Earlier this month, the Cubs declined to pay $3 million to keep Kendall Graveman around and see if he’s recovered enough from a July 2018 Tommy John surgery to challenge for a rotation spot in 2020. That makes sense for Chicago, whose fourth starter is probably José Quintana. The Mariners, whose fourth starter is probably Justin Dunn, have more room to experiment a little and see what gives. They did just that this week, reportedly inking the 28-year-old Graveman to a one-year, $1.5 million deal (there’s a $500k buyout on a $3.5 million option for 2021, making the total guarantee for 2020 $2 million).
Graveman was moderately effective as a starter for the A’s from 2015 to 2017, posting a 4.44 FIP across 71 starts and 407 innings. That success ended in 2018, when a 7.60 ERA over seven early-season starts presaged the elbow injury that’s kept him off the mound ever since. He signed an incentive-laden deal with the Cubs last winter that promised substantial earnings contingent upon a successful return to the mound in 2019. That return never happened, despite two September minor-league rehab starts, and the Mariners were able to sign Graveman for only $1 million more in guaranteed contract dollars than the Cubs were willing to concede a year ago.
Graveman has a groundball-friendly profile (55.2% for his career) that will likely play well in front of Kyle Seager and J.P. Crawford and, if he is able to recover his pre-surgery velocity, he can be expected to pair a four-seam fastball thrown in the low 90s with a slider, a cut fastball, and an above-average changeup. There’s a well-traveled history of players adjusting their repertoires after returning from major arm surgery, of course, so I wouldn’t count on that mix (or, especially, that velocity) returning unchanged; know only that Graveman still likely has the raw materials to become the kind of pitcher who once so intrigued Jeff Sullivan.
And if Graveman doesn’t work out as a starter, there’s always the bullpen. Mariners relievers, like most of the rest of their teammates, did not perform particularly well as a group in 2019. Austin Adams (2.43 FIP, 29.1 innings pitched) was a bright spot, yes, and catcher Tom Murphy threw a few fun innings in unwinnable games in May and June, but as a cohort the Mariners bullpen posted a 4.87 FIP, which was fourth-worst in the American League. If Graveman finds that his new physiology doesn’t support a run at the rotation, or if future acquisitions mean the Mariners don’t need him to try, he’s well-positioned to serve as a long man in relief.
Because it’s November, and we all know that Jerry Dipoto spends this time of year finding ever-more-creative ways to pry us away our family and friends so that we might write about baseball, it’s hard to assess this deal in the context of the Mariners offseason. There is every indication that the Mariners are not done making pitching moves (they’re likely to do a few trades too) and, of course, they just signed Evan White to an extension. Seattle won’t be competitive in 2020, but the particular way in which they won’t be competitive — and what it augurs for 2021 — is still very much up in the air. In the service of the goal of fielding a team of good, rather than bad, baseball players, Graveman is a good person to bet on if it doesn’t matter too much to your team if you lose the bet. For the Mariners, that’s precisely the position they’re in right now.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.
I would just like to point out that this article really should have been called “Mariners Look for Signs of Life in Graveman.”