Shipwreck: A Dipoto deal that didn’t work

The free agent market is heating up slightly.  News that Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs is good for him and good for the game. Lots of lesser players are signing as well, but the rest of the big names-Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb and others are still unemployed.

An interesting name popped up yesterday on MLB Trade Rumors. Shae Simmons was signing a deal with the Cubs.  You may remember Simmons as a reliever traded to Seattle from Atlanta on January 11, 2017.  The Mariners granted Simmons free agency in December. He’s partnered in Mariner trade history with Drew Smyly who also was acquired by trade from Tampa Bay on January 11, 2017, and is also now a Cub.  So two players acquired by the Mariners same day are now wearing Cubbie blue, and are linked together in a pair of deals that go together.

They were costly deals that never worked out and I would argue they are among the worst deals in Mariner history.  Not quite Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb bad, or Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Kam Mickolio, Chris Tillman and Tony Butler for Erik Bedard horrendous, but it will be remembered with the worst of them.

Let’s recall the details of this swap. The M’s began by trading minor league pitchers Thomas Burrows and Luiz Gohara to the Braves for reliever Shae Simmons and minor league outfielder Mallex Smith. The same day Dipoto traded 17 year old infielder Carlos Vargas, minor league starter Ryan Yarbrough and Smith to Tampa Bay for Smyly.

Here’s what the M’s got in this deal.  Smyly was signed to a two year deal with the Rays, and would have been part of the Mariners through the 2018 season.  He went off to the WBC during spring training in 2017, and had a great outing.  Came back to camp with a “soggy arm” and never made it back out on the mound for the Mariners. He went through TJ surgery and was granted free agency on December 1st along with Simmons. Smyly’s injury was the first of a plague of pitching injuries that effectively de-railed the Mariners season. He’ll also be the poster boy for manager concerns about allowing their best pitchers to throw in a high stress situation before they are physically ready in the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

Simmons was the other player the Mariners held on to after the dust cleared on January 11th.  He is considered a right-handed reliever with a power arm the M’s coveted.  Long on potential but short on major-league experience. Simmons also never made it out of spring training, developing significant arm/shoulder problems.  He eventually pitched in nine September games for the M’s, allowing virtually nothing through his first six appearances and getting absolutely shelled in his last game. Scheduled to make $700K in 2018, the M’s mysteriously non-tendered him.

So the M’s completed virtually a three team deal to acquire Smyly and Simmons, and between the two of them got 7.2 innings out of Simmons. What did the Mariners give up?

Tampa Bay received Mallex Smith and Ryan Yarbrough.  Smith is a 24 year-old speed and defense outfielder.  He managed a .270/.328/.355 slash in 81 games with 16 stolen bases in Tampa.  He was also a superior defender with 12 Defensive Runs Saved in his half season of work.   His performance is very mindful of Jarrod Dyson.  Smith is expected to step in for All-Star Center Fielder Kevin Kiermaier if the Rays trade him.

Yarbrough is a 26 year old lefty starter who is ranked 27th in Tampa’s highly regarded farm system.  Last year he made 26 starts with a 3.43 ERA, 9.1 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and  1.163 WHIP.  Yarbrough is envisioned as a back of the rotation starter.  He’d probably look good in Mariner blue.

Atlanta’s farm system is ranked #1 by Baseball America.  Luiz Gohara is ranked as their number six prospect. The hard throwing lefty pitched 29.1 innings for the Braves in 2017 or about four times as many innings as Smyly and Simmons combined. Writer David O’Brien of the Atlanta Constitution Journal expects him to break into the Braves rotation in 2018.

Thomas Burroughs didn’t quite make the Baseball America Top 20 Atlanta prospects, more of an honorable mention.  But he did make the MLB.com top 30 for Atlanta.  For a team that is virtually without significant infield prospects trading Burroughs without a significant return hurts.

This is a trade that just didn’t work. Smyly and Simmons are gone, and so are the armload of prospects traded for them.  Imagine if the M’s hadn’t traded Mallex Smith. They might not have made the deal for Jarrod Dyson, and still had Nate Karns. They wouldn’t have needed Dee Gordon and could have held on to his $9 million salary.  They also would have kept Nick Neidert, their best pitching prospect heading into 2018.  Or they could have forgotten the whole deal and held on to Gohara and Yarbrough, both of whom might be challenging for a starting role today.

