Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

While the Seattle Mariners are out searching for offensive help — they probably need multiple bats to place somewhere in the top two-thirds of the lineup — they shouldn’t dismiss the idea of adding a starting pitcher or two, and improving their second option behind the plate should be among their tasks this offseason.

Last July we heard talk of the Mariners having interest in acquiring a starting pitcher. David Price’s name was among those linked to Seattle before he was traded to Detroit in the three-team deal that landed the M’s centerfielder Austin Jackson. The club’s interest in starting pitching probably hasn’t changed, and it shouldn’t.

Yes, adding everyday players that can provide run production is their priority. They’ve made that clear via the comments of both skipper Lloyd McClendon and GM Jack Zduriencik, and via all reports linking them to numerous hitters.

Why should the Mariners be concerned with the starting rotation? Because it wasn’t all that great in 2014. Let me explain.

The M’s pitching staff was terrific overall, and the defense helped quite a bit. The bullpen was among the very best in baseball and the rotation was … let’s call it solid.

Felix Hernandez was unbelievable, Hisashi Iwakuma again was very good and the healthy James Paxton was really strong. Roenis Elias was league average or better and Chris Young had five quality months out of six. The projected 2015 rotation, as of today, could be just as good, maybe even better. But considering how great the bullpen was, often times saving the starters, and considering the volatile nature of relievers and bullpens, using traditional statistics to determine how good the club’s rotation was in 2014 makes little sense, not to mention the real chance they simply don’t perform as well.

Seattle’s starting pitchers compiled a 3.80 FIP (No. 7 in the American League) and the No. 6 xFIP. Good, but not great and far from elite. Fielding Independent Pitching normalizes the results on balls in play (accounting for luck in either direction), defense and sequencing. While the Mariners could conceivably defend as well or better in 2015, expecting improvement there isn’t reasonable.

As stated above, there are factors that could play out into the club’s favor with their rotation, even if they stand pat this winter. Taijuan Walker and Paxton should be available for a lot more innings next season, and if they pitch well enough could serve as improvements over the innings another pitcher took on this past season. Elias also could conceivably be better than he was, and perhaps even pitch more. Again, though, as a trio and individually, there’s a shot they’re worse, too, including the chance they aren’t available as much due to injury.

Adding another starting pitcher or two can do a lot of things for the M’s. If a frontline arm were to be acquired, perhaps that makes it easier for Zduriencik to add the necessary offense by freeing up a young pitcher for trade. That doesn’t necessarily mean Max Scherzer or Jon Lester, who are certain to command well over $100 million, or even a James Shields, who could approach $100 million, too. But why not a Francisco Liriano (free agent) or a trade target such as Ian Kennedy?

There’s no doubt the M’s need to add depth in the rotation to cover for potential injury or development situations, and there are numerous possibilities in that realm. Erasmo Ramirez was that option in ’14 and that didn’t work out so well.

If the Mariners wish to truly contend and have their sights on not only October baseball but October success, the goal for the offseason should be to add as much quality talent as possible. And they’re starting rotation as a whole simply wasn’t good enough a year ago.

The other position that needs attention is catcher. Mike Zunino is a fine No. 1 catcher. He’s still growing as a hitter and still will be led by power rather than on-base percentage, but even conservatively one would imagine he builds some on his .199/.254/.404 triple-slash from his first full season in the big leagues. But Zunino was asked to
catch 1121 full innings in 2014, more than any American League catcher this side of Salvador Perez. Only two NL catchers caught more than Zunino.

For Seattle, Zunino’s workload was necessary to an extent. For one, they needed his run production, or at least his potential to drive in runs. Secondly, the club lacked a viable No. 2 option that didn’t hurt the team in one way or the other. John Buck wasn’t hacking it defensively and in limited opportunities wasn’t hitting, either, and Jesus Sucre, while fine defensively, isn’t much of a threat at the plate.

The Mariners have a legitimate need for a veteran catcher to add to the mix, and there are several options. A few I like include free agent Nick Hundley, and if Russell Martin signs with the Dodgers, perhaps A.J. Ellis becomes available.

The Padres are said to be open to discussing Yasmani Grandal, who may ultimately have enough bat to play some at DH and even first base. He’s just 26 and is a better hitter from the left side, helping balance the position with the right-handed Zunino. Most importantly, the M’s simply need a No. 2 catcher to go to more often in 2015 and being able to handle the staff and provide some value at the plate is imperative.

It’s not going to be easy to find the right answer, but it’s a necessity for the Mariners. Sucre is not the answer and while perhaps John Hicks develops enough to help, he’s probably not quite ready right from the get-go in 2015.

Keep an eye on the depth at catcher around the league and don’t sleep on the Mariners when it comes to free agent starters and those being shopped.

While Zduriencik and staff are attempting to land the offensive help necessary, there’s no reason to rest on the laurels of the rotation and catching situation. And since they seemed to agree with that sentiment in July, the good bet is they’ll explore options at both spots again this winter.

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