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June 21, 2011 at 9:43 AM

Should Mariners contemplate dealing any of their starting pitchers?

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Went on Northwest Sports Tonight last night for a round-table (maybe a semi-circle) discussion with Paul Silvi and Mike Salk about all things Mariners and one of the more interesting items was who the M’s might have as trade pieces next month. That is, if the team is in contention by this point in July.
If the M’s are out of it, then it’s easy. You look to deal just about any veteran player on a one-year deal. Even some who may be in the midst of a four-year deal, but that’s another matter entirely.
But if this team is contending and needs to add a piece? Or two?
Well, who do you trade? The immediate thing that pops up is — some of your minor league pieces. You know, like a Carlos Triunfel. Josh Fields. Excess baggage, or stuff not exactly working out just yet. Sure, right.
Problem is, the other teams have scouts. They have the internet and can check stats. They can look at Seattle’s roster and figure out who is blocked where. Kind of lessens the value of those players.
We’ve all heard the talk about how the Mariners should go out and get Luke Scott, Hunter Pence and so on. Yeah, I’m all for that. And if the M’s can go and get those pieces without giving anything serious up, then by all means, do it.
Problem is, over the years, I’ve heard all sorts of names mentioned as to who could be “easily” had by the M’s at a low cost and those deals never get done. Probably because opposing GMs don’t want to get ripped off. They know how to drive a hard bargain as well.
Now, I’m not going to start roster-guessing here and figure out who should be matched to whomever.
What I’m going to do is tell you what the strongest trade bait the M’s have going for them right now is — the starting pitching.
Want to get somebody over here right now? Offer up a starting pitcher. That will get the phone lines buzzing.
And as of right now, the M’s have five starting pitchers who seem to have things working very well for them. That’s a rarity for any team. It gives the M’s a little bit of surplus that other clubs don’t have.
The thing is, can the M’s afford to trade one of those pitchers away?
I’m not talking Felix Hernandez or Michael Pineda. Nor am I talking Erik Bedard. That’s your playoff rotation right there with those three.
No, I’m thinking Jason Vargas or Doug Fister. Can the M’s afford to deal either of those two guys to bring in a bat? Maybe a bat and a relief pitcher?
Let’s just discuss the concept of trading them.

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This question would have been greeted by an “Of course you can trade one of those guys!” if we were having this discussion last January. Back then, the notion the M’s would be a game out of first place on June 21 would have created such mass celebration in the Emerald City, we wouldn’t care about a back-end starter being shipped off.
The thing is, Vargas and Fister have been so much more than back-end guys.
Vargas is a lefty, which automatically means added value. He just three-hit the Phillies in a complete-game shutout, meaning much more value.
Fister so far has been an innings-eater. He’s gone seven innings routinely. Even eight-inning starts are no longer rare for him. That’s not No. 4 or 5 starter stuff. That’s a solid No. 3 guy in your rotation.
Can Fister keep this up all year? That will be the thing to watch. I don’t see hitters suddenly figuring him out overnight, but it will remain a question of arm fatigue and overall conditioning. Fister has worked hard at building his strength and endurance, so that will help.
Vargas already threw 190+ innings last year, so you know he can make it to the finish line. The question with him is, can he finish with quality stuff as opposed to a bunch of five-runs-allowed outings?
Those are great questions to be asking if you’re the Mariners. Much more fun than “Wow, how do you handle the dropoff from the top-two guys?”
So, can you trade Fister or Vargas?
Their value might never be as high as it is right now.
One of the secondary questions you have to ask is, who do you have to replace them?
In the case of Fister, you do have another right-handed starter in David Pauley who has been lights-out in his set-up role in the bullpen. You also have David Aardsma and Shawn Kelley trying to work their way back from injury into second-half bullpen roles, not to mention Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke in Class AAA. Theoretically, you will have bullpen replacements to take Pauley’s place in the second half. So, yes, the idea of slotting Pauley in as your replacement fourth or fifth guy is not out of the question.
And in the minors, you have a lefty in Nate Robertson, coming back off minor elbow surgery.
He’s 1-2 with a 5.23 ERA in four starts for Class AAA Tacoma with 10 strikeouts and six walks in 20 2/3 innings. The numbers, of course, mean zilch. They have to get better, clearly, but Robertson won’t be ready for the majors until the pro advisors the M’s keep on staff tell them he has the stuff to get major league hitters out. That won’t show up on a stats page. It’s why they pay the advisors big bucks. So, that’s up to the Mariners to figure out. But it’s not out of the question to expect Robertson to be ready for the majors again come late July.
And in that case, you have a lefty you can plug in.
What else is there to consider?
Let’s talk money. Vargas is earning $2.45 million this year and should be about a $5 million pitcher after arbitration next year. That’s starting to get pricey if you do consider him a back-end guy. If you see him as a legit No. 2 or No. 3 guy, it’s a decent wage.
Fister won’t be arbitration eligible until 2013, which means he’s a valuable arm to keep around at a six-figure annual rate.
And there’s Bedard to consider, of course. He’s a free agent after this coming season. So, if he leaves and you’ve traded Vargas, that’s your two main lefties gone from 2011 to 2012. Not insurmountable, but also not the preferred route of any team.
In other words, it’s not as easy as saying: “Well, that Vargas feller is gonna cost us a brickload next year, so let’s dump him and keep the cheaper righty.”
Now, naturally, you can keep all five guys if you’re the Mariners. Maybe hope that Dustin Ackley can take off, Brendan Ryan (read all about him in today’s paper) can shake his recent slump, Franklin Gutierrez can start hitting again and Chone Figgins maybe delivers something. Ditto on Jack Cust, Mike Carp or whoever decides to step up and grab the DH role. Because right now, nobody is doing it.
And we do have another 5 1/2 weeks until July 31…if the M’s can hang in it that long.
Thing is, that won’t happen scoring seven runs every three games. You need offensive improvement. You need it in left field and at the DH spot right now.
If you can fill it cheaply, without trading a starter, then do it. No time like the present. But talking about a cheap fill is one thing. Talk is cheap. Doing it, especially for this team, has proved a challenge.
And if you can’t fill those spots cheap, do you risk dealing a starting pitcher to bring in some higher quality bats from someplace else? Yes, I know, depends on the bat. We can mix and match later. The question here is, do you even consider moving Fister or Vargas if the return is going to be something lesser than Albert Pujols (pre-wrist injury) but something greater than a waiver wire washout?
Maybe you’re a “build for the future” type and are willing to let this playoff possibility float on by in the name of “sustainable contention” down the road. Remember, though, the whole sustainability thing works for some teams and not for others. It’s a nice goal to have, but an elusive one. For those who’ve lost track, it’s been two years since the M’s contended beyond June. It’s been four years since they contended beyond July. Time flies and playoff shots don’t come around every day.
The Cleveland Indians — yes, them again — were one win away from going to the World Series in 2007 and everyone thought the universe belonged to them. Four years later, they’re hoping to contend beyond the trade deadline for the first time since. Sustainablility is not guaranteed, no matter how “correct” the process.
Remember, for anyone who didn’t read this closely enough: we’re NOT talking about a Doug Fister-for-Luke Scott trade. We’re talking about theoretically trading Fister. What would be a realistic return and should the M’s even be thinking about it?
I think it’s a discussion the M’s ought to be having. Would be surprised if they weren’t.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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