The Mariners Commit to Marco Gonzales for the Long Haul

On Monday afternoon, the Mariners announced a four-year contract extension for Marco Gonzales with a guarantee of $30 million. This new deal will cover the 2021–2024 seasons, with a club option for a fifth year that could bring the total value of the deal to $45 million. Because he signed an unorthodox contract extension in 2018 — Gonzales signed to avoid an unpleasant service time issue inherited by the Mariners — this new deal will cover all three of his arbitration years and potentially two free agent years.

With Gonzales’ $5 million 2021 salary on the books, the Mariners have just over $50 million in committed salary next year. That’s the season when the Mariners have been aiming to transition out of their soft rebuild phase. By then, Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and possibly even Julio Rodriguez could all have graduated to the majors and the Mariners should have a ton of room to add salary. Signing Gonzales to an affordable contract now locks in his salary figures during his arbitration years, giving Seattle some cost certainty during the seasons where they’ve indicated they plan to spend more.

It’s likely the framework for Gonzales’s extension was built on the flurry of four-year extensions handed out to a number of starting pitchers last offseason. Aaron Nola, Luis Severino, Blake Snell, Kyle Hendricks, and German Márquez all signed four-year pacts with their respective teams prior to the season starting. The table below lists the six pitchers with their age, service time, and cumulative performance prior to signing their extension:

Starting pitcher 4-year extensions
Player Years Age Service Time ERA- FIP- WAR Contract
Marco Gonzales 2018-2019 28 2.102 93 88 7.1 4 yrs, $30 M
German Márquez 2016-2018 24 2.027 86 87 6.7 4 yrs, $42.435 M
Kyle Hendricks 2014-2018 29 4.081 76 87 15 4 yrs, $55.5 M
Blake Snell 2016-2018 26 2.072 71 83 8.4 4 yrs, $49.426 M
Luis Severino 2015-2018 25 2.170 82 77 12.3 4 yrs, $40 M
Aaron Nola 2015-2018 25 3.076 81 77 13.7 4 yrs, $45 M

Gonzales is much older than most of the pitchers above, and his results are a little worse than that group. It’s no surprise then that his deal doesn’t reach the value secured by those five. Hendricks is the closest comp to Gonzales but he signed his extension two years closer to free agency, giving him a little more leverage to secure a more valuable contract.

Gonzales’s extension is the second long-term deal the Mariners have handed out this offseason. They signed Evan White to a six-year, $24 million extension in November before he had made a single appearance in the majors. There are just three players on the Mariners 40-man roster who aren’t under team control through at least 2022 — Dee Gordon, Kendall Graveman, and Yoshihisa Hirano. (Both Kyle Seager and Yusei Kikuchi have team options in 2022 that may or may not be exercised.) Not all of the members of the 40-man roster will be part of the next core in 2021 and beyond, but this season is all about finding out which ones are able to make their mark.

Gonzales has been a consistent performer since making it back to the mound after Tommy John surgery in 2016. Since 2018, he has been worth 7.1 WAR, the 19th most among all qualified starting pitchers. Across the past two seasons, his park- and league-adjusted FIP was 12% better than league average, ranking 22nd in that same group. Those results have come despite possessing a fastball that averages around 90 miles per hour. His lack of velocity led Craig Edwards to crown him the “King of the Soft-Tossing Lefties.” In that article from late August, Edwards explained how Gonzales finds his success with a balanced pitch mix:

“A pitcher doesn’t have to throw really hard to be a successful starting pitcher, but it isn’t a coincidence that most of the best pitchers have above-average fastballs and that everybody averaging over 96 mph is better than average. To succeed, Gonzales has one good pitch in his changeup, which is chased out of the zone around 40% of the time and is his only pitch with a double-digit whiff percentage. It’s also the only pitch he throws out of the strike zone with any frequency. He also uses a curve, cutter, sinker, and depending on how you classify it, a four-seamer with equal regularity to keep hitters off balance.”

With a five-pitch arsenal that’s roughly equally distributed — he doesn’t throw any of his pitches more than a quarter of the time — he’s liable to throw any of his pitches in any count to any batter. That balanced pitch mix is a testament to his confidence and feel for each of his pitches. His entire repertoire is at his disposal whenever he wants, creating some uncomfortable plate appearances for opposing batters.

In any given count, an opposing batter had at least three pitches he could anticipate seeing from Gonzales, sometimes even four or five. The lack of any overt tendencies when ahead or behind in the count gives him a huge advantage. Batters must keep all of his pitches in mind when facing him, allowing him to avoid situations where they can hone in on one particular pitch.

Just last week, Michael Augustine examined the pitch design of two of Gonzales’s fastballs, his sinker and four-seamer. He concluded:

“With three options for his fastballs, it might be a bit overkill to use them all, especially since one pairs the best with the rest of his arsenal. ZiPS expects Gonzales to take a step back in 2020, but how much regression he actually experiences (if any at all) might depend on his ability to focus his fastball attack with his four-seamer with some cutters and sparing use of the sinker.”

Focusing his fastball usage while maintaining a balanced pitch mix could help him maximize his already limited raw stuff. Then again, because a varied and balanced attack is such an important part of his approach to pitching, cutting the usage of one of his pitches could have negative impacts that outweigh the increased effectiveness of his entire arsenal. Last season was the first since his early career call-ups with the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015 when his groundball rate fell below league average. Increasing the usage of his four-seam fastball would likely continue that trend, allowing more contact in the air.

Because of his early career injury woes, Gonzales is about to turn 28 with just over two and a half seasons of service time under his belt. The four-year deal he signed will keep him in Seattle through his age-32 season. That’s a significant commitment to a soft-tossing lefty, but his approach and consistency make him an important piece for the Mariners future.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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The comp chart says Marco is 29, but the last graf correctly notes he’ll turn 28 in scenic Peoria later this month.