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Searching for the next Drew Smyly (but maybe not a disaster this time)

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If the M’s want another impact starting pitcher they’ll have to roll the dice again on a stranger’s health.

Seattle Mariners Photo Day
Heads you win, tails you’re soggy.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Nate Karns, Wade Miley, Joe Wieland, Zach Lee, Wade LeBlanc, Ariel Miranda, Rob Whalen, Max Povse, Chris Heston, Yovani Gallardo, Drew Smyly, Dillon Overton, Chase De Jong, Marco Gonzales, Erasmo Ramirez, Andrew Albers, Mike Leake, Anthony Misiewicz, and Roenis Elías.

That is the list of every starting pitcher Jerry Dipoto has traded for since taking over the Seattle Mariners in late September, 2015.

The starters Jerry has targeted can be comfortably piled into two groups: low-ceiling strike-throwers and injury-risks with potential. Seattle’s current rotation is by-and-large made up of the former, with Wade LeBlanc, Mike Leake, and Marco Gonzales providing quality innings that prove invaluable over 162 games. Outside of James Paxton, however, none of Seattle’s starting pitchers fit the typical mold of a “playoff” starter. Seattle’s bullpen remains a strength, but as we saw with the Dodgers grinding Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen into paste last year, even elite relievers perform better with rest, and the rest of the Mariners’ roster is not 2017 Dodgers-caliber. They would be well served to add another impact starter.

As Dipoto himself has lamented, those are the most costly players to acquire:

“We need to adjust our starting pitching, but in order to get starting pitching, you draft it, you cultivate it, you grow it – or you sign it as free agents. Because trading for starting pitching is ridiculously expensive.” - Jerry Dipoto, July 2017

The list above is proof Dipoto hasn’t completely checked out of the SP trade market, but to find a pitcher with a chance at making a major impact, the options are simple. A. Pay a steep prospect toll and somehow outbid a batch of contenders with more well-regarded farm systems, or B. Target players with shaky injury backgrounds and hope they can put that in the past.

Plan B led the Mariners to two of their most divisive transactions in this regime: the Marco Gonzales deal and the Drew Smyly deal. Gonzales was coming off of Tommy John surgery, following a flurry of injuries that had sent him from the fast track to the side track. Now he’s 15th in fWAR in the American League among starting pitchers. Meanwhile Drew Smyly is continuing rehab from Thomas Edward John surgery as a member of the Cubs organization without throwing a single regular season pitch as a Mariner and being a part of baby’s first light exposure photos.

Chicago Cubs Photo Day
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Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Reward, meet risk. Seattle is in line to be a buyer at the Trade Deadline this year, and as much as we’d like to dream, Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, and any other multi-year pitchers with quality are essentially out of Seattle’s price range. Instead, if the M’s want a potential impact arm to add in October, they’ll need to roll the dice on some lightly-used arms.

I settled on this group as the likeliest fit for Dipoto’s history and Seattle’s prospect budget. Assume with any of these moves that Kyle Lewis is the centerpiece of the deal, because that is at least what it will cost Seattle to outbid other teams.

Anthony DeSclafani - 28 year-old RHP - Reds

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Sell: Writing this article was only partially about identifying appropriate targets, but also a good chance for me to memorize the spelling of DeScalfani DeSclafani. We know the interest is there, as Zack Cozart and DeSclafani were hot targets back in 2016 before interest and failed physicals fizzled out. Since then the road has been rough for the Reds’ righty. A lengthy DL stint due to an oblique strain was followed by a sprained UCL that seemed destined for TJ. Instead, rehab, rest, and a full season off in 2017 anyways led to doctors declaring his UCL was in full health. He’s been brought along cautiously by the non-contending Reds, but his velocity appears unimpeded. DeSclafani is a clear trade chip for Cincinnati, who are years away from playoff contention, and won’t need Anthony this season or next year - his final season of arbitration.

The Rub: Anthony DeSclafani might not be an upgrade over any of Seattle’s pitchers right now. While his lack of track record could make him affordable for the M’s, his last (and only) productive full season was 2015, which was also his only productive full season. As he continues to shake off the rust his 4.09/5.51/4.49 ERA/FIP/xFIP may improve, but Seattle needs a bit more of a guarantee, or at least a bit more upside potential.

