Sellers beware when it comes to starting pitching
The Mariners have an abundance of starting pitching. But that doesn't mean the team should be an arms dealer this offseason.
The Mariners are flush with the rarest commodity in baseball - premium, controllable starting pitching. It’s the reason suitors call to gauge Seattle’s interest in dealing a starter. It’s why professional purveyors of trade speculation routinely link the Mariners to teams in need of rotation help.
Still, I have a word of caution for fans, who think the Mariners should trade a starting pitcher this offseason to address the team’s offensive shortcomings.
Be careful what you ask for.
The Mariners undoubtedly need to add more offense. But downgrading their cache of top-shelf pitching to land a bat could be the team’s undoing next season.
Let’s make a deal
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the social media realm doesn’t subscribe to my cautious approach towards Seattle’s cadre of big-league starters. The segment of Mariners Twitter replying to this unscientific survey overwhelmingly advocates the team becoming an arms dealer this winter.
I get it. Mariners fans are disappointed by how the season ended. They’re frustrated AL West division rivals have won the last two World Series. The team’s end-of-season presser infuriated them. But previous misfortune and avoidable missteps shouldn’t be justification to pursue an offseason strategy fraught with risk.
Proponents of trading a starter will likely scoff at my concern. They’ll point to the stockpile of talent the Mariners project to have entering next season. Leading the way are Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryce Miller, and Bryan Woo. Plus, injured starters Marco Gonzales and Emerson Hancock are expected to be ready for Spring Training. And then there’s Robbie Ray, who could conceivably rejoin the team sometime after the All-Star break.
The pro-trade contingent will also suggest Seattle could offset trading a starter by signing one of several prominent free agents available this offseason. Someone like Blake Snell, who grew up a Mariners fan. Other names bandied about include Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola, Jordan Montgomery, Marcus Stroman, and Eduardo Rodriguez. There are others, but you get the idea.
Perhaps so, but even if a free agent was brought into the fold, I would prefer the Mariners to retain their current stable of big-league arms. Honestly, I can’t think of anything that would convince me trading a starter this offseason is a good idea. Four important considerations are driving my opposition.
It takes a village
The notion the Mariners have enough starting pitching is laughable to me. Sure, the situation looks promising right now. But November’s surplus could quickly become a shortfall once the season begins. After all, wasn’t the rotation’s outlook rosy 12 months ago?
When the 2023 campaign got underway, Seattle’s starting five consisted of Castillo, Ray, Gilbert, Kirby, and Gonzales with Chris Flexen serving as the rotation’s unofficial sixth man. Unfortunately, the staff began experiencing upheaval almost immediately.
In the second game of the year, Ray suffered a season-ending injury requiring Tommy John surgery. Flexen replaced the Cy Young Award winner in the rotation, but lasted just four starts before returning to the bullpen due to ineffectiveness. From there, the organization relied on its seemingly endless rotational depth.
Spoiler: It wasn’t endless.
All told, the Mariners needed 13 starters to navigate through the 2023 campaign.
Mariners starters in 2023
Luis Castillo - 33 starts
Logan Gilbert - 32 starts
George Kirby - 31 starts
Bryce Miller - 25 starts
Bryan Woo - 18 starts (IL/workload constrained)
Marco Gonzales - 10 starts (injured)
Chris Flexen - 4 starts (pulled from rotation)
Emerson Hancock - 3 starts (injured)
Tommy Milone - 2 spot starts
Robbie Ray - 1 start (injured)
Easton McGee - 1 start (injured)
Trent Thornton - 1 start (opener)
Luke Weaver - 1 start (opener)
Despite possessing an enviable wealth of talent in March, the organization’s rotational depth didn’t seem so deep by late-summer.
Going the distance, again?
Castillo, Gilbert, and Kirby each pitched at least 190 innings this year. Impressive, considering only 12 other pitchers in MLB reached this milestone.
Pitchers with 190+ innings in 2023
SEA - Luis Castillo/Logan Gilbert/George Kirby
PHI - Aaron Nola/Zack Wheeler
SFG - Logan Webb
HOU - Framber Valdez
STL - Miles Mikolas
MIN - Pablo López
PIT - Mitch Keller
BAL - Kyle Gibson
ARI - Zac Gallen
NYY - Gerrit Cole
MIL Corbin Burnes
TOR - Chris Bassitt
Since it’s increasingly rare for pitchers to throw so many innings, is it reasonable to expect Seattle's long-distance arms will reach the 190-frame mark once again in 2024?
There’s no way to accurately answer this question, although I wouldn’t advise betting against Castillo, Gilbert, or Kirby. Still, recent history does suggest all three hurlers logging 190-plus innings next year is far from a sure thing.
