The three marquee pitchers left on the free agent market are Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez. All three are good pitchers: all three posted positive WARs and had at least nine wins each in 2013.
According to multiple reports, the Mariners are looking to bolster their starting rotation with one more veteran. This veteran pitcher will separate Fliex Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma from the youngsters Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, and Erasmo Ramirez.
This is because the Mariners worry that the four young guns won’t be able to handle the load early in the season. Besides, one or more of them are practically guaranteed to start the season in Triple A or get traded before the end of Spring Training.
So which of the free agents should the Mariners sign?
Last year, Garza, who finished the season with the Rangers, pitched only 155 innings but struck out 136 batters, which is good for a 20.9% strikeout percentage. He walked 42 batters at a 6.4% clip. His WAR was 2.2, and his FIP was 3.88, good for a 3.82 ERA.
Santana, who played the entire year for the Royals, threw 211 innings. He struck out 161 batters and walked 51. His WAR was 3.0. His FIP was 3.93, which was good for a 3.24 ERA.
Jimenez played in Cleveland. He was a strikeout machine with 194 strikeouts in only 183 innings. He walked his fair share of batters too, average 3.94 batters walked per 9 innings. As they say, there’s no defense for a walk. His FIP was 3.43, and he produced 3.2 WAR.
The contract figures that are being tossed around for these three guys are not overly huge, put they are not pocket change, either. Their expected contracts are around 5 years and $60-$70 million. The Mariners can certainly afford to add that to their payroll, as currently they only have about $66.5 million committed to players in 2014, with that number likely to inflate to about $75 million with new arbitration contracts being made with Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, among others.
So which of these guys will get the Mariners the best results, both next year and over the 4-5 years after that?
Matt Garza is by far the biggest injury risk, as he hasn’t pitched over 160 innings since 2011. Both Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez have been workhorses their entire careers. Jimenez has pitched over 170 innings in every season starting in 2008, and Santana has logged over 210 innings in three of the last four years with a brief, 178 inning respite in 2012.
All three pitchers are about the same age. Garza turned 30 two weeks ago. Santana turned 31 yesterday, and Jimenez will turn 30 at the end of January. Faster age regression will not be a bigger issue with any one of the pitchers more than any other.
Jimenez has average 3.275 WAR over the last 4 years, but only 2.2 in the last 3. Between 2008 and 2011, Jimenez had 4 straight seasons with a WAR over 3. In 2013, he posted the third lowest FIP of his entire career, and also struck out batters at a higher rate than he had in any of his previous seasons. His walk rate was comparable to the rest of his career, excluding 2012.
Santana has only 3 seasons with a >3 WAR tucked in his belt. He even has a year where he produced a -1.0 WAR (2012). Over the course of his career, he has posted a sub-4.00 FIP only twice; once in 2008, when he had a WAR of 6.0, and in 2013. Santana does not strike out nearly as many people as Jimenez (6.87 K/9 compared to 9.56 K/9), however, he walks only 2.18 batters per nine innings compared to Jimenez’s 3.94 BB/9.
Matt Garza has been much more consistent over the course of his career. He has posted a WAR between 1.1 and 3.2 in 5 of his 6 full years in the Majors. His ERA has started with a 3 in each of his full Major League seasons. However, his FIP has been on the rise for three straight years now, and has posted FIPs over 4 in all but two of his full seasons (2011 and 2013).
I believe that the best way to decide which pitcher will be best for the M’s will be average velocity (now and their best season), K/9, BB/9, HR/9, Innings Pitched, and FIP.
Examine the following table:
|Average Velocity (Best Year)||93.8||94.8||96.3
|Average Velocity (2013)||93.2||92.8||92.1
Garza is obviously the riskiest option, as he has not pitched nearly as much as Santana and Jimenez over the last two seasons. That outweighs all other factors. He will no longer be considered as a possible best option.
What worries me about Jimenez is his drastic decline in velocity over the last couple of seasons. His average fastball velocity has decreased over 4 MPH, and that change in mechanics is likely also the cause of his control issues over his career. At the same time, Santana’s velocity has not decreased nearly as much, only 2 MPH over a much longer time span.
Santana’s game is much less reliant on the strikeout, as he produces a lot of ground balls, and slightly less fly balls. However, his strategy will be suited to Safeco field due to the large dimensions and a slightly above average infield defense.
Jimenez produces slightly more groundballs than Santana, while striking out a lot more batters, too. This is helpful for him because the Mariners outfield defense looks like it will be average at best. Jimenez’s FIP was 0.5 lower than Santana’s in 2013. He also struck out many more people, and that outweighed his higher walk rate. Jimenez allowed 0.32 less homeruns per 9 innings, which obviously is quite advantageous, especially on the road.
I believe Ubaldo Jimenez is the best option for the Mariners to target this offseason. He had the best season of the three in 2013, and has been more consistent over his career than Santana. Jimenez is adjusting to life without an overpowering fastball, and his upside for 2014 and beyond is absolutely tremendous. I see a possibility where he becomes a 4.5+ WAR pitcher over the next few years.
The Mariners should jump on this guy as quickly as they can to be their number 3 starter in the rotation behind Felix and Hisashi. Can you imagine a rotation with two of the top five starters in the American League in Felix and Hisashi, plus a number three who is really a number one on most teams, PLUS a developing core of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton? That sure would be fun to watch.
Ubaldo Jimenez has outstanding upside potential over what could be an absolute steal of a contract. The M’s need one more impact player to compete in 2014. The answer? Ubaldo Jimenez.