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For the Mariners, play time is over

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As the calendar prepares to flip to September, we offer some ideas for how to best hold the team together until the rosters expand.

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The Mariners just completed perhaps their most disappointing 4-3 week of baseball in recent memory.  The Angels and Brewers represent easily two of baseball’s bottom five rosters, and the Mariners twice blew three run leads to lose very winnable games. Feeling agitated that a winning week was not a dominant one may be greedy, but it's also probably accurate.

Overall, the results of August are difficult to pick nits with. The team is a phenomenal 14-6 this month, 21-13 since the break, and only one game behind Baltimore for the second Wild Card, game 163 in Fenway, and a chance to end David Ortiz’s career in a not at all storybook fashion. The gaudy record, and thrilling comebacks obscure the reality, and that is this: Starting today, the Mariners must play far better baseball if they are going to make the playoffs.

There are numerous areas of this team that serve as red flags: Wade LeBlanc is currently the team’s number three starter, Stefen Romero is in a first base platoon, Shawn O’Malley, Patron Saint of Grit, is a late inning defensive substitute, Nori Aoki plays left field, and on and on. That 21-13 post All-Star Break record masks a run differential over that time of exactly zero (144 RS, 144 RA). Much of this hot streak is driven by a Texas-Ranger-pact-with-beelzebub 10-5 record in one run games, a dangerous prospect, and not only because you shouldn't make deals with the Dark Lord.

Roster expansions, that quirky late season Christmas for managers tired of their toys, is coming in ten days, and like most teams, the Mariners should bolster their depth with whatever minor league options are available. This team, however, cannot and should not hold pat until that time. Here are a few recommendations that I think help optimize the roster moving forward:

Recall Guillermo Heredia, demote Stefen Romero

As sad as the Dae-Ho Lee demotion was, it was hard to fault the team for it. The lovable Korean’s wRC+ of nine (!) since the All-Star Break was simply not tenable. A world where Adam Lind is an everyday first baseman, even at his peak (which, clearly, is not now) is not an appealing one for a baseball team. Outside his mediocre defense and 2016 offense, we have thousands of plate appearances that demonstrate a massive platoon split. Stefen Romero, though, is not an answer to any worthwhile question. I know a few people that thing there is a season or two of quality hitting at the major league level within Romero. I do not agree. His place on this roster is decorative, and the team is worse off with him on the field.

Speaking of being worse off in the field, Nori Aoki’s comical misplays in yesterday's defeat were simply the latest evidence that he possesses no major league skill outside of an ability to make contact. I understand the desire to have his bat in the lineup. Despite my noted anti-Aoki feelings, I’m not blind to the fact that he has a 126 wRC+ since the break. Expecting his release, or benching, is foolish.

However, in late innings with a lead, there is no need for him to be patrolling left field. In his limited time with the Mariners, Guillermo Heredia displayed enough range and instincts for me to feel very comfortable calling him the best non-Leonys Martin outfielder the team has. Coupled with Heredia's encouraging offensive profile, he’s simply a better baseball player than Stefen Romero, and a better fit for the Mariners’ needs.

Put Steve Cishek in the Fireman role

Cishek’s brutal stretch of blown saves prior to the loss of his job, and subsequent stint on the disabled list, have made him an unpopular player. No one likes failed closers. Despite the negative emotional resonance, Cishek’s 2016 numbers are still perfectly respectable. A pitcher running a 32.2 K%, and who’s only real flaw in 2016 has been a comical inability to avoid home runs to left-handed hitters has use, particularly in a bullpen as patched together as the Mariners.

At the risk of playing armchair psychologist, Cishek’s personality may be better fit for the non-closer role. This is a man who relishes being a good teammate, who dumped gatorade on Edwin Diaz a day after Diaz took over Cishek’s job. The idea of being a highly effective, middle segment in a bridge to victory is one that could very will fit Cishek’s mentality, not to mention his excellent stuff. In the smallest of sample sizes since his return, he has been highly effective, and there aren’t a lot of other options. When a high leverage situation pops up in innings 6-8, make it Steve Cishek’s job to put out the fire.

Rotate Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz through the DH position

Robinson Cano is a tough ass son of a bitch. We found out after last year that he played (and raked) the second half of 2015 with a double sports hernia. He has played in 155+ games the last nine years in a row. But for weeks, his lower half hasn’t looked right, and semi-regularly we seem to all hold our breath while Robbie either slowly picks himself up (as he did on Friday night after a tag at second) or as he hobbles around third to score. He’s not 100%, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t particularly close.

The Mariners roster is built very much in the classic "Stars and Scrubs" model. That can work, it has worked, but it doesn’t work if your stars are out or limited with injury. Giving Cano 2-3 days per week at DH, and the rest to Nelson Cruz, spreads the rest to the team’s two best offensive players, both of whom are in their mid 30’s. Having Cruz in right field twice a week is suboptimal, but at this point of the season many things are. The Mariners are in a playoff push, and they need their best players to be able to play every day.

This move probably won’t happen. You don’t play as regularly as Robinson Cano plays without a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of pride and stubbornness. I’m sure he would resist the idea. But it’s what’s best for him, and subsequently for the team.

****

Despite two frustrating losses in the past week, the Mariners have largely done exactly what they needed to do with a weak schedule. They are among the hottest teams in baseball over the second half, and have surged to within a game of a playoff spot. But the schedule is about to flip, and the rosters will not expand and allow for reinforcements for another week and a half. The large number of recent wins shouldn't and cannot blind Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais to the weaknesses still on this roster, or the in house improvements already possible.

All they can do is give the players the best chance to win. If saves are to be blown, and fly balls dropped, just make sure the odds of those things happening are as small as possible.

gobiz