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Lookout Landing’s 2018 Mariners Offseason Plan, Part I: Starting Pitching

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In which we lay some groundwork and talk starting pitching

MLB: New York Mets at Colorado Rockies
tfw you find yourself in the middle of some hot stove action
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the World Series wrapped up and free agency kicking off, the 2018 off-season is officially underway. There’s something special about the off-season for baseball; because the season itself is so long, the time without baseball feels especially pronounced. For many, it’s a time of hope and possibility, a time to dream on big-name free agent acquisitions and top prospect debuts and blockbuster trades. Unfortunately, as Mariners fans, we don’t have many top prospects near their MLB debuts to dream on, and in free agency, Dipoto has repeatedly bought us Marshmallow Mateys when we begged for Lucky Charms (we CAN taste the difference, Jerry). The most thrilling part of life under the Dipoto regime so far has been the rapid-fire trades he’s pulled off, ranging from shuffling minor league pieces around to the blockbuster Walker/Segura deal last year that derailed beat writers everywhere in their Thanksgiving Eve pie-making. However, as the organization begins to look more like Dipoto wants it to look, he’s put away the TNT and is opting instead for a chisel.

This is not to say the Mariners won’t be making moves this off-season; we’ve already seen a few. It’s arguable that the Mike Leake trade was a head start on the 2018 off-season, and as more pitchers decide not to opt out of their contracts, that move looks better and better. The other major move so far isn’t a player acquisition, but one that will nonetheless have a major impact in the organization: the hiring of Dr. Lorena Martin to coordinate the health and well-being of players across the organization. Injuries derailed the 2017 Mariners season before it could even start, so addressing this need right out of the gates is an encouraging sign. To read more about what Dr. Martin could bring the organization, check out Isabelle’s piece here, and Shannon Drayer’s piece here.

But what about everything else? Here, in early November, that part is still a beautiful mystery. The latest ZiPS projections have the Mariners at 76-86 before making any off-season moves, while Steamer has Seattle at 82-80. In any case, that leaves Seattle needing to add something in the neighborhood of 7-10 victories (or more) to even approach the playoffs. How can they get there? As has been done in the past, we here at LL put our heads together to come up with a plan that we would love to see enacted over the 2018 off-season.

Before we dive in, an explanation of our methodology. This plan operates on a few basic assumptions:

  • The Mariners are making moves with the idea of contending, now and in the near future. As appealing as some find a scorched-earth policy, that’s not what this plan is based around, because that’s not what the club is doing. We’ll explore what a full rebuild would look like as a thought-experiment sometime in the future, but this plan is based on pursuing the goals as stated outright by team officials: immediate contention without selling the last few cows on the farm to buy milk.
  • Therefore, although Dipoto has demonstrated that he’ll sell off anything that’s not nailed down, this plan assumes top prospects like Nick Neidert, Kyle Lewis, Sam Carlson, and Evan White aren’t going anywhere, so they don’t figure into our trade scenarios. The reasoning behind this isn’t so much that Dipoto would be unwilling to deal any player for the right price, but more to do with what has value for the Mariners vs. other teams. Say, for example, Tampa Bay decides they’re going full rebuild and put Chris Archer on the trade block. Even with mortgaging the future by giving up the names listed above, the Mariners would be easily outbid by another team with a deeper/better-regarded farm system. Which is most teams. Anything can happen (especially if the Mariners are willing to take on salary from a team trying to cut payroll), but the chance that Seattle is able to compete with another team for a highly desirable asset on prospect capital alone is very slim.
  • This proposed plan operates within a specific, predicted payroll amount: The Mariners subtracted $39.7MM from 2017’s final payroll with the release of free agents Yonder Alonso, Jarrod Dyson, Evan Scribner, Carlos Ruiz, and Danny Valencia, plus the buyouts of Hisashi Iwakuma and Yovani Gallardo. While nothing has been stated with certainty, Drew Smyly is in line to make $6.8 million but in the absolute best case scenario will not return before the All-Star break next year. If he is non-tendered, that puts the total available money to return to 2017’s payroll at around $46MM. Additionally, ownership has said there is room to add payroll in 2018, although they’ve also expressed trepidation towards major individual signings in free agency. After the $10-12 million increase in arbitration salaries, we’ll operate under the conservative assumption that the Mariners have ~$30-35 million with which to fill their vacancies and make additional improvements, and possibly a bit more.
  • Finally, 90% of this plan will be irrelevant by Christmas. Nobody runs a great record with predicting offseason moves, and we’re not expecting this to work out as we outline below. What we’re laying out here is a theoretical framework: we will identify some areas of need, and then suggest a few possible routes to addressing said need, as well as examine the pros and cons of each approach and the likelihood it will actually happen. The names can (and will) be swapped in and out with other players of similar skillsets.

