Without a revival to above .500, the Mariners are facing the distinct possibility of a veteran sell-off that could involve some of their core players.
The Mariners find themselves in a weird sort of limbo as the trade-deadline assessment period approaches.
They’ve been limping along for weeks, trying desperately to stay afloat until they get their full team back. A .500 road trip is suddenly cause for celebration.
They still think they have the foundation to be the contending team that everyone fully expected at the outset of the season. And yet the standings — five games under .500, third-worst in the American League after Tuesday’s road-trip finale win in Colorado — say otherwise. So does the amount of talent still sitting idle on the disabled list, with no defined return date.
In the next several weeks, every team in baseball will have to decide if it is in or out, and act accordingly before the July 31 deadline for making nonwaiver deals. Oh, you can try to finesse your way around that decision by being both a buyer and seller, a line Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto straddled last year. But the Mariners are one more extended losing stretch from having to face the day of reckoning that this season is a lost cause.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Analysis: How does UW's QB situation measure up with the rest of the Pac-12?
- Sue Bird has an eye for basketball talent. Here's how she's using it in her NBA role with the Nuggets.
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- After a season of change a year ago, Seahawks appear pretty set at tight end heading into 2019
- Kaepernick, Eric Reid settle collusion grievances with NFL
Of course, in this age of parity, they’re also one extended winning stretch from being right back in the thick of the AL wild-card race. As shakily as things have been going for the Mariners, and even conceding the division to the rampaging Astros, they still entered Wednesday just 4½ games out of the second wild card. That’s close enough to dream.
That’s why the month of June will be hugely vital to the Mariners’ future. Without a revival, they are facing the distinct possibility of a veteran sell-off that could even reach down to some of their core players. But no one wants to face that scenario until they show definitively that they don’t have a charge left. The recent role model in this regard is the 2014 Royals, who were 26-30 on June 1, heading nowhere and under strong consideration to be blown up. The Royals — who at the time had a 29-year playoff drought, 14 years longer than Seattle’s — made the playoffs, won the pennant, and were one victory from winning the World Series.
The frustrating part for the Mariners’ decision-makers is the sense that the team they carefully constructed simply hasn’t had a legitimate chance to show its worth. Not with four of its five projected starting pitchers on the disabled list, along with a steady string of position players (including breakout outfielder Mitch Haniger for five weeks and counting). Not with the necessity of using an astonishing 27 pitchers, including 12 starters.
That’s not exactly the formula for success. But that’s reality, and it’s the context within which the Mariners will have to face these hard decisions. They do get James Paxton back Wednesday, but the other three sidelined starters — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly — remain question marks. There is hope that Hernandez and Iwakuma are making progress toward a return, but they have not truly tested their ailing arms, so who knows?
As valiantly as Christian Bergman and Sam Gaviglio have pitched as rotation fill-ins, it’s hard to envision the Mariners mounting a surge unless and until they get their front-line pitchers back. But for those suggesting it’s time to tear apart the team for a total rebuild, the Mariners simply aren’t well-positioned to do so, nor does ownership appear to have the stomach to endure the inevitable struggles that come with such a strategy. Their two most expensive players, Hernandez and Robinson Cano, are virtually untradeable because of their contracts (and Felix has a full no-trade clause anyway). Cano has $144 million owed him over the final six years of his deal through 2023, and Hernandez is owed $53 million for 2018 and ’19.
But if the Mariners suffer the sort of June swoon that has become characteristic in Seattle — they were 10-18 in the month in 2016, and 11-16 in four of the five previous seasons — suddenly any scenario is in play. Certainly, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura and Jarrod Dyson become potential trade chips, and they would at least have to think about Kyle Seager (though his contract, which guarantees him $74.5 million from 2018 through 2021, would be a complicating factor). Other veterans such as Danny Valencia, Nick Vincent and Steve Cishek might be appealing to contending teams, as would a healthy Iwakuma or Smyly.
Yet none would bring the sort of haul that the White Sox attracted for Chris Sale and Adam Eaton to jump-start their rebuild, nor do the Mariners have a bunch of elite prospects in the minors knocking on the door. You certainly could make the case that in the short term, the ballclub would be better off keeping its nucleus together and supplementing it in the offseason for one more, hopefully healthy, run in 2018.
It’s all hypothetical at the moment. This team could still veer off in any number of directions that help clarify the best course of action. But it’s also possible that it is still mired at an inconclusive juncture when conclusive decisions have to be made.
Dipoto, of course, is hoping the Mariners make his decision easy by getting on an extended roll right now. The problem is, the team as constituted (contrary to the team at full strength), might well be roll-proof.