What will end first: The regular season or the Mariners’ solid bullpen performances?
In the wins at Oakand Tuesday and Wednesday, the bullpen produced 9.2 scoreless innings, which helped make for a 6-3 road trip and a 16-9 record since the All-Star break, best in the American League. The Mariners began Thursday three games above .500 (59-56) for the first time this season, and in possession of the second wild-card berth.
Held today, the one-game playoff would be in New York against the other wild card team, the 60-52 Yankees. Sadly for Mariners fans, the AL insists the regular season continue.
Which means that the baseball world would be denied the opportunity to watch the latest Mariners’ call-up, say, Thyago Vieria, the 24-year-old Brazilian, make his major league debut in sold-out Yankee Stadium on national TV. He would start because no one else in the organization was left.
For the Mariners to be where they are — in the playoff hunt but watching the ground coming up fast — is a remarkable, albeit temporary, contradiction in baseball physics.
So far, the Seattle pen is fourth in the AL in team ERA (3.86) and third in innings pitched (396.2). Lately, the relievers have been carrying the franchise, something no one anticipated in March, nor expects to continue into September. In the past 70 games since May 21, the bullpen has a 2.73 ERA, second lowest in the majors in that time.
The feat is likely a bubble, partly created by a productive offense and a saggy middle of the American League. What will burst the bubble is the continuing chaos in the starting rotation behind James Paxton. (Update: Paxton was removed from Thursday’s night’s start in the seventh inning after apparently straining a pectoral muscle on his 107th pitch of the game. An MRI was scheduled for Friday.)
Absent the injured Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly, general manager Jerry Dipoto has assembled a mammoth coterie of 4-A starters, all of whom would be sixth starters on any other team’s five-man rotation.
They are supplying a passel of starts lasting four to five innings, meaning the bullpen will shortly begin pre-blowing its gaskets.
Fortunately, help is available: Justin Verlander, whom many of you know as Mr. Kate Upton.
The 34-year-old right-hander of the Detroit Tigers, who are in tear-down mode following the conclusion of their title opportunity, is known to be available ahead of the Aug. 31 waiver deadline for trades. This is the same period a year ago when general manager Jerry Dipoto made a nice score in acquiring LF Ben Gamel in a trade with the Yankees.
The difficulty in Verlander’s acquisition is the balance due on his contract, about $63 million through 2019, and the fact that he is no longer the ace he was (8-7 with a 3.97 ERA over 24 starts in 145 innings this season). He also has a no-trade clause, meaning he could veto a trade to Seattle simply because his wife does not like smoke in her beautiful blues.
The Tigers also would want prospects in return. As you may have read, the Mariners don’t have many. The Tigers also want the acquiring team to pick up all, or nearly all, of Verlander’s contract. Fortunately, the Mariners have a lot of money, and could make up in cash what they lack in prospects.
Evidence for their shrewd wealth is how they can turn a simple retiring-jersey-number ceremony this weekend into a three-day extravaganza of replica jerseys, bobbleheads, flyovers, beach landings, mountain summits and moon launches. And get rewarded handsomely for doing it.
So the ability to throw money is there. The will shall be tested as the Aug. 31 waiver-deadline approaches. It is competitive.
The Houston Astros, who lead the AL by a furlong, have been inquiring about Verlander, who over his past six starts has a 2.31 ERA, including six shutout innings over the Astros July 31. Wednesday, he gave up one hit in eight scoreless innings in Detroit’s 10-0 win over the Pirates.
So he seems right now to be close to the substantive pitcher he was. Plus, Verlander has 16 games of postseason experience, or 16 more than perhaps the entire Mariners system.
Critics of such an acquisition will say that its cost is too much for a shot at one game on the road. That is a rational argument to make for most teams, but the Mariners have been irrationally lousy for 15 years. And the dearth of prospects suggests that waiting around for the next Ken Griffey Jr. to emerge from the farm is the acme of faulty thinking.
Dipoto has already moved, tepidly, in the direction of going for it by adding pitchers David Phelps, Marco Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez prior to the July 31 deadline, then acquiring platoon 1B Yonder Alonso Sunday in a trade with Oakland for a two-month rental player. The cumulative cost for these four players was not high, but it was future treasure foregone in an attempt to win in 2017.
So for Dipoto to lose his nerve now in pursuing Verlander would also be a waste of the resources already expended this season.
The Verlander possibility is the first real test for owner John Stanton, who formally took over from Howard Lincoln one year ago. Stanton is as deep a baseball guy as Lincoln was shallow, and he has plenty of risk tolerance. As a minority owner since 2001 and as a Seattle lifer, he feels the Mariners’ futility in ways unlike any previous guy who sat upon the throne.
The Mariners are obligated to over-do it in 2017 because for the previous 40 years, it has been under-done so woefully.
If it means anything for Kate Upton to waive the no-trade clause, since May 27, the Mariners have the AL’s second-best record behind Houston. And the Seattle smoke is temporary, as would be the franchise’s futility if Verlander joined Paxton at the top of the Mariners rotation.