Drayer: Mariners have a lot of reasons why SP Chris Flexen caught their eye
When news first broke that the Mariners had signed pitcher Chris Flexen, or more accurately were to sign Flexen as the move did not become official until over a week after the initial report, the first reaction by most was “Who?” followed by a shrug after a quick lookup on Baseball Reference.
OK, so this was a somewhat early-offseason signing by the Mariners of a pitcher out of the Korean Baseball Organization who had posted an 8.07 ERA in 27 MLB games. At best it appeared to be an attempt to hit on a player who had thrown bulk innings overseas in 2020 while US starters had been limited to about a third of a season’s work due to the Coronavirus-shortened season. A flier on a guy who would be invited to camp that perhaps you would see in the bullpen or making a few starts at some point during the season.
As more information became available, however, it became clear this was more than a flyer on a guy who could throw innings. The Mariners signed the 26-year-old Flexen to a two-year deal worth $4.75 million, with a $4 million team option for 2023 and a vesting option based on innings pitched for $8 million.
During an appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Hot Stove Report on Jan. 5, general manager Jerry Dipoto cleared up what the Mariners think about Flexen even more, revealing that he had been inked into the starting rotation.
“Maybe the most enjoyable things we did the offseason was going and looking under the rocks for guys we really thought had a chance to be part of the long-term with us,” Dipoto said. “You don’t get a lot of opportunity to go out and access 26-year-old free agents with the ability to start who have four pitches.”
Aside from a 2.79 ERA in 145 innings pitched in Korea last year, Flexen showed improved stuff in the KBO, according to Dipoto. There was an increase of velocity with the fastball, which sat at 92-93 mph and topped out at 96, and an improved slider that was missing bats. Not quite a finished product, but a pitcher that Dipoto felt was a fit with the other young starters who are in the rotation or battling for a spot.
If this turns out to be the case, then the Mariners have a find, and how they found this player was in large part making the best of a bad situation. Baseball-starved fans weren’t the only ones last year watching the KBO, which began play on May 5, months before MLB was able to resume.
“When COVID shut everything down for our pro scouts,” Mariners assistant general manager Justin Hollander said, “we made a point of saying when Korea and Japan start up, we have broadcast feeds, we can watch those feeds and write guys up and just get ahead of what we would normally do in more coverage than what we would normally do in an overseas look while there was no baseball going on here.”
Flexen had been on the Mariners’ radar before he left for the KBO. A 14th-round pick by the New York Mets in 2014, he debuted in 2017 by making the jump to the big leagues from Double-A. For three seasons the Mets shuttled him between the bigs and the minors, using him sometimes as a starter and sometimes in relief. The results were not good.
“The thing that got him was not throwing strikes, which was never an issue for him in the minor leagues. He was a really good strike-thrower,” noted Hollander. “He really ran out of time very quickly. About 50 innings in his first year then something like 20 over his next couple of options years, and then was off to Korea.”
With his option years burned, the Mets sold his rights to the Doosan Bears of the KBO. The numbers in Korea were much better, but the Mariners were looking at more than numbers. Between the scouting reports written off of the broadcast feeds, reports from Sam Kao, their scout on site in Korea, and Trackman data they were able to trade for, the Mariners got a more complete picture of what Flexen was doing in 2020.
“We saw somebody that had plus command of some of his repertoire and plus movement on some of his repertoire and none of it looked fake to us,” said Hollander. “None of it looked like he was going to a lower level of competition and dominating in a way that wasn’t going to be sustainable when he came back over here.”
According to Hollander, Flexen’s curveball and changeup improved in addition to the increase of velocity on the fastball, and his already good slider was also taken up a notch by the added velocity that turned the pitch into what some see as more of a cutter now.
“What we saw were two secondary pitches that got a lot better and continued strike throwing, which was a trait that he had other than his small sample MLB stint when he was 23 years old,” Hollander said. “He’d always been a really good strike-thrower. In some ways he got better and some ways he just validated the skill set he already had.”
The Mariners remained interested throughout the summer, noting his performance got better as the season went on. After missing a brief amount of time with a foot injury, he came back throwing harder than he had in the Mets organization and earlier in the season. He was throwing more strikes and became more aggressive. Opportunity in Korea may have been the difference maker.
“He never quite got the runway to do what he needed to do,” said Dipoto of Flexen’s time before going to Korea. “It was up and down, it was start and bullpen. He went over and roughly did everything you can do to show forward movement.”
That runway will continue with the Mariners, who were not the only team to take note of what Flexen did in Korea as other offers were made for his services. The Mariners will be looking for more than just innings from him, but will do so knowing that this is still a young and developing pitcher much like Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Nick Margevicius.
“By no means do we anticipate that he’s a finished product, that he’s going to come in as a veteran who has been through the rigors of multiple seasons,” said Dipoto. “He’s got about 100 days of MLB service. He lines up very much with what we are doing. Where he is in his development should be similar to or slightly ahead of the group we have. We thought he was a great opportunity to add the youngest starter in the current free-agent market with a chance to grow forward.”