In the final days of the Mariners’ 2020 season, which totaled only 60 games and featured no postseason appearance … again … manager Scott Servais discussed the benefits of using a six-man starting rotation and acknowledged that it could be used again in a 2021 season that everyone hopes will be somewhat normal.
A few days after the season ended, general manager Jerry Dipoto was more concrete about that plan in an video news conference.
“For our starting rotation, we’re very likely to run out a six-man rotation again, because we think with the limited number of innings we were able to throw in 2020 that we’re putting our players in a position to be healthier, stronger,” he said. “And I think what we learned in 2020 was that the combination of the extra day’s rest and the freshness that it provided, we had crisper stuff, more precision and our consistency across the board. And we were one of the top quality-start teams in the American League, which is I don’t think is the way people viewed our starting rotation coming in.”
Out of 60 games, the Mariners had 25 in which the starting pitcher gave them six-plus innings while allowing three runs or fewer — tied for second most with the Astros. The Indians led the AL with 37.
But do the Mariners have six quality starters and the depth to maintain that six-man rotation over the course of a 162-game season?
Beyond the ultra-consistent Marco Gonzales, the rest of the projected staff — lefties Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Nick Margevicius and righties Justin Dunn and Logan Gilbert — have minimal MLB experience or any proof of reliability beyond one season.
Given the increased expectations that were set by Servais and Dipoto at the end of the 2020 season, saying that the team should contend for a postseason spot in 2021, adding another established starting pitcher isn’t just logical, it’s necessary.
While he was clear about the need to acquire relievers for a bullpen that was rated as one of the worst in baseball, he was a little more diplomatic about the starting rotation.
“If we see an opportunity in the free-agent market or the trade market to add to that starting-pitcher group, we will,” he said.
Beyond the six starters that finished in the rotation, the only other starter on the Mariners’ 40-man roster is Ljay Newsome, who is a fringe contributor at the MLB level.
“We do think that the wave behind that with George Kirby and Emerson Hancock and Brandon Williamson, and that next group of young starting pitchers, is really exciting as well,” Dipooto said. “We intended to build something that has lasting sustainability. And I think that’s getting closer and closer every day.”
But that sustainability really won’t help the Mariners in 2021 or maybe even 2022. The three touted prospects Dipoto mentioned never pitched in anything more than intrasquad games for the organization in 2020.
Hancock, who was the Mariners’ first-round pick, at least threw at Georgia before the sports world shut down for COVID-19. But he was slowed by arm tenderness in summer camp and threw minimally at the alternate training site.
After not being able to throw much during the shutdown, Kirby made a few appearances at the alternate training site. Williamson was the only one of three who pitched consistently in Tacoma, but the games were sporadic.
And later in his news conference, Dipoto also gave a realistic reason why those three pitchers, along with fellow starting-pitching prospects Isaiah Campbell and Juan Then, will likely not be options for 2021.
“The one thing I’m certain of, is that the innings totals for our youngest starting pitchers — there’s only so far we’re going to be willing to go with them in 2021 as a result of the this year’s short schedule,” he said. “And I think that makes us like 29 other teams in the industry. We’re not going to run starting pitchers out there for 170 innings next year. We’ll build them up more carefully.
“So what that probably does with a handful of them, most notably guys like George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, to an extent, Brandon Williamson, is it probably sets their ETA to the big leagues back further than they maybe otherwise would have been. And then we have to manage the innings for a guy like Logan Gilbert, who we think is right at the doorstep. But we’re going to have to be very cautious about the way we build up his innings for ’21. So a lot of that is just to be determined based on what we see when we go into the spring.”
Based on attrition and injury, adding one starting pitcher this offseason might not be enough.
The free-agent market is expected to be depressed this offseason with teams claiming to suffer heavy financial losses in a season without fans. Several players who are salary-arbitration eligible will be non-tendered, and multiyear deals for midlevel starting pitchers should be nonexistent. Most of the free-agent starting pitchers are on the north side of age 30. So anything beyond a two-year deal with a club option will be an outlier and one-year, incentive-laden deals with options could be the norm. In that regard, the Mariners, who don’t have some of the payroll issues of other teams, could try to take advantage of the market.
“If there’s opportunity, we’re definitely going to have our ear to it,” Dipoto said. “You know, we’ve created flexibility on our roster and within our payroll. And if we have the opportunity to make a difference and it makes sense for us, then we’ll look at it.”
Here’s a look at some of the free-agent pitchers available.
