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Trading for high-risk, high-reward starting pitching

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If the Mariners aren’t going to sign a free agent pitcher, maybe they could trade for one?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Last week, I argued that the Mariners would do well to pursue a high-risk, high-reward strategy in 2019 if they had eyes on contending for the second Wild Card spot again. I presented five potential free agent signings that could return massive value for a very small cash outlay. However, knowing how Jerry Dipoto likes to work and his aversion to signing very many free agents at all, it’s likely any upgrades this roster will see will be through his usual means: the trade wire.

There are fewer high-risk, high-reward starters available via trade so that limits the options a bit. But the arguments for a move like this remain the same. The Mariners need an infusion of talent to even begin to dream about pushing for the Wild Card in 2019, and without much in the organization to deal from, they’ll need to get creative to get talent back.

Like their free agent counterparts, these trade candidates each come with significant warts. That should help drive down their asking price. But each of them has clear upside and could be important pieces for the Mariners as they reload yet again. Here are a couple of high-risk, high-reward starting pitcher trade candidates I think the Mariners could pursue this offseason.

The Mariners receive: RHP Sonny Gray

The Yankees receive: RHP Art Warren & LHP Anthony Misiewicz

It’s no secret the Yankees are shopping Sonny Gray this offseason. They acquired him at the trade deadline last year for a huge haul of prospects but he just hasn’t worked out for the Yankees. The unfriendly confines of Yankee Stadium really took their toll on his home run rate and his walk rate shot up to almost 10%. His home run rate fell back to normal this year but he still found himself demoted to the bullpen by August and was a ghost for the rest of the season.

On the surface, acquiring Gray was a perfect fit for the Yankees. They preach a breaking ball heavy approach that seemed like a perfect fit for Gray’s breaking-ball-heavy repertoire. The reality is that reducing the usage of his fastball has led to this increase in home runs and walks. Whether their correlated or not is up for debate, but it certainly seems like the Yankees made a miscalculation when acquiring Gray. Now, they’re looking to recoup some value for that slipup.

Since they’re so actively shopping Gray this offseason, I’d expect the bidding to be pretty competitive. There are plenty of teams who could use a starter who is still under 30 with a good track record, even if he’s under team control for just one more season. And even though he struggled with the long ball and giving up free passes in New York, his strikeout rate was just as good and he actually showed signs of stabilizing his fastball velocity this year, a sign of good health.

Coming up with a package that the Yankees would be interested in was the hardest part of this exercise. They just won 100 games and have a stacked farm system. Their one area of need is pitching. They lost three members of their starting rotation to free agency and have a number of young pitchers who could make the leap into the majors. But they’ll need a ton depth in case those young pitchers falter. The package I built addresses that depth by sending LHP Anthony Misiewicz and RHP Art Warren. Misiewicz is eligible for the Rule-5 draft this year and it really doesn’t seem like the Mariners have interest in protecting him. He’s a likely candidate to be picked up by a rebuilding club if he’s available in December so the Mariners would do well to trade him before he’s taken without any compensation. After his breakout year, Warren had a rough, injury-plagued season in 2018. But he still has enough promise and prospect shine to hold some value. The Mariners have had no trouble churning out relief prospects the last few years so losing him wouldn’t hurt the organization too badly.

Honestly, this package feels a little light. Gray is certain to be a hot commodity on the trade market and any number of teams could beat this package pretty easily. The Mariners could add someone like Joey Curletta to the package (in case the Yankees don’t believe in Voit magic), but I think that tips the scales too far in favor of the Yankees. I’d love to see Gray in a Mariners uniform but I just don’t think the Mariners and Yankees match up very well.

Since Gray is entering his final year of salary arbitration and will be a free agent in 2020, acquiring him would be a clear indication that the Mariners are reloading for another run in 2019. If that’s the case, they’d need to make a bunch of corresponding moves to help them get over that hump. With Gray in the fold, the pitching staff would look pretty solid so the lineup would need to receive the bulk of the attention. But the fact that Gray is just a one-year rental makes the likelihood of this trade pretty remote, especially if the Mariners are looking at actually rebuilding in earnest. If rebuilding is the name of the game, adding Gray could make sense if the Mariners think they can rebuild his value enough so that they can flip him midseason for a greater prospect haul than they gave up to get him.

The Mariners receive: RHP Danny Salazar

Cleveland receives: OF Braden Bishop

Earlier this week, the baseball team from Cleveland announced that they were “listening” to trade proposals for some of their key veterans. It seems like they’re looking to reboot while still staying competitive in a weak AL Central. It would be easy to dream about acquiring someone like Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco, there’s no way the Mariners have necessary pieces to get one of them. Instead, they should be focused on a forgotten member of their incredible starting rotation: Danny Salazar.

Salazar lost all of the 2018 season to a shoulder injury. That alone should give the Mariners some pause. But it sounds like he’s on track to begin a throwing program this month and should be ready for spring training. If he’s healthy, he’s a mid-rotation arm that’s under 30 and under team control until 2020—he’s a Super Two player meaning he’s eligible for a fourth year of salary arbitration.

Because Cleveland is lousy with elite starting pitching, dealing Salazar shouldn’t be much of a blow to their organization, especially considering his health risks. What they do need is a completely new outfield. They lost Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera to free agency and cannot continue to hope that Jason Kipnis remembers how to hit. Right now, old friend Leonys Martín is penciled in as their starting center fielder.

Braden Bishop is a beloved member of the Mariners organization and this community but he’s also a highly touted outfield prospect on the cusp of breaking into the majors. He’s answered the lingering questions about his ability to hit the last two seasons and continues to play at an elite level defensively. Trading away a good outfield prospect like Bishop might seem backwards when the Mariners have their own issues in the outfield, but getting a pitcher of Salazar’s caliber in return should make the exchange worthwhile.

Unlike Gray, adding Salazar would help the Mariners in 2020 as well. If that’s where the Mariners are aiming their competitive window, adding Salazar would be a prudent move now because it gives the Mariners an extra year to figure out Salazar’s health issues (if they’re still present). If they’re truly diving into a full rebuild that extra year allows him to continue building up his value so that the Mariners can trade him later on for a more valuable package of prospects.