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Solving the logjam in the starting rotation

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Wait, what?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, the title for this article might seem a bit confusing. What logjam in the starting rotation? The Mariners should be adding to the rotation if anything. Of course General Manager Jerry Dipoto has been adamant that the Mariners won’t be adding to their starting rotation this offseason. He’d rather lean on the young starters to fill the back end of the rotation.

During the spring training luncheon a few weeks ago—yes, we’re heading back to that well—Dipoto made a number of contentious statements about the state of the Mariners. One of the more baffling was his assertion that the Mariners would be better off giving innings to their young, affordable starters rather than signing one of the many free agents still available.

“You have to create innings for guys to show what they can do. If you can get one of these guys to step forward, and do what we believe they can do and do what they’ve done (at other levels) … now you have young, affordable starting pitching you can grow with.”

“We are doing the best we can to develop our system, not to clog it. Could we go out and sign a free agent that would be better than our current fifth starter? Absolutely. Would that be the best thing for the present of the Mariners? Maybe. Would that be the best thing for the wider lens – for the present and future – of the Mariners? Probably not.”

While the sentiment Dipoto expresses here might be reasonable if the team was in the midst of rebuilding, it doesn’t mesh well with the desire to compete with the roster as currently constructed. Marco Gonzales is still an unproven asset. Felix Hernandez and James Paxton are an injury away from pushing Ariel Miranda or Andrew Moore into the rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma is a complete unknown and can’t be counted on until May at the very earliest.

One of the biggest benefits of rebuilding is creating playing time for the young, unproven players in the organization. That’s how the Astros figured out that Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh could actually be positive contributors. But the Mariners aren’t rebuilding right now. They need to maximize every start they can to push for that Wild Card spot.

But what if there was a way to add members to the rotation while also guaranteeing innings for some of the young starters. Gonzales’s lack of minor league options is probably the most prohibitive obstacle but there’s another route to consider: the 10-day disabled list.

The Dodgers famously navigated a seven-man rotation last season using the 10-day disabled list liberally. Not only did it allow them to juggle multiple workloads but it also might have had some other benefits as well, as Rob Arthur explains in this article from FiveThirtyEight.

“In a normal five-man rotation, pitchers rest for four days and throw on the fifth. But by stashing a starter on the DL, a team can give him a much longer recovery period. Extended rest (five or more days) seems to reduce the probability of a serious injury by 20 percent, so a smart team might try to frequently rest fragile starters to minimize the risk that they will become severely hurt. And that’s exactly what the Dodgers have done. So far this season, they are on pace to have the second-most starts thrown by pitchers with five or more days of rest than any team since at least 2009.”

At various points during this offseason, Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais have hinted at using a six-man rotation during the season to keep some of their more injury-prone starters healthy. In the past, this would have been accomplished by using minor league options to shuttle pitchers to and from Triple-A. But with the 10-day disabled list a new reality in baseball, the Mariners have another tool to help them manage their pitcher workloads. If the Mariners were savvy enough to take advantage of both of these options, they could easily fit another starter onto the roster while keeping Gonzales with the major league club.

The Mariners wouldn’t even have to sign one of the top free agents either. With a qualifying offer attached to most of the top options, I don’t think the Mariners would want to pursue them anyway. If Jerry Dipoto is concerned about the long-term ramifications of signing free agents—and why shouldn’t he be—there are a plethora of mid-tier starters who could probably be signed to one- or two-year contracts at a very reasonable salary. Think Jason Vargas or Jaime Garcia rather than Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. Most of these mid-tier starters have injury concerns that might be allayed if the Mariners started leveraging the disabled list to their advantage.