When it comes to discussions about the most urgent priority for Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners this offseason, it is to upgrade the starting rotation.
Everywhere one looks, and at every corner one turns, there seems to be a universal agreement that finding at least one, and maybe even two, proven starting pitchers is a necessity.
We even wrote about such a need in our offseason plan, advocating for the acquisitions of Julio Teheran and Jaime Garcia.
Nevertheless, for every article or interview informing Mariners fans of the need for rotation help, there sits Dipoto, telling us that the starting staff is more than capable of being successful.
Such was the case earlier this week when Dipoto sat down for an interview on 710 ESPN’s Bob, Groz, & Tom Show. Here, Dipoto described how he was more than “comfortable” heading into the 2018 season with a rotation led by James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, and Erasmo Ramirez.
Hearing such indication that there may be no further additions made to the starting rotation, I suddenly sensed pain and outcry as if there had been a great disturbance in the force.
I could feel coldness, despair, and my soul being consumed, as if in the presence of a Dementor.
As I sat there listening, I prayed to the baseball gods that Dipoto would say something – anything- to give fans reassurance that rotation help was on the way.
I waited for Dipoto to cast his petronus and whisk away the suffering and torment.
Instead, an interesting phenomenon took place. As I listened to Dipoto make his case for possibly sticking with the status quo, his words actually began to make some sense.
Blasphemy, you say?
To paraphrase Dipoto, his pitch about the starting rotation went something like this:
“Paxton was one of the best pitchers in the league last year despite the time he missed. Even if he can only give us 24 starts again, that would be more than welcomed production. Hernandez is just a few years removed from garnering Cy Young votes. He just needs to be healthy, and he will be. In addition, he is 32 years old, which is the same age as most of the free agent pitchers coming off recent injuries that our fans want me to dish out a mega contract for. Do all you fans see what I am saying? Leake has been in the league for seven years and consistently ranks in the top 50 for starting pitchers. Again, that is top 50. Do the math here. With 30 teams in baseball, and five starters per team, the math says that Leake ranks in the top third of all starting pitchers. Pretty darn good. And Ramirez? Well, Ramirez is a really sneaky pitcher. I’m not sure what I mean when I say that, but I like sneaky. And for his career, Ramirez has started a ton of games in his career while averaging five plus innings with a sub 4.00 ERA. So, what does this all mean, you ask? Due to the rash of injuries last year, we were forced to rely on minor league arms and we somehow still finished with 78 wins. If Paxton can give us what he gave us last year, Felix gets healthy, and with full seasons from Leake and Ramirez, our rotation should be much improved.”
Okay, I could buy some of that. I mean, looking back at who was toeing the rubber every fifth day, reaching 78 wins was, indeed, quite remarkable. In that regard, getting another season from Paxton like the one he produced last year, in addition to full seasons from Leake and Ramirez, would definitely be a boost.
Then again, a lot of what Dipoto was projecting came across as the glass half full talking. Realistically speaking, no one has any idea what Paxton and Felix are going to bring in terms of health. And, as for Ramirez, he has only one year under his belt as a full time starter, which was back in 2015.
Dipoto would continue on, this time addressing the bullpen. Again, to paraphrase:
“Our bullpen rocks! We have a really deep and versatile pen. We have the league’s best young closer in Diaz. In addition, we were the only team in the league last year to have three relievers with 20 or more holds. Those are really important things because, if you remember what I said earlier, I believe the league is headed towards using a six-man rotation with starters going only five plus innings, and there definitely will be times during the upcoming season that we will utilize that strategy in order to reduce the amount of innings for our starting pitchers.”
I took a moment to let sink in all of what Dipoto was trying to sell.
Without a doubt, Paxton was one of the best pitchers in the AL last season. In 24 starts, he posted a 2.98 ERA, averaged 5.7 innings, 10.3 SO/9, and a 4.22 SO/W. Not to mention a 12-5 record, including six no decisions where he allowed three earned runs or less.
Two years ago King Felix was Cy Young material, finishing seventh in the voting after making 31 starts, tallying over 200 innings pitched, and going 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA. The following season, however, was very un-King like, with Felix making just 25 starts, tossing 153.1 innings, and producing an 11-8 record with a 3.82 ERA. It might be a pipe dream to think Felix can return to his Cy Young ways of two years ago. However, is it all that far-fetched to believe Felix can still take the ball 25 times, average close to six innings per start, and produce a sub 4.00 ERA like he did in 2016?
For his career, Leake has averaged 30 starts, a 3.98 ERA, and 181.0 innings per season. Last season alone, the eighth of his career, was no different as Leake produced a 3.92 ERA and 186.0 innings over 31 games started. Top 50 type numbers? You bet. Moreover, unless Leake suffers his first major injury of his career, there is nothing to indicate that Leake shouldn’t continue to put up similar numbers in 2018.
