With the July 31st trade deadline a month away, the Mariners are approaching the crossroad where they must decide if they are buyer or sellers. In all actuality, the Mariners passed through that crossroad this past week, losing 2 of 3 in San Diego and dropping 4 of the last 5 against the Oakland A's. They currently sit in last place, with an ominous 13.5 game deficit.
For a team that a majority of reporters, analysts and bloggers predicted would be a better club, somewhere in the ballpark of .500, what the hell has gone wrong? The pitching that everyone thought would be the Achilles heel of the team has actually carried the team through this point. The offense, which had 114 million reasons to promote optimism, has fallen flat on its face. Currently, the M's are the worst offensive unit in the American League, ranked last or in the bottom three in every major offensive category.
Some will claim that the team is underachieving; others will tell you that the team has invested in overachievers who have reverted to their mean averages. Which is more likely? It's probably a little bit of both. Adrian Beltre has been a serious disappointment up to this point, but has shown some signs that his bat may be coming around. Richie Sexson has fulfilled expectations, despite a batting average that has been hovering around .250. Ichiro is mired in a bit of a funk right now, but he tends to go through these month long funks about once or twice a year so I wouldn't start worrying just yet. Bret Boone has been a colossal disappointment, but can we honestly say that no one saw this coming? At 36, Boone has experienced declines in all facets of his game, except for his trademark bat flip (that no longer has the same meaning). Boone's attrition rate has been on par with other mid-thirties second basemen, as Robbie Alomar, Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan all saw declines in their skill sets (and subsequently their stats) starting in their mid-thirties.
As for the pitching, is there another pitcher in Major League Baseball who is pitching above his skill level than Aaron Sele? If anyone would have walked up to me on April 1st and offered me 20:1 odds that Aaron Sele would have an ERA under 4.50 after 15 starts, I would have bet every cent in my savings account. Jamie Moyer has pitched well but nothing spectacular, filling the role of the veteran member of the staff. Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro have looked like first or second year pitchers, throwing four to five quality innings coupled with an inning or two where they appear to lose all focus and forget how to pitch. Ryan Franklin has been, well, Ryan Franklin. He has pitched well enough to be a .500 (or better) pitcher on a winning team, instead, he has a legitimate chance at becoming first 20 game loser in Seattle Mariner history.
The bullpen has been solid and much better than I thought it would be, but has weak spots. Ron Villone, J.J. Putz, Eddie Guardado and Julio Mateo have been rock solid. Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Jeff Nelson have held their own, but are not pitchers you want to rely on in close game situations. Matt Thornton, well, lets just say a scarecrow would probably be more intimidating and possibly throw more strikes.
Another element that has been discussed a little bit on this site and others has been the flat play of the Seattle Mariners. It's the same thing that we have seen the past three years and it has spilled over onto the 2005 version. With the addition of Richie Sexson (who has a reputation as one of the better clubhouse guys in baseball and a world class practical joker) and Adrian Beltre (who essentially carried the Dodgers on his back last season, on and off the field) this off-season, I thought that their arrival would help to breathe a bit of life into the clubhouse and help to change the atmosphere on and off the field. Instead, they seem to have adopted the mellow nature that has been prevalent in Seattle the past few years. The same thing happened when Guardado (who was the clubhouse leader in Minnesota and a practical joker as well) joined the club. While it's hard to analyze what goes on behind closed doors, the fact that the M's have brought in three good clubhouse guys and they appear to have taken a backseat indicates, at least to me, that this is still Jamie Moyer and Bret Boone's team. While Moyer and Boone (to a much lesser extent) are adored in Seattle, it's time to allow the players who will lead the M's in the coming years to be able to take over their club and breathe a youthful exuberance into the M's. This team is not built around Jamie Moyer and Bret Boone. This team is built around Ichiro, Beltre and Sexson and it's time they give them a chance to take over this team.
So as the Mariners prepare to finish out June and head into the rumor filled month of July, the Mariners are expected to be one of the more active teams in the majors, assuming the role of seller (and rightfully so). There are a number of ways to look at this and the optimists will view it as a step in the right direction and the pessimists will question the motives and actions of the front office. Either way, this is a process that needs to be done and if executed properly, can be a serious help to the Mariners in the coming years.
Catcher: Pat Borders and Miguel Olivo are about as appealing to other teams as getting kicked in the groin by a donkey. I wouldn't be surprised to see the M's try to find a short term solution at catcher.
First Base: With Richie Sexson playing well, signed for the next four years and showing no ill signs from the shoulder injury that sidelined him for the majority of 2004, the M's are set at first for the next 3.5 years.
Second Base: It is highly likely that Bret Boone will be playing someplace else on August 1st. With rumors swirling that the Padres and M's were close to a deal over the weekend, the Boone rumors are just starting to heat up. The market for his services appears to be lukewarm at best, although a lot can happen in the next couple weeks as an injury or Boone hot streak could make him a semi-valuable commodity. One thing to keep in mind; the M's shouldn't deal Boone just to deal Boone. If they can't get a useful player in a trade, why make a trade?
