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ADDITIONAL NOTE: The Mariners will start Joe Saunders against the Astros on Friday, followed by Hisashi Iwakuma on Saturday and Felix Hernandez on Sunday.
The Mariners face an interesting challenge come the July 31 trade deadline. They have to balance their need to keep on winning — and gaining back some fan approval — versus improving the club long-term.
No, it isn’t all tied together. Part of the team’s off-season “plan” involved signing a bunch of veterans to one-year contracts. The idea was that they would either help the team win some games now, or else could be extended or shipped off at the deadline.
Keeping them all year long to help a 70-win team become a 75-win team wasn’t really the so-called plan. But that’s exactly what could happen if the Mariners do nothing and keep all of their short-termers here until their deals run out.
With Kendrys Morales, you can keep him all year make him a qualifying offer and if he accepts, pay him $14 million or so to stick around next season. Or, he he turns it down, you collect a compensatory draft pick after the first round is over. There is also the option of signing him long-term, but with Justin Smoak now showing signs of being every bit as productive, Morales is looking more and more like a permanent DH option. And the Mariners were already supposed to have Jesus Montero being groomed for that role, so unless they are bailing on Montero, I’m not sure how Morales fits at a lofty price.
So, yes, trading him is indeed an option. As is trading Raul Ibanez and Joe Saunders, two other guys with some market value and not worth extending a qualifying offer to because they’d be far-too-pricey if they accepted.
Thing is, some of the veterans with the most value for a club during a two-month stretch run — think Morales, Ibanez, Hisashi Iwakuma — are part of the very glue that has held this club together. Want to rely on Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Erasmo Ramirez to carry the load and keep this winning stretch going during the Dog Days of August? OK, then. But that’s probably not something Jack Zduriencik wants to do.
Zduirenick knows how fragile this little winning stretch he’s put together could be. His team was on-pace for 92 losses prior to a recent sweep of the Angels and very well could be headed in that direction again if he deals away too many key veteran pieces.
That’s why I see all those veterans I just mentioned — with the exception of Saunders — sticking around.
Michael Morse is a different story, since his injuries have severely hampered any trade value he’d have. If he gets healthy, the Mariners could try to deal him in August — though he doesn’t cost all that much and would likely be snapped up in a waiver claim. The Mariners could also try to work out a multi-year deal with Morse at a more team-friendly rate. No guarantee he’d go for it, but it’s possible and seems their best option now. Making him a qualifying offer would be risky because $14 million is a lot to spend on a guy who — if he accepts the offer — has had trouble staying on the field.
The reason Saunders could go is the Mariners might want to use the final 2 1/2 months of their schedule to audition Class AAA starters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. That would require some rotation space being filled up and if you can clear a spot by dealing Saunders for something decent in return — as well as saving a couple of million in salary — the club could likely stomach that.
One potential motivator for this sudden influx of youth by the Mariners — which came earlier than many expected — that I believe has been overlooked is the reprecussions it will have in future trades next winter. Last year, GM Zduriencik was a tad irked at the lack of value his counterparts were placing on his top prospects. As we’ve written about, the new collective bargaining rules in baseball have already changed the way teams appear to be viewing and valuing prospects.
Zduriencik seemed particularly perturbed that teams were placing a disproportionate amount of value on prospects who had enjoyed a touch of big league playing time versus those who had not. So, as highly as Zduriencik valued guys like Franklin, Walker and others at the time, he did not feel opposing GMs were giving them the same respect because they’d yet to appear in the big leagues.
So, getting MLB exposure to as many prospects as possible is in Zduriencik’s best interests if he wants to trade some of them this coming off-season. And with so many guys piling up in the infield and potentially in the rotation, some will have to go.
I don’t see Dustin Ackley getting dealt at the deadline — given how low his value has sunk — but the team will have to figure something out with him this winter if he can use the final months of the season to bulk his numbers up a bit. Maybe they still think he’s the long-term answer and will again try to trade Franklin — as they did last winter — now that he’ll have four months of MLB service time under his belt.
Same for Paxton and Walker. The Mariners already explored dealing both last winter. With some service time, their value should — in theory — move up.
That’s why I could see Saunders going.
As for others, there are likely several deals the Mariners will entertain, but it’s doubtful any will bring back significant returns.
The most obvious candidates are shortstop Brendan Ryan and outfielder Endy Chavez. Each has been squeezed out of playing time by younger players and the Mariners now have at least two guys to cover each of their positions. That means, some type of move is in order, especially with the Mariners needing to add guys back to the MLB roster after injuries — think Stephen Pryor, Franklin Gutierrez, Morse.
Oliver Perez is another guy I see getting dealt, largely because of the value late-inning relievers tend to have for teams making stretch runs. Those teams want veteran guys whose arms won’t fall apart in August after a season-long grind. Perez has never been an established closer, so you won’t see some crazy “overpay” with him, but the Mariners could try to land a “B” level prospect type.
In fact, that’s all you’re going to see with any trades the Mariners contemplate — unless they were to move Morales, Iwakuma (who is under contract for 2014 as well) or any of their bigger-name guys. A .200-hitting, glove-first shortstop like Ryan won’t get you an “A”-level guy in return, barring some catastrophic injury to a shortstop in coming weeks.
But the Mariners do need the roster space. They can’t carry six outfielders and a ton of backups forever. Perez will be missed by a bullpen that has struggled at times. But Pryor’s return should help with some of that. Saunders would be missed by a rotation that has been shaky all year in the Nos. 3-5 spots, but the Mariners would hope to get by with that.
That’s still not the same as the impact dealing away a mid-order bat like Morales, a No. 2 starter like Iwakuma or even a home run leader like Ibanez — unlikely to duplicate this season ever again — would have on the daily ability to win.
That ability to win and get this team’s record as close to .500 as possible is still important for Zduriencik. Let’s face it, the standards for winning in Seattle have never been as high as in many other baseball cities and Zduriencik knows that fans and ownership here will likely extend him if he wins even 75 games and touts the promise of youth yet again.
So, from a pragmatic perspective, goal No. 1 is to get that 75-80 win season and avoid the kind of 90-95 loss campaign that could force even a franchise with the bar set as low as this one’s is to get rid of him.
Once that is secured, the secondary plan of playing the kids — which brings that fandom hope we just discussed — and building their trade value will give Zduriencik more options this coming winter when it comes to swinging the deals he needs to in order to really help this franchise move forward.
He’s not going to get it done come July 31. The time to build a team is in the off-season. Right now, Zduriencik has to make it to the off-season. Then, he has to hope he’s supplied himself enough younger options so that he can execute his off-season Plan A or B, not the C and D he settled for this time.
That means, no major deals the next two weeks. Some deals, yes, but right now, I’m guessing the team’s ability to keep winning more than it loses will take priority.