Some of you are probably thinking I’m detached from reality. Two weeks into the season and I’m already talking deadline deals?
Yes, it’s way too early to know with any certainty which direction Seattle’s front office takes this summer. But several areas of the roster are already showing signs that help may be needed by July. Perhaps much sooner.
This one isn’t exactly a leap. After all, Dipoto told Mike Salk of Seattle Sports 710 shortly after the MLB lockout ended that the team was pursuing another starter. And not just somebody to fill out the back of the rotation.
“If we go out and do something, again, we want to focus on adding someone who pitches closer to the top of our rotation than the back end.” – Jerry Dipoto in mid-March
We now know Dipoto couldn’t swing an acceptable deal from the Mariners’ standpoint. Not only that, the first two weeks of the season have done little to dispel the notion Seattle’s rotation needs another premium arm in 2022. At least that’s how I see it.
Sure, the emergence of Matt Brash during Spring Training and the Pitching Ninja Twitter account routinely featuring the right-hander’s nasty stuff have been fun elements of Seattle’s young season. But Brash’s numbers suggest he’s flirting with disaster. Particularly, when it comes to allowing free passes.
After walking just one in his big-league debut against a White Sox team that owns the lowest walk rate in MLB, Brash has walked 10 over his next two starts. The end result is a 17.2% walk rate, that’s second highest in the majors behind former Mariner Yusei Kikuchi (17.5%). This is not a new challenge for Brash. Last year, he had an 11.9% walk rate in 97.1 minor-league innings.
And then there’s the hard contact.
Opposing hitters have a 46.2% hard-hit rate against Brash, which is 20th highest among 145 starting pitchers allowing 30-plus batted balls this season. This combination of loud contact with control issues creates a volatile mix for the Niagara product and the Mariners moving forward. That said, Brash isn’t the only Seattle starter allowing well-stuck balls. In fact, someone has surrendered more.
At 56.4%, Chris Flexen is currently tied with Boston’s Nick Pivetta for the highest hard-hit rate among MLB starters. Flexen is only three starts into the season, so it wouldn’t take long for his numbers to rebound. Plus, the right-hander was Seattle’s most consistent and reliable starter in 2021 – that counts for something. Still, several statistical markers from last season suggest we should temper expectations for Flexen’s second full MLB campaign.
It’s true Flexen led the Mariners with 31 starts and 179.2 innings and recorded a better-than-average 3.61 ERA last season. But opponents had a .268 AVG against the 27-year-old, which was 24th highest among 88 pitchers facing 500-plus hitters. Moreover, his .317 xwOBA in 2021 was essentially league-average.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .316
Am I suggesting Flexen won’t bounce back from a slow-ish start or be terrible in 2022? Absolutely not. However, league-average production from the California native is a reasonable projection. Fans expecting numbers from Flexen resembling last year’s stats may end up being disappointed.
One distinct element of Flexen’s 2021 performance that shouldn’t be overlooked was his ability to make every start. There’s no reason to believe the 27-year-old won’t repeat that feat in 2022. But it’s likely health challenges will affect Seattle’s rotation in some way.
Two weeks into this season, 19 teams have already used at least six starting pitchers. Some of that is by design due to a shortened Spring Training. But every club will inevitably have injuries cut into its starting rotation depth. By June 1 last year, the Mariners had used 11 starters.
Granted, Seattle began the 2021 season with a six-man rotation. But using 11 starters just two months into a season is a tremendous strain for any organization. It certainly was to Dipoto’s team last year and would be again in 2022. Within the organization, top pitching prospect George Kirby is nearing MLB-readiness. Therefore, he’d be the most likely candidate to replace an ineffective or injured starter.
Based on his prospect pedigree, Kirby presents a potential opportunity to upgrade the rotation from within. Still, workload will be a factor the team must consider with the 24-year-old. Last year, he threw just 67.2 innings due to shoulder issues. Just two weeks ago, Dipoto suggested to Mike Lefko of Seattle Sports 710 that the target for Kirby this season was 120-130 innings.
