But with a lack of top-end prospects to trade away, it might be hard for the Mariners to shore up a rotation that has often struggled this season.
CHICAGO — The needs are obvious. The direction isn’t. For the Mariners and general manager Jerry Dipoto, the next 16 games over 18 days will determine the Mariners’ immediate future, specifically the remainder of the 2017 season.
At 43-47 and four games out of the American League wild-card game, the Mariners’ dream of snapping a postseason drought that dates to 2001 is still alive but with perhaps a flickering pulse. Dipoto still believes it’s possible.
“Sure, you watched it last year,” he said. “We’re more talented than we were a year ago. There’s no question in my mind about that, and you know, last year, from a similar position, we made a run at what would be the most unusual or most difficult time of our schedule. We were playing real teams. We were playing a lot of road games, and we made a run. We almost made it.”
What transpires before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline will be a decisive factor in what Dipoto does.
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Don’t ask him if the team will be a “buyer” or a “seller.” Dipoto won’t limit himself to such obtuse thinking. By limiting the scope to one or the other, it gives teams an opportunity to try to manipulate the situation. Call it being an “improver.”
If the Mariners struggle out of the break and fall out of the race, the obvious play would be to try to move outfielder Jarrod Dyson, oft-traded first baseman Danny Valencia, backup catcher Carlos Ruiz and reliever Steve Cishek, who will all be free agents. Lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski and right-handed pitcher Yovani Gallardo could also be moved, though not much would be expected in return.
If the M’s play well and stay in the wild-card race as Dipoto expects, there is one glaring need — pitching.
The Mariners’ rotation has been gutted by injuries and subpar performances, and the addition of another right-handed reliever might be useful. The Mariners will first look at the possible return of Shae Simmons in a week as an acquisition.
But the starting rotation needs help. It consists of James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Ariel Miranda and rookies Andrew Moore and Sam Gaviglio, with right-handers Yovani Gallardo and Christian Bergman as depth.
Hisashi Iwakuma’s future is uncertain. While the veteran right-hander continues to rehab his ailing shoulder, his return is not something the Mariners can anticipate. Some within the organization believe he won’t return this season.
Just before the All-Star break, manager Scott Servais said he believed the team had enough starting pitching to go forward this season. The numbers contradict that notion.
The Mariners’ starters have thrown seven innings just 18 times in 90 starts while producing 36 outings of five innings or less. There were 30 games where the starter allowed four runs or more. Seattle’s starting pitchers have combined a 4.76 ERA, which ranks 11th in the American League.
The Mariners were 40-15 when scoring at least four runs. And when they mustered just three runs or less, they were 3-32, including 0-25 in the last 25 games in that situation.
So does Dipoto think they have enough pitching going forward?
“Depends on what you mean by forward, you know. … If by moving forward, you mean July to September? No, we don’t,” he said. “We are going to have to, whether it’s a return for Hisashi Iwakuma, whether it’s something from our system, or whether it’s somebody externally that we can add.”
On Thursday, the Cubs jumped the midseason trade market and acquired the best pitcher expected to be available at the deadline — White Sox lefty Jose Quintana — in exchange for four prospects.
The Mariners simply don’t have the prospect depth in their organization to make that kind of move.
Oakland’s Sonny Gray and Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole are also possible bigger-name pitchers that could be moved. But both would be command a high-level prospect in return.
The Mariners’ highest-rated prospect, according to Baseball America, is last year’s first-round pick, outfielder Kyle Lewis, who is No. 62. The only other Mariners player in the midseason top 100 was right-hander pitched Nick Neidert — the Mariners’ top pitching prospect — at No. 84.
“We do need to be aware of what those (external) pieces are, and if we can add it, we will,” Dipoto said. “But we’re not going to empty both barrels trying to go out and find the ace to perch atop the rotation that will take us to the promised land, because that guy doesn’t exist.”
Two National League scouts evaluating Seattle for the trade deadline noted that the Mariners might have to trade a player off the 25-man roster as part of a package for a No. 3-level starting pitcher, mentioning young outfielders Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger and even right-hander Dan Altavilla.
That outfield depth might allow Seattle to shop outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who is starting to heat up in Class AAA Tacoma, and maybe package lower-level players.
One thing that could help offset the lack of prospect depth to offer is money. The Mariners can try to buy a larger contract and not have to give up as much. Seattle should have some payroll flexibility for this year and beyond. With Iwakuma’s $14 million option not vesting and the team likely not to tender Drew Smyly a contract since he’ll miss most of the 2018 season, that’s $20 million of possible payroll next season.
Logically a pitcher under control for 2018 is also desirable considering the same pitching issues will arise next season. Seattle expects to contend for the postseason in 2018 given almost all of their starting position players return.
Also the Mariners can’t claim to be paupers. The ownership group has money and has said it was willing to add payroll if it meant a chance at the postseason. This might be an example of a time when that’s needed. Even if CEO John Stanton gets the ownership group to open the checkbook, finding a pitcher will be difficult.
“Everybody’s looking,” Dipoto said. “Everybody’s always looking. So makes it no harder than it was yesterday or last year or in 2010. Everybody’s always looking for starting pitching, particularly at this time of year. Like I’ve said recently, and I think it’s true, there are two 30 or 45 day windows. One is now, and one happens again in December and January, when you can actually access starting pitching, so your antennae have to be up. If you can’t access it now, you have that next window that opens, and there’s virtually no other time of the year when you can access starting pitching. These are those times.
You don’t get ’em in April. You don’t get ’em in May. You don’t get’em in October. You wait ’til a free agency, or you acquire them now. That’s when you find your starting pitching, and if it’s out there, and we can access it, we’re going to stay in tune with it. I can’t promise you that we will or that we can, but we’re going t stay in tune with it.”