Jerry’s made lots of deals.  There have been some really good ones. I like the trade for Segura and Haninger.  I like the Gordon trade.  But there are some that haven’t worked out at all, including the Chris Taylor trade; Mike Montgomery to the Cubs for Paul Blackburn and Daniel Vogelbach,  and this one.

I was listening to the Baseball America podcast with Carlos Collazo and Kyle Glaser analyzing the Mariners farm system.  You may recall it is ranked the worst in the majors. It is a fairly sympathetic look at what Jerry Dipoto has done to improve the big league club.  But among the comments is a recognition that Dipoto has also traded 13 pitching prospects over the past two years, which has seriously depleted the farm.  It’s a great listen–30 minutes during your morning commute. Glaser was highly complimentary of the entire organization including farm executives and scouting.

But it’s the drive to get into the playoffs that has forced trades that weaken the farm system and left no margin for error, like the injury to Smyly.

This trade continued the trend and essentially got nothing back. At least in the bad Slocumb and Bedard trades we got some bad innings out of the deal. We didn’t even get that in this trade.  I like Dipoto’s boldness, but the man has made some costly mistakes, and this is one of them.

 

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So, what are their chances? No, really.

peoria

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” observed Richard III from Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  Thankfully, with the arrival of spring training, many fans will find a way to end their ire at the might-have-beens or should-have-signed that has dotted social media, the blogs and even the local papers. Lets get down to brass tacks and see what happens as players prepare for the season that opens a scant seven weeks from now.

We’ve heard GM Jerry Dipoto’s defense for not signing another arm for the rotation.  It’s hard to imagine the Mariners would not be better without an Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn.  But unless their market crashes, one has to take Dipoto at his word.  There won’t be another addition to the rotation. The pitchers will be James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, and likely Marco Gonzalez.

The only contest for jobs will likely be the utility infield position, with chief rivals being Taylor Motter and Andrew Romine.  There is going to be the barest of competitions for back-up catcher between Mike Marjama and David Freitas. And there will be some competition for the last bullpen spot-which will be owned by Gonzalez if he is out-pitched for the rotation by Ariel Miranda or Andrew Moore.

The lineup welcomes Dee Gordon, likely to the lead-off spot with Segura hitting behind him, leading to the core of Cano, Cruz and Seager.  Ryon Healy will take a turn at first base unless he is completely upstaged in the spring by Rule 5 draftee Mike Ford.  Gordon upgrades the lineup with on-base skill and speed, otherwise it is the same.   It has the potential of being more fun to watch, with some additional speed on the bases from Gordon and Segura.  It could be a lot better if we’re just beginning to see the best of Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel.  Healy’s arsenal of dingers and strikeouts could get old in a hurry. Assuming health, this team should score more than the 750 runs than the 2017 team did.

But realistically, how good is this team?  I’ve seen the projections, you’ve seen the projections, all god’s children have looked at Steamer, ZIP’s, Pecota, FAN and whatever else is out there.  The projections are all an interesting mathematical exercise, and at the end of the day they may be correct. But in the end all the projection services tend to be conservative in the assumptions based on previous years. Though injuries play a role in the projections, injuries and health, improvement or regression aren’t foreseeable so it’s hard to know how much stock to put in them. That’s why they play the games.

I believe the M’s have three potential bands of success or failure.

The first band is the 2018 Mariners of broken bodies.  If there is significant injury to the projected rotation–whether it is Paxton and Felix, or Leake and Ramirez, the Mariners will finish below .500.  If they repeat last year’s rotation devastation, it is hard to see how they win 75 games.  If there are significant injuries to the line-up as well, or if Cano and Cruz meet the off-stated assumption that old guys at some point fall off a cliff,  it will be less than 75 games. It could be less than 70. This band has a low floor

The second band is in accord with most of the projections, about a .500 ballclub.  It’s easy to envision the Mariners here if injuries to the rotation are moderate. Some missed starts and a possible trip to the DL by starters, but not for an extended period of time. No catastrophic injuries to the line-up, though some players don’t play up to expectations. This would be a foreseeable but unsatisfying outcome.

