With a weak free agent market, teams are looking to acquire young starting pitching via trades. The Mariners have some starting pitching depth that other teams don't, but would they trade away a young arm to maximize on the increased value?
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When mega-agent Scott Boras strolled through the lush and rustic courtyard of the Montelucia Resort and Spa, stopping in a shaded area to take questions from a throng of baseball writers, he provided a verification of what was already known coming into the offseason.
The starting pitching class for this year of free agency is probably the weakest in the last decade.
There is no true ace available and a dearth of front of the rotation starters. Most teams have tried to prepare in anticipation, but need always arises.
As Boras answered questions about right-hander Jeremy Hellickson and whether he would accept a $17.2 million qualifying offer to stay with the Phillies, it’s was instructive to remember that the 29-year-old Hellickson has a career earned run average of 3.90 and a 4.48 ERA over the last four seasons, has never pitched over 200 innings in a season in his career and had elbow surgery in 2014.
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“In this market, he’s probably the foremost young, under-30 pitcher,” Boras said. “You know, he had a 3.71 ERA in Philadelphia, which is an offensive ballpark. He’s done very, very well. He’s got a fresh arm. He’s a guy that’s got the highest spin rate on a breaking ball. He has a lot of components that tell you why he’s successful: command, changeup, breaking ball. That’s creating a lot of interest for a lot of teams. And in a free-agent marketplace short on starting pitching — it’s very advantageous for him.”
It’s very advantageous because there isn’t much else to choose from and still having to overpay for that remaining talent is probable.
In that regard, the Mariners are in a good position this offseason. They have six viable starting pitchers going into 2017 with four of them being relatively cheap.
The group of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Ariel Miranda and Nathan Karns allows general manager Jerry Dipoto to not be forced to pick through the wreckage of free agents or come up with creative ways to acquire another experienced starter to rely upon.
“As it relates to the other 29 clubs, our depth is enviable,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said.
Those six starters aren’t without concerns. Hernandez missed six weeks with a calf injury and had a subpar year. Iwakuma was Seattle’s most consistent starter, pitching over 200 innings for the first time in his career and making every start, but also showed signs of fatigue at the end of the season.
Paxton and Walker have yet to reach their much-anticipated potential, each spending time in the minor leagues last season. But both also made significant strides late in the season in terms of mechanics and preparation that the Mariners hope will lead to long-awaited consistency.
Miranda was a pleasant surprise after being picked up from the Orioles for Wade Miley at the trade deadline. Karns was considered a key acquisition last offseason, but struggled after the first month of the season with command and efficiency. An attempt to convert him to a reliever never yielded the expected outcome of increased stuff and velocity. The Mariners were planning to move Karns back to a starter in late July before a back strain sidelined him for the rest of the season.
With the free agent market being so limited, teams are exploring trade options to fill out starting pitching needs. They are looking for young pitchers under club control with club-friendly salaries. Seattle has four of them in Walker, Paxton, Karns and Miranda. Even with Walker and Paxton entering arbitration eligibility and projected to make over $2 million each, Dipoto points out: “They are still bargains in this market.”
Teams are aware of that small surplus.
“We’ve probably received more calls on who we might be willing to move and not on who we might acquire,” Dipoto said. “Not shockingly, we’ve been asked about more than a few of those guys because of their flexibility. Everybody wants young pitching. Anyone who can find young, controllable and affordable pitching, that’s Plan A.”
As Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told CSN Chicago, “If you have excess starting pitching you’re wanting to move, and its quality, I think you’re going to be very busy. You’ll be the hunted.”
Only a few teams have the prospects and finances to trade for Chris Sale, but many teams could vie for Walker.
Dipoto doesn’t necessarily want to move the small amount of excess, but he also can’t ignore offers.
With so many teams calling, the value of one of those young pitchers would seem to be elevated and yield a larger than expected return. The Mariners still have needs in the corner outfield spots, first base and are considering an upgrade at shortstop.
“We are always looking to maximize the potential of our roster in any way,” Dipoto said. “We’ll look at anything as a possible outcome. But it’s not our goal. We go into the offseason thinking that one of the aspects we like best about our team is our pitching depth. But understanding where the market is at and we do have needs to fill, some of that is going to be filled through free and trade. In our offseason planning is that we have an advantage in that our pitching is a little deeper than most. And we’d like to keep that advantage for as long as we can.”
*** Per a report from MLB.com, the Mariners have shown “some interest” in free agent reliever Brett Cecil. Dipoto has mentioned often the team is in need of one viable situational lefty reliever and possibly another left-handed arm for the bullpen.
Cecil made 54 appearances for the Blue Jays last season, posting an overall 3.93 ERA.
Seattle will also check on free agent Boone Logan, who made 66 appearances for the Rockies.
Unlike starting pitching, the free agent market for left-handed relievers is considered “robust” by Dipoto.
*** Top prospect Tyler O’Neill returned to action in the Arizona Fall League after missing the past few games with back spasms. O’Neill started in right field and went 1-for-4 with a RBI. Right-hander Dylan Unsworth got the win, pitching five innings and allowing two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts. Right-hander Emilio Pagan picked up the save, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth with two strikeouts.