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January 30, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Why the Mariners must add a dependable starting pitcher

Chris Capuano of the Dodgers is one of a handful of pitchers out there capable of delivering the quality innings totals the Mariners desperately need. Photo Credit: AP

We’ve spoken about the offensive upgrades made by the Mariners and how the “wild card” to it all is how much of an impact moving the Safeco Field fences in will have on the team.

But all of that could be offset by a decline in the pitching staff if the Mariners don’t do something significant to upgrade their starting rotation. Moving in the fences will help the offense, in theory, yes. But using the same logic, it could also hurt the pitching staff even if you put the same five-man rotation out there as we saw for most of last year.

Now, of course, the Mariners won’t have the same starting five as last year. In order to acquire Kendrys Morales, the Mariners had to trade away Jason Vargas. And they also saw free agent Kevin Millwood leave.

You didn’t have to be a huge fan of either Vargas or Millwood. But between the two of them, they threw 378 1/3 innings last season and kept their teams in the game for the most part. Both pitchers relied heavily on their defense and — especially with Vargas — a pitcher-friendly home park , but they still were able to keep the score close after six or seven innings.

And you can’t just let that walk out the door without replacing it.

Some of that will be replaced if Hisashi Iwakuma pitches the way he did in last year’s second half and does so for an entire season. The stuff Iwakuma showed — especially a strikeout and groundball ability — once he got his arm and head up to MLB snuff in July should profile better than what Vargas or Millwood did over the entire 2012 campaign. And unlike, say, Vargas, who might have been decimated stats-wise by the closer confines at Safeco this year, Iwakuma might not be as long as he overcomes his penchant for serving up gopher-balls. He can’t keep allowing those deep fly balls out of nowhere at Safeco this year or his home runs allowed rate will be even worse than his ugly 17 percent from last season and undo the other good he brings to the table.

Bottom line though, Iwakuma is now the team’s real No. 2 starter.

The Mariners now need a No. 3 guy capable of logging close to 200 innings and doing so without embarassing himself. In other words, doing it without an ERA up near 5.00.

Blake Beavan should improve on the back end but he’s not going to turn into a 200-strikeout ace based on his skillset. He is what he is. Erasmo Ramirez is a whole lot of unknown who looked both very good and awful at times in an abbreviated season last year. Hector Noesi? No way the team gets 200 even average innings out of him.

No, the Mariners need somebody else just to avoid a drastic innings dropoff from the rotation.

As good as any bullpen is, expecting them to pick up the slack when you lose nearly 400 innings of half-decent, veteran pitching, is too much. Especially in a year in which Safeco has been made a little more hitter-friendly. You have to overcompensate. Forget the 378 1/3 innings. With the fences coming in, the Mariners need to pick up a good 400 innings or more worth of pitching production just to stay neutral.

They haven’t done that.

Among the pitchers still out there, you have free agent Joe Saunders and Los Angeles Dodgers trade candidate Chris Capuano. Both of them are left-handed, something the rotation needs now that Vargas is gone.

Saunders has the distinction of having thrown a pair of 200-plus-innings seasons in 2010 and 2011. Bill James has him projected for 189 innings this coming season and he’s done it with FIP (Fielding Independant Pitching) and xFIP numbers that are better than what Vargas produced last season. So, he’s close to what you need, though his flyball tendancies worry me a bit. The other plus for him is that he’s pitched in the AL and more specifically, the AL West with the Angels and that cannot be discounted.

Still, the worry with him is how he’d fare at Safeco Field with shorter fences.

My preferred target would be Capuano of the Dodgers, but that requires two to tango via trade.

Capuano hasn’t logged 200 innings since 2006, but he threw 198 1/3 last season and James has him pegged for 194 this year — albeit in the NL.

He also gives up his share of flyballs, though he logs more strikeouts than Saunders does and thus would theoretically not be as impacted by the ballpark or as reliant on his defense. Though he’s never pitched in the AL, he is well-known to Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik from their days in Milwaukee together and sometimes a known commodity is safer than rolling the dice — as long as you believe in him.

If you were worried about Vargas getting hammered at a revamped Safeco Field, then replacing him with a pitcher with greater strikeout ability seems important if you assume all three pitchers –Vargas, Capuano, Saunders — allow their share of flyballs. Vargas and Capuano are up around 40 percent flyballs while Capuano is at 36 percent.

In strikeouts, Vargas fanned 5.84 batters per nine innings last season, Saunders was at 5.77 while Capuano really stands out above both at 7.35.

For me, that’s a quality innings difference-maker. And this Mariners team needs quality innings from somebody in the rotation or else it’s going to be a long, long season — offensive improvements or not.

How to land Capuano? For me, the trade that jumps out would be one that sends Franklin Gutierrez back to a Dodgers club that he began his pro baseball career with. Don’t underestimate that latter factor. The Dodgers saw something they liked in Gutierrez way back when and chances are, that will be remembered by some in the organization.

The Dodgers could use Gutierrez’s versatility as a championship-level fourth outfielder on a projected contending club that has that type of money to throw at a potential non-starting position player. Don’t forget, there is a club option on Gutierrez for 2014 and that carries value for the Dodgers. If Gutierrez rebounds in 2013, then the Dodgers can look to trade Andre Ethier at the deadline to offset big money, then either keep Gutierrez in center and slide Matt Kemp to right — or keep Kemp in center and put Gutierrez in right. Either way, it works. And they could easily renew Gutierrez for 2014. If Guti fizzles out, then it’s a one-year gamble and all it cost you was a pitcher in Capuano that the Dodgers were looking to trade in any event.

And the Mariners would free up the money to pay Capuano and still have enough payroll room left over to import center fielder Michael Bourn on a free agent deal.

If they sign Saunders alone without making a trade, then there is no budget room to bring in Bourn and you’re still looking at a need for a leadoff hitter and future center fielder. Not only that, but if reports are accurate that Saunders wants a two-year deal at minimum, the Mariners would still be committed to him for the 2014 season. Not the same with Capuano, who has an $8-million mutual option for 2014 and a $1-million buyout clause. Remember, the idea is that these veterans are just placeholders until some of the team’s younger arms and minor leaguers gain more experience.

Anyhow, that’s just one solution I’m suggesting. The Mariners could have other deals in mind. But this one addresses both a need at starting pitcher — a glaring need — while making a more permanent outfield and leadoff hitter possible.

Let’s see what happens.

 

Comments | More in Free agents | Topics: Chris Capuano, franklin gutierrez, joe saunders

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