The third band is more encouraging,  but requires good health, continued improvement by young players, and some luck. If the rotation is healthy, Paxton takes the next step, and Felix is at least some level of nobility, the wolfpack pitches effectively in the role Dipoto envisions, it will be a step forward.  If Cano and Seager approach their 2016 production, and/or the younger players continue to improve it will lead to a more formidable offense.  This third band, my prediction, begins at 84 wins.  I’ve always been an optimist. However, breakout seasons by Paxton or the other pitchers, a shut-down bullpen, and elevated performances in the lineup could raise it all to 88 wins.  I can’t imagine the ceiling much higher with lots of games against an other-worldly Astros team and the improved Angels.

There is a road to the playoffs.  It’s foreseeable, at the very top of this team’s ceiling.  It’s also unlikely. If the Mariners play well and the Angels and Twins stumble, it could happen.  I think the M’s will be decent, just not good enough. And if they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, and with Kyle Lewis, Evan White and Sam Carlson still years away from the majors, what is the path forward?

 

Pitchers and catchers report. Time for questions to be answered.

02242016-spring01

If today isn’t the official beginning of spring training, at least it feels a little closer.  Players will arrive in Peoria, some with their families.  They will don actual cleats and uniforms.  Baseball will happen between the lines in a real Mariners baseball facility.  Maybe not today, but assuredly tomorrow.

And, trust me, the sun will rise a little earlier, shine a little brighter and stay out a little longer. Because, well, baseball.

I can remember no more maudlin Mariners off-season than the one passed. In fact I can’t remember an off-season in which so little seemed to happen, and it wasn’t just the Mariners.

We’ve all (i.e., I’ve) become used to frenetic Jerry Dipoto making seemingly daily deals to improve the team, and honestly there simply hasn’t been much dealing. Not even many minor league signings, releases or shuffling.  Nope, Dee Gordon dealt for, Juan Nicasio signed before Christmas.  All we could do was watch as other teams made deals or signed the big name free agents out on the market.  Except they didn’t. Sigh.

And, of course, that lack of action gave all of us plenty to complain about. Everyone has voiced their concern the Mariners rotation and a need for one more decent body.  Larry Stone of the Seattle Times and Jay Jaffe of SI.com both wrote columns in the last week identifying the weakening market for second tier pitchers like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, and how the lengthy, expensive commitment Dipoto publicly identified as destructive to the Mariners’ future may not be needed to sign them. And who is to say they’re wrong?

The M’s head into spring training as perhaps the fringiest of fringe playoff teams. They are a bundle of maybes and what ifs.   Here are just a few of the questions I have:

  1. Can the rotation hold together with glue, baling wire and duct tape for 162 games and deliver a modicum of the stability lacking in 2017?
  2. Will Dipoto’s “wolf pack strategy” work with this bullpen in support of this rotation?
  3. Can Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager approach the numbers they had in 2016, or is what we saw last year who they really are?
  4. Does Nelson Cruz have one last great campaign?
  5. Have we seen the best of Mike Zunino and Mitch Haniger, or is the best yet to come?
  6. Can Dee Gordon make us forget Jarrod Dyson’s glove?
  7. Will Ryon Healy be the best Mariner first baseman since Russell Branyan?

I don’t know that I have the answers, but we’re about to start finding out.  Go M’s.

Hall of Fame wrap-up

Jeff idelson 2

Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jeff Idelson made the big announcement on the MLB Network.

All my close observation of Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker have gone for naught. With the MLB Network announcing the final vote, Edgar Martinez has missed election to the Hall of Fame again.  Am, I disappointed? Yes, but it could be so much worse.  Here’s the relevant vote by the numbers

Chipper Jones                            97.2%

Vladimir Guerrero                   92.9%

Jim Thome                                  89.8%

Trevor Hoffman                        79.9%

Edgar Martinez                         70.4%

I could belabor to death the injustice of this vote and how Edgar belongs in the Hall, but honestly 297 of 422 voters agree with me. I’m confident the 20 additional votes #11 needs for election will appear and Martinez will earn his plaque.

