This weekend’s sweep at the hands of the Astros notwithstanding, it’s hard to see the Mariners being anything but buyers at the trade deadline. But where to upgrade, and what might that look like? Over the next week or so, we’ll break down some possible candidates for upgrading each of what we’ve identified as major holes for the team, including looking at internal options or what happens if the Mariners opt to stand pat.
We started this series by looking at second base, coming to the conclusion that the high demand for infield help at the trade deadline, combined with the team’s present internal options, suggests the Mariners might be better served looking elsewhere. Today we’ll address what most of us perceive as the largest need for the club looking down the stretch: starting pitching.
As we did last time, we’ll be splitting our suggested acquisitions into two categories: short-term help, or band-aid solutions for a stretch run; and players who will cost more but shape future Mariners teams as well.
How it Stands:
The Mariners remain in the bottom third of the league for pitcher fWAR, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at how the pitching staff performed over the Mariners’ recent hot streak. They led the league in ERA over the past month, and are tied with the Yankees in leading the league in stranding runners on base. Even when a starter has a shaky start, the offense has been there to pitch in, and they’ve finally started giving Chris Flexen some dang run support. But the rotation has gotten thin recently, with George Kirby optioned to Triple-A after some recent struggles, and a team that wants to make a run into the playoffs simply cannot be starting Tommy Milone every fifth day, or forcing Chris Flexen to make starts on short rest, as he did prior to the All-Star Break.
As far as internal options, Seattle could bring Kirby back up to take his spot back in the rotation, but that puts the rookie in a tough place as he continues to go through growing pains at the major league level. Emerson Hancock shined in an inning at the Futures Game, but he’s pitched just 41 innings this year at Double-A as the Mariners continue to ease him into his professional career. Taylor Dollard, the 2020 fifth-rounder, has been a workhorse at Double-A and put up numbers, but hasn’t been tested against more advanced hitters. That leaves Justus Sheffield, who’s struggled in Tacoma this year and recently missed a start with neck stiffness, and Tommy Milone, which just isn’t good enough for a team that wants to compete. The Mariners need pitching help, and they need it stat.
Unfortunately, it won’t come in the form of a couple popular trade targets from earlier this season—Kyle Hendricks is shut down with shoulder problems right now, and it seems like the Giants will stand pat at the deadline and try to roll forward with what they have rather than sell, putting an end to Kate’s “Carlos Rodón, Mariner” dreams once again. Stupid jerky Giants. But let’s look at who might be available, and at what possible price.
José Quintana, LHP, PIT
During his time with the White Sox, Quintana put up the most underrated performance of the mid-2010s, led by his ability to control the zone. He saw his ERA shoot up after he was traded across town to the Cubs, and then spent the last couple years on and off the IL. But this year, on a one-year, $2 million deal with the Pirates, he’s looking like a good pitcher again, smack in the middle of ~qualified pitchers by both K% and BB%. In many ways Quintana is the perfect deadline acquisition—he’ll provide real rotation depth so there are no more bullpen/Tommy Milone days but without clogging things up, and the Mariners wouldn’t have to mortgage their future to do it. If only there was a comp for what it would cost to acquire an average-ish starter on the last year of his deal with Pittsburgh. I was writing up Quintana out of obligation, but I think I just talked myself into thinking he’s what the Mariners should do. -ZM
Pros: The good version of the Marco/Flexen archetype; wouldn’t cost much
Cons: He hasn’t been this good and healthy in a while—is he about to turn back into a pumpkin?
