By now, you know that Jack Zduriencik and Andrew Friedman have been on the phone a lot, specifically about David Price and Ben Zobrist. Today's developments, courtesy of Jon Morosi, have sparked a great deal of discussion.
The Marlon Byrd talks have stalled, presumably because of some reluctance to guarantee Byrd's vesting option for 2016, which is what Byrd wants in return for waiving his limited no-trade clause. If the Phillies are to kick in cash, they're going to want better talent, and that's when the Mariners have understandably decided to take a step back. Byrd is attractive because he fills a specific need and he's reasonable to acquire in terms of both cash and talent. Once one, or both, of those terms start to rise, he doesn't look so hot anymore.
So now they're back to Tampa Bay, if you believe the rumors. Even though the Mariners front office has typically been leak-proof, these rumors have some weight, simply because of the vast amount of people confirming that talks are going on, both nationally and local. The Mariners care so much about improving their team in 2014 that maybe they aren't being as careful as they usually are to keep quiet. This is one of two things, or perhaps both. Determination and desperation. Neither one is inherently bad, as long as the decision making is sound. The Mariners should be a little desperate to add talent to the roster. It's full of holes and red flags, and they have to be addressed as the team marches down the stretch.
The mention of both Price and Zobrist together makes one contemplate the idea of going big or going home. Sure, the Mariners could go shopping for minor pieces, adding Marlon Byrd and a back-end starting pitcher, taking their chances in the playoffs if they manage to hold on. They'd have to put everything on the line in a single-game playoff, then only get one start from whoever won the wild card game in the next five-game series. In an ideal scenario in which Felix starts a one-game playoff, they wouldn't get the 1-2 Felix/Iwakuma punch in the first round should they advance, and they would have to play an excellent team while at an immediate disadvantage. The chances that the Mariners get out of the first round while only making minor upgrades at the deadline aren't good. But it's still a shot, and if the Cardinals could win the World Series in 2006 after 83 wins, the Mariners can win the World Series in 2014. Anything is possible once you get in.
It's often stated that Felix Hernandez would pitch the one-game wild card game for the Mariners, and that's a false assumption. The Mariners might need Felix to even get them into that playoff, and there's a decent chance he won't be available, especially if the M's only make marginal upgrades and roll the dice. The tough schedule in September might be brutal for Seattle. Last year's American League wild card game featured Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar as the starters. The Orioles had to start Joe Saunders in their 2012 playoff, and he beat Yu Darvish. Things happen. There are a ton of teams still alive for the American League wild card spots, and even if the Mariners make small upgrades at the deadline, other teams will too. It's fine to wish Felix will start that critical game, but don't expect it.
That's when the idea of going big with a mega-trade starts to look more appealing. Getting David Price hardly guarantees that the Mariners win one of the wild card spots, but it certainly makes them a favorite. Getting Price and Zobrist, or to a lesser extent, Price and Byrd, starts to increase the chance that you don't need to use Felix to guarantee the last wild card spot in the final week. After rolling out Felix for the wild card game, the Mariners could then enter a five game series with Price, Iwakuma, and Felix on normal rest. That's when the Mariners can seriously take a crack at a World Series run. Bringing on Price and Zobrist instantly makes the Mariners four or five wins better for the rest of the year, and as many as ten in 2015. That's massive. That could win the AL West. And then, Price and Zobrist would presumably depart as their contracts expire.
Limping in is the conservative, potentially smarter thing to do for the long run. But it only gets you to the playoffs, maybe. 2015 would still be in question.
Finding a way to get both Price and Zobrist is going to be very expensive, and I have my doubts that the Mariners have the ammunition to get it done. At the very least, kiss Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, and several other good prospects goodbye. There's been rumblings for a long time that the Rays have coveted Brad Miller, and he could be the piece that bridges the gap between getting Price and Zobrist instead of just Price. Miller, or James Paxton, are really the only logical pieces that make a mega-deal work unless the Mariners fork over a generous package of prospects from a group that includes Chris Taylor, Austin Wilson, Edwin Diaz, and Victor Sanchez. Matthew Pouliot of Rotoworld/NBC seems to think a Miller inclusion would be a nice haul for Tampa Bay in exchange for both Price and Zobrist.
Trading Brad Miller would be almost as risky as dealing Taijuan Walker. We've discussed what Brad Miller's upside is before, and even though he's scuffled this year, it's still there. He's very capable of posting 1-2 WAR by himself for the rest of the year, even if he doesn't break out. Chris Taylor would probably get the call if Miller were dealt, and while the Mariners can slot Zobrist in at shortstop, they may need to use him in the outfield to maximize their total production.
It's a standard go big or go home proposition, but it's one that the Mariners haven't been presented with in a long time. They may not get another chance to do this, either. Hisashi Iwakuma's contract expires after 2015. Felix Hernandez is the best he's ever been. Robinson Cano is a star, but a slow decline is inevitable. The 2015 free agent hitting class, especially for outfielders, is very weak. If the Mariners fail with Price and/or Zobrist this year, they'll have one more massive crack at it all in 2015, while adding around $27 million in salary on just Price and Zobrist alone. Otherwise, they're hoping Brad Miller regains his form, Taijuan Walker develops as expected, and James Paxton stays healthy. Even then, a wild card birth seems far more likely than passing Oakland. With Price and Zobrist, the Mariners would not only project as a playoff team in 2015, they could win 95 games. They could win the AL West.
For a man in his 60s with shaky job security, you better believe this is a very tempting gamble for Jack Zduriencik. I'm warming up to the thought of going nuts for 2014 and 2015, at least with both David Price and Ben Zobrist. It's unknown when the next opportunity to push all of the chips in may arise. The one-game playoff is what will forever give me pause on pulling the trigger on a deal like this. But Price and Zobrist, along with a smart offseason, are enough to bypass the wild card entirely in 2015.