Reason for optimism

  1. Look where we’ve come from. This is Edgar’s vote percentages since 2014-2014 25.2%; 2015 27.0%; 2016 43.4%; 2017 58.6%; 2018 70.4%.  The arc of baseball justice has taken its sweet time, but the finish line is a mere 20 votes away. Edgar was 73 away last year.
  2. Tim Raines finished the voting with 69.2% of the vote in 2016.  He changed 37 minds and captured all 15 new voters in 2017 to enter the Hall with 88.2% of the vote. That was without curmudgeon Murray Chass.  Edgar owns Chass.
  3. With four more inductees, the ballot continues along the path since 2014 with a fair number of inductees that winnows down a crowded ballot.  Four for 2018, three in 2017, two in 2016 and four in 2015. With Mariano Rivera and a fairly modest supporting cast in 2019.  Edgar will be the strongest holdover and less likely claimed as the 11th best player on the ballot.  The time is right for a Mo and Edgar coronation in 365 days.
  4. The megaphone for Edgar’s election simply gets louder. Jay Jaffe of SI.com, Ryan Spaeder of Sportingnews.com, and Joe Posnanski of MLB.com all wrote compelling articles about Edgar’s candidacy and were joined by many others.  Most importantly, they were joined by distinguished writers Tracey Ringolsby and Murray Chass who cast their first votes for Edgar.

This year’s hall vote

  1. I really thought Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would make significant gains in the vote.  I’ve become far more of fence-sitter on these two.  But the needle on their candidacy barely moved. Clemens went from 54.1% to 57.3%  Bonds climbed from 53.8% to 56.4%.  The battle-lines between the PED softies and hardliners remain very clearly drawn.
  2. In the too little too late department, Larry Walker was the biggest vote gainer after Vladimir Guerrero.  Unfortunately, as the Expos/Rockies outfield great enters his next to last year of eligibility, he’ll begin with only 34.1%.  Things also look bad for Fred McGriff, who is seriously under-appreciated.
  3. Omar Vizquel, in his first year of eligibility, garnered 37% of the vote and ranked number 10 among all candidates. Not bad for a defense-first guy.  It will be interesting to see what happens next year.
  4. Former Mariner Jamie Moyer attracted 10 votes, for 2.4% of the vote.  He’ll fall off the ballot this year, but it matched the votes for Johan Santana.  Jamie was always in it for the long game.

IBWAA Hall vote

The internet baseball writers went crazy in 2018.  Full disclosure:  I am a member.

IBWAA chose the following players for election to their Hall of Fame:

Chipper Jones

Jim Thome

Roger Clemons

Barry Bonds

Mike Mussina

Trevor Hoffman

First group to select known PED users to their Hall.  Huge class. Just to be clear, Edgar Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero are already in the IBWAA Hall of Fame and did not appear on this ballot.

With all this behind us, it’s time to get ready for some baseball. Go M’s. Edgar for Hall of Fame 2019.

Hall of Fame announcement on Wednesday: Edgar, projections and a few of my thoughts.

This has been an interesting year for Hall of Fame voting.  Some really interesting choices on the ballot and some equally interesting votes as well.  If you are interested in following votes made public before the Hall announcement on the 24th (this coming Wednesday) there are great resources for you to follow.  Ryan Thibodeaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker is a must, with loads of detail about past and present votes, predicting the number of additional votes previous candidates received.  Really valuable information if you’re following candidates closely.

Equally as interesting, but I hesitate to put as much faith in them, are the three fellows using data as well as past and present trends to project likely voting outcomes. All three project a sizable Hall of Fame class, and I think that’s good news.

Scott Lindholm’s January 19th projection has four players making it into the Hall of Fame.

