While much of the talk about the Mariners this off-season has focused on the team's need and desire to improve the offense, it's worth mentioning that the M's are a little short in the starting pitcher department as well. As currently constructed, only Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Erasmo Ramirez can be penned into the starting rotation. Blake Beavan is conceivably the fourth starter, which tells you all you need to know about the state of the Mariner rotation.
The departure of Jason Vargas brings the Mís lack of rotation depth into light. Ideally, a guy like Beavan is a competitive team's long reliever or sixth starter: heís simply too dependent on his defense to be relied upon for 30+ starts a season. But Beavan isnít really the problem here. After Beavan, the Mariner organization has only two pitchers who have started a big league game for Seattle, and nobody really wants to depend on Hector Noesi (I'll give an obligatory mention to Anthony Vasquez, but he's never going to start for this team again).
There are exciting prospects close to the big leagues who could conceivable provide depth, but I can't imagine Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, or Brandon Maurer break camp with the Mariners. Realistically, those four probably need at least a couple more months of seasoning, and because the club has so much invested in each of them, the Mís will presumably be hesitant to promote one to the majors just to fill a void.
Consequently, the Mís are in a real bind if one of their starters goes down with an injury early in the year or during Spring Training. They could stretch Charlie Furbush out to provide depth, something I advocated for last season, but his success as a reliever makes that plan unlikely. Assuming that Jack Z wonít want to promote one of the top prospects before they're ready, this means that the Mís contingency plan if anbyody gets hurt is essentially relying on someone like Andrew Carraway for innings. Thatís unacceptable for any team with an ambition to win more than seventy games.
Fortunately, thereís still time to fix the rotation. The Mís have two and a half months to come up with a starting pitcher (hopefully two of them) and given the teamís previously stated intention to raise the payroll, one figures that they might acquire a decent one. With that in mind, Iíve profiled a couple of the options Iíd like to see the Mariners target.
Rick Porcello: Jon Morosi stoked the ever brewing Porcello-Mariner rumors today, tweeting that Detroit has recently talked with both Seattle and Arizona about a trade involving the young righty. Regardless of how serious the alleged discussions are, Porcello is a name that makes some sense for the Mariners.
Once a highly touted prospect, Porcello has settled down as an effective but relatively unremarkable arm for the Tigers. Heís posted a GB rate north of 50% in each of his four big league seasons, but heís never struck many batters out, and his high-contact approach is miscast in front of Detroitís porous defense.
At just twenty-four years old though, Porcello is more than worth a flier. Many pitchers his age are just reaching the upper minors, not holding their own in a big league rotation. If his strikeout numbers perk up \ a bit (a plausible outcome for several reasons, not the least of which was a rare uptick in velocity on his pitches across the board in 2012) he could yet turn into an all-star.
Shaun Marcum: A checkered history with injuries partially obscures the fact that Marcum has been a pretty good starting pitcher whenever heís been available to take the ball. His pitcher slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP) over the past three years is a respectable 3.62/3.82/3.90, good for nearly 8 fWAR in 82 starts. As a right handed, extreme fly ball pitcher, heís not the ideal fit for Safeco but the park wonít hurt him either. And, in whatís about to become a theme with the rest of this list, Marcum will be signing late enough in the off-season that heís probably only going to land a one or two year deal, which works well with the timetable for the Mariners' top prospects.
Kyle Lohse: Annually, a good free agent starter finds himself without a seat when the music stops. Last year, Edwin Jackson couldnít land the multi-year deal he was seeking and he had to settle for a last minute one-year contract from Washington. (Fortunately for Jackson and those who care for his wellbeing, he turned in a solid season, eventually earning some well-deserved job security in the form of a four-year deal with the Cubs.)
Lohse appears to be this yearís version of Jackson. Heís hindered by a stipulation in the new collective bargaining agreement that requires any team who signs him to forfeit their first round pick, and perhaps also by a bit of draft pick overvaluation by big league teams. Through little fault of his own, the market for Lohse has cratered to the point that he might be forced to take a one or two year deal.
Whichever team ultimately decides that $10-$15 million and a first round draft pick is a reasonable price to pay for Lohse will wind up with a pitcher who does just enough to stick as a number three starter. He doesnít excel in any one category, but outside of injury shortened 2009 and 2010 campaigns, Lohse has posted an ERA and FIP below 4 in every season since his breakout in 2008. Nobody should expect him to match his 2.86 ERA from a year ago, a mark deflated by a low BABIP and a high strand rate. But even if his ERA spikes by a full run, heíd offer the team some much welcomed depth at an affordable rate. As long as he signs a short-term deal, Iíd be comfortable welcoming Lohse to Seattle.
Joe Saunders: The Diamondbacks were slammed, absolutely slammed for trading a team-controlled Dan Haren for Joe Saunders back in 2010. Haren was viewed as one of the better and more dependable starters in baseball while Saunders was simply a lefty thumber with a recent history of outperforming his peripherals.
Yet, when you look at each pitcherís numbers over the past three years, itís hard to see what the fuss was all about, particularly considering that the rebuilding Díbacks also nabbed Rookie of the Year hopefuls Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs in the deal as well. Saunders has continued to outperform his peripherals, and since the date of the trade, he only narrowly trails Haren in ERA+ (108 to 105). Yes, Haren has been the better pitcher (by a fairly wide margin according to more nuanced metrics), but considering the other players involved, the deal hardly looks like an abomination.
My point here is that Saunders is a better arm than his reputation suggests. He would have been a better fit for the Mariners in the years before the fences moved in, but heís made a living surviving in launching pads recently, and as a durable innings eater unable to command a large contract, Saunders is an ideal fit for the back of a rotation.