All those caveats aside, here is what the Mariners need to do in order to contend in 2018 and beyond, listed in order of importance. Since the plan is quite lengthy, we’ll be publishing it this week in segments: Starting Pitching, Position Players, Filling in the Edges (in which we’ll discuss depth and MiLB options), and a Final Overview.

General preliminary legwork:

Japan v Mexico - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Sign Shohei Ohtani:

Duh. This will be at the top of every single team’s wishlist this year. How much of a shot will the Mariners have at Ohtani? It depends on how much it matters to Ohtani to be a true two-way player. Is there a chance he goes to an NL team that lets him play OF? Possibly, although the NL clubs that have been linked to him--the Cubs and the Dodgers--don’t have enough space in their outfields for the players they do have. Is Ohtani really going to be taking starts from Ian Happ or Yasiel Puig? The Padres have invested heavily in establishing a presence in Japan, and they have space in their outfield, but they are also the Padres. The hottest competition is probably in the AL. The Yankees boast Ohtani’s countryman Masahiro Tanaka, and can sell themselves as contenders playing on one of baseball’s biggest stages. The Rangers have a pre-established relationship with Ohtani and a strong presence in Japan. If the Mariners can make a strong pitch, like the one Chris Cwik outlined here, they might have a shot. If the M’s somehow land Ohtani, print out this article, throw it in the garbage, and go have a beer.

Secure a fourth option for Marco Gonzales:

It’s not as sexy as the point above, but this will be valuable for Seattle as they attempt to emphasize versatility and flexibility on 2018’s roster. Marco should be eligible for a fourth option, available for players who are out of minor league options but have not spent more than 90 days on a professional roster (or a combination of 60 on the roster, plus 30 on the DL). Marco should meet these qualifications, which would offer the club some roster flexibility, and hopefully give Gonzales some time to work on that “third time through the order” problem he seems to have.

Non-tender and re-sign Drew Smyly:

Smyly is due to make $6.85MM in arbitration, which, even in a competitive starting pitching market, is an overpay for someone who most likely won’t throw a pitch in 2018. The Mariners should offer Smyly a good-faith deal of two years, $4-5MM; they could also offer a deal similar to what Nathan Eovaldi got from the Rays, a $2MM one-year deal with a club option for the year after plus incentives. Whatever they do, the Mariners, who have almost nothing in the way of MLB-ready starting pitching, should keep Smyly in-house and under the watchful eye of Dr. Martin and roll him out in late 2018/at the start of 2019, then go from there.

Pay the other arbitration-eligible players; offer deals to James Paxton and Mike Zunino:

Players eligible for arbitration, per MLB Trade Rumors:

  • David Phelps – $5.8MM
  • Andrew Romine – $1.9MM
  • Erasmo Ramirez – $4.7MM
  • Nick Vincent – $2.7MM
  • Mike Zunino – $3.2MM
  • James Paxton – $5.6MM
  • Shae Simmons – $700K

Phelps, depending on health, might command slightly less than that estimation; paying Andrew Romine $2MM to hang out in Tacoma is a tough bullet to swallow, but after Motter’s nosedive at the MLB level last year, might seem like a necessary evil. The Mariners should attempt to lock down their young talent in Mike Zunino and James Paxton to long-term contracts to buy out their first few eligible years of free agency; Paxton, a Boras client, almost certainly wouldn’t take an extension, but Zunino might reward the Mariners for gambling on his breakout year.

Step One: Improve Starting Pitching:

Excepting the Twins (9.9 fWAR), every team that made the playoffs got a contribution from their starting pitching of at least 15.9 fWAR. That would be a startling jump for the Mariners’ staff, whose 6.2 fWAR mark was sixth-worst in baseball. The staff needs to add at least 4-5 wins, hoping their powerful offense can help make up for some of those shortcomings. Even if the Mariners make a splash in free agency (which they will not), they’ll need the current staff to step up, as well. Where can these wins come from, in-house? James Paxton accrued 4.6 fWAR in limited action in 2017, and it’s not unrealistic to assume he could add to that total with a full healthy season, but that’s a big assumption (Steamer has him projected for just 3.8). A full year of Mike Leake—assuming he’s the Mike Leake we saw towards the end of the season—should add a win or two, and having some consistency in the rotation should help as well. The staff is also deeper, with Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore preferable back-end options to Yovani Gallardo, Sam Gaviglio, and [spins wheel on Dial-A-Pitcher]... Dillon Overton! That still leaves at least about two to three wins to make up.