Jordan Lyles, RHP, BAL
The Orioles, who paced the Mariners during their hot streak with one of their own, aren’t going to be going fire-sale mode anytime soon, but Lyles is on a one-year deal with a club option for $11M next year. Do you think Baltimore wants to pay a 32-year-old Jordan Lyles eleven million dollars? I don’t think so. Lyles hasn’t been hot stuff this year, but he’s a strike-thrower who pitches in the AL East, which is a lousy combination for him but looks more appealing out in the spacious confines of T-Mobile Park. Most importantly, Lyles is a workhorse who can take innings off the stretched-thin bullpen and hold down the ship capably until when and if George Kirby is ready to return. The prospect cost should be relatively minimal for a rental, and one as unexciting numbers-wise as Lyles. This is the unsexiest proposal in this article, and therefore the one with the highest likelihood of happening. -KP
Pros: Adds length as a solid backend starter type, minimal prospect cost
Cons: zzzzZZZZzzzz, does not help the Mariners get past the Astros
Chad Kuhl, RHP, COL
The Rockies signed Kuhl Hand Chad to a one-year deal prior to this season, so he’s the definition of a rental player. CM Kuhl J has been a trade target of mine for Seattle for years, based on pitch mix that yearned to be liberated. The hard-throwing righty has a dynamite slider that has consistently generated great outcomes, including a Top-30 CSW% this year among pitches thrown at least 500 times, alongside Kevin Gausman’s splitter and Shane McClanahan’s fastball. The velo has Kuhled off somewhat from sitting 95-96 on his heater following Tommy John surgery that kept him out for the 2019 season, but he still works 93-95 with ease. Kuhl struggled with dingeritis and walkalotiosis while with the Pirates, but the 29-year-old has had some success this season despite signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Colorado Rockies. He’s run a 4.11/4.38/5.27 ERA/FIP/DRA, which reflects the minute degree of this sort of addition in all likelihood if Kuhl continues as is. His repertoire currently consists of five pitches, however only the slider is a plus pitch, with a sinker and curveball that serve as the primary additional offerings. Neither his changeup nor his four-seam have shown much life, so this would be a circumstance of snagging a low-cost expiring arm a la Tyler Anderson in hopes of respectable innings. -JT
Pros: See: Lyles, Jordan, but also Colorado is already in surefire seller territory, Kuhl offers slight upside with pitch mix tweaks
Cons: Less track record of innings-eating than Lyles or other akin back-end starter options, extremely minimal upgrade
An eye to the future:
Tyler Mahle, RHP, CIN
Mahle’s not a free agent until 2024, so the Reds don’t have to trade him at the deadline. And since he just got back from a trip to the IL with a shoulder issue, Cincinnati might just hold him until the offseason rather than sell low. But if he’s available, he’s a top target. For four years, he’s consistently run a CSW around 29%, one of the better marks in baseball. His main secondary is a splitter, which would be a great fit in the Mariners rotation, giving batters a different look than they see out of any of Seattle’s other pitchers. At times, he’s had a bit of a dinger problem, but who doesn’t in Great American Small Park? You’re not going to get Mahle for cheap. Mahle doesn’t quite have José Berríos’s track record, but when he’s good, he’s about as good as Berríos. With 1.5 years of control last deadline, Berrios got the Twins two top-100 prospects. A Mahle deal probably starts with Matt Brash and also includes Hancock or, if we’re luckier, someone in the Macko/Dollard tier that Cincinnati likes, plus a younger high-upside player. -ZM
Pros: A real upgrade with impact next year too;
Cons: Requires actually pushing in chips, is coming off a shoulder injury
Germán Márquez, RHP, COL
Márquez has one year remaining on the large contract extension he signed in 2019 (2024 is a club option with a $3.5M buyout), so he’s not exactly a rental, and it’s not hard to see the foolhardy Rockies holding on to him with the ever-dimming hopes of doing something other than spinning their wheels in the NL West in 2023. But they should not do that, and should instead free Márquez from the prison of Coors Field, and send him to the Mariners, who will teach Germán their patented pitching philosophy of “throw your good pitches more, and the bad ones less or not at all”. In exchange, Seattle could send the Rockies a package that starts with Taylor Trammell, to give the Rockies an actual outfielder and also some offensive help for a lineup that ranks 24th in baseball by fWAR. If the Rockies want to look longer-term and get pitching in return, Márquez’s contract and results should preclude the Mariners from having to offer Hancock; they could offer someone like Adam Macko, someone the Rockies would be familiar with since the Mariners and Colorado affiliates play each other at all levels except Double-A, and another complementary piece. -KP
Pros: Has been good in the past, only a year left if things go bad, nominal prospect cost
Cons: Has been stinky poo-poo bad this year, might not be better out of Coors, might not be available in the first place
Luis Castillo, RHP, CIN
