Making Sense of the Mariners’ Pursuit of Pitching

SamardzijaAs reported by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, it seems your Seattle Mariners are in hot pursuit of acquiring starting pitching on the trade market. This news has raised a few eyebrows around the Pacific Northwest, as it’s plainly evident that the team’s offense (ranked dead last in OPS in the American League) is in much greater need of a pick-me-up than the rotation (ranked first in Starting Pitcher WHIP in the American League). But before chastising the ballclub for favoring areas of strength over areas of weakness, let’s try to make some sense of what the M’s might be trying to achieve here.

For starters (pun intended), in spite of having assembled a rotation among the best in baseball, Mariners starting pitchers are staring down the barrel of a regression in the season’s second half. Without getting into too much detail surrounding the advanced metrics, fifth starter Chris Young has outperformed his career numbers, while de facto third starter Roenis Elias has logged more mileage on his left arm thus far than at any other point in his professional career. When it comes to Young, even a slight regression should be tolerable – his 1.17 WHIP currently ranks 10th among AL starting pitchers. But with Elias, there should be slightly more cause for concern.

At nearly 26 years of age, Elias is more mature than most rookie arms across the vast spectrum of MLB. But with 98.2 innings tossed already in 2014, the Cuban southpaw is on pace for a 200-inning season that would far outweigh his metrics in the minors. A year ago, Elias notched 130 innings pitched at Double-A Jackson. In 2012, he posted his career high in frames thrown with 148.1 at Advanced Single-A High Desert. Upping Elias’s innings to 200 this year would be a drastic, almost obscene evolution, which in turn leads many to believe that the Mariners will scale back the workload of their talented lefty down the stretch.

In all likelihood, the team will pick and choose when to skip an Elias start here or there, all while maintaining the regular every-fifth-day workload of veterans Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and the aforementioned Young. Additionally, manager Lloyd McClendon will almost certainly be more prudent with Elias in games he does pitch. Paraphrasing a line from the fast food industry, one could reasonably expect McClendon to abide by the “When in doubt, pull him out” mantra, electing to remove his bourgeoning workhorse earlier rather than later in ensuing contests. With Elias undoubtedly on a shorter leash through the remainder of the summer, the team will need to look elsewhere to fill his innings.

Internally, there are options. Rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are both due to return from the disabled list in the coming weeks – in Walker’s case, the timetable can be measured in days. Walker’s imminent arrival will spare the Mariners from having to watch any more of a starter-by-committee troupe that thus far has included Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer, and most recently Erasmo Ramirez. No member of this ragtag group has impressed, though Ramirez has been the least insufferable of the trio, even piecing together a 21-inning scoreless streaked that spanned three (abbreviated) starts. Ramirez’s abstinence from allowing runs was seemingly more lucky than good, however, as he somehow managed to relinquish nine hits and walk 11 – yes, ELEVEN – batters during his three-game scoreless stint, good for a 1.32 WHIP across that span.

Even in spelling Ramirez, Walker shouldn’t be relied upon too heavily through July and beyond. For all his undeniable talent, the 21-year-old still has just 15 big league innings to his name, 10 of which came at the expense of the historically awful 2013 Houston Astros. What we know is that Walker can dominate minor league hitters and hitters of a minor league caliber (sorry, 2013 Astros). What we don’t know is if he can a) shut down more potent MLB lineups and b) consistently give the Mariners quality starts (for reference, none of Walker’s three big league outings a season ago met the “quality start” criteria). While fans like to believe the hard-throwing Californian is the answer, there are still more than a handful of questions surrounding Taijuan Walker.

Similar to Walker, Paxton is a commodity that should invoke some skepticism before gaining unbridled trust. Though he’s logged more big league time than his right-handed counterpart (36 innings across six starts), the 6’5” lefty has been injury prone throughout his professional career and is healing a strained lat muscle, an impairment serious enough that it shelved reliever Stephen Pryor for the bulk of the 2013 campaign. At this stage in his development and recovery, anything Paxton can give the Mariners from now until the end of the year should be considered a bonus.

With some doubt surrounding the Paxton-Walker duo, it certainly wouldn’t hurt the M’s to find one more established major league arm to add to their corps of starters. As Heyman reported, the Mariners seem to have a keen interest in righties Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, both of the Chicago Cubs. Either Samardzija or Hammel would give Seattle a power arm capable of producing expansive, quality innings through the end of the year. Arguably the most coveted arm on the trade market, the 29-year-old Samardzija would remain under club control through 2015 and would command a much higher price tag than the 31-year-old Hammel, whose contract expires at season’s end. Hammel, however, could be an attainable free agent in the offseason – a Washington native who attended South Kitsap High School (yes, that’s also Willie Bloomquist’s alma mater), he may be keen on staying home in a pitcher’s park after bouncing between four organizations in the past five years. Even a half-season rental of Hammel would be worth it for the Mariners, though, especially if that meant parting with lesser prospects than a Samardzija deal would demand.

Whether it’s Samardzija, Hammel, or someone else entirely that the M’s might acquire, pursuing an arm makes sense for all the reasons listed above and even one more: there are few quality bats on the block right now. That could certainly change as the days leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline come to pass, but at this point in time the M’s would get a higher value of return in parting with prospects for a pitcher rather than a hitter. The logistics of the trade market can be a cruel dose of reality, and the reality right now is that there is a shortage of hitters available to be unloaded. Blame the advent of the second Wildcard spot for this revelation, as more teams than ever remain in contention as a result, the Mariners included.

No matter how the M’s choose to wheel and deal in the next month, there’s a certain sense of pride that comes with being buyers at the deadline. As it stands right now, Seattle holds down the American League’s second Wildcard spot and have every reason to be stocking up for an intense playoff run over the final 84 regular season ballgames.

3 responses

  1. […] aren’t out of the woods so far as starting pitching is concerned. For more on this, check out this post from NASORB friend Alex Akita on Seattle […]

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