With Dipoto and the Mariners planning to ask less of their starters, perhaps we see more efficient work from guys who faced a severe penalty the third time through the order like Gonzales, Moore, Miranda, Max Povse, Andrew Albers literally everyone but Paxton, but that’s a lot of uncertainty to enter the season with. To bridge that gap, there are a few paths.

How to get there:

Scenario A:

Sign a top-tier free agent pitcher

Proposed route: Sign Yu Darvish to a six-year, $140MM deal

Scenario A - Starting Pitching

Player IP ERA FIP fWAR
Player IP ERA FIP fWAR
2017 Yu Darvish 186.2 3.86 3.83 3.5
2018 Yu Darvish (proj) 179.0 3.81 3.69 3.7
2017 Mariners SPs 870.2 4.70 4.98 6.2
2018 Mariners SPs (proj) 949.0 4.47 4.49 10.1
Steamer/Fangraphs

Note: All projections are derived from Steamer via Fangraphs unless otherwise stated

Rationale: The quickest way to make up a bunch of missing wins on your pitching staff is to sign a frontline pitcher who can singlehandedly account for a good chunk of said wins. Before it was announced he wouldn’t opt out of his contract, there was a good argument that Tanaka was actually the best FA pitcher available, as he ranks in the top ten of FA pitchers in all of the following categories: highest average velo, most strikeouts, fewest walks, best ground ball rates, and least hard contact. Unfortunately, Tanaka has opted to stick with the Yankees, taking the long-term money over the chance of testing his market this year, which leaves Darvish as the standalone appealing top-tier FA pitcher. With several fairly hefty deals coming off the books this offseason, the Mariners appear poised to make a play for at least one top tier free agent, should that be the route Jerry decides he wants to go. It’s certainly the route the majority of the fanbase wishes he would go.

Pros and cons of this approach: With Tanaka off the table, it’s pretty much Darvish or bust if the Mariners choose to go this way. In an era where the league’s pitching is being run rampant with torn UCL’s--there’s been 87 more documented Tommy John surgeries so far in 2017--any time you invest big money in starting pitching, there is inherent risk. Arrieta has appeal, but at age 31 he saw his average velocity lose two ticks across all his pitches this past year and a corresponding jump in the amount of hard contact he allowed. For the price he wants (which has been reported as high as 6 years/200MM), the Mariners should look elsewhere, even if he only ends up commanding half of that. It’s been noted that Arrieta and Darvish are of similar ages, and Darvish has a more significant injury history, having undergone Tommy John back in 2015; however, Yu has shown no signs of lingering ailments, having posted a 2.7 fWAR injury-shortened season and a 3.5 fWAR, 31-start season since his operation while maintaining velocity across his pitches. Johnny Cueto, a pitcher with similar performance levels to Darvish, signed a six-year, $130MM contract a couple years ago in San Francisco at a younger age and with a cleaner injury record, but Darvish would still make sense at a similar valuation. A bonus: netting Darvish would continue the streak of the Mariners having at least one active Japanese player, after the club declined Hisashi Iwakuma’s option. Acquiring Darvish might make Seattle a more attractive landing spot for other offseason targets, and in a perfect world, that would be Shohei Ohtani, who is a great admirer of Darvish. Darvish’s own fit merits pursuit, regardless of his relation to Ohtani or others.

Unfortunately, despite much of the fanbase hollering for starting pitching, Dipoto hasn’t shown a willingness to commit big money to a free agent yet, and his comments about the “wolfpack” seem to indicate that the team will rely less on ace-level pitching performances and more on a community effort. Despite LA’s lip service to getting under the luxury tax, it feels likely that they will offer Darvish a healthy deal that he’ll accept for another shot at a World Series, rendering Dipoto’s unwillingness to loosen the purse strings moot. Moreover, with Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto opting in to their contracts, Darvish is the biggest fish left in the pond, and his price could skyrocket out of both Seattle’s range and a range we’d want the Mariners to pay for him.

Scenario B:

Sign a second-tier starting pitcher to a significant, but not bank-breaking deal

Proposed route: Sign Lance Lynn to a four-year, $60MM deal; OR Alex Cobb to a four-year, $50MM deal; OR sign Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $25MM deal.

