Why the Mariners don’t need to add a veteran starter

First off, let me preface this post by first pointing out the detritus that one may call “options” left on the free agent market as it pertains to starting pitching. One sifting through that pile would find names like Kyle Lohse, Carlos Zambrano, Kip Wells, Dallas Braden and Carl Pavano.

The popular name du jour is that of Joe Saunders, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels. He of the 4.07 ERA and 1.34 WHIP over 174 innings and two different leagues in 2012. Despite the slim-pickings of the market, the closer we get to spring training the more desperate teams get and thus the pricier these castoffs seem to get. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of those aforementioned names, Saunders included, required $8-10 million for a 1-year deal.

With that written, we delve into just why Seattle would be more than fine moving forward with its current stock of starters for the 2013 season.

The Mariners have undoubtedly bolstered an offense that finished 13th in the AL last year in hitting. The team scored 619 runs and allowed 651 runs to finish with a 75-87 record, a slight differ from their projected 77-85 pythagorean record based off of those run totals. With the additions of 1B Kendrys Morales, OF/DH Michael Morse, OF/DH Raul Ibanez and OF Jason Bay; the only significant loss being that of backup catcher John Jaso, whose playing time was set to diminish even further than the tidy 361 plate appearances he saw in ’12 with top prospect Mike Zunino a probable midseason addition to the catching rotation.

So while upgrading the offense has been the priority this offseason, it is of course important that the team doesn’t lose ground on the pitching front to yield more runs in ’13 than it did in ’12. If the Mariners seek to pull a Baltimore or Oakland style transition from worst-to-playoffs type of season in ’13, they will need to score about 750 runs (an increase of 130) and give up 650 (no change).

With the objective of fielding a rotation, and overall pitching staff, that is no worse than last year’s the Mariners need to objectively assess where they currently sit and whether any additions are warranted to repeat the 650 run performance of last season.

Currently, the only changes from the Mariners 40-man roster as it pertains to arms, is the loss of starters Kevin Millwood and Jason Vargas, and relievers Brandon League and Steve Delabar. While Millwood and Vargas combined for 378 1/3 innings pitched, they did so with a 4.25 and 3.85 ERA respectively.

It’s important for the team to fill those innings, and while it is important to do so by finding performances that yield fewer than 180 runs in those frames, it’s also important to remember that there were other factors that led to the total of 651 runs being allowed. That all changing parts must be considered.

Case in point being Hector Noesi. Noesi pitched 106 2/3 innings last season and gave up 71 runs. He struggled to put it nicely. Noesi won’t see the rotation this season unless injuries become a factor or he greatly improves.

If we combine Noesi’s 106.2 and the 378.1 of Millwood and Vargas for an adjusted 485 of below average quality innings, we come to a better understanding of what needs to be replaced and just how.

As the roster stands currently, the likely candidates to fill that void are Erasmo Ramirez and either Danny Hultzen or James Paxton with slight innings increases from Hishashi Iwakuma (about 75) and Blake Beavan (perhaps 25).

If we project Iwakuma’s and Beavan’s combined 100 inning increase to stay constant with the respective ERA’s the two contributed last year (3.16 and 4.43) which is very reasonable to project considering, then we are down to 385 innings.

Ramirez pitched 59 innings last season from the bullpen and the starting rotation, he made a total of eight starts and finished with an ERA of 3.36. If we project Ramirez out to 30 starts, an additional 22 for a pitcher that is known for his strike-throwing and ability to pitch deep into games, it is relatively easy to see an increase of 150 innings from him at an ERA of 3.50, if not better. Now we’re down to 235 innings.

The biggest change may come from the promotion of one of the Mariners elite young pitching arms. The most likely candidates to see such a promotion to start the season would be Danny Hultzen, James Paxton or Brandon Maurer. Any of those three, despite making their respective MLB debuts, would be an upgrade over the efforts Iwakuma and Millwood provided for the Mariners last season. Either one of the trio should be able to provide 160 innings with an ERA around 4.25. Now we’re down to 70 innings.

Those 70 innings could be picked up by a combination of changes. Felix Hernandez threw 232 innings last year, a notch below the 249 he threw in 2010 and 233 in ’11. I think it’s reasonable to project Hernandez to toss an additional 20 innings in a contending type of season in ’13 with an improved ERA as well. I see Hernandez getting back to his 2.50 ERA ability, but just to be safe, let’s project 250 innings at 2.80. That upgrade in his ERA and slight uptick in innings, will help the overall run prevention effort but leaves us still with 50 innings in need of replacing.

Those last few innings I believe will go to either Taijuan Walker, Hultzen or Paxton, whomever gets a September callup after not making the rotation to start the season. Any of the three are capable of such a promotion and could produce quality innings at a 4.00 ERA.

Let’s not forget the bullpen in all of this. League, who was traded at the deadline last summer, blew five saves and struggled at times making himself expendable. Tom Wilhelmsen took over as closer in his stead and did an admirable job. If we project things to continue as they did last year, Wilhelmsen’s performance will be a slight upgrade in that role. Relievers Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps and Oliver Perez should also see increased usage in ’13 and all three should perform better as the former two are young prospects entering their first full season and the latter had a resurgent year in ’12. Where the team could see a drop is in the performance of relievers Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge who were pretty outstanding in ’12. If they regress back somewhat towards the mean, it could counter balance the improvements from Wilhelmsen, Pryor and Capps.

All told, I would project a bullpen ERA relatively comparable to last year’s.

Without even making any significant upgrades to the rotation, it is very easy to see the Mariners perform better in 2013 just by subtracting Millwood, Vargas and Noesi as they have done and going with the talented youth that currently resides in their farm system.

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