It is an unbelievably cold Hot Stove season. Free agents aren’t moving much, and it seems unlikely the Mariners will add much more anyway. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto seems set on the team he assembled, and has said as much in several interviews with radio hosts and on The Wheelhouse, his weekly podcast with Aaron Goldsmith.
I think most fans, based on what I’ve seen posted on Facebook groups, comment pages and blogs, are comfortable with the position players Dipoto has gathered. The acquisition of Dee Gordon seems interesting, out-of -the-box thinking from the current baseball trend of homers and strikeouts. Trading for first baseman Ryon Healy met with a resounding, meh, but can’t be worse than previous first base combos, and does fit perfectly with the dingers and K’s model.
No, fans, and I count myself among them, reserved their strongest responses for the pitching staff. Dipoto has touted the strength of the bullpen he’s assembled, featuring 24-year old closer Edwin Diaz, as well as recent acquisitions Juan Nicasio, David Phelps and Nick Rumbelow. Teaming up with returning players Nick Vincent, Tony Zych, Mark Rzepczynski, and James Pazos, Dipoto has touted this group as a real strength given their versatility, and their ability to pitch multiple innings if necessary to form a “wolfpack” whatever that means. This week Dan Szymborksi’s ZiPs Projections seemed to support Dipoto’s view on the bullpen.
But fan comments are at consistent cross purposes with Dipoto’s declaration that he is comfortable with the projected rotation and its depth. The assembled starting candidates include James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore, Max Povse, Rob Whalen, Sam Moll, Casey Lawrence, Chase De Jong. and possibly others. If you are drawing a blank after Moore, it’s okay. You should. Dipoto has repeatedly reassured the fan base that these starters, with this bullpen should be enough to keep the M’s in a playoff hunt for 2018.
He reminds us that with the rotation in absolute tatters by July of last year, Dipoto acted to acquire rotation pieces that filled in well while Felix, Paxton, Iwakuma, and Smyly were all hanging out with physicians. Some, such as Leake and Ramirez, fulfilled team expectations, providing generally consistent performance. Marco Gonzales in seven starts for the Mariners went as many as five innings once (Sept. 12 vs. Texas.) Andrew Moore was rushed into service from the minor leagues before he was ready as his 5.34 ERA and 5.65 FIP will attest. Just to be clear, the Mariners finished the year 12-16 when all the rotation pieces were in place and Paxton and Felix returned to the rotation.
Not a lot to get excited about, unless the a healthy Felix and Paxton, plus a full year of Leake, Ramirez and whoever at five represents a reset, supported by the Mariners Wolfpack. And this is Dipoto’s argument, that this rotation with a superior bullpen and some fill-in guys in the minors will be better than last year’s injury-riddled team. Not only that but the pitchers available on the free-agent market have their own flaws, and would come with those flaws at too high a cost in years and dollars and be a persistent drag on future Mariner budgets.
Is Dipoto correct about this free agent class? Do they bring flawed performance profiles at to high a cost to team that’s already a bit top-heavy with large long-term contracts. I’ve taken starting pitchers from MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free Agents as well as their honorable mentions from November 2nd. I’ve used their projections to approximate years and dollar costs. Other statistics come from Baseball Reference.com
Yu Darvish–Darvish is at the top of the class in terms of performance and cost. Darvish placed 2nd in Cy Young voting in 2013, and has made the All-Star team in each of his major league seasons, except 2015, the year of his Tommy John surgery. Darvish has made a full comeback from that surgery, making 31 starts and pitching 186.2 innings in 2017. Darvish still managed 10.1 K/9, with BB/9 rate of only 2.4. But his HR/9 rate increased to 1.3, his MLB high. Darvish is projected at six years $160 million. He will be 32 in August. By contrast Felix Hernandez is 31 years old and has thrown 2,502.1 innings. Darvish has thrown 2,127.2 innings including his Japan League stats. Too much? You decide, Dipoto already has.
Jake Arrieta–Arrieta won the 2015 Cy Young Award with a breathtaking season. 33 starts, 229.0 IP, 2.35 FIP, he didn’t allow hits, homers and had a walk rate of 1.9 BB/9. He had an astonishing 215 ERA+ (100 is average.) It’s been all downhill from 2015 with all the good numbers going down, and all the bad numbers going up. Arrieta lost fastball velocity to boot. He hasn’t been a bad pitcher, but from innings pitched, to FIP to a league worst wild pitch number two years in a row, the numbers are trending the wrong direction. Jake will turn 32 in March. Who says a 4-6 year deal at $25 million per annum is too much? Jerry does.