Trevor Bauer, RHP
Age in 2021: 30
2018-2020 stats: 11.5 WAR, 72 starts, 457 1/3 innings, 28-23 record, 3.21 ERA, 11.28 strikeouts per 9 innings (K/9), 3.07 walks per 9 innings (BB/9), 1.02 homers per 9 innings (HR/9)
Of note: Bauer is the premier starting pitcher on the free-agent market. In past years, he often said he would only sign a one-year contract to give himself personal freedom to choose his situation. But coming off a year where he’ll likely win the NL Cy Young, he’s due for a major payday and has softened his stance. Yes, Bauer spends a large portion of his offseason at his home in Maple Valley and training at Driveline Baseball, but he’s also going to want out an opt-out clause in his contract and recently turned down a qualifying offer, meaning any team that signs him would lose a draft pick. Dipoto has made his distaste for opt-out clauses known and has never signed a player with a qualifying offer attached to him. Bauer has said he wants to pitch every fourth day while the Mariners want to use a six-man rotation. There is so much that comes with signing Bauer, including his maverick personality, that it seems unlikely. And yet, he is the type of talent that could change the direction of an organization’s pitching staff immediately.
Taijuan Walker, RHP
Age in 2021: 28
2018-2020 stats: 0.8 WAR, 15 starts, 67 1/3 innings, 4-3 record, 2.81 ERA, 8.02 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 1.20 HR/9
Of note: He turned down better offers to sign a one-year deal with the organization that drafted him. The Mariners offered an opportunity for him to pitch out of the rotation. He showed he was healthy to the point that Dipoto traded him to the Blue Jays at the deadline. Dipoto and Servais made it clear they wanted to bring him back for 2021 and beyond. But as one of the youngest free-agent pitchers available, and with his solid showing in 2020, his price tag went up. Walker developed a bond with Gonzales and is comfortable with the organization, but he’d also be more comfortable with a three-year deal that could pay him more than $30 million.
James Paxton, LHP
Age in 2021: 32
2018-2020 stats: 7-5 WAR, 62 starts, 331 1/3 innings, 27-13 record, 11.41 K/9, 2.82 BB/9, 1.36 HR/9
Of note: All of the numbers above were largely accumulated in 2018 and 2019. The big lefty made just five starts in 2020 and never looked healthy or comfortable. It will always be about health with Paxton, who has battled an assortment of injuries since his days with the Mariners. When he’s healthy and right, he’s dominant. Would he want to return to the Seattle area? Would the Mariners want to take their chances with his health?
Charlie Morton, RHP
Age in 2021: 35
2018-2020 stats: 9.9 WAR, 72 starts, 399 2/3 innings, 33-11 record, 3.24 ERA, 10.88 K/9, 2.95 BB/9, 0.83 HR/9
Of note: While his overall numbers weren’t quite as strong as 2019, Morton has still shown minimal signs of age regression typical for pitchers. His fastball was down a tick at times, but that could be more of a factor of the interrupted season. But the Mariners likely won’t be a factor since he’s made it clear that he’d prefer to play for a team that is close to his home in Tampa. It’s why he signed as a free agent with the Rays. And might re-sign there again for lesser money.
Jake Odorizzi, RHP
Age in 2021: 31
2018-2020 stats: 6.9 WAR, 66 starts, 337 innings, 22-18 record, 4.11 ERA, 9.4 K/9, 3.36 BB/9, 1.07 HR/9
Of note: He made just four starts in 2020 after missing time due to a back strain, a nasty blister issue and a chest contusion from being struck by a line drive. He made a combined 62 starts in 2018-2019, posting a 22-17 record and a 4.01 ERA. He isn’t flashy or overpowering, but he’s a ground-ball inducing pitcher, who has made 28 for six consecutive seasons (2014-2019).
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP
Age in 2021: 32
2018-2020 stats: 6.4 WAR, 68 starts, 383 innings, 26-17 record, 4.07 ERA, 8.22 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, 1.46 HR/9
Of note: Tanaka was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament midway through his rookie season (2014) and since has started 155 games with minimal injury issues. He’s an effective starter who has been plagued by a 16.5 home run to fly ball percentage. But a move away from Yankee Stadium could remedy that issue.
Mike Minor, LHP
Age in 2021: 33
2018-2020 stats: 7.7 WAR, 71 starts, 421 innings, 27-24 record, 4.04 ERA, 8.42 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, 1.37 HR/9
Of note: Most of that WAR, 6.6 to be exact, came from the 2018 (2.5) and 2019 (4.1) seasons. Minor had a 5.56 ERA this season, while his average fastball velocity dipped from 92.5 mph in 2019 to 90.6 mph in 2020. But more alarming to Minor was that his changeup didn’t seem to be as effective or feel right. It went from a value of 22.4 runs above average in 2019 to 2.4 in 2020.
Kevin Gausman, RHP
Age in 2021: 30
2018-2020 stats: 5.1 WAR, 58 starts, 320 1/3 innings, 16-22 record, 4.50 ERA, 8.71 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9
Of note: A hard-throwing top-five draft pick in 2012 that never quite blossomed with the Orioles due in part to injuries, Gausman resurrected his career with a solid season with the Giants in 2020, posting a 3-3 record with a 3.62 ERA, 79 strikeouts and 16 walks in 59 2/3 innings. His fastball averaged 95.1 mph, which is up form 93.9 mph in 2019. The Giants extended a qualifying offer, which he may accept. With the limited track record and a qualifying offer, that might keep the Mariners away.
