The Mariners could be both buyers and sellers as the July 31 trade deadline looms. What they can’t afford to be is idle.
Buyer or seller.
The labels are clean and simple and definitive for teams as baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline of July 31 nears.
Most teams that have a chance at the postseason — division title or wild card — are buyers on some level, whether shopping the bargains of the midlevel player outlet mall or browsing the front-line pitching boutiques featuring the high-cost lines of David Price, Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels.
Pick a team in contention, and you can find a need. The Yankees need a second baseman and would like a frontline starting pitcher. The Cubs could use any pitcher — starter or reliever — who could actually get hitters out. The Dodgers never stop living the Rodeo Drive lifestyle and want to add Price. The Cardinals need an upgrade at first base. The Royals need a starting pitcher at Costco prices.
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Meanwhile, the White Sox are sellers, trying to trade Jeff Samardzija. The Phillies are holding out for an unrealistic king’s ransom for Hamels. The Brewers, Reds and Red Sox are selling. The Padres will trade Justin Upton and more.
In the American League West, we know the Angels are buyers, while the Astros have bought, acquiring left-handed pitcher Scott Kazmir from the Oakland A’s, who are obviously in sell mode.
And then we get to the Mariners. General manager Jack Zduriencik has remained inconspicuous the past few weeks. He said before the All-Star break that the team probably wouldn’t make any major acquisitions. But now they come into this weekend’s series against the Blue Jays switching spots with the A’s for last place in the division.
Regardless of what happens this weekend against Toronto, the Mariners shouldn’t remain inert.
Yes, there is an understanding that their window for optimal success, which has slammed on their fingers this year, was for this season and the next two to three seasons — the length of the contract of Nelson Cruz. That’s the time frame where Cruz, Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez are likely to still be performing at high levels, while third baseman Kyle Seager will be reaching his prime playing years.
The young core of starting pitchers — Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, and now Mike Montgomery — will have matured into consistent big-league performers, and the hope is that Brad Miller and even Mike Zunino have started to figure things out.
Opposing scouts have said the Mariners — regardless of who is leading the front office next season — shouldn’t blow up the roster and start over, considering the core of players returning.
Still, they should be proactive in shopping future free agents who are definitely not coming back, while maybe seeing if controllable players outside of that core group might bring in value.
As tidy as the labels are, the Mariners should be sellers but could also be buyers in a way. To exit this trade season without dumping soon-to-be free agents for at least midlevel prospects to help their somewhat bereft minor-league system would be inexcusable.
Let’s be clear, the Mariners aren’t going to get any huge returns on any of these players. They are all half-season rentals and not even among the top tier of rentals available. Here’s a look at the potential candidates.
Hisashi Iwakuma: The veteran right-hander is probably the Mariners’ most valuable commodity of this group. Obviously, he’s not the same pitcher as his All-Star season in 2013. But when/if he’s healthy and his velocity is up, he can be effective. In his last three starts, he’s thrown 202/3 innings and allowed four runs with 18 strikeouts. The remaining money owed on Iwakuma’s $7 million salary this season is also a bonus. A few years ago, it seemed as though the Mariners would extend Iwakuma. But injuries have plagued him and he will be 35 next season with a lot of innings worked in his career — mostly in Japan. Even with Felix Hernandez and the four young pitchers, signing Iwakuma to a smaller one-year extension with an option isn’t a bad idea for depth purposes. If that’s not in the future, then Iwakuma would fit nicely for a team in need of a back-end-of-the-rotation starter.
J.A. Happ: Despite his 4-5 record and 4.12 ERA, the veteran left-hander has some value as a back-of-the-rotation starter, particularly in the National League or for teams that play in pitcher-friendly parks. That first week or two in August is where many first- and second-year big-league starters hit the wall or get injured due to the grind of the season. Happ provides depth and experience. He also isn’t going to cost a team two or three quality prospects to acquire him.
Austin Jackson: The veteran outfielder never quite reached the level the Mariners hoped when they acquired him last season at the trade deadline. A .256 batting average with a .652 OPS isn’t going to attract a lot of interest. But he plays a solid center field and has stretch-run and postseason experience with the Tigers. He would be another depth addition and would work well as a fourth outfielder.
Mark Lowe: He’s been the Mariners’ best reliever not named Carson Smith. Lowe has been a savior for the bullpen, taking over as the setup man to Smith. He’s appeared in 31 games and allowed just four earned runs for a 1.16 ERA. He’s a veteran pitcher who can pitch in a variety of roles, pitch multiple innings and work three days in a row if needed.
Fernando Rodney: Could someone really want Rodney? After watching the Tigers’ bullpen the last four days, Rodney is better than a few of their relievers. A team in need of relief depth might take a chance. But the Mariners would likely have to eat the remainder of the $7 million he’s owed this season before any team would take him.
The controllable players: Mark Trumbo, Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison and Tom Wilhelmsen could all be non-tender candidates for next season — meaning that the Mariners could decide not to offer them a contract because of the possible increase in their salaries based on projected arbitration figures. None of the four would bring an immense return based on their struggles this season, but paired with a future free agent, it may increase their value. The need to move these players may grow if Mariners ownership decides to go with a reduced payroll budget in 2016 after possibly spending $130 million this season.