The Mariners have made one of the biggest rotation pickups of the offseason already, signing Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115MM guarantee shortly before the lockout. Even after landing the reigning AL Cy Young award winner, Seattle is expected to pursue additional rotation help whenever the transactions freeze is lifted, writes Corey Brock of the Athletic.
The group behind Ray already looks pretty solid. Chris Flexen had a nice 2021 campaign in his return from a stint in South Korea. Marco Gonzales had some uncharacteristic home run struggles this past season, but he’s a reliable mid-rotation arm. Logan Gilbert posted a 4.68 ERA as a rookie, but his peripherals were more impressive and he’s one of the most highly-regarded young arms around the league.
A top four of Ray, Flexen, Gonzales and Gilbert is a solid start, and it seems there’s only one season-opening spot left up for grabs. While the Mariners ran a six-man rotation at points last season, president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto suggested earlier this offseason that’s not the plan in 2022. Dipoto noted that last season’s six-man starting staff was primarily a function of the club’s concern about a drastic pitcher workload spike on the heels of a 60-game schedule in 2020. “Now that we are a full season removed from the truncated 2020 season, we feel the five-man rotation is a perfectly reasonable way to go,” Dipoto said (via Brock).
Seattle has a few in-house options for the final spot, albeit none with a whole lot of certainty. Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield were each well-regarded prospects coming up, but they’ve been up-and-down as big leaguers. Dunn had a 3.75 ERA over 11 starts last season, but neither he nor Sheffield had especially promising peripherals. Nick Margevicius remains on the 40-man roster, but he missed most of last season after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome.
Each of Dunn, Sheffield or Margevicius could conceivably hold down a rotation role until one of the Mariners’ top young arms is ready for a call-up. Matt Brash was selected to the active roster during the final week of the regular season, but he didn’t see any major league action. Both Brash and fellow top prospect George Kirby topped out at Double-A in 2021, so it’s possible both righties are in line for a bit of Triple-A time to start next season. That’s also true of southpaw Brandon Williamson, a well-regarded young arm himself who has posted monster strikeout numbers in the minors.
Given the volume of near-MLB options already in the organization, it’s arguable that starting pitching needn’t really be a priority for Seattle. Yet the AL West is seemingly shaping up to be a competitive race, and the Mariners may not be content relying on a breakout from one of Sheffield or Dunn or on immediate success from their top prospects. Acquiring another starter could also kick Sheffield and/or Dunn to the bullpen and give the club some extra depth in the event of injuries that typically affect pitching staffs around the league.
Brock suggests the Mariners could look into either free agency or trade in pursuit of another hurler. The top of the free agent rotation market has already mostly come off the board. Aside from Carlos Rodón and Clayton Kershaw, most of the remaining free agent starters are back-end types. It’s possible Seattle targets a lower-cost veteran stabilizer — speculatively speaking, a reunion with midseason trade acquisition Tyler Anderson could be under consideration — but the trade market presents a broader array of higher-impact options.
Reds’ hurlers Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and Sonny Gray have been the subject of trade rumors over the offseason, with Gray seemingly most likely to wind up on the move among that trio. The division-rival A’s could make any of Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt and/or Sean Manaea available. The Marlins are reportedly willing to trade from their surplus of quality young arms. Landing a pitcher of Castillo’s or Mahle’s caliber and remaining club control would likely require surrendering a top prospect, something Dipoto has already suggested Seattle’s not willing to do. Acquiring a rental like Bassitt or Manaea likely wouldn’t require surrendering that kind of young talent, though.
Even after signing Ray, the Mariners’ payroll outlook is fairly clear. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource estimates Seattle’s 2022 player commitments at just under $87MM, including projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players. That’s well shy of the club’s franchise-record outlays in the $155MM range (via Cot’s Baseball Contracts). Dipoto and his staff should have plenty of leeway to pursue multiple upgrades whenever the offseason resumes. In addition to the desire to bolster the rotation, the Mariners are on the hunt for another infielder, a search that has already seen them tied to players like Trevor Story and Kris Bryant.