Imagine if Major League Baseball were a schoolyard where the flummoxed principal rounds up the suspects to find out who threw the rocks that broke the windows. Faced with snickers and silence, the principal spots the newest, littlest kid with no friends, points and says, “You!”
That’s one way to explain how the Mariners begin the second half of the season without lefty relief pitcher Hector Santiago.
Baseball sources told ESPN Thursday that Santiago’s appeal of a 10-day suspension for having a sticky substance in his glove in a June 27 game in Chicago would be upheld, likely announced Friday. That means the Mariners will be without their most versatile reliever for the first of a three-game series in Anaheim against the Angels — a team that is about to load up with the imminent returns to health of stars Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Justin Upton.
As important, part of the punishment says the Mariners are unable to replace him, meaning they will play with 25 players instead of 26.
For a team already playing short-armed — the M’s have only four healthy starting pitchers — it’s another headache to work around in a season pickled with workarounds.
MLB’s decision to make a guy like Santiago, a 33-year-old journeyman on a low-profile team, the one and only pitcher busted for the belated mid-season enforcement of settled rules, speaks to Commissioner Rob Manfred’s cockeyed leadership. Once he misses Friday’s game, Santiago will have missed more games than all the Houston Astros players who were part of the sign-stealing scandal.
Manfred needed a victim to help prop up his claim to vigorous justice in pursuit of the Icky Sticky gang that was rendering offenses nearly inert. MLB again had been embarrassed by its inability to prevent rampant cheating that was known to all in the game. Spanking the Mariners and Santiago with no evidence of banned substances was a cheap cost to create a veneer of competent deterrence.
Santiago’s travail likely will be rendered a footnote, but in his 12 appearances since his May 27 promotion from AAA Tacoma, he proved effective, able to work multiple innings and step into a start on a bullpen day, as he did Sunday when the Mariners beat the Angels.
With starters Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn on the injured list, the Mariners are well familiar with bullpen days. The last-resort tactic stresses out what has been a strength in their surprising 48-43 start.
In the absence of another Logan Gilbert-type rookie in the farm system, it will be up to general manager Jerry Dipoto to remedy the problem, should he decide to invest in this season instead of 2022 and beyond.
The trade deadline is July 30. The Mariners could abandon their standard plan of selling off veterans for prospects (that’s part of how the Mariners can have seven former players in the All-Star Game Tuesday) and instead find a veteran pitcher living on the edge of a roster who could be a No. 5 starter for modest cost.
Dipoto hinted at the possibility.
“This team is playing incredibly well,” he told the Seattle Times. “And if we have the ability to help the team in the short term, we will.”
Talk is, of course, cheap. But the Mariners apparently are eager to see what they have on hand before the deadline. They will announce Friday a second big-league turn for OF Jarred Kelenic, who went from pending superhero to mortal in his first try.
Kelenic had eight hits and 24 strikeouts in 92 plate appearances, including a final 0-for-39 stretch that forced Dipoto to return him to Tacoma. Improvement has been apparent — in the final 12 of the 24 games since his demotion, Kelenic has a .408/.500/.816 slash line with four homers, 13 RBI, eight walks and seven strikeouts.
He will play mostly center field between Jake Fraley and Mitch Haniger, at least until CF Kyle Lewis comes back, perhaps in September, from a third surgery in his right knee.
Last weekend Dipoto invited up from Tacoma another premier prospect, Cal Raleigh, to give a try at being the full-time catcher.
If Kelenic and Raleigh are capable of rookie splashes, it could incentivize Dipoto to search out a mid-career veteran starting pitcher to give sincerity to his words. Even then, the climb is steep.
While the Mariners at 48-43 are just 3.5 games back of Oakland for the second of two wild-card playoff berths, they would have to finish the season 42-29 to reach 90 wins. To do so, they would have to get past the A’s, Yankees, Blue Jays and Indians, all of whom at the moment have better rosters. So shortly will the Angels.
So the next dozen games before the deadline loom a little larger, not just for the season, but for Dipoto’s tear-down/build-up plan. Going 8-4 might inspire a gamble for an expensive short-term vet to alter the timetable for contention. Going 4-8 wouldn’t be a waste, but it would be a buzz-kill for fans as well as players, who are all wired to the short term and don’t want Haniger or top reliever Kendall Graveman traded.
Only baseball executives are wired to the long term.
But even long-termers like Dipoto hate to waste time back-filling to play a man short for the 10 days lost to the arcane politics of the commissioner’s office.