At 51-44, the Mariners have compiled their best first half since 2003, two years following their last playoff appearance (2001) and two years before the dawn of the Felix Era. They roost eight games back of Oakland in the AL West after taking two of three over last weekend, and 2½ ahead of Kansas City and Toronto for the American League’s second wild-card berth.
Led by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners have sufficient pitching to make a playoff run if they get there. But they desperately need a right-handed bat to provide Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, their two best hitters, with the kind of support they have failed to receive from Justin Smoak (.202), Brad Miller (.204), Corey Hart (.214), Dustin Ackley (.225) and even Mike Zunino, whose 13 home runs are offset by a .206 batting average, including .211 with runners in scoring position.
“If we continue to pitch the way we’re pitching, and if we stay healthy from an offensive standpoint, we’ve got as good a shot as anybody,” manager Lloyd McClendon said in his final press briefing before the All-Star break. “Do we have challenges? Absolutely, we have challenges. We all know that. But I know this: When you can shut down other teams, it makes those challenges a little easier to climb. So far, our pitching’s been shutdown-type pitching, so we’ll see.”
Not to quibble too much with McClendon, but the Mariners are no guarantee to win even when they receive shutdown pitching. In six of his 20 starts, Felix Hernandez pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs, only to come away with both of his losses and four no-decisions due to a lack of run support.
The Mariners sport the fifth-best record in the American League even though they rank 14th in batting (.245), 15th in on-base percentage (.300), 12th in slugging (.377) and 15th in OPS (.677). Underscoring the most glaring need, the club’s right-handed hitters are batting .220, worst in the majors and second worst in MLB.
The Mariners last winter passed on Nelson Cruz, who signed with Baltimore and has 28 home runs. Kendrys Morales passed on the Mariners, inking with Minnesota. The likely-to-be available right-handed bats include Alex Rios, Marlon Byrd, Dayan Viciedo, Carlos Quentin and Josh Willingham.
Since none of the named is considered much of a difference-maker, the answer might be for the Mariners to seek another pitcher. Tampa Bay’s David Price, who couldn’t pitch in the All-Star game due to injury (opening the door for Fernando Rodney), is the candidate most often mentioned, and the Mariners can afford him in the relative short term (the rest of this year and next). Whether it’s Price or someone else, this much makes sense: If the Mariners can’t boost their run production, they should bolster their run prevention.
Any deal for Price or a pitcher of his pedigree would involve prospects. One major league exec suggested to CBSSports.com a package involving Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin and third base prospect D.J. Peterson, the 2013 first-round draftee.
The Mariners can go one of two ways: trade precious prospects for an opportunity to win now, or stand firm in the belief, expressed by RHP Chris Young Sunday, that, “Our best baseball is ahead of us. We’re pleased with where we are, but we’re not satisfied.”
Since it’s practically historic when the Mariners are in playoff contention with 71 games to play, since they’ve won 50 by the All-Star break for only the fifth time while demonstrating they can hang with the elite (the Mariners are 34-24 against teams with records above .500), it’s imperative that they seize the day and do a deal, or deals. Given their history, the Mariners might not have this chance again until 2024.
However, the Mariners have spent each day since throwing GM Bill Bavasi out the door carefully rebuilding their farm system. Should they plunder it for what might only be a one-game playoff, especially if they probably won’t be able to sign Price or his near-equivalence long term? The Mariners don’t have much of a recent history of turning multi-player trades to their own advantage, either, Smoak and Jesus Montero serving as Exhibits A and B.