With six starters on the Mariners’ roster at the moment, fifth starter candidates Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen have both emerged as potential trade candidates. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto confirmed at today’s GM Meetings that other clubs were showing interest in Flexen back at the trade deadline and have expressed continued interest in the right-hander throughout this week’s GM Meetings in Las Vegas (Twitter link via Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times).
Flexen isn’t the only Mariners arm who’s drawn interest; Dipoto told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that his team is “getting hit constantly, up and down, with our bullpen, our starters.” However, Dipoto also stressed that he doesn’t plan to subtract from his bullpen via trade, but rather hopes to further augment an already strong relief corps.
As things stand, the Mariners have a deep rotation — with six starters for five spots. Luis Castillo, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby make up one of the sport’s best rotation quartets, and they’re trailed by a pair of solid fifth starter options in Flexen and longtime Mariner Marco Gonzales. Seattle also has young Matt Brash as a potential option, and while the thinking is that he’s likely bullpen-bound for the foreseeable future, Dipoto told Divish that Brash would head to Spring Training stretched out as a starter and be downshifted into a relief role if the rotation remained healthy and did not undergo any other changes.
Those potential changes, quite likely, are in reference to a possible trade of Flexen and/or Gonzales. While neither is going to front any team’s rotation, both pitchers are serviceable options in the fourth or fifth spot of a starting staff, and both are relatively affordable. Flexen is set to earn $8MM next season after triggering a vesting option on his contract. He’ll only have three-plus years of service time at that point, but MLBTR has confirmed that the two-year deal Flexen signed upon returning from the KBO allows him to become a free agent next winter. As such, he’s a one-year rental.
Since returning from a one-year stint in the KBO, the 28-year-old Flexen has pitched 317 1/3 innings of 3.66 ERA ball for the Mariners. His 16.5% strikeout rate has been well south of league-average, but he’s better than average in terms of walk rate (6.8%) and limiting home runs (1.02 HR/9). Flexen has also averaged better than 5 2/3 innings per start and done a decent job minimizing hard contact.
As for Gonzales, a trade would be tougher to piece together. He’ll turn 31 in February, making him a good bit older than Flexen, and while his $6.5MM salary for the 2023 season is more affordable than that of Flexen, Gonzales is also owed $12MM in 2024. His contract contains a $15MM option for the 2025 season, though that option has no buyout.
Two years at a combined $18.5MM isn’t necessarily egregious for Gonzales, but it’s likely more than he’d fetch in the open market at present. He’s made 67 starts and soaked up 326 1/3 innings with a 4.05 ERA over the past two seasons, but Gonzales has seen his fastball velocity, strikeout rate, walk rate and home run rate all trend in the wrong direction. Metrics like FIP, xFIP and SIERA all peg him about a full run worse than his ERA.
Logically speaking, the Mariners appear to be headed toward some form of move involving one of their two back-of-the-rotation options. Flexen, in particular, would seem appealing given the short term remaining on his contract and more reasonable overall commitment, though that’s only my own speculation.
Moving either player would help the Mariners to scale back a projected $131MM payroll next season (hat tip: Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez), not that they necessarily need to. The team’s franchise-record Opening Day payroll was $158MM back in 2018, and they took their payroll north of $170MM each year from 2016-18 by way of in-season trades (via Cot’s). That should leave ample payroll space regardless of how the team acts with regard to its rotation.
Still, spending a combined $14.5MM in 2023 payroll on a pair of fifth-starter candidates is, obviously, a sub-optimal arrangement. Shedding some or all of that combined salary will only give Dipoto and his staff more flexibility when it comes to offseason pursuits, and it’s possible that Flexen in particular could help net some immediate help for the big league roster (perhaps with some minor league talent being included by Seattle). As far as potential other targets, Dipoto has already acknowledged that he feels NPB ace Kodai Senga could be an “impact” MLB arm, and he mentioned in the aforementioned Rosenthal column that his club could seek a middle infielder and at least one — if not two — corner outfielders this winter.