Even after extending Felix Hernandez, the Mariners were faced with speculation that they’d trade their ace at the beginning of 2011. In the past couple days there has been a ton of speculation in the media about the team trading Erik Bedard, Jason Vargas or Doug Fister.

The Mariners should trade one of these guys, if the package they get in return is right.

There are a ton of components that go into a decision to trade a starting pitcher, not the least of which is that starter’s talent. We talk a lot about years of team control, which is certainly important, but are years of team control as valuable for a pitcher, presumed to be a back-of-the-rotation starter, as perhaps a mid-to-upper-rotation starter?

Certainly not.

And in Bedard, Vargas and Fister, the team has guys who can easily be perceived by some teams as fits in any of their rotations slots.

Fister is a prime example of where years of team control hold less value. Fister is a guy who has ridden a low HR/FB ratio and lackluster peripherals to solid results. On talent alone, Fister is a pretty generic option in trade. He’s a poor man’s Kevin Millwood or Livan Hernandez. Sure, if a team traded for him, they’d have him under team control for four more years after 2012, but he’s a huge regression candidate, especially in a different home ballpark (4.16 FIP career on the road, compared to 3.81 at Safeco).

Even in Safeco, the chances of Fister’s high wire act continuing is pretty slim and could be pushed out of the rotation by present farmhands in the next couple years. If the Mariners can get something of greater value for Fister, they should jump at the opportunity. I’d look for someone like Seth Smith from Colorado or Drew Sutton from Boston.

The other two pitchers, Bedard and Vargas, probably haven’t reached the potential peak of their value yet. If either of them (or both!) keep pitching the way they are right now, a Cliff Lee-like package isn’t completely out of the question.

Bedard is probably the more talented pitcher. He has a viable breaking ball and a better fastball. His problems, obviously, center on his health. This may lead the team, or fans, to want to trade Bedard as soon as possible, since he’s a high injury risk, and an injury would destroy his value. However, because they’ve bought so low on the new version of Bedard, he seems like a solid value to keep around until at least the beginning of July. If he gets hurt the sunk costs are minimal, and if he’s healthy, his value is likely to be at its peak by then.

Besides health, Bedard’s limiting factor is his pending free agency. After missing all of last year, it’s unlikely that Bedard is a Type A or B free agent after this season, and there is no guarantee that he remains the kind of bargain he has been for the Mariners so far this season (obviously not in the past).

Vargas is perhaps the most volatile. Just two days ago I proposed that the Mariners should either attempt to extend Vargas now, or this upcoming offseason, or never.

Just like the Mariners are at a critical point for Vargas’ future with the team, they may be at a critical point for his future with another team. It makes sense for the team to explore a trade for him, but having a low-cost, under-30, effective pitcher in the rotation, makes a hell of a lot of sense too.

There isn’t a ton of precedent for trading a guy with two years of team control, who is recently effective after a career full of struggles. Maybe the best comparable is Bronson Arroyo, who after two solid-ish years in Boston, was traded to Cincinnati for Wily Mo Pena about two weeks before the 2006 season. Pena’s name may not inspire excitement, but he was a top hitting prospect, which is a pretty big return for a guy of that type.

Arroyo was a well-known member of the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox, an intangible asset (undoubtedly an overvalued one) that Vargas doesn’t have. However, Vargas has posted better season prior to that.

The Mariners should trade one of these guys if it can improve the offense. But, they shouldn’t trade Bedard or Vargas for anything but top prospects. While the market for starting pitchers is developing, it certainly isn’t fully developed, and the Mariners should wait to trade either of the latter, or they’ll be getting less than full value for the pitchers.


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