Shortstop: Mike Morse is winning the hearts of the Seattle faithful, but I'm still a skeptic. Morse should have the SS job for the rest of the season which means Pokey Reese should be a candidate to be dealt if he can return from his shoulder injury before 2008.
Third Base: Adrian Beltre + $64 million = Third baseman for the next 4.5 years.
Left field: If there is one player I think will be playing elsewhere on August 1st, it's Randy Winn. That is nothing against Randy Winn, who is a hell of a ballplayer and one of the most consistent hitters and defensive players on the team. But, in the current Seattle outfield, Winn is redundant. With Ichiro and Jeremy Reed entrenched in the Seattle outfield for the foreseeable future, Winn should be shopped around to the highest bidder.
Rumors had Winn being offered to the Houston Astros last week for Brandon Backe (which was the same offer they sent the Astros during the winter). That trade makes little sense for both clubs, as the Astros have little need for another outfielder and are short on pitching. For the M's, Backe (a free talent last season after he was waived by the Devil Rays) isn't an improvement over any of the other pitchers on the ML roster. The Yankees, Cubs and Braves could all use an OF and with the latter two teams having some intriguing prospects.
Center and right field: Ichiro and Reed should be fixtures in the Mariner outfield for the next 4-5 years.
Designated hitter: Raul Ibanez, who has been one of the biggest contributors this season, could be impacted by the trade deadline. If Randy Winn is dealt, I expect Raul to move back to left field and for Chris Snelling to receive a call-up and get the majority of AB's at DH for the remainder of the year. This scenario could change if the M's are able to land themselves an impact player that can be inserted into LF, but don't hold your breath. Ibanez is a candidate to be dealt, although that would leave the M's without a LH bat with some power for the rest of the year and possibly next season as well.
Starting pitching: If the Mariners had five adequate starting pitchers waiting in the wings, they might trade their entire starting staff. Jamie Moyer, if he will waive his 10-5 rights, is a good candidate to be dealt to a contender. Aaron Sele, if he can sustain his early season success for another couple weeks, could easily find himself wearing another uniform (particularly a contending team with a small budget). Ryan Franklin's value is pretty low after two consecutive losing seasons, but he may have some value to a club out there who needs solid innings eater.
Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche are the enigmas on the team. Since his elbow injury last season, it appears that Joel Pineiro has forgotten how to pitch like he once did, regressing into a finesse pitcher with poor command who nibbles at the corners instead of going right after opposing hitters. For a pitcher possessing some serious talent, Gil Meche has been unable to take the next step. At times, Meche has been one of the better pitchers on the team and then at times, looks like he belongs in AAA. The team may not be ready to give up on the pair of talented arms just yet, but I'm sure they would listen to offers.
Bullpen: The M's have a slew of bullpen arms that could help teams making a push for the playoffs. Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Ron Villone, Julio Mateo and Jeff Nelson are all candidates to be dealt, with Hasegawa and Villone being the likely players to change jerseys.
One of the hottest topics in Seattle sports talk radio, newspapers and message boards/blogs has been whether or not to trade Eddie Guardado. Ask any group of Mariner fans that same question and I guarantee you get a heated debate. In my opinion, the M's should trade Eddie and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Eddie's value will probably never be any higher than it is right now. He currently is tied for sixth in saves with 19 with a 1.67 ERA. If the M's made it publicly known that they were going to trade Eddie, teams in contention in need of bullpen help or a closer would line up for his services, further increasing his value. Second, he is pitching with a torn rotator cuff. This injury has the potential to flare up at time and create a possible devastating scenario in the future. Third, with the way Guardado's contract is set-up, there is a strong possibility that he walks away at the end of the year. For a team that is rebuilding, are they going to want to exercise the team option and pay Eddie $8 million next season (team option for $7 million + $1 million bonus for being the closer) to close out games? If they decline to exercise the team option, does anyone here truly believe that Eddie will return for $4.5 million? The fourth and final reason I touched on a sentence or two ago. For a team that will still be in rebuilding mode next season, paying $8 million for a closer is a luxury that this team cannot currently afford. They need help in the rotation, power in the OF and possibly a short term solution at catcher and short. With JJ Putz, Rafael Soriano and George Sherrill all under club control for next season, wouldn't one of them be able to step into the closers role for at least a season? What it breaks down to (in my opinion) is what is more valuable for the Mariners? A shutdown left handed closer who is under contract for another year or a package of prospects that could potential help the Mariners over the next 5-6 years?
It's way too early to speculate what might happen, or whether the M's will actually trade their players. I don't think that Bill Bavasi can afford to not start breaking this team up and attempt to acquire some young talent for next season and beyond. However, he is a man who can probably see the writing on the wall if the M's struggles persist and may not be willing to give up on what appears to be his second consecutive losing season while at the helm. He should, and probably will, be given another year to get the good ship Mariner turned in the right direction, but let's hope that he doesn't make any rash or illogical decisions over the next couple weeks. This isn't about his job, it's about returning the Mariners to the top of the AL West.