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What the Quintana deal tells us about the Mariners’ chances to acquire pitching

Hint: nothing good

Chicago White Sox v Colorado Rockies
doesn’t look like a bellwether to me but I’m no farmer
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As a person with not very much money, whenever I am handed a bill—vet bill, restaurant tab, repair estimate—I take a second and try to imagine what I think the total will actually be, and then tack on a 20% “panic tax.” Usually this gets me within the ballpark of what the actual total is, and sometimes makes me feel like I’ve gotten away with something. Not so bad! I say, handing over 40% of my budget for the week. But sometimes I miscalculate, or hidden fees crop up, or “market price” means “price of buying an actual food market,” and then there’s that stomach-dropping moment of actually seeing all those zeroes written out. Buckle up, Mariners fans, because as trade deadline action gets underway, we’re about to see a lot of bills we have no hope of paying.

Young, talented, controllable starting pitching is the MLB’s big goofy unicorn right now, and we all knew the price on White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana would be sky-high, but something about seeing this list of prospects he netted from the Cubs is especially sobering:

  • Eloy Jimenez - The consensus preseason number 11 prospect in all of baseball according to FG, the number 5 overall prospect according to Baseball America’s most recent list, and the number one prospect in a pretty stacked Cubs system; the word “phenom” has been thrown around in all seriousness about the 6’4” outfielder, whose ISO has steadily crept up over each year he’s been in the minors, up to .219 this year. He doesn’t strike out a lot (20%) for a guy who hit 14 home runs last year, and this year he’s doubled his walk rate to 10%.
  • Dylan Cease - The consensus preseason number 90 prospect in baseball according to FG and the number two Cubs prospect, the right-handed pitcher had TJ surgery in high school and was seen as somewhat of a risky signing by the Cubs back in 2014. Cease throws a fastball, changeup and curve and all three pitches need development, but the raw stuff is there—his fastball regularly touches triple digits. In two full seasons of pro ball he’s posted a K/9 around 13. Command is an issue as he walks too many batters, but he’s showed progress every year and has a great baseball IQ and work ethic, and there’s every reason to believe he is a future top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
  • Bryant Flete, Matt Rose - A pair of organizational depth infielders. Flete is 24 and still in high-A; Rose is younger, currently 22, but struggling in pro ball.

So, to summarize: it took two of the top prospects in all of baseball—a phenom and a budding ace—plus some basket-stuffers, to get Quintana. That’s a price the Mariners couldn’t pay even if they wanted to, and it means they’re out of the running for pitchers of this caliber, should their clubs freefall out of contention: Chris Archer, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray, and I suppose you could put Verlander in this tier just for name alone. I’d add Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, and Julio Teheran to this list, too; all three are having down years but given the market that’s been established, it’s likely the Mariners couldn’t land any of them without significantly weakening the club as it is.

This is all something we knew in our heart of hearts, but like I said, seeing all those zeroes spelled out is sobering. So, with the market price set, where does the club go from here?

What the Mariners won’t do is sacrifice meaningful parts of their farm system to go after a rental or an aging, expensive arm—Jerry has said as much—so put your worries about Jaime Garcia or Edinson Volquez or Jeff Samardzija, Mariner, out of your mind. Alternatively, I’m sorry if you dreamed of Jeff Samardzija, Mariner, but also have you considered seeing your doctor about that? But there are a few possibilities out there at the MLB level.

Marco Estrada is older, but prying him away from Toronto will be a chore thanks to their perilously thin rotation and a farm system that lacks impact arms anywhere close to the majors. Can they resist the allure of one barrel-chested Canadian slugger? Probably. Clayton Richard was perfectly serviceable with the Cubs in 2015, and has been less so with the Padres in 2017. The Padres are so silly prospect-rich they probably won’t even miss him, but he’s a free agent this off-season so wherever he goes he’s a rental. Chad Kuhl of the Pirates is an interesting name John proposed; he’s put up some fairly meh numbers the past two years but each time his FIP has been lower than his ERA, and he’s young (24) and a flyballer who would fit well in Safeco. The Pirates like him and turned down trade requests for him this past offseason, but with the emergence of Tyler Glasnow and two solid MLB-ready prospects in Steven Brault and Nick Kingham, the Pirates don’t exactly need him, so much as they need a center fielder who can actually play center field.

Speaking of John, this space I will give to John to talk about Julio Teheran. Please indulge John.

JT: Julio Teheran is almost assuredly not going to be a Mariner at any point in his career, a fact that fills me with gloom. Teheran has been one of my favorite pitchers since he entered the league, in large part due to his exceptional skill in picking runners off and holding them on. Teheran sports highlight reel moves to 1st, and after a decade of watching Félix Hernández display complete apathy for runners at first, I hunger for Teheran’s brilliance. Unfortunately, beyond this particular skill, Teheran’s 2017 has been abysmal. His ERA of 4.79 is poor, but his FIP of 5.49 is downright dreadful. After averaging 2.5 fWAR and just over 199 IP over the last four years, Teheran is down to -0.1 through his first 18 starts this year. I spoke with Mason Wittner at Talking Chop, who validated the confusion I felt looking at Teheran’s sudden drop-off:

There haven't been any reported injuries and the consensus is that the drop off in performance hasn't been due to any kind of injury he's battling through. Some of our guys have noticed that where he sets up on the rubber when facing lefties and his movement with it has played a roll in his delivery. Why that results in success on the road and utter failure at SunTrust Park is something that has yet to be figured out ... It seems like he's tweaked his mechanics, and it hasn't played well at SunTrust Park -- as can be seen by his 7.58 ERA at home and 2.53 ERA away from home.

His strikeouts are down. His walks are up. There are no indications or whispers of an injury and his velocity has stood pat with the past four years. His mechanical changes have resulted in a very different release point this year, and Teheran’s habit of tweaking appears to be biting him. His struggles could give the Mariners an outside chance at targeting Teheran, who is under a team-friendly contract through 2019, plus an option year. His fly-ball eliciting pitching style fits well with Seattle’s established mantra, but any deal for Teheran likely involves Tyler O’Neill plus whatever the M’s can scrape up of value, and even then the Braves may be unlikely to part with their mercurial “ace” when he is at the nadir of his value, or are hearing offers from teams with deeper prospect coffers. Teheran is a good fit, but likely just a dream.

[Pause to allow John to collect the buckets of his tears and shuffle off stage right.]

I think the Mariners will be conservative at the trade deadline, maybe doing a prospect-for-prospect swap to try to get someone out of the high minors who they can develop for 2018, or handing over one or more of their sellable pieces (Valencia, Dyson, Cishek, Vincent) for such a player. Maybe there’s an MLB-experienced pitcher they could get their hands on, but the list is thin and most other clubs have more capital to spend on such an acquisition. The Mariners spent their lone big sexy trade bullet this off-season in the Taijuan Walker trade (and their other, smaller trade bullet in the Luiz Gohara deal), and it will probably be another trade deadline of small moves and marginal upgrades, leading to much teeth-gnashing among those who like to watch things burn. I understand: years of Jack Z have conditioned Mariner fans to seek big names in deals. Yet conversely, years of Jack Z are a major factor in why the Mariners can’t acquire big names in deals. Tolstoy wrote “true life is lived when tiny changes occur” and I’m not sure if the same is true for baseball, but for our sakes, I hope so.