One of the keys for prudent action at the trade deadline is to be brutally honest in assessing your team’s chances.
When I talked to Jack Zduriencik late last week, he said it was “premature” to assume that the Mariners were going to be sellers. He wanted to see how the next few weeks played out before coming to any conclusions. He mentioned several times about wanting to see how the team could do healthy, which I think is a bit of a red herring. They’ve had some tough injury luck, but not nearly as bad as say, the Cardinals, who lost their All-Star shortstop (Rafael Furcal), their closer (Jason Motte) and three key starters (Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia), and are still in position to make the postseason. The Yankees have also been wiped out by injuries yet remain in playoff contention.
The Mariners were hard hit by the loss of Franklin Gutierrez, but it wasn’t hard to see that coming and it was unrealistic to make him central to their plans. The loss of reliever Stephen Pryor barely a week into the season really hurt the dynamic in the bullpen, and the injury to Erasmo Ramirez in spring training messed up their rotation plans. But good teams have the depth to overcome such injuries. In-season DL stints by Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak and Michael Morse are just part of the long baseball season. No team goes through unscathed.
At any rate, I don’t have any problem with Zduriencik waiting a bit longer to see how things play out. Miracles do happen, and if the Mariners ran off a streak of, say, 15 out of 17, then we’d all have to re-assess. But as I look at the standings this morning, I find it hard to see a path to genuine, legitimate contention. They are 12 1/2 games out of first place in their division, trailing two very good teams (Oakland and Texas), plus a third one, the Angels, that is making a run and has enough top-level talent to be very dangerous. It’s hard to conjure up a scenario where the Mariners surge past all three. Only a select few teams in history have overcome double-digit deficits to make the playoffs. Sorry to say, these aren’t the 1995 Mariners.
The wild-card path, on the surface, seems a bit more manageable, considering the M’s are just 9 1/2 games out of a berth. But just look at all the teams they would have to pass. Texas currently the lead for one wild-card spot, while Baltimore and Tampa Bay are tied for the other. The Mariners would have to get by, in order, the Royals, Blue Jays, Angels, Indians, Yankees, and then two out of three among the Rays, Orioles and Rangers, to earn one of the two wild-card berths. That’s going to take some surge.
But that doesn’t mean that becoming a seller has to greatly alter the course of this Mariners’ season, which has already veered toward breaking in young players. They have rookies at catcher (Mike Zunino), second base (Nick Franklin) and shortstop (Brad Miller). That’s not going to change. Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager at the corners aren’t going anywhere. They can continue the experiment of Dustin Ackley in the outfield, though the Reds exploited his throwing issues from center field in this just-completed series. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will continue to be among the best one-two starting punches in the majors (I just don’t see the Mariners trading Iwakuma).
When it comes to trades, we’re most likely talking about a handful of veterans who are in the final year of their contracts. Oliver Perez is going to be a hugely attractive trade chip for the many teams looking to beef up their bullpen. The Mariners would certainly miss him, but not enough to keep him for an illusory stretch run. And Perez, who seems genuinely happy in Seattle, could still sign back next year. To see how it’s possible to leverage good talent from contending teams desperate for relief help (Tigers, anyone?), just look at what the Rangers gave up to get Koji Uehara on July 30, 2011: Pitcher Tommy Hunter, and a first baseman named Chris Davis — the guy who is on pace this year to hit 60 home runs. Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen is a trade deadline legend, and we won’t even get into Heathcliff Slocumb for Derek Lowe/Jason Varitek.
I believe Brendan Ryan will be attractive to a contender because of his brilliant defensive skills, but he has become expendable in Seattle with the emergence of Miller. Joe Saunders over his last eight starts is 4-3 with a 2.70 ERA — and that’s including a stinker against the Pirates. That was the only game in that stretch he didn’t work into at least the seventh inning. Reliable veteran pitchers like that will be coveted, so there will be a market for Saunders (more so than fellow veterans Aaron Harang and Jeremy Bonderman). Saunders comes with a team option for next season. Ramirez is healthy now as a likely replacement.
Among Seattle’s veteran bats, three in particular are likely to be sought: Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and . Kendrys Morales.
Morse’s injuries — first a finger, now a quad — have curtailed his stats, but if he can come off the DL in the next week and show he’s healthy, he’s a streaky enough power hitter (as evidenced by his six homers in the first nine games of this season) that there will likely be teams that think they can catch lightning in a bottle.
The toughest decisions will be whether to trade Ibanez and/or Morales. Ibanez has been marvelous at the plate this year; couple that with his reputation within the game as a great clubhouse presence, and he’s certain to be coveted by numerous teams. But whether they’d be willing to give up more than a mid-level prospect for a 41-year-old player is another question — and would that be enough for the Mariners? They might decide that Ibanez’s presence with their own youngsters and his fan appeal — not to mention his bat — might warrant keeping him. Ibanez has enough stature that the club could well consult with him to find out his desires, and whether a run at another World Series appeals to him. As for Morales, as I mentioned in the linked column, the Mariners need to compare any prospects package they might be offered against the draft pick they would get after the first round if they gave Morales a qualifying offer next winter and he signed elsewhere. They also have to be prepared to pay him around $14 million if Morales decides to accept the qualifying offer. Of course, they could also explore locking him up to a long-term deal now, but that is highly unlikely with Scott Boras as his agent.
Lots of decisions for Zduriencik, but they all will be preceded by one critical decision: Just where do the Mariners stand, realistically, in 2013?