In order to trade away a pitcher like James Paxton, Jerry Dipoto needed to get a few things in return. For starters, it’s important to have a prospect with a high ceiling, someone who might be able to reach an All-Star team, if not multiple All-Star teams, down the road. (Enter Justus Sheffield.) You need to get a hitter who could develop into something in a few years, particularly in order to mitigate the injury risks inherent in pitching prospects. (Enter Dom Thompson-Williams.)
Finally, to round out the package, you need some depth. You need a young guy who, though he might not become a mainstay at the top of your rotation, can eat up innings with a chance to excel given the right breaks. And that’s where Erik Swanson comes in.
Swanson certainly doesn’t have a flashy background. He hails from the baseball hotbed of Fargo, North Dakota, and when he debuts in the bigs, he’ll be just the fourth player from Fargo to play in MLB. After two years pitching in community college, Swanson was drafted in the eighth round by the Texas Rangers and given $155,000 to sign rather than pitch for the University of Pittsburgh.
He then spent 2.5 seasons in the Rangers organization, with a slow progression from low-A-ball Spokane up to A-ball Hickory thanks to a forearm strain that robbed him of much of his 2015 season.
Halfway through 2016, Swanson was a secondary piece in the Carlos Beltran trade, heading to New York along with Dillon Tate (since traded to the Orioles as part of the Zach Britton deal) and Nick Green (recently selected in the Rule V draft by the Diamondbacks). He found much more success within the Yankees’ system: in 222 innings over the last two seasons, Swanson struck out 223 batters, walking just 43 of them and posting a 3.24 ERA. His 92–95 MPH fastball, which has been reported to touch 98 at times, along with his high spin rate and good control has allowed him to find success against minor league hitters.
...to his deceptive fastball...
...and his offspeed stuff:
His upside is limited, in part, because of his advanced age and lack of strong secondary pitches. But his floor is also much higher than a corresponding prospect who the M’s might have received instead. In fact, it seems almost likely that Swanson could break camp on the Opening Day roster. From the trade announcement back in November, per Dipoto:
Erik Swanson has performed at every level, combining a mid-90s fastball as well as two effective secondary pitches. At 25 years old, he is just entering the prime years of his career, and we think he will impact our Major League club in the near future.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, let me give you a quick update: outside of Yusei Kikuchi and Sheffield, the Mariners haven’t gone out and acquired any MLB-ready starters. That sets Swanson up well to make a big impact on the team this season and hopefully assuage some of the doubts swirling about his durability and command.
In an ideal world, Swanson throws something like 100–125 innings for the Mariners this season, learning how to pitch in the big leagues with occasional flashes of greatness. If he can do that, it’s pretty easy to imagine him as the #4/#5 starter the next time the Mariners are gearing up to contend for a playoff spot, whether that’s in 2020, 2021, or beyond. (God, I hope it’s not “beyond.”)
Being a Mariners fan in 2019 is about the long game. I’ll be focusing on the bright spots — the highly-touted prospects showing signs of something special, or the coaching staff & player development system helping to unlock latent potential across the board. It’s those underlying things that will give me faith in this rebuild. And on that note, Erik Swanson becoming a reliable MLB starter is both possible and perhaps even necessary to make Dipoto’s path to contention realistic.