The Mariners have decided that this is another rebuilding year for them after finishing third in the AL West last season behind the Astros and A’s. That doesn’t make complete sense, seeing as the A’s needed a stunning turnaround to get a Wild Card spot and the Mariners could have spent a little money and gotten right back into contending position if they so chose.
I’m not here to tell Seattle’s front office what to do, especially since they’ve already begun the process of flipping assets with the Mike Zunino/Guillermo Heredia for Mallex Smith trade (but seriously Mariners if you’re reading this you don’t have to tear it down this year). What we can do, since this is their chosen path, is take a look at the options they have for starter James Paxton.
Paxton is one of their most sensical trade chips — enticing enough for teams to send back good pieces, but not so valuable the Mariners have to keep him — and there are already multiple teams expressing interest. He isn’t a free agent until 2021 and he put up a 3.76 ERA, a 3.23 FIP, and a 1.098 WHIP in 160.1 innings this year despite spending multiple stints on the disabled list. He’s been a reliable starter despite having hit the DL six times in his career.
At this point, we know he’s definitely going somewhere. The rumors are flying and the trade could happen any minute. So where makes sense?
New York GM Brian Cashman has been more than clear that when it comes to the Yankees’ starting pitching goals this offseason his two definite objectives are to trade Sonny Gray and to add at least one reliable piece to the rotation if not more than that. The Yankees aren’t about to give up someone like Justus Sheffield for Paxton, but they have other prospects that would be a match for the Mariners’ asking price on Paxton. Will being so blatantly desperate for pitching in the press help or hurt them along the way when it comes to how much other teams are asking for from New York’s system? Probably not, because it’s the Yankees so they’ll lowball the Mariners and somehow get away with it and we’ll all go on as usual until it happens again.
Houston’s 2017 championship rotation isn’t quite in shambles, not yet. But they only have another year of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are testing the free agent market, and Lance McCullers, Jr. won’t be back until 2020 thanks to Tommy John surgery. So they could stand to add a reliable arm next year to slot into McCullers’ responsibilities and have some support for Cole and Verlander in their last sure year in Houston.
They have Baseball America’s eighth-ranked farm system right now so are in a position to part with a few mid-tier prospects — RHP Josh James is 95th on MLB’s Top 100 list and fourth in the Astros system, and RHP’s J.P. Bukauskas and Jairo Solis are less prestigious but would still be a boost for Seattle’s system — to secure another solid arm in their rotation as they attempt to once again top the A’s in the division. Of course, an intra-division trade might be a block here as far as easy offers go.
Chicago is in on Bryce Harper at the very least this offseason. They’re turning the corner towards contending whether they land the most desired free agent or not, and they have the prospect depth to make big trades should they want to make additional moves outside of spending money. If they get Harper, it would make sense to ship some of their prospects to Seattle for Paxton to start filling holes in the roster to support him.
But even if Harper doesn’t pan out, they’re in the AL Central. No one else in that division appears to even be trying. So adding Paxton to the rotation would be a smart initial step to staying on the same level as the Indians and Twins. Their current rotation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, with only one starter boasting a sub-4.00 ERA last year and that starter being Reynaldo Lopez. James Shields is a free agent, and no one besides him hit 200 innings in 2018. They could use an addition, and the Mariners could use some of their prospects if they want to start parting with their strong farm system this offseason.
Atlanta won the division this season and as such is already past where they expected to be in their rebuild cycle, and they’re poised to have another great season next year with young stars at the forefront of that success. Trickily, they’re also hitting the point where they have to part with some top prospects or lose them in the Rule 5 draft. As our friends at Lookout Landing point out, the Braves not only have a loaded system right now but many of them are pitching prospects which the Mariners could really use.
Could we be in for yet another Jerry Dipoto trade with the Rays? He’s already swapped Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia for a few pieces from Tampa Bay, the latest in a string of trades with the Rays since he’s been with the Mariners. It’s gone from a fun trend to a preoccupation that might need to be further analyzed. For the Rays, a pitcher who doesn’t throw a ton of innings but is consistent when he’s on the mound fits right in with their bullpenning strategy and they have the prospects to swap in exchange.
They had a surprisingly successful 2018 and they could have either capitalized on that and kept pushing to see if they can overtake the Red Sox and Yankees to get at least a Wild Card spot in 2019, or they could’ve seen if they luck into a respectable win total again next season without making any huge moves. The Zunino trade has them in the former camp so another addition from the Mariners works with their plan.
We’ve already talked here about how the Nationals should continue either buying or making trades to compete for the next few seasons even if Bryce Harper doesn’t come back to them in free agency. They traded Gio Gonzalez and may lose Jeremy Hellickson in free agency, so they have spots in their rotation that need to be filled. They also have the 12th-ranked farm system according to Baseball America so they can offer worthy pieces. But again, that’s if they decide they want to keep contending instead of hitting the rebuild button immediately should they lose Harper.
If Boston loses Nathan Eovaldi to free agency this offseason, they’ll definitely need a replacement. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve taken on a productive pitcher with injury history, as Eovaldi himself was, and as a fourth or fifth starter Paxton fits even if they can get 120-130 steady innings out of him (lower than his average over the last three seasons and a tick higher than what Eovaldi did in 2018, although that comes with a Rays’ bullpenning caveat).
The part where this doesn’t quite click is that the Red Sox don’t have much of a farm system to speak of and if the Mariners are smart they’ll be aiming for prospects and prospects only. Of course, the Mike Zunino trade brought them one minor leaguer and one Mallex Smith which isn’t exactly the ideal return for a rebuilding team, so maybe they’re more open to major league return pieces than expected. Even if that’s not the best strategy.