Perhaps the flashiest pitcher on the market, Castillo has continued to excel in Cincinnati even as the Reds implode. The 29-year-old is under club control through 2023 and figures to command a steep asking price given his superb numbers (3.05 FIP, 9.46 K/9). Similarly to a potential Tyler Mahle trade, the best comparison for Castillo (as C. Trent Rosencrans points out on The Athletic) is last year’s José Berríos swap, where the Twins traded a slightly younger (27 vs. 29) pitcher with a slightly worse track record (4.04 career FIP vs. 3.69), but still with 1.5 years of control. The return? A top-20 national prospect in Austin Martin and a top-100 guy in Simeon Woods-Richardson. That means the M’s would probably need to part with Noelvi Marte or Edwin Arroyo and Matt Brash or Emerson Hancock, unless the notoriously cheap Reds ownership is looking to unload Mike Moustakas’s contract as part of a deal. Pricy, sure, but a Castillo-Gilbert-Ray troika would be a great setup for a playoff series. The next question for Jerry Dipoto: Which of the Reds’ starters do you prefer? -GB
Pros: really good player who’s more than a rental
Cons: significant prospect cost, would likely need a big extension
Pablo López, RHP, Marlins
Yeah buddy, run it back. Seattle’s front office surely recognizes the risks they are running, both in terms of health and effectiveness, by heading into a stretch run with a rotation that features two strong starters, a pair of contact-managers, and a rookie with oodles of promise whose innings will continue needing management. They’ve also been typically reticent to make impact additions unless they can get multiple years of control of that player in return. López, then, represents a more modest option than the names above (or Oakland Athletics RHP Frankie Montas, whose circumstances resemble Mahle’s pretty conveniently). The 26-year-old Miami righty is in his fifth big league season, with two and a half years before he’ll reach free agency. In essence, if Seattle believes this is a playoff club, and that the next two years will be as well, they could make a similar offer to what Mahle might cost, or realistically a bit more, improving their club while dealing a few of their best prospects, but not likely all. That means something like Hancock and Zach DeLoach, as well as likely a current but controlled position player like Kyle Lewis in addition to player(s) like Abraham Toro and/or Taylor Trammell. Seattle could also take on underwhelming players on big (for Miami) contracts like OF Jorge Soler (or more dauntingly, OF Avisaíl García) who Seattle could find situational use for despite middling numbers this season in full-time roles.
The return of López is that of an above-average starter, particularly by rate, though one who has yet to put together a full season of production due to a series of small health issues each season. The 2017 season where Seattle sent López to Miami as part of a package for RHP David Phelps was the last season besides 2020 where he did not make at least one trip to the injured list, and even this year he’s missed starts with a wrist injury on a comebacker that fortunately did not quite push him to the IL. Conversely, specifically because Seattle has been so fortunate with health in their rotation yet lacked upside at times, López can slot in with the opportunity to thrive and also to be maintained at a level that keeps him fresh and healthy. The sinkerballer’s 3.14/3.74/3.78 ERA/FIP/DRA makes him one of the most appealing options on the market, as does the fact that he has four pitches - sinker, slider, changeup, and cutter - that all yield above-average results. If you do not expect a massive move from Seattle in terms of trading for Soto, Castillo, Montas, or another top tier name, López is an upgrade that strengthens them significantly down the stretch and for the next few years to boot. Bring. Him. Home. -JT
Pros: Playoff caliber starter younger than most other options available with 2.5 years of contract control, low $ cost should not limit ownership spending elsewhere
Cons: Will be fairly costly in terms of prospect capital, lacks workhorse track record
What will probably happen:
It seems likely that Juan Soto will end up wearing a color other than Northwest Green this summer. But if Jerry is willing to dip significantly into the farm, both López and Castillo would slide neatly into the Mariners’ contention window over the next few seasons. All of Dipoto’s recent comments have emphasized starting pitcher as a priority over second base or backup catcher, to boot. Were I a betting man, I’d go with one of the Reds (Castillo or Mahle) finding his way to Seattle. -GB
Agreed with Grant that pitching will be the priority at the deadline, but as the recent shellacking by the Astros shows, these Mariners are more than one piece away from being a team that can make a deep run in the playoffs, and I don’t feel like Dipoto will mortgage significant parts of the future unless they see that player as making a significant impact in Seattle for years to come. I know it’s boring, but I’d get a kick of out seeing if Seattle’s vaunted pitching development could help out a Márquez or Kuhl, although the instant I started writing up Lyles, the image of him wearing Northwest Green sprang fully-formed to my mind, so that would be my bet. -KP