PEORIA, Ariz. – The phrase “pitchers and catchers report to spring training” evokes a bit of nostalgia, hope and anticipation that the baseball season has officially begun.
In truth, the report date for pitchers and catchers is anticlimactic. At the Mariners complex, most of the pitchers and catchers have been in Arizona for days, working out at the facility and on the field. The actual report day, which is Wednesday, features extensive physicals and nothing more.
But for the Mariners, it’s not so much when the physicals happen, but who will be taking them, specifically in terms of starting pitchers.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Seattle had yet to sign another candidate for the No. 5 spot in its starting rotation. And there were no hints or rumors to suggest a signing might even be close.
While there is no deadline to make that happen, it’s less than ideal to draw out the process, for the organization or the prospective player.
The standing contract offer to right-hander Taijuan Walker, once a prized Mariners prospect, remains. But multiple sources have indicated that Walker is still evaluating his market in search of the best offer and situation. The Mariners aren’t likely to budge much from their original offer.
After throwing two bullpen sessions open to scouts over the past 10 days, Walker worked out privately at the Cubs complex in Mesa on Monday. He pitched in front of team officials and scouts. But, per reports, there was no deal in place and no suggestion that one was coming.
While the Twins had interest in Walker earlier in the offseason, their recent trade for right-hander Kenta Maeda might lessen it. There is still a fair amount of interest in Walker from other teams as a buy-low, one-year investment with some upside. Because of his injury issues – season-ending Tommy John surgery in 2018 and shoulder inflammation in 2019 – he’s barely pitched the past two seasons. And it’s likely that a team would have to be cautious with his workload early in the 2020 season.
As a rebuilding team with minimal expectations in terms of wins and losses, the Mariners might offer Walker one of the best opportunities. They would put him in the No. 5 spot in the rotation and pitch him every five days, giving him a chance to build up starts, innings and a resume as he heads into free agency next season.
A team with legitimate postseason aspirations might not have the patience to work through any rust or inconsistency Walker might have coming off his extended break from game action, whereas the Mariners can offer patience in his progression.
If Walker does finally decide on a destination other than Seattle, which is growing more likely, the Mariners can look at what’s left on the market for another option. However, there isn’t a robust supply to choose from, given what Seattle would prefer to spend.
Right-hander Collin McHugh would seem like a logical fit. McHugh, 32, pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the Astros last season but did make eight starts. He posted a 4.70 ERA. In 2018, he made 18 starts for Houston.
Two other veterans – right-hander Andrew Cashner (age 33) and left-hander Jason Vargas (37) – also are on the market. Both are reaching the twilight of their pitching careers, and it wouldn’t be prudent for the Mariners to invest significant dollars into either as a one-year rental with the hope of a midseason trade. The well-traveled Cashner has pitched for six organizations in his career. He posted an 11-8 record with a 4.68 ERA in 42 combined appearances and 23 starts between the Orioles and Red Sox. Baltimore is interested in bringing Cashner back for 2020. He signed a $9.5 million deal in 2019.
Vargas, who was a Mariner from 2009-12, posted a combined 7-9 record with a 4.51 ERA with the Mets and Phillies. He made $8 million last season.
Other names on the free-agent list include right-handers Danny Salazar and Aaron Sanchez, who dealt with shoulder injuries last year, and veteran right-handers Clay Buchholz (35) and Marco Estrada (36).
It’s far from an inspiring market in terms of potential, reward or even replacement-level production.
The Mariners’ projected opening day rotation has four spots penciled in:
- Marco Gonzales, LHP
- Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
- Kendall Graveman, RHP
- Justus Sheffield, LHP
Going into Thursday’s first workout, the Mariners have talented right-handed pitching prospect Justin Dunn as the best candidate for the No. 5 spot. Dunn, ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the organization, made his MLB debut late last season, jumping from Class AA Arkansas to the big leagues. He started four games and posted a 2.70 ERA in 6 2/3 innings. It seems preferable to allow Dunn to start the season in Class AAA Tacoma to control his early usage before bringing him back to the big leagues.
Seattle has left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. and right-hander Phillips Valdez on the 40-man roster. Both have starting experience in the minor leagues and could serve as potential candidates if needed, but might be best used as multi-inning relievers.
Seattle announced Tuesday that it had signed left-handers Wei-Yin Chen and Manny Banuelos to minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training. Both pitchers will presumably compete for that fifth spot in the rotation.
Chen, 34, pitched out of the bullpen for the Marlins last season. But he’s made 170 starts in his eight-year career. The Mariners signed him to the deal with the intention of using him as a starter to begin the season. Banuelos, 28, posted a 3-4 record with a 6.93 ERA last season in eight starts and eight relief appearances. He has started 14 big-league games over the last two years.
The Mariners will also pay very close attention and scout the group of starting pitchers that are out of minor-league options and not expected to make their current team’s opening-day roster.
If Seattle doesn’t sign a free agent, the No. 5 spot in the rotation could fluctuate over the season with Dunn eventually taking a spot and also when right-hander Logan Gilbert, the Mariners’ top pitching prospect, makes his MLB debut some time after the All-Star break.