Marcus Stroman, RHP
Age in 2021: 30
2018-2020 stats: 5.3 WAR, 51 starts, 286 2/3 innings, 14-22 record, 4.05 ERA, 7.41 K/9, 2.95 BB/9, 0.85 HR/9
Of note: Stroman opted out of playing in 2020, knowing he was a free agent and not wanting to decrease his market value. That didn’t stop the Mets from extending the $18.9 million qualifying offer to him, thinking that he might take it based on how depressed the market might be and salvage draft-pick compensation if he declines. Stroman relies on getting ground balls more than swings and misses. Because of his size (5-7, 180 pounds), there’s always concerns about his durability.
Chris Archer, RHP
Age in 2021: 32
2018-2020 stats: 3.2 WAR, 50 starts, 268 innings, 9-17 record, 10.24 K/9, 3.49 BB/9, 1.48, HR/9
Of note: He’s far removed from his days as an All-Star with the Rays, and his tenure with the Pirates was disappointing. The hope is that the thoracic outlet syndrome surgery will allow him to return to something close to his previous form. It would seem likely that he’ll throw a bullpen session or two this offseason for scouts to evaluate him. He’s a candidate for a one-year, incentive-laden, prove-it contract. Most teams are willing to make such overtures; it then becomes about who offers the best opportunity to pitch.
J.A. Happ, LHP
Age in 2021: 38
2018-2020 stats: 4.7 WAR, 70 starts, 31-16 record, 383 1/3 innings, 4.18 ERA, 8.66 K/9, 2.68 BB/9, 1.62 HR/9
Of note: Happ pitched half of the 2015 season in Seattle and was traded at the deadline when the Mariners’ season torpedoed. He accumulated 12.5 WAR for Pirates, Blue Jays and Yankees since the trade. A consummate professional and diligent worker, he’d fit in well with Gonzales. Given his age, he won’t generate much beyond a two-year deal, more likely a one-year deal with an option, with a decreased average annual value compared to the two-year, $34 million deal he signed with the Yankees in 2018.
Garrett Richards, RHP
Age in 2021: 33
2018-2020 stats: 1.7 WAR, 29 starts, 7-7 record, 4.18 ERA, 9.53 K/9, 3.84 BB/9, 1.30 HR/9
Of note: Dipoto is more than familiar with Richards during their time together in Anaheim. When he’s healthy, Richards has always the velocity and stuff to be an effective starter. Harnessing that stuff was an issue at times. His decision in 2016 to delay Tommy John surgery after elbow issues was a mistake. He eventually had the procedure in 2018 and it kept him out in 2019. He proved he was healthy and effective with the Padres last season.
Corey Kluber, RHP
Age in 2021: 35
2018-2020 stats: 6.1 WAR, 41 starts, 251 1/3 innings, 22-10 record, 3.29 ERA, 9.33 K/9, 1.79 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9
Of note: Most of that production over the past three seasons is from the 2018 season when he went 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA. With the Rangers in cost-cutting mode, and Kluber missing almost all of the 2020 with a grade 2 teres major strain, they did not pick up his $17.5 club options. Recent reports said he’s expected to start throwing off a mound, which could give teams an idea of his health. For a six-year stretch, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. But injuries have limited him to eight starts in the last two seasons. He is definitely a one-year contract candidate.
Anthony DeSclafani, RHP
Age in 2021: 31
2018-2020 stats: 3.0 WAR, 311 1/3 innings, 17-19 record, 4.60 ERA, 8.61 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 1.73 HR/9.
Of note: His durability concerns are real. After making 31 starts in 2015, he had injury issues the following two seasons, limiting his starts. He made 31 starts in 2018, but dealt with a teres major strain this season that sent him to the injured list and hampered his production. The Mariners explored a trade for him before the 2018 season. While his velocity remained the same, DeSclafani’s strikeout rate fell from 24 percent to 15.8 percent and his walk rate rose from 7 percent to 10.1 percent. Is it a product of his injury or age regression?
Jose Quintana, LHP
Age in 2021: 32
2018-2020 stats: 5.1 WAR, 64 starts, 26-20 record, 343 1/3 innings, 7.94 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, 1.18 HR/9
Of note: One of the more durable pitchers in baseball — 30-plus starts for seven straight seasons (2013-2019) — he missed most of last season following a dish-washing incident that required thumb surgery. If the thumb is healthy, he can still be a legitimate contributor to a rotation. He should generate multiple, multiyear offers and may be selective beyond money offered to where he wants to sign.