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40 in 40: Marco Gonzales

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The steady southpaw looks to take another step forward in 2020

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Being a Mariners fan at the beginning of this decade was an unforgettable experience, though not in the good way. Just in case you were lucky enough not to follow the team during the Casey Kotchman era, you should know one thing about the Mariners of the early 2010’s. They were known for a pitching staff that ranged from above-average to world-beating and a lineup that could charitably be characterized as putrid.

From 2010 to 2013, the Mariners’ starters ranked sixth in all of baseball in fWAR. The batters ranked dead last. They put up just 25 fWAR over those four seasons, less than half of what the 24th-ranked Cleveland Indians managed.

Under Jerry Dipoto, however, the team has had the opposite problem. Since Dipoto took over, M’s starters have ranked 23rd in MLB in cumulative fWAR. Battle-scarred fans who were around during 2017 might remember phenoms such as Adrian Sampson or Andrew Albers start high-leverage September games.

The pitching staff has been a purgatory at best, a hellscape at worst. Though several pitchers have been passable (I love you, Mike Leake), there have exactly two beacons of hope during the dark Seattle evenings of the past few years.

One of them has accrued 7.2 fWAR over the past two seasons. That’s good for eighth among qualfied AL pitchers.. Those wins have come on the back of an xFIP that hovers around 3.50, but they’ve also been punctuated by repeated stints on the Injured List. This guy has thrown 311 innings in those two years, and he’s never hit more than 160.1 in any one season.

The other one has accrued 7.1 fWAR over the past two seasons (9th among qualified AL pitchers). His xFIP isn’t as great: about 4.25. However, what he lacks in raw stuff he makes up for in consistency and durability. He’s thrown 369.2 innings in the past two years, and just threw a career-high 203.0 in 2019.

Here they are:

James Paxton v. Marco Gonzales (2018-2019)

Pitcher fWAR K% BB% IP xFIP
Pitcher fWAR K% BB% IP xFIP
James Paxton 7.2 30.8 7.6 311 3.51
Marco Gonzales 7.1 18.8 5.7 369.2 4.43

What this comparison illustrates is that there are two pathways to the same regular season production. Though Paxton has undeniably better peripherals, he hasn’t been able to stay as healthy as Marco. That lack of availability has capped his production. Marco, on the other hand, is the very model of consistency.

As a power pitcher, Paxton tops out around 95-97 MPH. Marco sits around 89 MPH. A team would never give up for Marco what the Yankees gave up for Paxton last offseason. There’s a reason for that, of course. Paxton’s upside is higher, if he can stay healthy. In a playoff situation where production over a single game matters much more than consistent production over a season, you’d take Paxton every time.

To be successful, though, a team needs third and fourth starters. Unless you’re the 2011 Phillies, all of your pitchers can’t be aces. If you’re even going to get into that postseason game in the first place, you need a Marco Gonzales. If the Mariners are going to sneak into the 2021 or 2022 postseasons, they’re going to need Marco Gonzales.

Fortunately, they’ll most likely have him. Just three weeks ago, the Mariners extended Marco through the 2025 season.

Note that the Mariners’ PR department emphasizes that 7.1 fWAR figure in the Tweet — omitting his 4.00 ERA over that same time frame.

Of course, should something better come along, this extension doesn’t wed Marco to the Mariners. If anything, this deal increases his trade value and a no-trade clause hasn’t been reported. Rather, he’s owed just $250K if he’s traded.

Finally, it should be noted that all of this assumes that Marco has peaked. At age 28, that may well be the case. He has plenty of room for improvement, especially at the edges of his arsenal. His changeup has always been his best pitch, followed closely by a fastball with late action that makes up for its lack of speed. His slider is passable. Where Marco can really improve, however, is with his cutter and his curveball. Fangraphs rated both pitches negatively in 2019, and if he can refine either one into a plus pitch, he has the chance to take a step forward.

Marco Gonzales has already established his floor. Barring injury, he’s going to be a solid third or fourth starter for the foreseeable future. And while that’s already more valuable than you might think at first, he has the chance to be even better. With 2020 set to be another year of growth for the young Mariners, he’ll have all the time in the world to improve.