Jerry Dipoto detailed how much time he spent at Tuesday’s MLB Winter Meetings talking about position players – despite reported connections to free agent outfielder Jay Bruce.
“Absolute zero,” the Mariners general manager said.
His focus has squared solely on pitching, he said, which he outlined heading into this five-day stay in Orlando, Florida.
Those plans don’t necessarily mean a starting pitcher, and if it is, he said it’s unlikely to be a household name, even with Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb among some of the top free agent starters still available.
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“We will add a pitcher,” Dipoto said prior to the winter meetings. “Whether that is a starting pitcher or a reliever is still yet to be determined.”
But if that’s not a starter, what does that mean for the rotation?
There’s Felix Hernandez and James Paxton, of course, but even those two were plagued by injuries a season ago. You might recall the Mariners’ revolving door of pitchers – 17 different ones started at least one game this past year. Only three teams in MLB history had ever used more.
And the Mariners’ 40 total pitchers used tied the major league record only previously accomplished by the 2014 Texas Rangers … if accomplished is what you’d call that.
Dipoto had outlined late-season additions Mike Leake and Erasmo Ramirez highest in the Mariners current rotation discussion — barring additions — along with Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore, Max Povse and Ariel Miranda.
And Hisashi Iwakuma is back on a minor league deal, but indications are that whatever he produces is just gravy. Manager Scott Servais said Iwakuma is ahead of schedule in his recovery from surgery on his right shoulder, with a possible return in mid-May or early June.
But are any of those really the answer?
“Our pitching is probably a little deeper than most are giving it credit for being,” Dipoto said.
“Maybe I’m crazy, but we got James Paxton, who I think pitches as a No. 1 for anybody ... Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers of the decade. While last year he had some injury issues, his offseason is going particularly well. I think he’s in good spirits and good shape. Mike Leake really snuck up on people last year.
“I do believe that with Felix and Paxton and Leake that our front three lines up with most teams in the American League in terms of their front three.”
He and manager Scott Servais said they’ve toyed with the idea of even using a six-man rotation as the season progresses — even after not landing Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani.
“You might not see us break out of camp that way,” Servais said. “But at some point during the season we could pull back and put an extra guy in the rotation.”
But Dipoto said that is contingent on “finding impact in the bullpen.” And if they don’t, they would refocus on the starting rotation.
And he indicated they have been close the past couple of days to acquiring one. Dipoto has talked to multiple free-agent pitchers since the onset of free agency, and that has only intensified in the past week, he said.
“We are on the bases with that,” he said. “But we have to see if we can score the run.
“We’re still in the ball park. But we may be more between first and second than between third and home. We’re somewhere and we’re in motion.”
The Mariners used 17 starters because they had to. The crumbling began when Drew Smyly signed and then never threw a pitch for them because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which led to Tommy John surgery. He recently signed with the Chicago Cubs on a two-year, $10 million deal.
They traded for three other starters at different points in the season – Leake, Gonzales and Ramirez.
There were 46 pitchers who started at least 30 games in the major leagues last year. The Mariners didn’t have any. Ariel Miranda was supposed to be the Tacoma Rainiers’ No. 1 pitcher, and instead he led the Mariners with 29 starts and 160 innings pitched (with a 5.12 ERA).
Paxton (2.98 ERA) started 24 games, now-free-agent Yovani Gallardo (5.72 ERA) started 22 and Hernandez (4.36 ERA) started 16.
“Using 40 different pitchers was a challenge and unfortunately kind of became the story of our season,” Servais said. “We just couldn’t overcome it.
“It’s something we talk a lot about, and I know a lot of the guys that are proud, they want to make their 34 starts, but it’s about keeping them healthy, keeping it going. You saw what happens when they’re not healthy.”
Ramirez was pitching in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen before the Mariners reacquired him on July 28 in an act of desperation. But he pitched his way into Seattle’s 2018 plans.
“He’ll be in the mix to fill out the rotation,” Servais said.
Gonzales, a lefty, is a full season removed from Tommy John and Servais said they’ll look to add a cutter back to his repertoire.
“Which is going to be really important,” Servais said. “It’s a pitch he used a lot before he got hurt. He didn’t use it at all last year. So he’ll add that back into the mix and most of the left-handers who throw like he does in the league, they do have the ability to cut the ball in on right-handers.”
But, of course, all Mariners plans start with how comfortable they are with Felix and Paxton atop the rotation.
Servais said Felix is “doing some different things training” this offseason to prepare himself, and not pitching in the World Baseball Classic like he did last year could help.
“Everybody knows Felix has maybe taken a step back in the velocity of the fastball,” Servais said of the 31-year-old. “He has not lost his know-how, his field of pitch, his competitiveness is all still there and that’s what we need. If Felix can give us 30, 32 starts this year, he’ll put up his numbers and we’ll be just fine.
“But I think the expectations, and he set the bar very high, he did it to himself, are not quite where they were before. We realize that. He wants to show people he can still be the King, and I would love to see him again.”
But he said the key will be Felix staying healthy.
And he said the same for Paxton.
“The sky is the limit,” Servais said of Paxton. “He really carried us in the rotation.
“I know people have talked about it for a while, but you’ve seen the success, the confidence. Now the health – we got to keep him healthy the whole year and go from there.”
There’s other starting help to be had in this free agent class, including former Mariners Jason Vargas and R.A. Dickey, though the club is already slightly above its team-record $154 million payroll it had on Opening Day of this past season.
“But we’ll take the best pitcher we can get,” Dipoto said.
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