Scott Lindholm Projection

So good news if you’re an Edgar Martinez advocate.  Not so great if you’re rooting for Trevor Hoffman.  Not sure how much faith i put in Lindholm’s numbers.  Hoffman has gotten a net 11 voters to change their votes, and only needed five. There would have to be a lot of changes against him to fail election.  Edgar just needs more votes, and with only 46.9% of the votes known, things will have to break his way.  You can follow Lindholm on Twitter

Nathaniel  Rakich, also on Twitter, has a somewhat different view, with five players making it in.

Nathaniel Rakich projection

This January 19th projection should be encouraging to Edgar supporters because earlier Rakich  projections had him falling short. Within a margin of error, but still good news. Rakich updates his projections regularly as votes dribble in daily.

Jason Sarsdell’s projection, while encouraging, leaves Edgar on the outside, with votes as follows

Jason Sarsdell projection

Sarsdell, on Twitter, is a bit less  exact than Lindholm and Rakich, but also offers a confidence factor on his table.  Look, all these guys use math and probability in ways I can’t begin to understand.

But for ardent Edgar followers the news should be encouraging as Sarsdell, Rakich, and Lindholm all have him within 1.2% of election. Nobody would have suggested that possibility after 2015 when Martinez garnered a scant 27.0%.

The numbers I’m watching are these:

  • Edgar missed election by 73 votes last year
  • Edgar picked up eight of those from new voters–he received 8 out of 10 votes from new voters
  • Edgar has received 24 additional votes from returning voters, and lost three, so a net +21.  So Edgar has received 29 of the 73 additional voters left.
  • Edgar needs to appear on 70.2% of the remaining ballots.  His current rate is 80.4% with 199 votes publicly counted

My heart says yes, but my head says no.  But it will be close, either way.

This Hall of Fame season has been one of real reflection for me as I revisit the PED users. I’ll be having a long conversation with myself in the coming year about Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.  I’m not sure I’m there yet on Bonds and Clemens, but I am becoming more sympathetic to the notion they were Hall-worthy before their steroid use, and should not be held out simply because they were ethical idiots.  This great story by Jay Jaffe at SI.com will at least get me looking more closely at Sheffield, whereas before, I wasn’t really interested. Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa don’t even start the outboard engine of inquiry going.

One last comment before my speculation on HOF voting ends for 2018.  Ran across one more Lindholm graph comparing third basemen by their production (batting + baserunning runs scored–vertical axis) and fielding run (defensive prowess)  Look at Edgar way up at the top of the chart.  He should be in red.

Scott Lindholm 3B graph

Hang in there Edgar fans–the Hall of Fame isn’t far away.

 

 

To Rob Manfred: the pitch clock is for people who hate baseball

pitch-clock

Baseball is often characterized as a pastoral game, one that begins in the spring when the world is renewing, and ends as it is preparing to plunge into the great darkness of winter. It’s foul lines are often portrayed as infinite, at least metaphorically speaking. It is the only sport unbound by time.

Rob Manfred wants to change all that. He wants to add a pitch clock to speed up the game.  That takes time.Manfred means to implement a 20 second clock, and limiting mound visits for 2018.

There is little question that games have gotten longer as more teams carry larger bullpens.  More bullpens mean shorter outings for starters and more frequent pitching changes.  If Commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t like that, I encourage him to negotiate with the players union to address that problem.  Perhaps Tony Clark and the MLBPA would be willing to shrink rosters.  Or perhaps they’d agree to limit the number of pitchers on a team roster.  What, you’re laughing? No, I didn’t think the players would agree to that either. But this is what baseball is right now–dingers, strikeouts, early and often use of relief pitchers.

Yes, pitchers hold the ball.  They always have.  Batters step out on pitchers as they hold the ball.  Each trying to gain a competitive advantage against another.  But when I was a kid I watched a pitcher step off the mound and make a pick-off throw with Maury Wills on first at least half a dozen times. Pitchers used to have an answer for players stepping out of the box, but baseball doesn’t let pitchers throw at batters any more.

In five years baseball may look like something else.  It didn’t evolve to this culture overnight, and there will be something new that changes the game in the future as every team seeks a competitive advantage.  Maybe it will be players with prosthetic limbs, who knows?