Lance Lynn–Lynn had Tommy John surgery in 2015, and missed all of 2016 recovering Lynn managed 33 starts and 186.1 starts for the Cardinals in 2017. You can do the math. 4.82 FIP (eep!!) Lynn had a walk rate of 3.8/9, combined with a 1.3 HR/9 rate, would not bode well with this staff. It’s shocking he is the number three ranked free agent pitcher. MLBTR projects Lynn at four years $56 million. Third best pitcher available? Jerry says no.
Alex Cobb–Cobb turned 30 in October. He is another of the long line of Tommy John survivors, with surgery in 2015. In 2017 Cobb managed 29 starts for 179.1 innings. His numbers haven’t regained their pre-TJ health, but they aren’t execrable. 2017 showed Cobb with a 4.17 FIP, with H/9 8.8, HR/9 1.1, BB/9 2.2. His strikeout rate was low at 6.4/9, well below his career high. Cobb might be the most reasonable investment, with a projected four year $48 million price tag. Jerry?
Andrew Cashner–Cashner had difficulty staying on the field in 2015-16. But he did manage 28 starts and 166.2 innings for the Rangers. Were they good starts. ERA+ likes him at 138, but 4.61 FIP is pretty suspicious. Cashner allows a fair number of baserunners, with 8.4 H/9 and 3.5 BB/9, but he does keep the ball in the park with .8 HR/9. Once in trouble, Cashner has one of the lowest K/9 rates in the league with 4.6. Projected at two years for $20 million. Jerry thinks what he’s got is better.
Jaime Garcia–Garcia will turn 32 in July. He made 27 starts last year for three different teams and completed 157.0 innings. Garcia is injury prone and underwent thorac outlet surgery in 2015. Garcia finished the year with a combined, unappetizing 4.25 FIP, 1.408 WHIP, and 3.3 BB/9. MLBTR projects Garcia at two years and $16 million. As a number 5 starter? Miranda/Gonzales/Moore? Better? Tough choice.
Jason Vargas–I was really disappointed when the M’s traded Vargas to the Angels for the hated Kendrys Morales in 2013. When Kansas City signed him to a four year deal in 2014, I thought good for him, but after a solid 2014, his career was derailed by Tommy John surgery. Vargas got off to a blazing beginning to 2017, but his last 16 starts were horrendous. He is 35 years old and MLBTR projects a 1 year $10 million deal. Too much Jerry? I dunno.
Chris Tillman–Former Mariner property Tillman will turn 30 in April. After four years of reminding Mariners why they should be hunting down Bill Bavasi and tossing him into Elliott Bay for completing the Eric Bedard trade, in 2016 Tillman developed shoulder problems. His 2017 was disastrous. 19 starts, 93 innings, 6.93 FIP. It gets worse from there. MLBTR projects a 1 year deal worth $10 million for a bounce-back year. I say don’t touch Tillman with a ten-foot pole. Jerry says no.
Jeremy Hellickson had a generally dreadful 2017, but could be a bounce-back candidate. He has the virtue of having made at least 27 starts in eight of the last nine years. Even if his numbers are pretty mediocre, at least the guy takes the ball every five days. Doesn’t walk a ton, or strike out a lot, but does have a frequent flyer plan just in his name. HR9 at 1.9 last year means bonus miles. Catch that Ben Gamel. Hellickson didn’t make the top 50 on MLBTR. He earned $17.2 million in 2017. Hope he didn’t spend it all.
Wade Miley–Don’t even get me started.
So these are the unsigned free agents still out there. I feel like the M’s missed the boat when the Rangers signed Doug Fister to a one year deal for $4 million with Texas. Not great, but not godawful. There are some reasonable deals here like Cobb or Vargas, unless you really believe what you have is better and more affordable. It will be interesting to see if these values stay as high as projected as the signing period drags on toward spring training.
Is Jerry wrong? There isn’t a single pitcher in this list, with the possible exception of Darvish, that doesn’t come out of the scratched and dented goods aisle. Even Darvish bears the ignominy of 3.1 ungodly awful innings he threw in the World Series.
That said the forecasted price of one WAR in 2018 is $11.1 million according to Fangraphs by free agent pricing, which is somewhat higher than the cost overall. Dipoto’s contention that free agency is an inefficient way to acquire talent has some merit. But it’s also a way to inject some enthusiasm into the fan base. Is Dipoto wrong not to cast dollars into this free agent market. It seems there are some chances worth taking, but all come with risks.