It’s been nearly three weeks since general manager Jerry Dipoto made his last trade. On Dec. 7, on the second-to-last day of the Major League Baseball winter meetings, Dipoto acquired right-handed starting pitcher Chris Heston from the Giants for a player to be named.
Since then, Dipoto has been unusually quiet on the transaction front.
It’s easy to imagine him pacing in his office at Safeco Field, speed-dialing and texting every general manager around the league every hour on the hour.
Feb. 14: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Peoria, Ariz.
Feb. 19: First full-squad workout.
Feb. 25: Mariners’ spring-training opener, vs. San Diego, 12:10 p.m.
April 3: Mariners’ season opener, at Houston
April 10: Mariners’ home opener, vs. Houston
It’s not as if there isn’t a known need for the Mariners’ 25-man roster. Since well before the meetings in early December, Dipoto made it clear he plans to acquire at least one more experienced starting pitcher via trade or free agency to fit into the rotation. Ideally that pitcher would fill the No. 3 or No. 4 spot, joining Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton, while leaving the No. 5 spot open for competition between Heston, Nathan Karns, Ariel Miranda and Rob Whalen to all compete for this spring.
“That’s our primary goal,” Dipoto said on a recent radio interview.
That it hasn’t happened isn’t from a lack of effort.
“The amount of trade discussion at the winter meetings was at an all-time high,” he said. “There were plenty of conversations.”
But it is indicative of the predicament the Mariners find themselves in as spring training looms just about six weeks away.
The first issue is that acquiring a starting pitcher via trade is complicated. Ideally, Seattle would like to find an experienced starter that is either under club control for a few more years at a relatively reasonable price or perhaps a higher-priced pitcher that becomes a free agent next year.
“If we can get that, then we’ve achieved what we wanted,” Dipoto said.
But the Mariners’ need mirrors at least 12 other teams desperate for something there isn’t an abundance of: proven starting pitching.
The Mariners certainly checked in on several possibilities during the meetings and after. Some of those are not there any longer.
With the Red Sox adding the highly-coveted Chris Sale to their rotation, there was an excess of starting pitching in Boston. Seattle liked lefty Drew Pomeranz, who fit their profile of being young, controllable and affordable. But the Red Sox instead worked a deal to trade right-hander Clay Bucholz and the $13.5 million he was owed this season to the Phillies, meaning Pomeranz would remain in Boston’s rotation.
The Mariners, along with several other teams including the Pirates, had talks with the Rays about their glut of starting pitching. While Chris Archer is the dream for any team, he is out of the Mariners’ price range in terms of what it would cost in players to get him. The same might be said for right-hander Jake Odorizzi. At age 26, Odorizzi is first-year arbitration eligible and projected to make around $4.6 million this season. Over the past two seasons, he’s posted a 19-15 record with a 3.53 ERA with 316 strikeouts and 100 walks in 357 innings. Tampa explored possible trades for Odorizzi in July. With two more years of club control after this season, the asking price is not the Archer level of five players, but not insignificant.
A baseball source said the Mariners tried to work a deal for Rays lefty Drew Smyly during the winter meetings. Tampa seems more inclined to part with Smyly since he’s projected to make $6.8 million in his third year of arbitration and is a free agent after the 2018 season. Smyly, 27, made 30 starts this season, posting a 7-12 record with a 4.88 ERA. In 1751/3 innings, he struck out 167 batters and walked 49. He was limited to just 12 starts in 2015 because of shoulder injuries.
The asking price for Smyly shouldn’t be as high as Odorizzi based on performance, salary and team control.
But this is where the Mariners run into problems when it comes to making trades — a lack of coveted talent and prospects in their minor-league system.
Seattle lacks the pieces to make these potential trades easier to put together. Sure, the new player-development staff headed by Andy McKay brought a change in thinking that resulted in every affiliate posting a winning record and qualifying for the postseason. But in the transactional aspect of baseball, that means little. The Mariners have two high-level prospects in Tyler O’Neill and Kyle Lewis, who are foundation-level pieces. But they are lacking middle-tier prospects that help fill out these trades.
Is Smyly worth giving up O’Neill or Lewis? Where’s the line between helping your team in 2017 and possibly hurting it for years going forward? The effects of trading Adam Jones and Chris Tillman for Erik Bedard in 2008 are still being felt today.
Dipoto admitted if the Mariners still had a need by January, he would start looking at the free-agent market. But the pickings are pretty slim. The Mariners been linked to Doug Fister on numerous occasions, which isn’t a completely inspiring option.
Right-hander Jason Hammel, a Port Orchard native, is also on the market. But at age 34, he’s not someone the M’s are looking to give multiple years to.
The team could take a flier on right-hander Tyson Ross, who was non-tendered by the Padres and is recovering from thoracic-outlet syndrome surgery in October. Ross, an All-Star in 2014, posted a 3.03 ERA in 64 starts over the 2013-14 seasons.
He made just one start last season, but is looking for at least $9 million guaranteed this season, per reports.