Beyond the innings-management element, it’s important to consider that Kirby could encounter growing pains whenever he does join the Mariners. As we saw last season, Logan Gilbert scuffled early as a rookie before dominating last September and this season. Every prospect is different, but it’s sensible to avoid thrusting too much importance onto Kirby’s eventual Emerald City arrival.
Since it’s so early in the season, any list of potential trade targets will be very raw. That said, here are a few recognizable names for your consideration.
Seattle adding Sergio Romo near the end of Spring Training was an effort to offset the loss of Casey Sadler to season-ending shoulder surgery. Unfortunately, Romo made just two appearances before being shelved with his own shoulder ailment. Hopefully, the 39-year-old’s absence isn’t prolonged and he returns in top form. Then again, hope is not a course of action.
Especially for a club with postseason aspirations.
Further exacerbating the loss of Romo is a finger injury to Ken Giles, who was expected to fill a late-inning role. Giles will eventually return, although it’s unclear when he’ll make his first relief appearance as a Mariner. And let’s not overlook the loss of Paul Sewald, who’s currently on the COVID-19 list.
Sewald should be back soon. But his absence and the unplanned losses of Sadler, Romo, and Giles help magnify the Mariners’ shrinking inventory of high-leverage arms. What happens if another back-end relief arm contracts COVID-19, misses time due to injury, or is ineffective? Then what?
Expect the Mariners to continuously pursue bullpen help throughout the season. Potential deadline trade targets will certainly include any reliever pitching well for a losing club, especially pending free agents.
This one may not seem pressing to some of you. But the center field situation bears watching. Sure, Julio Rodriguez has looked good in the field. But Rodriguez has yet to demonstrate he’s ready to handle MLB pitching. Perhaps the 21-year-old begins doing just that during the team’s current road trip. But what if June rolls around and he’s still struggling?
What’s the backup plan in center field?
The default answer for some may be Jarred Kelenic. The 22-year-old made 75 starts in center field last season. But he too is scuffling at the plate. Furthermore, advanced metrics suggest his center field defense was particularly bad last season. Realistically, Kelenic appears destined to be a corner outfielder capable of occasionally playing center field.
If I’m correct about Kelenic, the Mariners don’t have a suitable center field replacement to fill-in for Rodriguez over an extended period. This reality could prompt Dipoto to seriously consider going outside the organization to get help if Rodriguez’s performance or health necessitate a change at the position.
Others may suggest Kyle Lewis as a center field option. The return of a fully healthy Lewis would undoubtedly be great news after he missed most of last season due to knee surgery. The 2020 AL Rookie of the Year would potentially bolster Seattle’s lineup and outfield defense. Still, this outcome may be a reach as things stand today.
Initially, Lewis projected to be available about a month into this season. But the 26-year-old hasn’t met milestones shared with the media by the Mariners. On April 1, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish reported the team was expecting Lewis to begin serving as a designated hitter in minor-league games soon. Two weeks later, Divish tweeted that has yet to happen.
Per Jerry Dipoto, M’s president of baseball operations:
Ken Giles (tendon strain in middle finger) is still about two weeks away from throwing a baseball.
Kyle Lewis is taking live BP vs. pitchers at the complex in Arizona. But is not playing in extended ST games yet.
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) April 13, 2022
The Mariners appear to be demonstrating an abundance of caution with Lewis’ return to game action, which is a good thing for all involved. That said, based on the information the team has shared publicly, Lewis isn’t close to returning to the big-league team. Furthermore, management’s measured approach to his rehab signals Lewis may not be a center field option when he initially returns.
All Things Considered
Don’t be surprised if Dipoto doesn’t wait until July to make deals. Especially if the Mariners continue delivering positive results through Memorial Day. Getting ahead of the competition is something Virginia Commonwealth alum has done in the past.
Yes, the season is young. But it’s not too early to consider ways the Mariners could improve the team’s chances of finally returning to meaningful October baseball.
At least, I don’t think it’s too early for such thoughts.
My Oh My…
Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home.
In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins