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The Mariners need to go all-in on high-risk, high-reward starting pitchers

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This group of starting pitchers makes sense for the Mariners if they’re trying to stay under budget.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

You’re going to hear a lot about the Mariners payroll situation this offseason. There’s just not a lot of wiggle room in the budget unless ownership really opens their pockets. I just can’t see that happening. I don’t think Jerry Dipoto expects that to happen. Instead, it looks like the Mariners will be treading water in 2019, waiting for a significant amount of payroll to come off the books next offseason. Sorry Bryce Harper, I don’t think you’ll be calling Seattle home anytime soon.

Yesterday, Kate and Ben made excellent cases for signing Nathan Eovaldi and Charlie Morton, respectively. Either pitcher would be a huge boon to the Mariners rotation but each will probably cost far too much. Jon Heyman estimated their 2019 salaries to land around $16–$17M. A contract worth that much in 2019 would account for more than the entire offseason budget for one free agent. Probably not the ideal use of the Mariners limited resources.

Luckily, there’s an alternative. There happens to be a pretty large group of high-risk, high-reward free agent starters on the market this offseason. While they won’t draw the headlines like signing Eovaldi or Morton might, they could provide similar production at a fraction of the cost. The catch: they all come with some significant warts. Those concerns drive down their price, but if they can overcome them, they could be huge values for a team looking to extract as much value out of the free agent market as possible.

Here are the top five high-risk, high-reward free agent starter I think the Mariners should look into this offseason. I’m using Heyman’s estimates for their potential contracts in 2019, though I’d prefer to use FanGraph’s crowdsourced estimates (they’re not released yet).

High-risk Free Agent Starters

Player IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
Player IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
Aníbal Sánchez 136 2/3 24.4% 7.6% 11.2% 45.0% 2.83 3.62
Clay Buchholz 98 1/3 20.6% 5.6% 8.7% 42.6% 2.01 3.47
Drew Pomeranz 74 19.2% 12.8% 13.5% 37.1% 6.09 5.43
Trevor Cahill 110 22.2% 9.1% 10.0% 53.4% 3.76 3.54
Tyson Ross 149 2/3 19.2% 9.8% 14.0% 45.9% 4.15 4.39

Aníbal Sánchez (35) – 1 yr, $7M

The oldest of this bunch, Aníbal Sánchez resurrected his career with the Braves this year. He refined his repertoire from six pitches to just three, focusing on his four-seamer, changeup, and cutter. That helped him get his huge home run problem under control and get his ground ball rate back up to where it was when he was a mainstay in the Tigers rotation. Of course, he’s also just a year removed from a three-year stretch where he posted a 5.67/5.01/4.34 pitcher slash line. If his adjustments he made with the Braves don’t stick, he could implode rather quickly.

Clay Buchholz (34) – 1 yr, $10M

Clay Buchholz also enjoyed a career renaissance driven by an improved cutter in 2018. Picked up off the scrap pile by the Diamondbacks, Buchholz made an immediate impact upon getting called up at the end of May. He gave Arizona almost 100 solid innings but his season was cut short by a flexor strain in his elbow. That recent injury along with his trouble staying healthy the past few years should give a few teams some pause when considering signing him.

Drew Pomeranz (30) – 1 yr, $5M

Drew Pomeranz just couldn’t get healthy this year. He, too, dealt with a flexor strain in his elbow before the season even started and that just spiraled into a number of other injury woes. When he was on the mound, he was simply terrible. But before this season, he had put together two very good years in a row. After adopting a Rich Hill-esque approach with his curveball, he posted a 3.32/3.82/3.93 pitcher slash line between 2016 and 2017. If he can get healthy and sort out his mechanics, he could be an arm with mid-rotation potential.

Trevor Cahill (31) – 1 yr, $5.5M

Trevor Cahill’s injury history is long and varied but he managed to put together a relatively healthy year in Oakland in 2018. He really broke out last year with the Padres but couldn’t finish the year after a shoulder injury derailed his season after being dealt to the Royals. With the A’s, he picked up a couple of different injuries leading to two separate stints on the disabled list, one for an Achilles’ injury and one for a back strain. But he was the Athletics best starter when he was on the mound. The upside is easy to see but the litany of injuries he’s dealt with over the years should give many teams pause.

Tyson Ross (32) – 1 yr, $5.5M

Tyson Ross spent most of 2017 recovering from thoracic outlet surgery and was mostly healthy in 2018. He was putting together good innings for the Padres early in the year but eventually ran out of steam mid-way through the season. His history of success is a little further removed than some of the other players highlighted above but he’ll also be another year removed from that major surgery.

* * *

The biggest question mark in the Mariners 2019 rotation is what to do with Félix Hernández. It’s a question that will loom over this entire offseason. Will he be given another shot to reinvent himself in the rotation, or will he be pushed to the bullpen? Adding any of these high-risk, high-reward pitchers allows the Mariners to be a little more flexible with Félix. Since each of them comes with significant injury concerns, treating them carefully will be important to gain the most value out of their arm. A six-man rotation that includes the free agent and Félix could be one way to mitigate that danger. If a five-man rotation is the name of the game, and this free agent is hypothetically lost to injury, having Félix as insurance isn’t the worst position for the M’s.

Signing one of these pitchers would give the Mariners some significant upside in their rotation for a reasonable price. They’d still have some room in the budget to add an outfielder or DH (*cough* re-sign Cruz *cough*).

Honorable Mention: Garrett Richards (31) – 2 yr, $10M

I just want to mention this as a possibility. While signing Garrett Richards won’t help the M’s in 2019, helping him rehab from his Tommy John surgery—and getting him out of the Angels organization—would definitely help the Mariners in 2020 once Félix’s contract comes off the books. The Twins gave Michael Pineda a two-year deal in the hopes that he’d rehab for the first year and contribute quality innings in the second year at a significantly reduced price. That might be a prudent move for the Mariners if Dipoto is truly focused on 2020.