have had to clone James Paxton and extend both players for an entire season. 2017 won't be a year where the pitching carries Seattle either.
The other two playoff teams were the Orioles and Rangers, and the former in particular provides a framework for Seattle to break their playoff drought. Hit the hell out of the ball and get the game to the back of your bullpen. Even if you don't have any aces, a medley of acceptable players can combine to keep you in games and in the playoff hunt. Give yourself the depth to choose the players who are standing out and allow those with injuries or difficulties the chance to work it out in Tacoma, instead of in Safeco Field.
Rebuilding baseball teams look to their AAA-affiliates for hope for the future. Good teams look to them for depth in the present, and I believe the 2017 Mariners can be a good team. Relying on aging stars and young, talented but unproven players is not the ideal way of building a team. That is the roster we have, however, and Dipoto is betting that accruing some quality in great quantity will provide the best bulwark. Let's hope he's right.