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The Mariners should sell, but only methodically

With the big league club sputtering and no help in sight from either the farm or the trade market, the Mariners probably need to pronounce their 2015 season DOA. But while they can't afford to buy, and they shouldn't stand pat, a slash-and-burn isn't the answer either.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It's ten days before the MLB trade deadline, and the most-hyped Mariners team since 2002 has the worst record in the American League. Worse than the Astros, perennial cellar-dwellers and preseason afterthoughts. Worse than the White Sox, owners of the worst position player corps since 1980. Worse than the Athletics, the unluckiest team of the millennium.

Heads, I imagine, will roll for this. If ownership is really as invested in the day-to-day performance of the Mariners as Kevin Mather claims, I have little doubt that Howard Johnson's "reassignment" is only the first in a long line of firings to come. But before the requisite offseason stock-taking, this probably-lame-duck front office has some business to take care of. Namely: what should they do at the trade deadline?

The easy answer, from both the fan perspective and the job-saving perspective, is "buy". After all, the Mariners were supposed to be good this year, they're clearly built to win in the short term at the expense of the long term, and I imagine it's rather difficult to give up on a season when you know it'll cost you your job. Unfortunately, a last-place team buying talent is almost certainly a fool's game.

While eight games behind the wild card isn't insurmountable, eight teams behind probably is. Fangraphs' projections, which still think the Mariners are the best team in the AL, nevertheless put their playoff odds at just 13.3%. Baseball Prospectus' numbers, which have never been so optimistic, peg them for a 3.1% chance at October. It'd take a miracle - the kind of thing for which the Mariners have not been known of late.

Besides, does anyone really trust this front office to acquire present-value talent at the trade deadline? Let's take a look at how their last few mid-season trades have gone.

Mariners Mid-season Trade Acquisition Rest-of-season WAR as a Mariner
Kendrys Morales, 2014 -1.0
Chris Denorfia, 2014 -0.2
Austin Jackson, 2014 -0.4
Welington Castillo, 2015 -0.4
Mark Trumbo, 2015 -1.2
Vidal Nuno, 2015 0.1

A sterling track record, that. Just one year removed from a disastrous trade deadline that probably cost the Mariners a Wild Card slot, Jack Zduriencik and company have already done just as poorly in 2015, and it's not even August yet. You want guys with this kind of history to try their hand at buying talent in an extreme seller's market? No. No, you do not.

I can't stress this enough: the Mariners absolutely must not delude themselves about their chances at making the playoffs this year. Last time Jack Zduriencik thought he had a good team and actually didn't, he held on to Oliver Perez through a six-team trade deadline bidding war (only to watch him walk away in free agency) and rushed Mike Zunino to the major leagues (only to watch him strike out with a runner on third again, and again, and again, and...). Buying anything more than a stopgap catcher to eat plate appearances and bump Zunino to AAA would be a major mistake.

All that said, though, it's not like this team can slash-and-burn either. The Felix, Cano, and Cruz contracts mandate that the Mariners contend ASAP, because it's only going to get harder to do so as those three start to become dead weight down the line. Since the M's more or less have to keep their core in place for a playoff run next year, the front office can't trade any of Felix Hernandez (duh), Robinson Cano (duh), Kyle Seager (duh), Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Brad Miller, Taijuan Walker, or James Paxton.

Even with the shorter-term assets, there are some questions about the best way forward. In particular, I could really go either way on Austin Jackson. On the one hand, in a probably-lost season, why not see what you can get for a Boras client who won't be coming back? On the other hand, flipping him would mean running out a Dustin Ackley / Justin Ruggiano platoon in center field, which'd be Seattle's second most depressing Dustin / Justin combo of the decade and would essentially destroy any hope of a late-season miracle run. Is a low-level prospect a worthy return for those 8% playoff odds? I'm not sure.

Jackson aside, the calls are by and large pretty easy. In no particular order:

  • Trade J.A. Happ. The Mariners have exactly one real 2015-only trade chip, and they need to cash it in for future assets while they can. Even if the team begins to turn things around, the difference between Happ and Elias in the big league rotation is not the difference between making the playoffs and missing them.
  • Trade Mark Lowe. One-year relievers are the most fungible asset imaginable. Keeping Oliver Perez around in 2013 was sheer insanity, and repeating the mistake would be even stupider.
  • Trade Fernando Rodney, if anything can be had for him, which it probably can't.
  • Keep Hisashi Iwakuma. The chance to re-sign him for next year is probably more valuable than anything he'd bring back on the trade market. He's been extremely reticent to leave Seattle in the past; no need to burn that bridge just to get some AA lottery ticket.
  • Keep Dustin Ackley. Fuck it, no one else wants him anyways. May as well cross your fingers and hope he can Second Halfley his way into some trade value.
  • Keep Mark Trumbo. No one is going to claim Mark Trumbo on waivers, so there's certainly no point in trading him before the end of August. There's still a chance he rebuild some value before then. If not, then maybe the team has a platoon 1B for 2016. Or maybe they can just trade him over the winter.

Look, I know it's not a fun decision to make. I had high hopes for this season, too. The Mariners probably aren't as bad as their record, and they almost certainly aren't really the worst team in the American League.

But neither are they good enough to climb out of this big of a hole. The failures of the 2015 M's have been half bad planning, half bad luck - at this point, practically the calling card of the Jack Zduriencik era - and with the trade deadline ten days away, it's time to accept this team's fate. It's time - siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh - to sell.