Drayer: Mariners’ path to offseason success? It’s more pitching

Nov 8, 2023, 3:28 PM | Updated: 3:29 pm

Seattle Mariners pitching...

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais makes a pitching change on Sept. 12, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Bring up the word “offseason” to a Seattle Mariners fan, and the most likely first thought is “offense” – as in much is needed.

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Who wouldn’t want to see the lineup that ended the 2023 season – almost spot-on league average – vastly improved? The reality of the situation this winter, though, is the free-agent market for bats is thin. And as much as everyone loves to talk trade scenarios, there are very few teams that are looking to let go of impact bats. Mariners fans may very well deserve to see a Shohei Ohtani signed or a Juan Soto traded for, but the odds of landing either are low. Real talk.

So where do the Mariners turn?

There are a number of free-agent bats that could help. This week at MLB’s annual GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto pointed to right-handed hitters being of particular interest – perhaps even for a near full-time DH, which was refreshing to hear considering the Mariners’ .193/.292/.367 line from the position the past two seasons.

In order to significantly improve the offense, more than one bat will be needed. And even so, it is near impossible to envision the Mariners coming anywhere close to building an offense as potent as what the World Series champion Texas Rangers will roll out on opening day 2024. With that in mind, perhaps it would be productive to take a closer look at the pitching.

In light of what is or is not available in terms of bats, plus a more robust pitching market, could the Mariners doubling or even tripling down on their pitching be the way to go this winter?

Pitching was the strength of the 2023 team, yet in September it failed every bit as much as the offense. The staff as a whole in September posted the American League’s second-worst fWAR (1.0) and 12th-ranked FIP (4.77), with Seattle’s starting pitchers 13th in fWAR with a 4.69 FIP, and the bullpen coming in 14th in fWAR (minus-0.2) and 4.90 FIP.

The arms that had kept the Mariners in the chase all season could only do so much. It is here that one can find opportunity.

For most of ’23, the Mariners’ pitching was their shining star. Out of the gates, it appeared they had certainly enviable (if not tremendous) depth as they started the season with six proven MLB starters on the roster and four highly-regarded prospects close to being available.

By the time Bryan Woo made his debut on June 3, that depth was gone.

Two months later, relief was needed in a period where Seattle had planned to go to a six-man rotation. The sixth man, rookie Emerson Hancock, exited his third big league start early with a season-ending injury.

The bullpen didn’t fare much better with injuries to Penn Murfee, who filled a key swing role, and rookie Ty Adcock, who showed quick promise, leaving them short in the middle. The back of the bullpen took a huge hit as well with the trade of Paul Sewald, and Prelander Berroa apparently not ready.

As good as the pitching staff was, it’s not hard to see where help can be added. What does that look like?

Out of the box a bit, and a direction they did not want to go at the beginning of last season, is the possibility of a six-man rotation. Adding another quality starter would give the Mariners an opportunity to start one of Bryce Miller or (more likely) Woo in the minors, where their workload and development can be better managed. The six-man rotation would give them built-in depth they wouldn’t otherwise have, as you can’t just stash quality experienced arms at Triple-A. Those guys get big league jobs.

As for the argument of why you wouldn’t want to see your top arms every five days, the Mariners eventually would get to a five-man rotation, but taking a little off the workload early could pay dividends late in the season. One can’t help but wonder if that was the difference we saw from Luis Castillo in September 23 versus ’22, when he didn’t start his season until May 9.

Luis Castillo’s late-season numbers

• September 2023: 32.2 IP, 4.96 ERA, 18 walks, 38 strikeouts
• September/October 2022 (including playoffs): 47.2 IP, 3.05 ERA, 9 walks, 47 strikeouts

In regards to the ‘pen, the track record of the Mariners turning around relievers is tremendous, but if ever there was a time to spend a bit on an established arm, it would appear to be now. The discoveries and contributions of Justin Topa and Gabe Speier last season were great, but they best fit in the sixth and seventh innings. The better Mariners bullpens of late have had three high-leverage arms, and one of those (Sewald) is now in Arizona. Could the Mariners work their magic once again on a name we do not know? Sure. But do you want to bet on it in another critical, must-win year? Do you want to give yourself a better chance to have a better start out of the gates than you have the last two seasons? Then why not also add another swing-type reliever?

There are different ways to build a winning roster, and it must be noted that once again there’s potential for some of the bigger impact to come from improvement with players already on the roster – or perhaps even a spring training surprise from within. Ryan Bliss anyone?

That said, adding offense from the outside obviously will be important, but how much impact will they be able to make on the free agent and trade fronts? I think we all would love to be pleasantly surprised and see some of those dreamed-about bats. But if we don’t, further leaning in on the pitching could be the answer.

More on the Seattle Mariners

Rowland-Smith’s take on Seattle Mariners’ offseason pressure
Guardians name Stephen Vogt manager after year as Mariners coach
Can the Mariners find their next Nelson Cruz this offseason?
Mariners lose reliever Penn Murfee to Mets on waiver claim
Morosi: Seattle Mariners should spend at ‘higher level,’ ‘behave accordingly’

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Drayer: Mariners’ path to offseason success? It’s more pitching