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Jacob Nix is worth a flier for the Mariners

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The former Padres RHP is a perfect low-risk investment for a club with room in its rotation

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The road to the big leagues has not been an easy one for Jacob Nix. The Astros selected Nix in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, just a few rounds behind fellow Team USA member Brady Aiken, selected by the then-lowly Astros with the first overall pick. But when Aiken failed his physical, the Astros withdrew their signing bonus, and thus lost their slot amount—and the under-slot savings of $1.5 million, which the Astros planned to use to pay Nix’s signing bonus, money they had promised to get him to skip out on a college scholarship to UCLA. (The team could have honored their initial commitment to Nix, but not without losing two future first-round picks, a penalty the team was unwilling to pay.) Nix headed to UCLA, assuming he’d go the college route instead, but the NCAA, in their infinite wisdom, ruled he’d compromised his amateur status by agreeing to sign with the Astros. Instead, Nix took the settlement money he’d received from his grievance against the Astros and went to the IMG Academy in Florida, and tried to wipe away everything that had happened before, to start fresh in the 2015 draft.

The Padres took Nix in the third round in 2015 and promptly sent him climbing up the minor-league ladder, rewarding his strong performance at each level with aggressive promotions. It’s typical for high school prospects to move a little more slowly, but the Padres, perhaps conscious of Nix’s extra year of seasoning, promoted Nix more on par with a polished college arm; he was already in Double-A by his second full professional season, and in the majors by his third, with virtually no time in Triple-A. Nix pitched 42 MLB innings in 2018, with poor results: his strikeouts, never overwhelming, virtually vanished, and his 92-94 mph fastball proved to be very hittable.

A UCL injury slowed Nix last Spring Training and he opted for rest and rehab over TJ surgery, always a risky proposition, but Nix was back throwing in late 2019. The Padres sent him to the Arizona Fall League this fall to make up for lost time, where he made one appearance, a start where he went 2.2 innings and surrendered one run on five hits while striking out three. It would be his only appearance of the AFL, as he was arrested October 10 in Peoria for criminal trespass. You can read the details of the case here, but if your first thought on clicking on this article was “is that the doggie door guy?” the answer is...yes. Nix was dismissed from the AFL and, as of yesterday, dismissed from the Padres, who designated him for assignment.

[A quick refresher on how waiver claims work: Nix would have to be passed over by all NL teams before AL teams got a shot at him. The Mariners would have higher priority than any AL team other than DET, BAL, KC, and TOR, but that’s still pretty far down the list. The surest way to get Nix, if the Mariners want to, would be a trade, either for a PTBNL or cash or international slot money. The cost would be minimal either way.]

Other teams have held on to, even traded for, “distressed assets” before. Maybe if Nix’s major league tenure had gone better; maybe if he was a closer with an overpowering fastball; maybe if the Padres weren’t so loaded with prospects; maybe if it hadn’t been a doggie door, somehow adding to the indignity of the whole thing—maybe then San Diego would have felt compelled to hang on to the 23-year-old former top prospect. Maybe Nix is a headache all the time and the doggie door incident, an iceberg moment. But from an outside perspective, getting lost in one of Peoria’s endless cookie cutter housing developments while intoxicated to the point of forgetting if your rental house has a doggie door or not, while not a great recommendation of one’s character, is pretty low-level in the pantheon of Bad Things Baseball Players Have Done. Given the long and difficult road he’s walked through baseball, Jacob Nix could use a fresh start, and the Mariners would be an excellent place for him to get that start.

What’s appealing about Nix is the raw materials available. At just 23 years old, there’s still time to develop him. Nix is listed at 6’4”/220 (aw, buddy, how did you think you were going to get through that doggie door??) but his fastball has topped out at just 92-93 mph and hasn’t been getting whiffs during his brief stint in the upper minors and MLB. He is able to command the fastball all over the plate, though, making him a good potential candidate for the Mariners’ velocity-boosting Gas Camp.

Nix also throws a curve and a changeup, both of which need work to become two distinct pitch shapes. There’s some tail on this change but emphasizing the tilt could make it more of a swing-and-miss weapon.

Similarly, the curve could use some sharper bite, something Nix has reportedly been working on. As it is, these two pitches resemble each other, movement-wise, fairly closely.

If you recognize these images, this is from Jacob Nix’s best start of 2018, when he went 8.1 innings against the Mariners in late August, surrendering just one home run to Nelson Cruz [pause for tender genuflection]. Nix, somewhat incredibly considering both the length of the outing and the state of the late 2018 Mariners, didn’t strike out a single batter during that game, but he was able to locate his low-90s fastball effectively, getting scores of weak groundouts and soft fly balls. Before the doggie door incident, this is what I thought of when I thought of Jacob Nix: a promising-looking young pitcher with some size and an ability to locate his fastball at will. Perhaps a fresh start in Seattle is what Nix needs to get back to that version of himself.

The Mariners have the roster space to give Nix time to start over and forge a new identity for himself. If the experiment fails, the Mariners haven’t sacrificed much, if any, prospect capital to acquire Nix’s services, and if it succeeds, not only will the Mariners have gained a young player at a position of need who fits the team’s ideal contention window, but it will reflect well on the team’s ability to develop pitching. Even if Nix’s elbow injury proves to need TJ, he could spend a year-plus rehabbing and still fit the team’s theoretical contention window, when he’ll still be younger than Marco Gonzales is now.

If he comes to the Mariners, Nix may only be switching sides of the Spring Training complex the Mariners share with the Padres, but he’ll be switching leagues, switching away from a team with immediate high expectations of contention, out to a corner of the US the national media doesn’t bother with much. It’s a good place for a restart, and for Jacob Nix to—as he’s had to once before—wipe away his past and set out on a new journey.