The Mariners will face five teams with winning records, and three of those — the Astros, White Sox and Blue Jays — sit ahead of them in the American League wild-card standings.
Buyers or sellers?
What label will be attached to the Mariners in the 17 days leading up to the Aug. 1 Major League Baseball trade deadline?
As they prepare to return from the All-Star break Friday night against the Houston Astros at Safeco Field, the Mariners are neither. Seattle is good enough to be just over .500 and with some postseason hope, but still not quite good enough to easily say, “We’re going for it.”
Astros @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
In May the Mariners seemed destined to be buyers. They were 10 games over .500 and atop the AL West standings. But a 10-18 skid in June due to poor play and multiple injuries offered a reality check.
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At 45-44, they are on pace to win 82 games, which would be an improvement over last season but likely wouldn’t snap their postseason drought that dates to 2001.
Yes, an injection of talent, perhaps an everyday outfielder, a reliever with closing experience and an upgrade in the rotation could change their fortune. But the Mariners and general manger Jerry Dipoto need to restock a gutted farm system and don’t have much prospect depth to acquire midseason help.
It also seems unlikely that the Mariners would acquire a veteran with a bloated contract, considering they are committed long term to Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez.
It’s a constantly evolving scenario based on record, standings and the trade market, which will be further inflated in the weeks to come. Dipoto will look to his scouts, analytics staff and coordinators to process what has been learned and possible plans moving forward.
“We have a series of baseball-ops meetings coming up during this Houston series,” he said. “I do this wherever I’ve been every year. It’s our checks and balances system at the break, asking: Where are we? Where are we in relation to the original plan? What are our plans as we move ahead? It’s a critical time for us. I think the rest of the month of July it’s not as if the schedule is getting any easier. But that’s life in the American League.”
Much could be learned about the Mariners’ place in the baseball world over the next 14 games to close out July. They will face five teams with winning records — the Astros (48-41), White Sox (45-43), Blue Jays (51-40), Pirates (46-43) and Cubs (53-45).
The Astros, White Sox and Blue Jays sit ahead of Seattle in the AL wild-card standings. The Mariners are five games out of the second wild-card spot. It’s not an insurmountable deficit, but the logjam of eight teams vying for those two final spots makes it difficult and unpredictable.
Dipoto looks at three pitchers who soon will come off the disabled list as additions to his roster.
“Heading into the tail end of July, using a trade deadline as a marker, if you have the ability to add Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and Nick Vincent, those are pretty impactful additions,” he said.
Hernandez (strained calf) will throw a final rehab start Friday night in Tacoma and is expected to return to the rotation July 20 against the White Sox. Walker (foot tendinitis) and reliever Vincent (upper-back strain) are expected to return shortly thereafter.
“I know people see some sexy starting names on the trade wire, but none that are sexier than Felix and Taijuan,” Dipoto said.
His belief is that Hernandez and Walker could stabilize the rotation and return it to where it was when the Mariners were winning early in the season. That stability would allow an overworked bullpen that was improved by the additions of Edwin Diaz and Tom Wilhelmsen to pitch in their expected roles.
“I know that Felix and Taijuan will make us better,” Dipoto said. “We were able to find some other pieces that were really good fits. I think we are deeper and a little better in the bullpen. If you can make three or four additions without leaving your organization, that’s huge.”
The Mariners’ offense was a positive in the first half, averaging 4.89 runs per game and posting a .772 on-base plus slugging percentage — fourth-best in the AL. But it could be better. Norichika Aoki never became the leadoff hitter as hoped and was sent to Class AAA Tacoma when the Mariners needed an extra reliever. Aoki’s struggles forced them to use Ketel Marte and Leonys Martin as leadoff hitters, something they wanted to avoid.
“We knew when we acquired Leonys we knew that he wasn’t ideally suited for the leadoff spot,” Dipoto said. “Ketel, he’s still learning. If we were comfortable with him as our leadoff guy we would have started the season that way. We need to give the guys room to breathe and do what they need to do.”
Seattle leadoff hitters have a .241 batting average, which ranks last in the AL, and a .316 on-base percentage, which ranks 12th out of 15 teams.
Dipoto isn’t willing to give up on Aoki. He points to Aoki’s performance in May when he hit .284 with a .357 on-base percentage. The Mariners were 17-11 that month, averaging 5.6 runs per game with a .283 batting average and an .824 OPS.
“When he’s going good, it’s significantly better,” Dipoto said. “There are positives that he brings to the game. I feel like that allows us to get back to the long lineup of April and May where we were just grinding on starting pitchers. If we can get Nori back to where he was in that stretch in May, I think we have a chance to be a really dynamic team.”
But it’s only “a chance.” The team constructed out of spring training was good enough to post a 28-18 record to start the season. If returned to full health, Dipoto believes a similar run could happen again with a few minor tweaks or acquisitions.