After months of offseason preparation and months of jockeying for position in the standings, GMs whose teams are on the fringes of the pennant race have to take a long look in the mirror and answer one question: Are we in or out?
Most of the time, the answer is obvious, even if it becomes self-evident only days before the trade deadline. But occasionally the mirror spits back an ambiguous response, and this year, that’s the case for first-year GM Jerry Dipoto and the Seattle Mariners.
Seattle sits in third place in the AL West, 6.5 games astern of the first-place Rangers, four games back of second-place Houston. At 50–48, it’s not like the Mariners are taking water over the side, but they’ve just sort of floated around .500 since a six-game losing streak in June took the wind out of their sails. After Sunday’s action, FanGraphs’ playoff projections gave Seattle just a 12.1 percent chance of reaching the divisional round of the playoffs. It’s tough enough for Dipoto to pull the rip cord on the season while the team is over .500 in July, but Dipoto is in a weird position: The standings say “sell,” but the roster says “stand pat” or even “buy.”
Seattle doesn’t lack for star power — Kyle Seager and Robinson Canó could break into almost any lineup in the league, while Nelson Cruz’s late-career renaissance continues with a .286/.371/.543 slash line in a park that doesn’t exactly prop up hitters. Hisashi Iwakuma, with a 102 ERA+ in 127.1 innings at age 35, would be an asset to any rotation, to say nothing of Taijuan Walker, the 23-year-old right-hander and former top prospect with a 111 ERA+, and Félix Hernández, whom you probably know already.
Except the Mariners aren’t exactly an up-and-coming team looking to clear salary and playing time for youngsters, like last year’s Phillies. Nor are they at the end of a cycle of contention and looking to kick-start a rebuild by cashing in veterans for prospects, like this year’s Yankees. Their three best position players, Canó, Seager, and Cruz, are 33, 28, and 36. Cruz is locked up through 2018, Seager through 2021 (with a team option for 2022), and Canó through 2023.
Meanwhile, Hernández is under contract through 2019, and any GM who’d trade King Félix is a GM who wants to be responsible for the earthquake that knocks Seattle into Puget Sound.
Maybe Iwakuma would be attractive to a contender, but he’s got $10 million team options (which could increase if he hits certain innings plateaus) for both next year and 2018, which would make him a bargain if he’s even a mediocre starter. Plus, any trade would be contingent on Iwakuma waiving his full no-trade clause.
So who does Dipoto have to trade? That first-base platoon of Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee could be useful to a contender, particularly Lee, who’s on a $1 million deal. So could outfielder Seth Smith, who’s OPS-ing .847 against right-handed pitching, and who has a $7 million team option if he performs well and a $250,000 buyout if he doesn’t. Thirty-year-old closer Steve Cishek, a reliably above-average reliever since 2011 who’s due $6 million in 2017, could also be attractive to a playoff contender. If Dipoto were to sell, all of those players would likely be on the move.
Here’s the problem: While all of those players have some value, none of them has very much value. For a reliever or a platoon corner guy, you’d expect some A-ball lottery ticket prospect or a buy-low big leaguer in a my-garbage-for-your-trash trade. And although the Mariners aren’t exactly an up-and-coming team, that doesn’t mean they don’t have reason to be optimistic for 2017. Seattle’s got the run differential of a 54–44 team, which isn’t too comforting right now, but it means the Mariners have played well enough that they should be two games out of first, not 6.5. And that’s with both Walker and Hernández, their two best starting pitchers, spending time on the DL. It doesn’t take a whole lot of optimism to see the Mariners as contenders in 2017 if they bring back the same team, more or less — and they can if they want to.
Then there’s that daunting 12.1 percent chance of making the divisional round. Even this late in the season, playoff odds are (1) volatile and (2) just estimates anyway.
I’m not suggesting that Dipoto dump out the farm system for Rich Hill — and there’s probably not enough in there to match top offers for Jonathan Lucroy or Chris Sale anyway — but the Mariners are constructed in such a way that there’s very little to gain by selling, and very little to lose by either standing pat or making a 2012 Neal Huntington–style head fake toward buying. They could toss some minor prospect or organizational filler to a team in hard-sell mode to pick up a bench bat, giving off the impression that they are going for it without sacrificing any meaningful future talent.
Better to stay the course than spend the rest of the season adrift and rudderless.