But what’s the deal? Who is Manfred saving from the time it takes to play a baseball game?  Is it people who love the game, its traditions, it’s slow and casual pace of play?  Or is he trying to encourage football and soccer fans to watch the game until their training camps begin?  Or perhaps NBA and NHL fans once their interminable playoffs end. If these folks don’t like baseball, its tradition that it is played at its own leisurely rate, tough.  I wish baseball was everybody’s favorite sport to watch or listen to, but it’s not.  This isn’t 1928 when America’s favorite sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing, in that order.

And if Manfred was serious about this he’d do something about the real drag on a baseball game, the length of commercial breaks.  If you’ve been to a major league game in a major league park recently you’ve recognized the extraordinary time between innings.  Is it longer than the time Edwin Diaz holds the ball when Jose Altuve is on first base?     I think so.  But no, commercials write everybody’s check as baseball heads toward $10 billion in annual revenue.

And how much time will we cut from the game?  Are we shooting for five minutes?  Ten minutes.  A half hour, an hour?  What other ridiculous short-cuts is Manfred willing to take to get there?  We’ve already gotten rid of the intentional walk–I didn’t miss it too much, but what’s next? Ties in games after 12 innings? Home run derbies to decide a final score? That ought to attract the soccer fans.

These changes aren’t necessary and they aren’t popular.  The players and their union oppose them.  Fans of this game oppose them. Who are they intended for? Advertisers? Don’t we do enough for them already?  If it is intended to attract the casual fans one finds seated in the King’s Court, or Seahawks and Sounders fans, stop.  Baseball isn’t football, or soccer.  It isn’t a beach party or video game.  It’s something different, not better or worse than other sports, but of its own culture.  These changes, for the pettiest of purposes, threaten that. And that’s a shame and the commissioner is wrong.

What 1993 and James Paxton have in common . . . and what they don’t

Paxton Fanfest 2016

James Paxton at Fanfest 2016

1993 was a pivotal year in the history of the Seattle Mariners.  The previous year was a disaster, as general manager Woody Woodward traded young pitchers Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba for Giants slugger Kevin Mitchell.  Mitchell was an unenthusiastic performer and with the young relievers stripped from the bullpen, the Mariners were a disaster.  Their 64-98 season cost Bill Plummer his job.

Plummer’s departure, however, made way for the arrival of Lou Piniella.  Piniella made it clear things would be different.  The team that took the field in the Kingdome in ’93 had many of the heroes of ’95.  Griffey and Buhner, Tino Martinez and Rich Amaral.  Edgar Martinez had torn his hamstrings in the last pre-season game in Vancouver, after winning his first batting title in 1992, but he would be back as a DH in ’94. The other hero of ’95 who returned was Randy Johnson.

Johnson was in his sixth year in the majors, his fifth year with the M’s.  Let’s just say he was unique.  The tallest man in major league baseball, he threw hard, had a slider with something nasty and loved heavy metal music.  But he was wild, leading the American League in walks from 1990-92 with 120, 152 and 144 respectively.  If only he could put it all together, Johnson could be a monster. But in 1992 Johnson was outpitched by soft-tossing lefty Dave Fleming, who went 17-10 and finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting.

It would never happen again.

In 1993 at age 29, after working with Nolan Ryan in the off-season Randy Johnson appeared a different pitcher. He won 19 games, struck out 308 batters and finished second in  Cy Young voting. It was the beginning of Randy Johnson as a Hall of Fame pitcher.  From 1993-2004 Johnson would finish first or second in Cy Young voting eight times and make all-star appearances nine times.

In a September 2016 story with Tim Rodmaker of Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning, Johnson credited his off-season sessions with Ryan for helping him find a new delivery that helped him control his extra long limbs.  Ryan taught him to be more aggressive, control the game more effectively, and make clear to batters that he was in charge. Ryan also taught Johnson more about the importance of being a teammate.

2018 is James Paxton’s sixth season, also his age 29 year. His big year might have been 2016 when with a change in his arm slot and a big tick up in his fastball velocity and better command of his pitches, Paxton became a much better pitcher. But, like Johnson in ’93, this year is the most important of Paxton’s tenure with the Mariners.  My belief is that progress by the big lefty is critical and makes him, in many respects, the most important player on the team.