Scenario B - Starting Pitching

Player IP ERA FIP fWAR
Player IP ERA FIP fWAR
2017 Lance Lynn 186.1 3.43 4.82 1.4
2018 Lance Lynn 150.0 4.67 4.73 1.3
2017 Alex Cobb 179.1 3.66 4.16 2.4
2018 Alex Cobb 133.0 4.41 4.35 1.7
2017 Tyler Chatwood 147.2 4.69 4.94 1.1
2018 Tyler Chatwood 128.0 4.32 4.39 1.6
2017 Jaime Garcia 157.0 4.41 4.25 2.1
2018 Jaime Garcia 168.0 4.27 4.30 2.2
2017 Mariners SPs 870.2 4.70 4.98 6.2
2018 Mariners SPs (proj) 949.0 4.47 4.49 10.1
Steamer/Fangraphs

Rationale: There’s an argument for lumping Lance Lynn in with the top-tier free agent pitchers. Lynn had a bad and injury-plagued year, but has otherwise decent numbers, and he’s actually a year younger than Darvish. Some speculated that St. Louis offloaded Mike Leake and his contract in order to be able to pay Lynn this off-season, but Lynn wasn’t too happy with the club for that at the time, and St. Louis is loaded with young pitching talent. Leake and Lynn have been almost equally valuable to the Cardinals over their careers, so it’s not hard to imagine Lynn, even with his health concerns, could command a deal similar to what Leake got (5/$80MM); however, MLB Trade Rumors predicts him to the Rangers for a 4-year, $56MM deal. Alex Cobb was recently offered a $17.4 million qualifying offer by the Tampa Bay Rays, but based on the relative dearth of FA starters it seems likely that Cobb will eschew that offer and pursue bigger money in free agency. Cobb is the same age as Lynn, with a similar injury history (Tommy John within months of each other in 2015), though his value is somewhat depressed by a slower start to the 2017 season. However, his numbers in the second half picked right back up to what they were pre-TJ, and he looks to command an offer on-par with Lynn. MLBTR predicts him at 4/$50MM. If that’s the going price for one of these pitchers, the Mariners should absolutely be in on that.

Then there’s the tier below Lynn and Cobb, which still boasts a couple of useful pitchers. Tyler Chatwood has the best ground ball rate of all the FA pitchers, the highest average fastball velocity, the most recent date on his birth certificate, and he ranks in the top ten for least hard contact allowed. His peripherals don’t look great--his FIP is meh, he doesn’t strike a lot of people out, and he walks way too many people--but it’d be interesting to see if he’d be willing to live more in the zone away from Coors. Chatwood has a good changeup that he’s spent the last five years working on and might find himself right at home with Marco, Andrew Moore, and Erasmo, all of whom feature plus changeups. He’s had TJ not once, but twice, which might depress his value, but he’s only 27 years old, and won’t cost as much as Cobb and Lynn will. He’s also a good fit for the org from a mental standpoint; an analytics-friendly pitcher, he looks at things like spin rate and is always willing to work to get better. Another name to consider at an even steeper discount is Jaime Garcia, who was worth 2.1 fWAR this year while pinging around baseball; his FIP has jumped into the mid-4s over the past couple years, but he induces lots of ground balls, and, despite an injury history, has been a workhorse the past two years, hurling over 300 innings combined.

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Pros and cons of this approach: Again, signing another starting pitcher requires shifting Erasmo or Marco around, leaving one to wonder: are any of the pitchers in this tier actually better than them? Lynn and Cobb probably are, but maybe not relative to what they cost. Chatwood is interesting, but would be a gamble; this year, Chatwood only posted a slightly lower away FIP (4.79) than at home (5.11), but over his career, his FIP away from Coors is almost a full run lower. In all likelihood the Mariners will probably find Lynn and Cobb’s price too high, but might be willing to pull the trigger on Chatwood if the price is right. Garcia is a good back-up option if Chatwood’s market explodes, which it might.

Scenario C:

Sign a bounceback candidate pitcher

Proposed route: Sign Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $2-3MM deal; AND/OR sign Miguel Gonzalez to a one-year, $2-3MM deal

Scenario C - Starting Pitching

Player IP ERA FIP fWAR
Player IP ERA FIP fWAR
2017 Trevor Cahill 84.0 4.93 5.28 0.3
2018 Trevor Cahill 65.0 3.97 3.97 0.4
2017 Miguel Gonzalez 156.0 4.62 4.88 1.4
2018 Miguel Gonzalez 100.0 5.19 5.14 0.3
2017 Mariners SPs 870.2 4.70 4.98 6.2
2018 Mariners SPs (proj) 949.0 4.47 4.49 10.1
Steamer/Fangraphs

Rationale: Trevor Cahill has the third best strikeout rate among the FA pitchers—propped up largely by an insane 11.2 K/9 in the first half before hitting the DL—and the second-best ground ball rate, right behind Chatwood. He’s also in the top ten for limiting hard contact. Consistent injury problems have caused his numbers to be all over the map, however, and he finished the year after being traded to Kansas City working out of the bullpen. Miguel Gonzalez similarly posted solid numbers initially, then cratered after a trade deadline move. He doesn’t have Cahill’s strikeout stuff, (5.77 K/9 in 2017) but he’s still managed to range between a below-average to average starter for the last six years. If 33 year old Erasmo Ramirez gets you hyped, hop on the Gonzo-with-a-Z-train.

