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July 23, 2013 at 10:28 AM

Mariners could change trade deadline plans if this keeps up

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One year ago today, the Mariners traded Ichiro and — coincidentally — went on to enjoy a winning post-All-Star stretch. That winning run had more to to with the weak caliber of consecutive opponents than anything sustainable.

Fast-forward 12 months to today, the Mariners have embarked on a similar winning stretch. They have gone 12-5 over the past 17 games while winning seven in a row — one victory shy of the eight straight they pulled off last August before running smack-dab into a bunch of playoff contenders and coming back down to Earth.

The difference now is, the Mariners haven’t been winning against mostly bad teams. They beat an Indians club last night that entered 1 1/2 games out of first place in the AL Central. Prior to that, yes, they swept the Astros and it’s about time they started doing what every other team in baseball has to that club. But they also dropped three of four — barely — to a first-place Boston club prior. And they beat the contending Reds and Rangers two of three apiece on the road before that.

So no, this isn’t like last year when they faced injury-decimated Royals and Blue Jays squads over and over. This time, the Mariners are actually scoring against decent pitching staffs. They hit two homers last night against a Cleveland squad that hadn’t given up a long ball since July 8.

Can it continue? Who knows? But just like last year, when you could actually see well ahead of time that the  Mariners might reel off eight in a row largely based on their schedule, you can look ahead right now and see a really big deal unfolding over the next week if things go Seattle’s way. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that they could be .500 even before the end of this weekend.

Right now, the Mariners are five games under .500, having whittled down the 12 under they were just seven games ago. Making up that type of ground is really tough to do so fast, but a .500 team usually has one massive winning streak in it and for the Mariners, this is it, baby. The big question now is how far they can take it. Tonight’s game against Cleveland is the one real question-mark, with Erasmo Ramirez taking the mound. His command has been off recently. But tomorrow, the Mariners will have Joe Saunders going and he’s looked sharp of late.

Split those games, you’ve got Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma kicking off four against a Twins team that does not play well on the road. Could the Mariners go 5-1 over the next six and be a game under .500? Sure they could. If they win tonight, they could go 6-0, extend the winning streak to 13 games and be a .500 team on Sunday.

I’m not trying to set them up for failure here. Just laying down the very real possiility of what might happen. They don’t have to go 6-0. If they’re a game under .500 come Sunday, two days before the trade deadline, that changes the entire dynamic of this season.

If you’d have asked the Mariners back in March what type of season they’d envisioned, being roughly .500 at the deadline with two months left to make an improbable wild-card run would be just about right. It’s taken them a very long time to get here and burying themselves a dozen games under .500 three days before the All-Star Break was certainly not part of their plan.

It was going to take winning 11 of 13, or 15 of 20 to pull out of that mess. But guess what? Against the odds — with help from an unexpected sweep of the Angels and better-than-forseen road showings versus Texas and Cincinnati — the Mariners are actually within the realm of pulling something like that off.

Does that change what this team should do come the July 31 trade deadline? If they’re within a couple of games of .500, it should. But maybe not in the way some of you think.

First off, the Mariners won’t be needing to trade for an “impact” bat. They’ve been hitting and will get that impact hitter when Michael Morse returns from injury. They will also get one, potentially, when Franklin Gutierrez returns.

Both those additions will be huge. In Morse’s case, the team gets the addition of another bona fide slugger. With Gutierrez, it leaves the team the option of trading Endy Chavez and also of optioning Dustin Ackley back to Class AAA to remain the emergency center fielder.

Ackley has looked better at times since being called back up, but he is still a lineup hole a bit too often. If Gutierrez is back and healthy, he and Michael Saunders remain the center fielders while Chavez gets dealt by the deadline.

If Gutierrez gets hurt again, Ackley can be recalled from AAA as the second center fielder without having to add anyone to the 40-man roster.

Where the Mariners should look to acquire something — yes, I said acquire, not dump — is on the pitching side. I would specifically target the bullpen because this is one area I’d worry about a young, largely inexperienced crew breaking down in August. Yes, Stephen Pryor should be back from injury at some point, but I’m not sure the Mariners should be counting on him all that much. What’s he really shown in the big leagues up to now?

Another veteran bullpen arm would seem key if the Mariners want to take a shot at a second wild-card slot. Remember what happened back in 2007 when the Mariners sent a largely-inexperienced bullpen into a stretch run? They dropped 15 of 17 in late August and early September and went from a wild-card lead to also-ran status.

This team badly needs a quality right-hander for the setup role. So, that would be my prime deadline acquisition target.

And, it goes without saying, taking a run at something the final two months would also involve keeping Oliver Perez. The Mariners are pretty strong from the left side of their bullpen. It’s the right side that needs work and while Pryor will help, no doubt, a guy still in his first full year coming off months of injury isn’t really who you want to be betting all your marbles on.

As far as the rotation goes, don’t forget, the Mariners could add both Taijuan Walker and James Paxton before the season is done and that could bolster a few things. Really, the rotation needs just one more arm to boost it to comfortable levels. It’s possible the Mariners could pick one up via a deadline deal, but I just don’t see them giving up too much of the future to get one. Nor do I think they should. Remember, this would still be a distant wild-card shot they are taking. It’s not a sure thing they can play themselves back into a real race.

The rotation as it stands is enough to make it interesting as long as Aaron Harang doesn’t implode. If Ramirez isn’t up to snuff, replace him with Walker and/or Paxton (remember, you can add as many arms as you want when September rosters expand.) And yes, naturally, you don’t trade Joe Saunders if you want to try to make a run.

So, that’s how I see this playing out. The Mariners have Brendan Ryan, Chavez and maybe some minor leaguers they can deal if they want to add bullpen help.

And again, this can all change in a week. The team can lose four of the next six and then this discussion becomes moot. But I’m trying to look ahead and forsee some stuff so we don’t all wake up in Boston next Tuesday asking these same questions.

Because if we learned anything from the Orioles and Athletics last season, a .500 team with two months to go can get a surge of adrenaline and start doing things nobody expected. If this team wakes up roughly a .500 club right before the deadline, it would be wrong for the Mariners to start dumping guys.

I didn’t see this coming a week ago. Nor did the Mariners. But if they win 11 of 13 heading into Tuesday, it will have happened and have to be dealt with. Plans can change. The value of maybe snagging some future piece by dumping a bunch of guys at the deadline can be more than offset by some meaningful baseball in August and maybe September for the first time in many, many years.

The Mariners talked back in spring training of needing to be a .500 team before the deadline in order to make the final two months interesting. They’ve taken a crazy route to get there, but are less than a week away from making that happen if a few things bounce their way.

And if they get there, then trade deadline Plan B will have to kick in. They’ll have to stay roughly the same and make those little tweaks — hopefully in the bullpen — to give themselves the best shot to succeed. For now, they’ve still got six more games to play in which they can seriously impact their destiny these final two months.

The schedule gets much tougher in August. They won’t have too many more chances to knock a bunch of games off of their quest for .500 — or beyond — this quickly. They have to grab the opportunity now and then see what the future holds.

Comments | More in analysis | Topics: ichiro; oliver perez; wild-card; trade deadline

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