Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has built quite a reputation with regard to being aggressive on the trade market. And to a degree, it’s been more of the same story this winter.
While this offseason has been historically slow, Dipoto was quick to acquire Ryon Healy and Dee Gordon to fortify the team’s offense. If he had his way, they also would’ve landed Japanese sensation, Shohei Ohtani, for both their lineup and rotation, but it wasn’t meant to be (although it made sense as a logical fit).
That’s left their starting staff basically untouched all winter, which seems weird to say for a Dipoto-led front office. And according to a report from Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, it doesn’t seem like the Mariners are going to make any notable moves before the 2018 season gets under way.
In that report, Dipoto focused on longtime ace, Felix Hernandez, as the key because they need him to stay healthy. While that’s true, it’s even more important for left-hander James Paxton to fully take the reins of being the staff ace if Seattle wants to have a shot at reaching the postseason for the first time since 2001.
A Career Year
There’s no way around it — 2017 was a banner year for Paxton in just about every major statistical category. The southpaw set new single-season career highs in wins (12), ERA (2.98), SIERA (3.45), strikeout rate (28.3%), swinging-strike rate (12.5%), innings pitched (136), and fWAR (4.6).
How good was his overall performance? That fWAR tied for the ninth-best mark among starters with 100-plus innings. The guy he ended up tying with? That’d be Clayton Kershaw, who accumulated the same fWAR in 175 innings. If we take a look at the top 15 players on this list, Paxton is the only hurler that threw fewer than 168 innings.
So, yea, the guy had a pretty good year that could be considered a breakout performance. It just wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.
As mentioned above, Paxton did reach a new high-water mark in the big leagues with those 136 frames, but his inability to stay healthy for an entire season has consistently been his biggest problem. He had two different stints on the disabled list last year — he missed most of May with a left forearm strain and then was on the sideline for another month between August and September due to a strained pectoral muscle.
And for all the dominating he did throughout certain parts of the year — Paxton posted an ERA below 1.40 and a wOBA allowed below .205 in both April and July — he also dealt with some significant struggles.
June was particularly tough as he returned from his first DL stint. Through 25 innings of work, the left-hander struggled to a 7.20 ERA with a .395 wOBA allowed, 23.7% strikeout rate, 11.9% walk rate, and a 35.5% hard-hit rate, which were all the worst marks he posted in any month.
After that dominant July, he also had a hard time finishing just as strong (with his second DL stint sandwiched in between). He only manged a 4.08 ERA over his final 28.2 innings, but was much more in control based off his 31.3% hard-hit rate allowed, 26.5% strikeout rate, and 5.1% walk rate.
Depth Is a Real Issue
All teams would love to just depend on their top five, six, or seven starting pitchers in any given year, but it’s very rare that everyone can stay healthy and productive over such a long period of time. Seattle found this out the hard way in 2017, as they tied a major-league record by using 40 different pitchers.
No team has that much depth, and it was evident for the Mariners, who posted cumulative 9.8 fWAR that was better than just six other teams.
You’d imagine that someone with Dipoto’s reputation would find a way to at acquire more reliable depth, but that hasn’t happened. Ariel Miranda — he of the 5.12 ERA and 0.1 fWAR in 160 innings last year — and Hisashi Iwakuma — who just started throwing and may not be ready until May or June — are their most legitimate depth pieces (when talking big league experience) not on the MLB roster, per Roster Resource.
The projected Opening Day rotation also doesn’t have much certainty. Acquiring Mike Leake last August does stabilize things in the middle (he’s thrown at least 167 innings each year since 2011), but that’s about it. After throwing 236 innings and posting a 2.14 ERA with a 6.1 fWAR in 2014, all of those numbers have gotten worse every year for King Felix. He’s not the dominant pitcher he used to be, but the Mariners simply need him to take the mound as close to every fifth day as possible, which didn’t happen last year (just 16 starts and 86.2 innings).
The back of their projected rotation includes Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales, which doesn’t instill a bunch of confidence, either. Ramirez performed much better out of the bullpen last year and Gonzales has just 77.1 big league frames under his belt to the tune of a 5.47 ERA and 4.59 SIERA.
Regardless of whether more moves were made or not, Seattle has their work cut out for them. Just in the American League West, they’ll deal with the reigning champion Houston Astros and a much-improved Los Angeles Angels squad. And that’s before even thinking about teams like the Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox.
To remain competitive and give themselves a chance at breaking baseball’s longest postseason drought, a lot will have to fall in their favor. Plenty of it will boil down to a pitching staff — and more specifically, a rotation — that must perform much better than last year.
Paxton’s breakout season firmly puts him into the driver’s seat as the team ace. He’ll need to set the tone for this group on a regular basis now.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at FanDuel Insider, numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s a lover of all baseball, especially the Mets.