Nathan Eovaldi - 28 year-old RHP - Rays

Seattle Mariners v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Sell: Tommy John was the undoing of the one-time Dodgers, Marlins, and Yankees prospect, and he signed a two-year deal with the Rays to rehab and then prove himself prior to 2017. This year he has returned with the velocity he’s known for. Eovaldi’s average fastball is the 4th-hardest of any starter this season at a healthy 97.5 mph. While elite strikeout rates haven’t followed that heat, Eovaldi has shown himself to be an above-average starter when healthy, and despite a dinger problem this year seems to be seeing few ill-effects as he works his way back. His $2 million contract and impending free agency on a spunky but outclassed Rays team makes him eminently movable, and Seattle has no shortage of familiarity in dealing with Tampa.

The Rub: Eovaldi’s easily moved contract and half-season price might make him the cheapest option on this list (aka not Lewis), but rentals haven’t been the M’s style under Dipoto. Eovaldi hasn’t shown the impact that other rentals like JA Happ or even Cole Hamels have, and following the typical TJ-recovery timeline, his best days are likely coming in 2019, following his free agency.

Zack Wheeler - 28 year-old RHP - Mets

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The Sell: The Mets’ season has gone from a Queens’ fairy tale to a New York nightmare. They’re a half-game ahead of the Marlins and tied with the Reds for the second-worst record in the NL. Their starting rotation can’t be held responsible, but the discussion of trading Jacob DeGrom continues to build. That type of deal is far too rich for Seattle’s blood, but they could be a fit for a lesser fireballer. Wheeler missed two (2) entire seasons in 2015-16 recovering from Tommy John, followed by a shortened 2017 return due to bicep tendonitis and stress issues in his arm. All of that could’ve been the end for the 6th-overall pick of the 2009 draft, but Wheeler has looked rejuvenated at last in 2018, with his velocity up beyond even where it was in his breakout 2014 season. Wheeler is eligible for arbitration in 2019, meaning he’d be more than a single-year rental, and as we know, Dipoto is not one to turn down a second-chance for a former top prospect. Of the players on this list, he’s had by far the best results in 2018 (1.2 fWAR, 8.71 K/9, 3.42 BB/9, 4.85/3.85 ERA/FIP).

The Rub: Wheeler’s health history isn’t so much a red flag as it is a terrifying crimson canopy. The combination of size, repertoire, and previous solid results are tantalizing, but it’s reasonable to envision a Smyly redux where Wheeler’s injury history relapses and Seattle is left having paid for unrealized potential with their farm’s brightest remaining candle. Wheeler provides a different look, undeniably, but he’ll need to lock in further to prove himself a definite boost over Wade LeBlanc’s craftiness.

Shelby Miller - 27 year-old RHP - Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Sell: A grim remnant of the Dave Stewart regime, the twice-blockbustered Miller made his first start post-TJ yesterday, looking rusty but not broken. The reason Shelby Miller was a hot commodity for the past decade was his seeming durability along with an impact fastball-cutter combo. Miller, like Wheeler, will be arb-eligible in 2019 for the final time, meaning he’d be a year-and-a-half rental for potential impact. Unfortunately, while Miller’s skillset and injury history might make him affordable, it’s tough to say whether he’d be available. With Robbie Ray returning this week, Arizona once again has five solid starting pitchers even without Miller or Taijuan Walker, who is himself sidelined by Tommy John.

The Rub: Arizona currently leads the NL West and seems unlikely to sacrifice pitching depth in a season where the division has been gifted to them by an injured/underperforming Dodgers squad. If the Dodgers re-assert themselves, Miller could be available, but until that happens he seems likely to be worth Arizona’s time.

Honorary Mention: Tyson Ross - 31 year-old RHP - Padres

Tyson Ross checks the “talented but injury-prone box” hard enough to make Padres medical staff nervous all over again. The Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (somewhere, Isabelle sniffs the air) survivor has had a resurgent 2018 campaign and is a prime trade target as an expiring contract on the headed-nowhere-fast Padres. The reason he didn’t receive higher billing alongside Eovaldi is that the Mariners had every opportunity to bring in Ross, twice, and passed. It doesn’t seem likely they’ll pull the trigger a third time now that the price point is higher.

Seattle doesn’t need to acquire another SP. The Royals started Jeremy Guthrie TWICE in 2014 and upgraded to pinnacle of average pitching Edinson Volquez in 2015. You can do all sorts of dumb nonsense and win the World Series. It’d be better if the M’s didn’t though, and someone among these options seems like a plausible shot in the arm. Let’s just hope they don’t end up needing a shot in the arm.