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Analyzing why the Mariners didn’t buy starting pitching this off-season

We asked for this ONE THING

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays
the last domino in a fraught off-season falls
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With Alex Cobb signing a 4-year, $57MM deal with the Orioles, the last of the big-name 2018 FA starting pitchers has come off the board. Number of those big-name FA starting pitchers signed by the Mariners: 0. Number of smaller-name FA starting pitchers signed by the Mariners: also 0. Number of “eww I guess but eww” FA starting pitchers signed by the Mariners: big ole 0. Number of times people @-ed the Lookout Landing Twitter account to complain about the lack of starting pitching signed by the Mariners: [scientists are still calculating this].

There’s no one set answer to “why didn’t the Mariners sign Player X?” and there’s a lot we can’t know, as this front office is sealed tightly enough to avoid almost all leaks. Some scuttlebutt we have heard has suggested Dipoto was under a spending cap which probably put the services of Yu Darvish (5 years, $126MM plus escalators) and Jake Arrieta (3 years, $75MM) out of reach. This also assumes the Mariners, a team actively trying to get younger, would want to sign a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 to a multi-year deal. As much as those of us here at this very site pined for a Darvish acquisition to lay to rest our concerns about the pitching staff, in retrospect, neither of these signings looked especially likely.

But what of the pitchers in the Lynn-Cobb-Chatwood tier? Chatwood was off the board quickly, snapped up by the Cubs as the first major free agent starting pitcher off the board at a deal some initially considered an overpay (3/$38MM) for a pitcher with an FIP near 5, but looks especially healthy considering how the rest of free agency played out. (So far, Chatwood has looked impressive this spring, striking out 18 in 16 innings with a 2.81 ERA.) Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb languished on the market much longer, with Cobb being the last to sign an incentive-rich and also money-rich deal with the Orioles (the $57MM comes fairly close to the $60MM predicted by Dave Cameron way back before any of this nuttiness began). Conversely, Lynn eventually took a one-year, $12MM deal with the Twins. A one-year deal for just $12 mill for a pitcher of Lynn’s caliber seems too good to be true, and for the Mariners (and many other suitors), it would have been. Lynn’s strategy, coming off a TJ-dampened 2017, is to play a prove-it year in order to earn a bigger contract; he reportedly turned down a two-year offer from the Twins. If he wasn’t going to get the contract he wanted, Lynn chose to exercise some control over where he went: the Midwest native is headed back to the heartland, to a team that made the playoffs last year and threatens to do so again. For their part, the Twins will surrender a top-100 draft pick for the privilege of employing Lynn for a year, a price that won’t mean much if they make the playoffs. For the Mariners, attempting to rebuild a depleted farm, that draft pick carries significantly more value.

So what can we divine from the fact that the Mariners are seemingly unwilling to A) surrender a draft pick and B) commit to multiple years of a $10MM+ contract for one of these free agent pitchers? That they’re cheap greedy bastards, Kate, duh. Well, yes. Or, not exactly cheap—the Mariners are a top-ten team for salary—but cheap enough to say they don’t feel the need to tack another double-digit million-dollar salary on to each year for the next four years. And yes, they are also greedily hoarding their draft picks, trying to prop up a farm that’s been thinned out to make the major league team competitive. So the combination of the need to regrow a farm and draft their own ace pitching and the already steep salary commitments have kept the Mariners out of the free agency pitcher free-for-all. If only Lance Lynn had grown up in Tacoma.

But what about the cheaper depth options? Wherefore the Trevor Cahills, the Jason Vargases, the Jaime Garcias? Maybe if any of those guys had been available on a minors deal, but as it was, signing one of them would have forced the Mariners to DFA, and thus lose, either Erasmo or Marco, two pitchers they went out and acquired the previous year; with Gonzales, especially, the team seems intent on working him into a starter role (trading a top prospect for a starting pitcher is much more palatable than trading a top prospect for a long reliever). Theoretically one of them could have been shifted to the pen, but the signing of Swiss Army knife Juan Nicasio to operate as either a long reliever or a late-innings specialist, plus the presence of David Phelps, [lol jk although he just went down recently and that might impact what they do going forward] means there’s no real need for another long reliever in an already-crowded pen that projects to be one of the strengths of the 2018 team. Ultimately, it comes down to the question: do the Mariners think Marco and Erasmo are better than Cahill and Vargas and their ilk? Their answer appears to be yes.

Ahh, you say, but what about the veterans signing minor-league deals? How about some depth to stick in Tacoma to act as a buffer between the starting five and the Miranda/Moore/Whalen tier? Brett Anderson throws baseballs with his left hand! Everyone loves that! Clay Buchholz can be had for some hemp necklaces and a stack of tokens for Big Game Hunter. Jeremy Hellickson just wants a really good sandwich. Hellickson, a bounceback candidate after a truly appalling and expensive 2017, is maybe the most appealing out of this crew, and has a viable shot of making the Nationals team as a fifth starter, where he’s making $2MM (with escalators) on a minors deal. The club has made it clear that the out-of-options Ramirez and Gonzales are their first options for the four and five slots, so there’s no real competition to entice a free agent like Hellickson or Anderson here. As for the Buchholz tier, innings-devourer Christian Bergman is already in Tacoma, along with I WILL LITERALLY GIVE YOU MY SHOULDER LIGAMENTS Hisashi Iwakuma. Bergman is probably slightly worse than Buccholz, but Bergman pitched about 140 innings last year to Buchholz’s 7, and what you want first and foremost in a depth piece is the ability to reliably eat innings like Homer in donut hell.

Most tellingly, what the lack of signing any kind of starting pitching shows is that the Mariners are banking on a strategy that they can do more with less: a Marco Gonzales and a Mike Leake over a Lance Lynn, an Erasmo Ramirez over an Alex Cobb. Their disinterest in chasing down minor league options shows they pride someone who has been in the organization a while, like Ariel Miranda, or a youthful development piece like Chase De Jong, over a veteran parachuting in on a one-year deal. To not address a part of the team that everyone across baseball—the pundits, the fans, the folks selling peanuts—saw as a glaring weakness is mind-bogglingly gutsy (many would say is mind-bogglingly foolish). It is a radical show of faith in the players they have already brought here, the coaching staff they’ve brought in, and the development they have in place. It is also, undeniably, a little cheap. The refusal to spend the merest amount of physical coin while shoveling a fortune of intangibles at the team could result in the high-payroll, small-window, thin-farmed Mariners being universally sneered at by the baseball community (more so than they are currently being sneered at, I mean). It could also end up with Seattle being praised as the hotbed of one of the game’s next great innovations. Unfortunately, if the team does fail, the culprit will be all too obvious.