“If Felix can give us the 25 or more starts he gave us in 2016, we are going to be a good team,” GM Jerry Dipoto says. “If Felix gives us 16 or less, like was the case last year, we are going to have to answer a lot of questions.”
It isn’t a bluff and he isn’t playing coy. Jerry Dipoto, at least in his two plus years as general manager of the Mariners, has shown little evidence of doing either. In fact, he’s been quite the opposite. In his own verbose way, he’s been more than willing to share his general plans about his team and its roster construction, specific to needs and how to fill them.
In recent weeks, he’s said on his podcast and in radio interviews that the “heavy lifting” of building his team’s 40-man roster had been done and that his projected 25-man roster was largely set for when pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz. on Feb. 14.
And despite a sluggish free agent market that has left top starting pitchers Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb available for what seems to be a somewhat minimally-reduced price, Dipoto seems to not be interested in signing any of them to bolster a projected starting rotation that on paper has plenty of question marks.
At Monday’s annual pre-spring training luncheon at Safeco Field, Dipoto spoke to local media for 28 minutes with his usual ease but with an increased intensity in tone, discussing a variety of topics, including the team’s farm system being ranked as one of the worst by Baseball America and the projected starting rotation, the free agent market and more.
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“We are very comfortable with the offseason we’ve had in putting the roster together,” he said. “I know there are flaws. I know there are things that we could do to make it better. But the things that we could do, you have to separate the wants, the needs and the realities. And some of what we need is that we need some young players to step up, some of what we need is the fortune of good health.”
Should one of those flaws be the overall starting rotation? Last season, injuries and inconsistent performances forced the Mariners to use 17 different pitchers to make at least one start. The idea of Seattle adding an established free agent starter to supplement a rotation that still has plenty of question marks remains forefront among Mariners fans and baseball analysts.
Asked about the perception that a rotation of James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez and likely Marco Gonzales isn’t commensurate with the other top teams in the American League, Dipoto was blunt.
“Well, it’s not, to be fair,” he said. “The Houston Astros are loaded. I don’t know how else to answer the question. They have a terrific rotation. They have a very good team. Their rotation on paper is as good as anybody in baseball or better. But I don’t think there is another team in the American League West (besides Houston) that outpaces us in terms of starting rotation. Frankly, I’m not sure that with the exception of last year’s playoff teams — the Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros — I don’t think there is another team in the American League that can say definitively that their starting rotation is better than ours.”
But if those four teams go back to the playoffs as most people expect, that leaves one postseason spot remaining for the rest of the American League. Is that projected rotation good enough to help the Mariners beat the remaining teams for that last spot?
When healthy, Paxton is as good as any pitcher in baseball. The 2017 season was a breakout for him, going 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 24 starts. Obviously, his injury history and two stints on the disabled list last season are still a cause for concern. Veteran right-hander Mike Leake, who was acquired in September, made five starts and posted a 3-1 record with a 2.53 ERA. Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, also acquired late in the 2017 season, made 11 starts, posting a 1-3 record and 3.92 ERA.
Gonzales, who was acquired midseason in a less-than-popular trade for slugging outfield prospect Tyler O’Neill, is out of minor league options. It means barring injury or a spring training meltdown, he will likely be the No. 5 starter over Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore on the opening day roster. The Mariners can’t run the risk of designating him for assignment and losing him on a waivers claim just to option him to the minor leagues.
“Marco will be given every opportunity to make our club,” Dipoto said. “ We’re very bullish on what Marco’s going to be. He’s athletic. He throws strikes. He has an out pitch in his change-up. Is he a fly-ball guy who’s going to give up a couple of homers here and there? Yes. But he’s more of a neutral pitcher who’s going to get them to hit it on the ground.”
To Dipoto, the late additions of Leake, Ramirez and Gonzales could be considered early acquisitions for this offseason.
“Hopefully we added our offseason rotation building last summer,” he said. “That was the goal and the understanding of what we were doing when we did it.”
As Dipoto listed the virtues of Paxton, Leake, Ramirez and Gonzales, he waited to discuss the Mariners’ longtime ace Felix Hernandez, who missed much of last season thanks to separate stints on the DL with shoulder issues. He made just 16 starts, posting a 6-5 record with a 4.36 ERA.
“Nuts and bolts, it comes down to how Felix comes in to spring training,” he said. “If Felix can give us the 25 or more starts he gave us in 2016, we are going to be a good team. If Felix gives us 16 or less, like was the case last year, we are going to have to answer a lot of questions. I wish I knew the answer to which of those it is. I don’t. But we’re going to find out here pretty quick.”
And yet, adding Darvish or Cobb in between Paxton and Hernandez and bumping Ramirez or Gonzales to a long relief role in the bullpen just seems so enticing to fans and such an easy decision.
Baseball sources outside the organization have said the reason that the Mariners aren’t making a move is because they are nearing their payroll budget limit for the season. Rough estimates put the Mariners’ projected payroll of the 40-man roster around$160 million.
But John Stanton, the managing partner of the team’s ownership group, shrugged off such a suggestion, saying that wasn’t an issue while not wanting to discuss what the budget actually is.
“That’s not an issue,” he said.
The decision not to sign another arm seems to be more philosophical. Dipoto was asked what he would tell someone asking him why they won’t sign a free agent pitcher.
“You can only fit so many on a roster, truly,” Dipoto said. “We are committed to James Paxton, we are committed to Mike Leake for multiple years. We are committed to Felix Hernandez for at least two or perhaps more years. We are committed to Erasmo Ramirez, who we acquired last summer, and he did a great job for us.
“I think you’ve heard me say this before: Philosophically, you always want to maintain some type of young element in your rotation or cost-effective element in your rotation, if that is Ariel Miranda, if it’s Marco Gonzales, if it’s Andrew Moore, we have to create innings for those guys to show us what they can do.
“We are doing the best we can to develop our system, not to clog it. Could we go out and sign a free agent that would be better than our current fifth starter? Absolutely. Would that be the best thing for the present of the Mariners? Maybe. Would it be the best thing through the wider lens for the present and future of the Mariners? Probably not. We’ll be able to address those needs as we go. Because the one thing we’ve not had to deal with here is a lack of resources.”