The Seattle Mariners’ first half can only qualify as an unmitigated success.
If anyone had suggested at the start of the season the M’s would be 20 games over 500, securely holding the second wild-card spot in the A.L. and a mere five games behind the division-leading Houston Astros, every fan – including general manager Jerry Dipito – would have jumped at that.
The Mariners have been good – and lucky. That’s a combination that may gloss over some of the glaring weaknesses that have cropped up over the past couple of weeks and casts some doubt into the Mariners’ second-half plans – including the nonwaiver trade deadline looming at the end of the month.
With Felix Hernandez already on the shelf with back issues, staff ace James Paxton going down Thursday night with a similar ailment had to throw up a red flag in the M’s baseball operations department.
Back issues are tricky, especially with pitchers. The club has been careful to say they don’t think it’s a major issue. The plan – for now – is to let Big Maple rest, taking full advantage of the All-Star break and have him return for the fourth or fifth game of the second half tanned, rested and ready.
But back injuries are notorious for lingering. Two weeks can turn into two months without even thinking about it.
With both Paxton’s and Hernandez’s status in doubt at the moment, Dipoto should not drag his feet in acquiring proven help for the rotation.
Of course, some of us have been calling for that for a while now.
The M’s GM has been proactive thus far in supplying reinforcements. The late-May trade with the Tampa Bay Rays that brought reliever Alex Colome and veteran outfielder Denard Span was a coup de force to address a couple of glaring holes in the roster.
Acquiring an impact starter is a little tougher than nabbing a relief pitcher and a fourth outfielder though.
A quick look at the A.L. standings shows more pretenders than contenders. Realistically, only the surging Oakland A’s – just four games behind the M’s – present a threat to the Mariners ending the longest playoff drought in the four major sports.
In fact, the aforementioned Rays, who have already thrown in the towel, hold the second spot outside the final wild-card position. There are five A.L. teams 18 games back or more, all looking to jettison veterans and fill their coffers with minor league prospects.
That’s where it will get tricky for Dipoto. To land a Chris Archer – or Michael Fulmer, or Cole Hamels, or J.A. Happ, or Matt Harvey – Dipoto will have to put together a package attractive enough to get one of the bottom feeders to nibble.
The Mariners have some minor league talent, sure. But the system is widely regarded as one of the thinnest in baseball, with the most attractive prospects still playing in the lowest of the minor leagues.
Complicating the matter is the M’s top prospect, outfielder Kyle Lewis, is already 23 (imagine 23 years old being considered old for anything) and can’t stay healthy.
Lewis, at High-A Modesto, is ranked the No. 58 overall prospect in baseball by MLB.com. He’s managed to play in 47 games this season while battling an assortment of maladies, including lingering problems with his surgically repaired right knee. He has hit a meager .266/.310/.441 with five homers.
When healthy and swinging right, Lewis could provide contact and power with league-average corner outfield defense. He just hasn’t yet. Will a rebuilding team be willing to take a chance on Lewis’ balky knee?
Further to the problem, M’s No. 3 prospect, righty Sam Carlson, had Tommy John surgery earlier this summer, reducing the available trade chips even more.
The Mariners’ overachieving first half has put them in an enviable position coming out of the All-Star break. But with all the feel-good of the first half, they haven’t accomplished anything yet.
If they stumble with Paxton and Hernandez on the D.L. and the Athletics remain hot, they could find themselves in a pressure-packed race for the second wild card down the stretch instead of contending for a division title.
Add in the complication and potential disruption when Robinson Cano comes back from his PED-related suspension, and who knows what the collective psyche of the clubhouse will look like?
Dipoto already has his hands full. The last thing he needed to happen was Paxton go on the shelf and cast any more doubt.
The potential Executive of the Year has to cement that award now and figure out a way to trade for an impact starting pitcher before the Mariners lose more ground to the Astros, or heaven forbid, the A’s catch up.
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