Last week, we identified exactly how much the Mariners rotation will need to improve in order to be slapped with the title of “playoff rotation.” In brief, the Mariners need to add somewhere between 1.8 fWAR, if they want to be just barely playoff-worthy, up to 8.7 fWAR, if they want to achieve “average playoff rotation” status.
While that gap could be closed a bit in 2018 simply by the starting pitchers already under team control staying healthy, the Mariners will still no doubt have starting pitching sitting atop their offseason wish list. Below, we identify a few options that could be a good fit given the budgetary constraints of the team.
NOTE: The Mariners appear set to have about $45 million coming off the books after this season. Assuming payroll stays roughly the same in 2018, the M’s should have about $30 - $35 million to play with after paying out all arbitration eligible players.
It Could Happen...
RHP Shohei Ohtani
Ohtani is shaping up to be the most sought after free agent this offseason, and the hot stove is burning with his name despite the playoffs not yet being under way. Due to the new posting system, Ohtani has the rare distinction of being one of the top free agent pitchers on the market this offseason not carrying the price tag of one. An Opening Day rotation of Paxton-Felix-Leake-Ramirez-Pick Your Favorite #5 doesn’t instill a whole ton of faith that 2018’s rotation will fare better than 2017’s, but being able to simply bump each member of the M’s rotation down a spot suddenly makes things look a lot more attractive. James Paxton: #2 Starter and Felix Hernandez: #3 Starter look pretty dang nice to me. Ohtani provides the top-of-the-rotation upside that would allow the team to do just that, and the cap on his potential earnings in 2018 makes the M’s serious contenders for his services. MLB.com columnist Phil Rogers recently listed the Mariners as one of ten “perfect-fit teams” for Ohtani.
RHP Yu Darvish
In the 2015-2016 offseason, David Price, Zack Greinke, and Johnny Cueto were all signed to hefty long term contracts and went on to slot in as aces for their new ball clubs.
While Darvish would no doubt be a bonafide ace atop the M’s rotation, with a little over $84 million wrapped up in four players who will all play the 2018 season at age 30 or older, and Darvish no doubt looking for one last big payday, the idea of investing another ~$25million in a 31 year old pitcher with a recent track record of injuries is probably not ideal, and would leave limited funds for addressing the slightly less pressing needs at first base and in the outfield.
RHP Alex Cobb
Cobb represents another 30+ year old, recently injured option, but one that should come at a much lower cost. After rattling off seasons of 2.2, 2.5, and 2.8 fWAR in 2012, 2013, and 2014, Cobb underwent Tommy John surgery and after a long road back, has managed to put up 2.4 fWAR this season while posting a career high in starts. Cobb is no sure thing, and his 4.24 xFIP this season is a far cry from when he was in his prime, but with an incredibly weak performance from the back end of Tampa Bay’s rotation in 2017, adding a 2.0-2.5 win Cobb to the middle of the rotation and another 1.0-1.5 win pitcher to the back end might be a better allocation of resources than devoting $25 - $30million to one top of the rotation guy. For a little frame of reference, last offseason, 30 year old Pirates righty Ivan Nova managed to land a three-year, $26 million deal ($8,666,666 AAV). Like Cobb, Nova turned in a productive season (2.3 fWAR) after a couple of down seasons following a string of productive ones. If Cobb nets something in the $7million - $10million range, Seattle could be a logical landing spot.
RHP Lance Lynn
After losing the entire 2016 season to Tommy John surgery, Lynn has returned to being dependable as ever, notching 29 or more starts for the fifth time in six seasons. The downside here: after posting xFIPs of 3.60-3.90 from 2012-2015, Lynn has seen that number jump to 4.73 this year, mostly due to his home run rate almost doubling. Even with his home run issues, Lynn and his 1.4 fWAR would slot nicely into the back end of a rotation. Lynn could be an excellent candidate for a one year deal at a little higher than the going rate for pitching if he’s willing to gamble on himself bucking his issues with the longball in hopes of a larger payout next offseason.
Useful Old(ish) Left-Handers
LHP Jaime Garcia
After missing the better part of 2013-2015, Garcia has averaged 2.0 fWAR over the last three seasons. He’s been perfectly mid-rotation caliber for most of his career, and will likely look to cash in with one last multi-year deal as he enters his age 32 season. Garcia, who has earned ~$12million for each of the last two seasons, would fill the Drew Smyly-sized void in the middle of the rotation, and would pair nicely with some of the bargain options below.
LHP Jason Vargas
One of two candidates on this list for a second tour of duty with the M’s, Vargas was one of the great, albeit inexplicable, stories of the first half of the 2017 season. His 4.78 xFIP in the first half was masked by a 2.62 ERA as Vargas was selected to represent the American League in the midsummer classic. Vargas cost himself a good chunk of change by falling on his face in the second half, but it is worth noting that it was Jerry Dipoto who acquired Vargas from the Mariners in 2013 in exchange for Kendrys Morales.