Another name to look at is Jhoulys Chacin, who had the second-best hard contact rate this year, kept the ball on the ground, and ran an almost-league-average strikeout rate on his way to posting his best fWAR since 2013. Those numbers might bump him into a two-year, double-digit signing, though, and the Mariners would be best served to avoid that.

Pros and cons of this approach: If a fourth option year can be secured for Marco, there are worse things than going for a cheaper version of Yovani Gallardo, with Erasmo (or Marco or Andrew Moore) there to step in if things go sideways. The key here is keeping things low-risk. They would have to feel strongly that whoever it was would represent an upgrade on their in-house options, but giving Andrew Moore time to develop more in Triple-A (and hopefully develop a putaway pitch) or allowing Marco more time to get up to speed as a starting pitcher while a pitcher-sponge gobbled innings isn’t the worst strategy. The M’s should have the payroll flexibility to make this happen; the bigger question here is whether they’ll be willing to do so.

Scenario D:

Do nothing. Run with the wolfpack. Awoooooo.

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Rationale: This one is easier to stomach if you pretend they acquired Mike Leake this offseason. Even if Leake isn’t as dominant as he looked when he first came over (he finished the season at 3.1 fWAR, a career high), he’s never been worth less than 1.4 fWAR. If the Mariners do nothing else with starting pitching this offseason, just by acquiring Leake, they’ve already put themselves in a better position. With improved health, development, and luck, Seattle is already projected to add around four WAR to their rotation simply by showing up.

Pros and cons of this approach: The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t? Jerry Dipoto’s off-season comments, combined with his thus-far utter reluctance to wade into big money free agency, makes it unlikely that this FO will resort to overpaying to fix the rotation (relievers are a whole other story). Leaning aggressively into tandem starts and more liberal usage of long relievers could allow the “starting pitchers” to maximize their stuff in shorter outings, but also demands a significant amount of buy-in from players at the MLB, AAA, and AA levels at minimum. Pragmatically, this approach saves the Mariners money they could use to fix first base, where the free agent class is much deeper, as well as the outfield.

LL’s preferred option:

Scenario B

Rationale: Collecting Lance Lynn to complete our set of ex-Cardinals pitchers sounds appealing; however, both he and Cobb will likely find themselves with big paydays in a market stretched thin for pitching. Tyler Chatwood is a gamble but could be a sneaky-great pickup, if another team doesn’t hand him an outsize contract, which a team like the Cubs might. After years of pitching in Coors, however, maybe the California native would enjoy a chance to play half his home games at a freshly-sodded Safeco. Garcia’s injury history is far from clean, but he can be an league-average pitcher and heaven knows the Mariners shouldn’t turn their nose up at those if the price is right. With the organization emphasizing shorter starts to maximize quality, perhaps they can minimize injury risk as well.

What will actually happen: A combination of Scenarios C and D. The Mariners will likely find themselves priced out of the market for Lynn or Cobb and maybe even Chatwood. Maybe they’ll take a flier on Cahill or Garcia if the price is right. The key here is to pretend the Mariners acquired Mike Leake this off-season, which would look like a major coup in the current market.

By the Numbers:

The Mariners are projected by Steamer to enjoy a big bump in starting pitching already, from 6.2 fWAR to 10.1. That’s a bit deceptive though, as much of the “improvement” comes from a projected ~80 more innings being pitched, and only marginally improved results. Adding a FA from the Lynn/Cobb/Chatwood tier could net them an additional 1-2 wins that would push them closer to the marks of the playoff teams from this year, but only signing Darvish will significantly move the needle, a scenario that feels improbable. That’s not enough of a payoff to justify the big contracts Lynn and his ilk will collect in a thin pitching market, and the Mariners will be well-served to allocate their free agent dollars to filling holes at first base and in the outfield.

*

So that’s it for Part One. Feel free to drop your own ideas in the comments, but later in the week we’ll be posting a Fanpost Challenge for you to make your own off-season plans, so you might want to hoard your TOP SEKRIT IDEAS to yourselves. This series/story stream will remained pinned somewhere on the front page for the rest of the offseason. Tomorrow, tune in for Part II: Position Players.