Pitching has changed so much since 1993.  The critical role of the starting pitcher has diminished somewhat as dominant bullpens have assumed a larger role.  So comparing Johnson to Paxton maybe doesn’t make sense.  Johnson had 14 years of over 200 inning pitched. Between 1993-2002, Johnson missed 200 twice, once because of the strike in 1994, and in the season of his back surgery in 1996.  Paxton hasn’t thrown 150 innings in any of his years.  Johnson was 6’10” of angry, volatile rocket fuel who not only won 303 games, but is tied for fifth all-time for most career hit batters. Roger Clemens at 14 and Don Drysdale at 19 are pikers by comparison. James Paxton isn’t that guy. He may be tall, but angry he isn’t.

But like Johnson in ’93, the Mariners are putting a lot of hope on the tall Canadian’s shoulders. He’s received a lot of accolades from his GM as being among the top ten pitchers in the American League. Some of the stats support this. Of course you’re going to have to dig around for them, because he doesn’t qualify for many of the basic numbers and doesn’t appear on the ESPN or Baseball Reference leader boards.  Not enough innings pitched. Yes he is 10th in the AL in pitcher WAR, but still a long way from the league leaders.  Jeff Sullivan wrote a great article in August about Paxton leading the American League in wOBA or batted ball speed.  And that was just before the big man went on the DL for the second time in August after a pectoral strain.  He’d miss three starts and never pitch well in a game for the rest of 2017. Yes, Paxton has great rate stats, but they don’t measure loss to the team when Christian Bergman or Max Povse are taking his starts, or the number of starts when Paxton is regaining his mechanical consistency after  time away on the DL.

I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the Mariners rotation, whether it’s passable, or decent, or downright terrible. But if there is a chance for the Mariners to make the playoffs in 2018, it begins with James Paxton. For the years 1993-1998, those remaining  of Johnson’s career with the Mariners, The Big Unit was surrounded by a plethora of lesser lights-a declining Chris Bosio, Jeff Fassero, Tim Belcher, reinforced by Jamie Moyer in 2017, and a highly volatile bullpen. Johnson was the guy who led the rest of the pitchers, alongside an admittedly brilliant offensive cast, to the playoffs in ’95 and again in ’97 in spite of the mediocrity of the rest of the pitching.

We can also argue about the 2018 offense, whether it is average, a little better than average or really good, but unless the pitching staff can perform it won’t matter how many runs this team scores, they will lose. A quality pitching staff begins with a legitimate ace, and Paxton has to be that guy.  Pitchers become aces by being on the field. Click those ESPN WAR stats again.  Check the top five.  None has less than 193.1 innings. By comparison, Paxton ranks 47th in innings pitched.

Look, I’m not suggesting Paxton is a malingerer, a slacker, or anything of the kind.  Perhaps the hiring of Dr. Lorena Martin as director of high performance will make the difference, or maybe Paxton will figure it out.  But the bottom line is no Paxton hurts the team.  He needs to be on the field. The Mariners have no shot without him.

This is not only a huge year for Paxton as a Mariner. He’s just avoided his second year of arbitration for a tidy $4.9 million.  2019 will be his final year under Mariner control before he hits free agency. Will he enter the market as a 31-year old established star, or will he limp onto the big stage long on potential but ever-injured like Brett Anderson?  Will he be Clayton Kershaw as he walks unscathed on to the big free agent stage in 2019, or will he merely be another can on the scratched and dented aisle in 2020?

James Paxton isn’t likely to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.  But it isn’t difficult to see he is the leader of this pitching staff.  In 2018 he must take the next step forward by being on the field, just as Randy Johnson made the same leap at the same age.  To me that means at least 30 healthy starts and a minimum of 180 innings pitched.  Just to compare, that puts him number 15 in the American League using 2017 stats, just behind Jason Hammel and just ahead of Jason Vargas, not anywhere near the AL’s top ten.

The M’s will fare as well in 2018 as James Paxton does.  The day his name appears on the DL is the day their hopes for a successful season are likely over.  Mark it down.