The July 31 trade deadline is still several weeks away, but the speculation is already starting. Certainly, the Mariners are a team with all the elements to be an active seller — non-contenders with a bunch of veterans who will be free agents after the year. Falling in that category, and sure to be active in the rumor mill, are Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Brendan Ryan, Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, Aaron Harang (2014 option), Joe Saunders (2014 options) and Franklin Gutierrez (2014 option).
But one surprising name that I’m hearing kicked around by pundits is Hisashi Iwakuma, who has pitched as well as anyone in the American League this season. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, considering Jack Zduriencik‘s penchant for trading starting pitchers, the Mariners’ touted minor-league depth in starting pitching, and their perpetual need for offensive help.
Just today, Jim Bowden on ESPN.com in an article (behind their paywall) entitled “20 Starting Pitchers Who Could Be Traded” listed Iwakuma as a candidate. He wrote:
“The Mariners would like to keep him paired with Felix Hernandez for the next few years, but with generous pitching depth and a desperate need for position players, Iwakuma has the most trade value of anyone on the team. I doubt he is traded, but he’d be a difference-maker for any team.”
It’s an enticing notion, one that used to be prevalent in some quarters with Felix Hernandez: You leverage your established pitcher into a package of young prospects, preferably hitters, that will fill multiple needs. The only problem is, Zduriencik has pretty much struck out so far in all the deals in which he dealt pitchers in precisely that quest for organizational depth:
- Jarrod Washburn to the Tigers, July 31, 2009, for LHP Maurcio Robles and LHP Luke French.
- Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays, Dec. 23, 2009, for RHP Brandon League and OF Johermyn Chavez
- Cliff Lee to the Rangers, July 9, 2010, with Mark Lowe, for 1B Justin Smoak, RHP Blake Beavan, RHP Josh Lueke and INF Matt Lawson
- Doug Fister to the Tigers, July 30, 2011, with David Pauley, for OF Casper Wells, 3B Francisco Martinez, LHP Charlie Furbush and RHP Chance Ruffin
- Erik Bedard to the Red Sox, July 31, 2011, with Josh Fields, for OF Trayvon Robinson and OF Chih-Hsien Chiang
- Michael Pineda to the Yankees, Jan. 20, 2012, with Jose Campos for C Jesus Montero and RHP Hector Noesi
- Jason Vargas to the Angels, Dec. 19, 2012, for 1B/DH Kendrys Morales.
Not much to show for all that, is there? Smoak and Montero are still trying to find their way. Lueke turned into John Jaso who turned into Michael Morse — but as mentioned, he’s a free agent after the season. Morales is having a nice season, but he’s another player in his walk year. I wouldn’t hold your breath for an in-season contract extension, not with Scott Boras as his agent. Yes, Boras has worked out some in-season extensions for clients, but those have tended to be guys with a long history in an organization, not someone who has been there for barely two months of games, as has been the case with Morales in Seattle.
Obviously, there is a theoretical deal that would make trading Iwakuma worthwhile, but I don’t trust that it’s going to be there in reality. And for all the Mariners’ vaunted pitching depth, we’ve learned all too painfully that it’s a huge step from minor-league phenom to productive major-leaguer. Look at the “Big Three” — Danny Hultzen has been sidelined for more than a month with a, gulp, rotator cuff strain. James Paxton has been wildly inconsistent in Triple-A. Taijuan Walker has been mostly dominant, but he’s still in Double-A and just 20 years old.
There simply are no guarantees, but in Iwakuma, the Mariners have as close to a sure thing as there is — a pitcher who has already proven he’s All-Star caliber, still young enough at 32 to have some mileage left. He’s signed for one more year beyond this one at a bargain $6.5 million, with a reasonable club option ($7.5 million) for 2015.
Instead of forever trying to find lightning in a bottle by trading established pitchers for prospects, the Mariners should keep their one undeniable strength intact — a top of the rotation combo in Hernandez and Iwakuma that any team in baseball would love to have. If Walker and Hultzen make it, the Mariners could have the best rotation in baseball, putting them way ahead of the game in finally building a contender. If they don’t make it, well, then they’d really need Iwakuma.
Look, the Mariners obviously still need to beef up their hitting. But they should do it through the draft, through free agency, by developing the players they already have in their system, and through trades of players who could be walking away soon, not by trading away one of the best assets on the team. Particularly not when history shows that the deal isn’t likely to reap the hoped-for benefits.