LHP CC Sabathia
Since returning from surgery on a degenerated knee in 2014, Sabathia has started 86 games and accumulated 5.8 fWAR over his age 35, 36, and 37 seasons. The 6’6” 300lb lefty has miraculously not completely fallen apart after being given what has essentially been a six year, $150million deal; however he’s set to earn a lot less than that when he hits the market this time. Assuming Sabathia isn’t hurting for cash, it’s easy to squint and see a situation where he wants to finish his career on the same team as his good friend and longtime teammate Robinson Cano in Seattle in an effort to end the longest playoff drought in baseball. Caitlin Rogers over at Pinstripe Alley recently expressed a desire for the Yankees to make an effort to bring Sabathia back in 2018.
RHP Jhoulys Chacin
Chacin, who will turn 30 this offseason, was a popular name for Mariners fans around the trade deadline. After kicking around with the Rockies, D-Backs, and Braves for the better part of 2014 and 2015, Chacin racked up 1.3 fWAR in 29 games after being dealt to the Angels in 2016. The Padres inked Chacin to a one year deal for less than $2million last offseason, which wound up being a huge bargain for a 2.1 fWAR pitcher who didn’t miss a start. Whenever Chacin has been healthy, he has been productive. In each of the five of his nine major league seasons he made 21 or more starts, he posted an fWAR of at least 1.7. After being bit so hard by the injury bug this season, the M’s may be better suited to avoid the injury risk that comes along with Chacin, especially considering he may be looking to cash in on his most productive season since 2013.
RHP Trevor Cahill
Cahill represents another option who should be available on the cheap following a productive but injury-plagued 2017 season. Specifically, Cahill was crazy productive for the Padres before missing almost two months with a strained shoulder that went on to sabotage the remainder of what was shaping up to be his most productive season since 2012. In May, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs pointed out that Cahill was having success in relying more heavily on his curveball. A strikeout rate that jumped up to 10.6 K/9--he’s run a career rate of 6.6 K/9--led to an xFIP of 3.35 through his 11 starts with the Padres. After being dealt to Kansas City in late July, Cahill completely lost his ability to control the zone, and posted a K/BB rate of 0.7 and an xFIP of 6.29 during his return to the AL. Cahill very well likely could have pitched himself right out of millions of dollars, and right into a price range that the M’s would be willing to bite on. While he’d be an interesting flier, he looks a lot more appealing as a high upside depth piece than a depended-on arm anchoring the rotation.
RHP Tyler Chatwood
Tyler Chatwood, 27 (he’ll pitch at 28 next season), is the youngest non-Otani pitcher on this list. There’s also this:
Hardest throwing free agent SPs (Fastball average):— MLB Behind the Seams (@MLBehindtheSeam) September 27, 2017
94.6 Tyler Chatwood
94.2 Yu Darvish
93.3 Andrew Cashner
92.6 Francisco Liriano
The former second round pick has also had Tommy John surgery twice, and just led the National League with 15 losses, and posted a 4.69 ERA. As we saw in last offseason’s Yankees vs. Betances arbitration fiasco, some outlets still value traditional stats in determining a player’s market value. If Chatwood is available at a discount due to his injury history, he might just be a good get for a team that is able to channel that velocity and get him to limit the free passes, like he did in his 1.8 fWAR 2013 and 2.0 fWAR 2016. At a young age, and having pitched almost his entire career in the hitter-friendly Coors Field, Chatwood might just cash in this offseason, and may come at a price a little rich for the M’s blood.
RHP Doug Fister
After making it through the entire 2016 offseason as a free agent without signing with anyone, Fister inked an incentive-laden contract with the Angels towards the end of May, but was cut loose a month later when the they chose not to summon him for big league duty. Fister was claimed by the Red Sox and went on to post a career high K/9, but also the worst BB/9 of his career over 90.1 innings. Fister will turn 34 years old next season, but he’s been pretty durable throughout his career, and a reunion to Seattle could make sense for the West Coast native, should he decide to pitch again in 2018.
RHP Ricky Nolasco
In 2015, Ricky Nolasco lost nearly four months to an ankle injury. Other than that season, when he started eight games, Nolasco has made at least 26 starts in every season since 2008. He’s racked up 23.4 fWAR over that span, 2.6 of which came in 2016, followed by just 0.7 in 2017. That said, the soon-to-be 35 year old was the definition of “dependable” for the Angels this year, starting 33 games. The Angels do have a team option on Nolasco for 2018, but with it coming at a price of $13million, he can expect a $1million buyout instead.
Strictly for the purpose of having a guess written down somewhere, and for the extra fun of having specific signings to root for this offseason, I’ll say Jerry finally hits the free agent market in his search for starting pitching, and reels in Shohei Otani to add another arm to the front of the M’s rotation, and steals Ricky Nolasco away from our inter-division rival to supply a little depth at the back end of the rotation so no ill-prepared youngsters are forced to open the season in the rotation.
What do you think? Feel free to add your predictions, or any other potential candidates below!