Smack-dab in the middle of the All-Star break, the Mariners will have to make a decision whether they are buyers or sellers with the trading deadline just a few weeks away. They find themselves 8.5 games behind the faltering Texas Rangers in the AL West, and three games behind the surging Astros in second place. That’s right, as poorly as the M’s performed in their recent road trip, they actually gained a game on the Rangers.
Probably more important, the Toronto Blue Jays, playing quite well, have a five game lead over the Mariners in the second Wild Card race, with four teams between the M’s and Jays. These include the Astros, the Royals, the Tigers and White Sox, with games left to play against all but Kansas City.
Should the M’s go for it and try to acquire the help needed to win a playoff spot? I think we need to answer these questions:
- Are they close enough to win with 73 games left to play?
- Can they upgrade enough to catch the leaders?
- What will it cost them?
Are they close enough to win with 73 games left to play?
The answer to the first question is yes. 73 is a lot of games left to play, and five games is nothing if a team catches fire. You all remember 1995-well don’t get too excited that was a playoff run for the ages. And Oakland had a helluva run in 2002, but that doesn’t happen often either. Today FanGraphs projects the Mariners probability of making the Wild Card at 9.6 %. That’s not a static number. The more the M’s win and teams in front of them lose, the better that number gets. But on July 12th, that number isn’t very promising.
Confusing everything is the two different seasons the Mariners have had. For the first eight weeks, the M’s exceeded everyone’s expectations. On May 25th the M’s were 28-18. They’ve gone 17-26 since then, and are teetering on the edge of irrelevance. The question is, which team will show up when the M’s resume play on Friday against the Astros?
Can they upgrade enough to catch the leaders?
Without noodling around the question, the M’s biggest weakness is pitching. Yes they could get consistent production from Adam Lind. They could get better defense and offense in left field. But the bottom line is they simply can’t score enough runs with this pitching staff as it is at this moment. The entire pitching staff is in disarray from the ace, Felix Hernandez, to the closer Steve Cishek. The Mariners have used 23 different pitchers this year, which sounds like a lot, but it merely ties them with Oakland, Minnesota and Chicago. Toronto and Cleveland used 24, and the leader in the American League is Texas with 26–things could be worse.
The team’s troubles really start here. In these past six weeks it has grievously under-performed. Some of its troubles are caused by injury. Other problems were caused by ineffectiveness. On Friday the Mariners will return to action. It is also the night of what should be Felix’s final rehab start in Tacoma. Assuming all goes well, the rotation will look something like this : Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, LeBlanc, Miley, Montgomer/Walker.
Of these, only Iwakuma has been solid, and even he has not been the Iwakuma we are used to. Will a healthy Felix provide a consistent, competitive 7 innings per start? Is Paxton about to become a dominant flame-throwing monster? Can Miley resume the form he showed April 6 to May 22nd in which he was a consistent 6 or more innings per start? Is LeBlanc the guy we saw his first two starts, or is he the guy Houston dismantled July 6th at Minutemaid Park? How long will Walker remain on the DL? His injury, while not seeming serious is painful and will require time to heal. Should Mike Montgomery move from the bullpen to the starting rotation, creating one hole to fill another?
If there is an abundance of starting pitching available to be had on the trade market, the M’s should be early buyers. My sense is there is not. Starting pitching league wide is thin. There are plenty of teams nursing similar injury problems. What is available isn’t that good and it is expensive to acquire both in trading and salary cost.
The Mariners bullpen had a brilliant April, but it’s been mostly downhill from there, as the relief corps was overused to cover for the faltering rotation. Injuries to Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit and Nick Vincent depleted a thin bullpen. Cishek has lost five games. The team has a 13-18 record in one run ball games. But the discrepancy since May 25th is much worse: the M’s have a 3-9 record with four walk-off losses.
In addition, bullpen innings are mounting at an alarming rate. With roughly 55% of the season complete, Cishek has thrown 40 innings. His career high is 69.2 innings in 2013. Mongomery has logged 56.2 innings in his role of reliever-without-portfolio in his first season out of the bullpen. Vidal Nuno has 35 innings in 31 appearances. His career high for appearances, often as a swing man, is 32 in 2015.
Though every bullpen member has had moments of shut-down lucidity AND instances of disaster, only Montgomery and Nuno have demonstrated consistent, cold-eyed close-the-door ability. I might throw Edwin Diaz in that mix with another 20 games under his belt. The current bullpen of Cishek, Benoit, Diaz, Montgomery, Nuno, David Rollins and Tom Wilhelmsen does not give the Mariners the quality or depth it needs to regain its stride in a pennant race. Though help may be coming if lefty Charlie Furbush and righty Ryan Cook recover from their injuries, I’ll believe that when I see it. But likely the M’s will have to acquire help for the bullpen if they are to compete for a playoff spot. In my view this is the best place for the team to spend money and limited tradeable resources.
Buyers or Sellers?
In order to answer the question, there has to be some certainty what this team is. Is it the April-May team or the June-July team? Because if they come out of the gate against division rival Houston and do a swan dive into an empty pool as they did on the road against the Astros a week ago, the game is probably up, and they should start thinking about the future. On the other hand, if they play well over the next two weeks, they should be all in. It won’t be easy. They have a home series against the Astros and White Sox, two teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings, and then a very challenging road trip featuring series with the Blue Jays, Pirates and Cubs. Just win baby. Go M’s.