This should be an interesting 2½ months ahead for the Mariners as they fight to win not only games on the field but fan confidence as well.
That confidence was on the upswing as the team entered the All-Star break with its first series sweep, hitting like it hasn’t in years and riding a wave of enthusiasm over young players Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino.
And that’s why navigating the July 31 trade deadline will be challenging for the Mariners, who must balance the need to better a team that’s still nine games under .500 with a desire not to disrupt any positive momentum recently built. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, as he usually does this time of year, downplayed the importance of the looming deadline.
“In all fairness, I don’t think I’m going to be aggressive,’’ Zduriencik said before the break. “I don’t think I’m going to go out there and start shopping our players. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.’’
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Zduriencik said his goal is to put “a healthy club on the field’’ once the season resumes Friday in Houston. He’ll still take calls from interested trade partners and consider options to better the club.
But right now, he said, he’s finally seeing the club he initially envisioned.
“We’ve been through a lot in the early part of this year between struggles, between injuries and setbacks,’’ he said. “So, we like what’s happened (in July), but who knows? I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t predict one way or the other what’s going to happen.’’
Part of the problem Zduriencik faces is that some of his most marketable trade commodities are the very glue holding this team together. Few contending teams wouldn’t love to get their hands on Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez or Hisashi Iwakuma for a stretch run. But trading them could turn the Mariners from a team that just went 8-5 in a tough part of the schedule to one more like the club that was 12 games under .500 when that stretch began.
Even dealing away left-handed starter Joe Saunders at a time the rotation still seems shaky – with Aaron Harang inconsistent and Erasmo Ramirez getting lit up his first time out – could risk any improvements made.
The last thing the Mariners want is another 90-loss season as they struggle to win back public confidence in their plan. But they were on pace for 92 losses before sweeping the Angels and know just how fragile their reliance on youth could be.
Still, the Mariners must deal with all the one-year veteran contracts they took on last winter. They brought in Morales, Michael Morse, Ibanez, Jason Bay and Saunders hoping to get better short-term results in 2013 while worrying about the long-term plan for them later on.
That “later on’’ part is now here because the team risks losing all those players for not a whole lot in return if they decide not to deal them. With Morales, they could make a one-year qualifying offer – for roughly $14 million – and collect a compensatory draft pick if he turns it down.
But while Morales might be worth paying $14 million for one season if he accepted a qualifying offer, it’s doubtful the team thinks the other veterans would be. So, gaining draft picks for those veterans becomes moot.
With Morse, his trade value is minimal because of his injury-plagued first half, and potentially paying him $14 million in 2014 via a qualifying offer would be risky given his frequent health problems. The Mariners could try to extend him via a club-friendly contract, but there are no guarantees he’d go for that.
There are some secondary trades the Mariners will likely entertain to free up roster space. Shortstop Brendan Ryan and outfielder Endy Chavez are two veterans bumped from playing time by younger players and who would have value to other teams.
Left-handed relief pitcher Oliver Perez is another piece with value almost certain to move. The Mariners plan on having Stephen Pryor back from injury in the second half, so the loss of Perez would be somewhat mitigated and prevent the bullpen from going off the rails.
Late-inning relievers can bring “overpays’’ on the market, though Perez is not an established closer. In all likelihood, none of those secondary trade options will garner any “A”-level prospects or major-league-ready returns.
The one thing such trades will do is free up space for Zduriencik to keep “playing the kids’’ the rest of the way. And that’s why a Saunders trade from the rotation can’t be completely ruled out, given the Mariners might want to promote Class AAA pitchers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.
Last winter, Zduriencik lamented that his fellow GMs placed a disproportionately lesser trade value on prospects who had not yet made the majors versus those with a small taste of big-league service time. One thing Zduriencik has already accomplished this season – and could very well keep doing the final two months – is getting big-league exposure for his top prospects.
With that experience in hand, Zduriencik could then, in theory, command more value for such prospects if he wants to trade them next winter.
But first, he has to make it to next winter with his job intact. And doing anything now that might send his club on another losing skid is likely not the best way to accomplish that.
“It just hasn’t come together completely like we thought it would,’’ Zduriencik said. “I think we’ve seen great things out of some of the veteran guys we brought in here. They’ve done what we hoped they would do.
“And again, we’ve had young guys who have experienced difficulty. I think it’s continuing to be a process. It’s continuing to be a learning experience. There have been things that I wish were better. We have the second half to play.’’
And that second half will likely end with most – if not all – of the main pieces Zduriencik has at the All-Star break.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @gbakermariners