Consider this. Only seven of the 15 pitchers achieving the 190-inning milestone this year also did so in 2022 - Gerrit Cole, Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Miles Mikolas, Logan Webb, Corbin Burnes, and Framber Valdez.
Furthermore, six of the 14 pitchers reaching 190 frames in 2022 were unable to make 25 starts this year due to injury or suboptimal performance - SIX!
Those starters were Martín Pérez, Yu Darvish, Alek Manoah, Triston McKenzie, Shane Bieber, and a retiring Adam Wainwright. It’s also worth noting 2022 NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara (228.2 innings in 2022) underwent Tommy John surgery on October 6.
Gazing into the rearview mirror doesn’t necessarily matter moving forward because it’s not predictive. But what’s transpired over the last two seasons does suggest three starters in the same rotation covering over 570 innings as Castillo, Gilbert, and Kirby did this year won’t be an easy undertaking.
Heck, expecting the trio to remain healthy and effective throughout 2024 could be viewed as a big ask.
Running on empty
Even with Ray and Gonzales lost for the year by May, starting pitching remained Seattle’s strength for most of the season. But by the last month of the 2023 campaign, the starting staff was gassed and it showed in the results.
When the Mariners needed the rotation most in September/October, opponents produced a .783 OPS against it.
As you might expect, this sharp decline in effectiveness meant the rotation was logging fewer innings in September/October. The following illustrates the monthly percentage of innings covered by the starting staff.
A four-percent decline from August may not seem like much. But it amounts to about 10 extra innings the bullpen had to cover down the home stretch.
Furthermore, Seattle’s starter usage at the end of 2023 was essentially the same as the opening month of the season when teams are methodically building up pitcher workload. Suboptimal for a club vying for a postseason berth.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Seattle’s September swoon was solely the rotation’s responsibility - far from it.
The offense ranked in the bottom-third of MLB, while September was the bullpen’s worst month since June. But starting pitching had been the team’s superpower all year. When it faltered, so did the Mariners’ short-lived hold on first place in the AL West.
The unknown unknowns
Even though Gonzales and Hancock project to be ready when pitchers and catchers report, planning on their Opening Day availability in November is unwise. Rehabbing athletes suffer setbacks. Recoveries can take a little longer than anticipated. Teams are rightfully cautious with players returning from injury.
Gonzales underwent surgery to relieve nerve pressure in his forearm in August. As Daniel Kramer of MLB.com noted, it’s a relatively rare issue in baseball. But in his article, Kramer does cite two big-leaguers who underwent the procedure and successfully returned to action.
Scott Alexander had the surgery during the 2019 season and was ready by Spring Training 2020. Alexander pitched with the Giants this year. Former Mariner Brandon Morrow went under the knife in 2013 and then played five more seasons.
It’s important to note Alexander and Morrow were both relievers before and after their injury. Furthermore, neither pitched 50 innings in a season following their procedures.
As for Hancock, he never pitched over 100 innings as a collegian or professional until he logged 110 frames with Class-AA Arkansas and Seattle in 2023. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect the workload of the sixth overall pick in 2020 will be closely managed next year.
“Robbie’s going to miss significant time next year. I can’t tell you when he’s going to be back. You could tell me it was any of the All-Star break, August or September, and those are all believable dates on the calendar. It just depends. It’s a long rehab process, and you never know which way it’s really going to go.” – Justin Hollander
It’s important to recognize there’s no guarantee Ray will be his old self in 2024 or ever.
I realize that sounds dour. But consider how the career of flamethrower Noah Syndergaard has been torpedoed by Tommy John surgery. Hopefully, Ray’s recovery goes seamlessly and his return to form is more complete than Syndergaard’s has been thus far.
I’m rooting for Thor to regain his thunder.
Let’s make a deal?
Look, no serious-minded person will deny Seattle’s lineup needs to improve. That said; I’m convinced the Mariners could win the AL West with an offense ranking somewhere between tenth and twelfth in MLB. But this assumes the starting staff remains the strength it was in 2023 and doesn’t become a bargaining chip this winter.
It’s plausible the Mariners’ front office doesn’t share my uneasiness with trading a major-league starter. The people running baseball operations and their supporting cast are monumentally better informed and smarter than me. These folks actually know what they’re doing because it’s their job.
Still, it’s worth noting the only starting pitching talent dealt by the Mariners post-rebuild has come from the farm system.
Perhaps the Mariners change course and make the difficult choice to deal a starter from the big-league roster. If the front office decides to pull the trigger, I won’t be critical of the decision-makers. As I already stated, they’re the big-brained thinkers with the information and expertise, not me.
Still, I would remain apprehensive about the long-lasting effect such a move could have on Seattle’s trajectory next season and beyond.
As I said earlier, be careful what you ask for.
My Oh My…
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