Seattle Mariners Off-Season Preview: Starting Pitchers

SEATTLE, WA - JULY 29: Starting pitcher Patrick Corbin #46 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches in the fourth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on July 29, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - JULY 29: Starting pitcher Patrick Corbin #46 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches in the fourth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on July 29, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) /

Ask any Mariner fan and they’ll tell you that the team’s biggest, most dire need this offseason is starting pitching. Acquiring a starter is one thing, but actually upgrading the position may be harder than you think.

Jerry Dipoto was reluctant to spend money on his starting rotation this past offseason, much to the dismay of the Mariners’ fanbase. There weren’t many viable options on the free agent market, giving the few talented starters available all the leverage to swing deals the Mariners just couldn’t afford.

When looking at 2018, it probably was for the best that the Mariners didn’t heavily invest in Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, or Lance Lynn. Instead, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc gave them similar – if not better – production than all three.

Leake and LeBlanc join James Paxton, Marco Gonzales, and Felix Hernandez as the projected starting rotation for 2019 as they are all under contract. It’s a decent rotation that could see more improvement rather than regression in the near future.

The biggest question mark, of course, is Hernandez. Despite having an abysmal 2018 season, Hernandez is slated to make $27 million in 2019, therefore guaranteeing him a spot on the roster and most likely the rotation.

Considering his contract, age, and lack of production over the past three seasons, there will be absolutely no interest in Hernandez on the trade market, and cutting him doesn’t save the Mariners from the money they owe him. Basically, they’re stuck with him.

Thankfully, they’re only stuck for this last season, and getting that $27 million off the books in 2020 will line them up well to make a splash during that offseason. For now, though, we have to focus on how the team and its rotation can improve in 2019.

The upcoming free agent market for starting pitchers is definitely a bit deeper than last year. Leading the pack are Diamondbacks ace Patrick Corbin, 2015 American League Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, and his teammate Charlie Morton.

All three will receive interest from their former teams as well as the majority of the league, including the Mariners. But the M’s may or may not be in a position to enter a bidding war, especially with other holes to fill elsewhere on the roster.

Perhaps the Mariners would be better suited for the second tier of pitchers, starting with a familiar face in J.A. Happ. The Blue Jays traded Happ to the Yankees back in July, meaning he is no longer eligible to be tagged with a qualifying offer. Of course, this potentially makes him the most attractive pitcher on the market, though he is entering his age 36 season in 2019.

That said, Happ would probably be the best pitcher the Mariners could acquire without absolutely breaking the bank for years to come. Given his age, Happ will likely receive a two-year deal at most, with a third-year option attached, for roughly $16 million per season.

The Mariners could also look to the trade market and try to swing a deal for someone like Sonny Gray or Jordan Zimmermann, who both could come relatively affordable.

The problem with acquiring any pitcher this offseason, however, is how clear of an upgrade they actually are. Given the predicament Hernandez’s contract has caused the Mariners, they are simply unable to replace him. Instead, whoever they acquire has to be better than one of LeBlanc, Leake, or Gonzales in their eyes.

LeBlanc would be the likeliest candidate to see the door, considering his ability to pitch out of the bullpen and his extremely team-friendly contract. Though the Mariners are receiving quite a bit of help from the Cardinals, they’re still in line to pay Leake a decent chunk of change at $11 million, and Gonzales has a ton of potential and zero Minor League options so he shouldn’t even be under consideration.

Someone like Gio Gonzalez and Anibal Sanchez would probably not fit the bill, likely eliminating them from the list of possible acquisitions. Potential trade targets such as Dan Straily and Mike Minor also wouldn’t make a lot of sense either. Again, they’re not replacing Felix, so it would have to be someone in the realm of Happ, Gray, or Corbin, who actually are clear upgrades over the likes of Leake and LeBlanc, to actually warrant such a move.

One idea that I’ve become fond of over the last week is taking a flyer on Garrett Richards, who has recently undergone Tommy John surgery and likely won’t pitch again until 2020. Similar to Drew Smyly‘s deal with the Cubs last offseason, the Mariners could give Richards a two-year deal to keep the door open on a potential earlier return and hold his rights for his expected 2020 timeline.

Luckily, the Mariners have quite a few options and their rotation doesn’t seem to be in as much despair as it did last year. The Hernandez ordeal is the biggest snag, but it’s at least something the Mariners won’t have hanging over their heads in a year’s time.

In the end, it may be in the Mariners’ interests to stand pat at the position if money’s getting tight. With the Hernandez deal off the books, the Mariners will head into a 2020 free agent period headlined by the likes of Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, and Alex Wood with quite a bit of change in their pocket.