HOUSTON – For the Seattle Mariners, the second half of the season (or technically, the final 41 percent of the season) will be filled with significant story lines.
How will the three rookies thrust into their starting lineup – Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino – progress as opponents begin to get more of a book on them?
Will there be another wave of youngsters coming up from the minors, the likes of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton or Stefen Romero?
Is Justin Smoak’s resurgence for real, or another in a long line of false positives?
Can Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero do something – anything – to revive hope that they still have a chance to achieve the success once expected from them?
Will Franklin Gutierrez ever stay healthy long enough for the Mariners to extract some value from his undeniable skill set?
Can Felix Hernandez make a run at a second Cy Young Award?
But before all these matters play out, the team must resolve a more immediate quandary: To trade, or not to trade?
The Mariners, as they resume play today against the Astros in Houston, are in a weird position. On the surface, they line up solidly in the seller’s camp. At 43-52, they would have to go 38-29 (.567) the rest of the way just to reach .500.
And for all you dreamers out there, they would have to play .701 ball (47-20) to get to 90 wins, which would be the starting point to entertain the notion of contention. Last year, it took 93 wins to wrap up a wild-card berth in the American League, and right now 92 is shaping up as the minimum number.
So, in other words, that’s not happening short of a miracle, despite the offensive surge before the All-Star break. But if Jack Zduriencik’s words are to be taken at face value, he will be a reluctant seller, if one at all.
That could be posturing, of course. It wouldn’t help club morale much if guys know they are on the trade block. And it wouldn’t help maximize trade value for opposing teams to know the Mariners planned to clean house.
Yet it’s quite conceivable – indeed, even probable – that the Mariners really don’t want to delve into wholesale trading, with all the possible ramifications.
This decision has a subtext, of course: Is the intrinsic value of gunning for, say, a .500 record more important than the possibility of beefing up the talent level in the organization?
When you have jobs on the line – both Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge are certainly vulnerable if this season careens out of control – it makes it that much more complicated. That’s why the call on whether to trade Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, Oliver Perez and/or Joe Saunders will be fascinating. And not at all cut and dried, despite what advocates in either camp will tell you.
If a .500 mark is deemed some sort of magical symbol that will determine whether suitable progress in Zduriencik’s rebuilding plan has been made, then you keep them all and go for it. But if the conclusion is that .500 isn’t much different from .450 and the ultimate goal is to maximize the chances of competing down the road, then it’s plausible that any or all of those guys will be traded.
It’s a tricky one. A study of Zduriencik’s midseason trades, from Cliff Lee to Doug Fister, right through Steve Delabar last year, shows there is no guarantee that the Mariners will yield any kind of bonanza from dealing any of these guys. Doing so could end up being a lose-lose. The Mariners no longer have their veteran foundation, and wind up with nothing much in return to show for it.
But, then again, the Mariners haven’t exactly been worldbeaters in the first half, so keeping all these guys and still losing more than 90 games (they’re currently on pace for 89) would be a potential lose-lose. There are innumerable examples, however, of impact players acquired at the trade deadline, the most prominent recent case being Chris Davis of the Orioles, picked up in a July 2011 trade with Texas for setup man Koji Uehara.
It happens. The Rangers really, really needed relief help, and Uehara helped them get to the World Series.
I think it would behoove the Mariners to see what’s out there for all their older players in the final year of contracts, but most especially Ibanez, Morales and Perez.
Sure, I can understand the inclination to keep those guys, both as role models for younger players (and to lessen the burden on the kids who would be left behind, unprotected), and because things could get ugly without them. Ibanez is such a beloved player in the midst of such a magical run that it would be nice to see it play out in Seattle. Nobody wants to see him go, myself included. And with Morales, there’s the possibility of getting a high draft pick next year if he stays and is given a qualifying offer in the winter.
But if the Mariners can find a contending team desperate for power hitting, or with a dire need for bullpen help — and neither are unrealistic scenarios — then it might just be possible to leverage a high return for any of those players.
And if Saunders turns in a couple more strong starts coming out of the break (he’s 5-3 with a 2.37 earned-run average his past nine outings), that could be the case for him, too. Lots of teams are going to be looking for a rotation boost.
One thing we’ve learned over the years is that when a team is lusting for a postseason berth — particularly a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs for a while — they will do things they might regret later, all in the name of going for it. Just look at the 1997 Mariners, and the Heathcliff Slocumb debacle.
So while Zduriencik is saying now he doesn’t expect to be aggressive at the trade deadline, I’m hoping he doesn’t close that door in pursuit of a strong yet ultimately futile finish.
Once we see how the next two weeks play out, we can start worrying about the final two months.
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