In 2015, Ramirez served as the #3 starter for the Tampa Bay Rays, making 27 starts, producing a 3.51 ERA and tossing 151.1 innings. Since then, he’s been used mostly as a reliever. However, after being traded to the Mariners last year, Ramirez started 11 games and posted a 3.92 ERA. I’m not quite sure what Dipoto meant when he called Ramirez “sneaky” but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Ramirez has quietly put together a pretty solid track record as a starting pitcher. In 82 total games started, Ramirez owns a 23-23 record with a 4.25 ERA, and has averaged 5.4 innings per start.
To put that type of production into perspective, Ramirez’s numbers are very equivalent to those of Tyler Chatwood, who is not only five months older than Ramirez, but who also just signed a three year deal with the Cubs for a guaranteed $38M to be their #4 starter.
Okay, so there are some possibilities with the rotation. But what about that “wolfpack” bullpen?
With the addition of Juan Nicasio (2.61 ERA), as well as having David Phelps (3.40 ERA) for an entire season, Dipoto has added two lights out relievers capable of throwing multiple innings. Add them to a bullpen already featuring Nick Vincent (3.20 ERA), James Pazos (3.86 ERA), Tony Zych (2.66 ERA), and closer Diaz (34 saves, 3.27 ERA), Dipoto may very well be correct when he says he has a bullpen capable of chewing up quite a few innings.
If Dipoto has in fact created that “wolfpack” bullpen he keeps talking about, then the need to garner upwards of 200 innings from his starting pitchers is no longer the necessity is has historically been. Rather, solid but reduced production could undoubtedly help allow the rotation to stay healthy which, in turn, would result in a pretty big upgrade over last season’s projected starting five that managed to combine for only 68 starts.
Looking at recent history, receiving the following numbers from the Mariners top four starters doesn’t seem all that unrealistic:
- Paxton: 25 starts, 160.0 innings, 2.80 ERA.
- Hernandez: 25 starts, 145.0 innings, 3.80 ERA.
- Leake: 30 starts, 185.0 innings, 3.90 ERA.
- Ramirez: 28 starts, 160.0 innings, 4.20 ERA.
With that, Dipoto would just have to figure out a way to divvy up the remaining 55 starts. Ostensibly, the leading candidates would be Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Moore.
Miranda is the only one of the aforementioned who has proven he can take the ball every fifth day, as evidence by his 29 starts last season. Granted, he produced an underwhelming 4.90 ERA over those 29 starts, but Miranda was a tale of two pitchers.
For the first three months of the season (17 starts), Miranda went 7-4 with 3.82 ERA while averaging nearly six innings per start. However, in his remaining 12 starts, Miranda went 1-3 with a 6.71 ERA, and averaged under five innings per start.
It is difficult to say what the cause was for his second half demise, but a strong possibility is that – due to 2017 being his first full season in the rotation – Miranda simply wore down. Assuming that was the case, Miranda could be looked upon (at the very least) to serve as an effective starter for 20 games.
That would leave 34 starts for Gonzales and Moore. Arguably, 34 games could be too many to leave for a couple of unproven rookies. However, the wild card in this whole thing is Hisashi Iwakuma. If Iwakuma returns in May as projected, he could end up taking the ball 20 times (maybe even more) which would then just leave Gonzales and/or Moore to handle the remaining 15 starts.
Under this hypothetical, the rotation’s season ending stat line regarding games started could end up looking like this:
- Paxton: 25 starts
- Hernandez: 25 starts
- Leake: 30 starts
- Ramirez: 28 starts
- Iwakuma: 20 starts
- Miranda: 20 starts
- Gonzales/Moore: 15 starts
To say the least, that is a lot of moving parts. Eight moving parts to be exact.
Nevertheless, it may be more of a reality than people first think, especially when one looks at what the Houston Astros did last season.
The Astros top five pitchers started 28, 25, 23, 22 and 21 games, respectively. Two others started 15 and 12 games, while four more combined to pick up the remaining 16.
The most innings pitched by any starter was Mike Fiers’ 153.1. In addition, as a collective unit, Astros starters averaged about 5.5 innings per start while depending upon a bullpen that – led by Chris Devenski –was capable of pitching multiple innings.
Sounds eerily similar to what Dipoto is talking about, right?
This all said, it wouldn’t surprise to see Dipoto add an “innings eater” to the rotation thereby making much of this kind of a moot point.
However, if he doesn’t, it may be because Dipoto’s foresight regarding the changing nature of rotations and bullpen usage is something the rest of us are not quite capable of envisioning yet.
Let’s not forget that it wasn’t all too long ago the baseball world was blind to the idea of a 9th inning closer. That is, until Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley came along and showed everyone otherwise, thereby changing bullpen usage over the past three decades.
Perhaps 2018 will be the year starting rotations are transformed for the foreseeable future, with much of the credit for that transformation going to Dipoto.