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The Mariners Are (Probably) Done Adding to the Starting Rotation, and That’s OK

Please take us back, Shohei Ohtani.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When the offseason began, many fans looked forward to the team adding to its starting rotation corps. And why wouldn’t they? The Mariners used a historically-high number of arms in 2017 due to injuries. The projected 2018 staff of James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, and Ariel Miranda/Marco Gonzales didn’t entice many fans, even if all six of them should stay healthy all season (a near-impossibility). Most argued that the M’s needed an impact addition. Some would tell you they needed two.

Now we’re here on January 15th and the projected rotation above is still the one we’re staring at today. And according to recent reports, it doesn’t look like that will change.

Dipoto acknowledged again that the “heavy lifting is done” for the offseason and the club will primarily look to add a few veteran non-roster invitees before the start of Spring Training next month, though he also allowed that his philosophy will always leave room for further moves as needed.

So what gives, Jerry? Why won’t the front office make additions to a clear area of weakness on the roster?

In reality, they can’t.

For starters, Ramirez and Gonzales are out of option years. The M’s laid out capital to acquire them recently, including top prospect Tyler O’Neill, and aren’t going to give up on them just yet. Unless they get hurt, they’re almost shoo-ins for starting rotation roles.

But if the M’s wanted to upgrade on some of the others, they’d have a tough time finding a way to acquire that talent.

The Mariners’ farm system is in bad shape. Starting pitching is never cheap, and the M’s simply don’t have the trade chips to compete with other teams in order to get a top-tier pitcher owned by another club.

But the M’s might not have the financial room for a free agent starter either. The Mariners have added three major contracts in the last calendar year, meaning they owe the following over the next few years:

Robinson Cano: 6 years/$144 million through 2023

Felix Hernandez: 2/$52M through 2019

Nelson Cruz: 1/$14M through 2018

Kyle Seager: 4/$74.5M through 2021 w/ $15M team option for 2022

Jean Segura: 5/$70M through 2022 w/ $17M team option for 2023

Dee Gordon: 3/$37M through 2020 w/ $14M team option for 2021

Mike Leake: 3/$31M through 2020 w/ $15M mutual option for 2021 (rest of contract paid by STL)

A couple of those contracts will be off the books in the next couple of years, but guys like Paxton, Mike Zunino, and Edwin Diaz are candidates for extensions in the near future too. In addition, the Mariners have poured some money into the bullpen with the signings of Marc Rzepczynski and Juan Nicasio.

As things currently stand, the Mariners have a slightly higher player payroll than they had at the beginning of last season. There’s no room for a starter. Even if they had chosen not to sign Nicasio, that money wouldn’t give them what they needed to compete in the starting pitching market this offseason.

Unfortunately, the Mariners’ hopes of acquiring an impact arm for the rotation went down the drain when Shohei Ohtani chose to sign with the Angels. This is why Ohtani was such a perfect fit in Seattle; he’s the only guy the team could afford at a position of need. Many people said the M’s should go hard after Yu Darvish after losing out on Ohtani (myself included, at first). But the two players aren’t even remotely similar. They’re both former Japanese stars and potential aces, but the similarities stop there. The age and contract needs make Darvish a really tough fit for the Mariners.

The division has gotten much tougher this offseason. The Astros acquired Gerrit Cole this weekend and the Angels have added a lot of talent to their roster. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Mariners to throw caution to the wind and tie down their finances even further just to get a few wins better in the present.

That doesn’t mean the Mariners have to tear it all down, though:

“I guess the right way to term it, there are more ways to rebuild than ripping it down to the studs,” [Jerry Dipoto] said. “Have you ever watched HGTV? You can go into a house that generally has a structure and re-do the house, and walk out thinking that it doesn’t quite look like the same house. That’s effectively what we’ve done. The rip-down to the studs doesn’t always work. We’re hopeful with what we’ve done, we’ve reloaded our club. We’ve done it in, I think, a productive way.”

So the Mariners can maintain their structure as an 85-88 win club for the next several years while they (hopefully) restock the farm system. They’ll be talented enough that a favorable season can get them into the playoffs, which will be frustrating for many fans.

In the interim, the Mariners are going to rely on their bullpen pretty heavily. The bullpen projects to be one of the baseball’s best in 2018, and it’s likely going to see a lot of innings. The M’s are hoping it can take significant weight off the rotation and win the team a good deal of games.

The M’s might be making a mistake. Perhaps a true rebuild is what the team needs. Maybe the M’s should have saved their Dee Gordon resources to find a serviceable #3 starter. Right now, the Mariners are going to need big steps forward from Marco Gonzales, Miranda, and Andrew Moore. It’s not a great place to be, but the Mariners’ lineup and ‘pen might be good enough to make up for the team’s weaknesses. We’ll see if it’s enough to compete with the top dogs in the AL West.

Until then, Go M’s.