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Getting Blake Snell without trading for Blake Snell

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Do this, Mariners. Do not trade for Blake Snell.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Around a week ago, it was reported that the Rays — being excessively parsimonious, per usual — were open to trading Blake Snell. Of course, this prompted fans and analysts alike to fantasize about underwhelming packages they could ship off to the Rays to net Snell. We wrote about it too! The thing for me, though, is that we don’t need to trade for Snell. We can sign him via free agency, sort of.

It’s easy for me to explain why I don’t think we should actually trade for Snell. It seems like the Chris Archer deal is the general framework in which people are still working under to create potential trade packages, and our own Kate Preusser figures that a Mariners-Rays deal would start with one of Julio Rodríguez or Jarred Kelenic, with more added on. If Seattle balked at that demand, as they should, then Logan Gilbert or Emerson Hancock could replace them as potential headliners. It seems unlikely that the Rays would be swayed by a package that didn’t include Kelenic or Rodríguez, though.

Over at The Athletic, Eno Sarris created five trades that could work for various teams. To respect The Athletic’s paywall, I’ll note that, overall, a trade for Snell would likely do more to hurt the Mariners moving forward than help. And so, the crux of this article is as follows: if we want to trade for Snell, why don’t we just simply shell out some cash to ink his relative equal in James Paxton?

Here’s a comparison of the two, from 2018 to 2020:

Snell vs. Paxton, 2018-2020

IP FIP- xFIP- SIERA K-BB% xwOBAcon
IP FIP- xFIP- SIERA K-BB% xwOBAcon
Paxton 331.1 81 81 3.46 23.1 0.395
Snell 337.2 78 73 3.43 23 0.367

While Snell has shown the ability to suppress hard contact a little better than Paxton — this is part of the reason for the difference in their HR/9 marks — their overall numbers are awfully similar across the board. They’ve been equally durable (or delicate, rather), and, while Snell is superior in the strikeout department, Paxton is better at limiting walks. The key difference is that Paxton is becoming more of a flyball pitcher (and thus more prone to the home run ball), and Paxton is also declining while Snell is, well, not.

Obviously, the Mariners would prefer the 27-year-old Snell to the 32-year-old Paxton in a vacuum based on age alone, but whereas the former would require slight reversion in their farm system and the latter can be had for around $30M over two years, it’s hard to argue in favor of Snell. At least for me.

And that says nothing of Snell’s own warts! He’s been similarly prone to the injured list, and while I think people are likely to argue that Snell is only likely to get better, my counter would be, uh, why? There doesn’t seem like much room for growth in the strikeout department, and his walk percentage has hovered around 9%, which is a direct feature of his inconsistent ability to command the ball, depending on the outing. It’s hard to imagine Snell eclipsing his 2018 numbers, and even then, his .241 BABIP and 88.0 LOB% suggest that he was on the right side of luck that year. And so, considering it would require sending over at least one blue chip prospect as well as a major league ready player just to get the ball rolling, I can’t get myself to think that acquiring Snell is very sensible for the Mariners at this point in time.

Looking at the Mariners roster over the next several years, it becomes more apparent that Paxton fits their window nicely. As is, Roster Resource has their rotation listed (in order) as: Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome. I don’t really care to watch the latter half of that rotation pitch throughout the duration of the year. Barring some tweaks via pitch design, Dunn looks like he may not even be effective in the bullpen. Margevicius is a swingman at best, and Newsome has yet to show me compelling evidence that he’s a starter yet.

Assuming that Seattle can manage a two-year deal for Paxton (I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course they can!), that puts us in 2023 when Paxton would theoretically be gone. By then, we will hopefully have seen the likes of Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Brandon Williamson, Isaiah Campbell, Juan Then, and Sam Carlson who could all serve as reinforcements. They won’t fill out an entire rotation — at least not by 2023 — but they provide a bevy of talent that could complement pitchers acquired via free agency or trade.

And then there’s the obvious one: the homecoming narrative. While Snell shares this narrative, Paxton actually came up with the Mariners, and he’s from the neighboring British Columbia. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who loves pitching in New York, and it seems reasonable enough that Paxton would want to return to the area where he played for nearly a decade and where his wife still works and resides.

The downside here is either that the Mariners are on the hook for ~$30M through 2022 as he fades from his prime into mediocrity, or he simply doesn’t pitch very much. The upside is that he anchors a rotation filled with young pitchers before the now-prospects are ready to take over. Given that the Mariners have the fifth-lowest total payroll going into 2021, they have plenty of financial flexibility — and we know they can spend! After all, they’re not far removed from ranking in the top ten in payroll in Major League Baseball, and signing Paxton would still leave them with the tenth-lowest total payroll in baseball.

In the end, I think I’ve made it clear that it would be injudicious for the Mariners to ship off players who are going to be key in the final stages of our rebuilding process in exchange for Snell. On the other hand, Paxton checks all of the boxes. He’s an ace when he’s on the mound, he’s a likeable (albeit stoic) player, he’s homegrown, and he’s a developmental win that the Mariners should reward with a large wheelbarrow of money. And hey, it wouldn’t hurt his case for induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame.