These Seattle Mariners have not played a more important stretch of baseball than the upcoming seven game homestand they kick off this Thursday evening. A four-game set hosting the Oakland Athletics, followed by three more with the Houston Astros coming to town, will be the final seven games they play before the trade deadline on July 30th. That means seven games remaining to see if Seattle can push their precocious start into a threat of something more, by supplanting or at least nearly matching Oakland, who now sits 3.5 games ahead of them for the second Wild Card spot. It also offers the M’s a three game set against Houston, who they are all but certain not to catch, with 6.5 games separating them. Yet by stealing a series from the Astros, Seattle can put themselves ahead of the curve with every banked victory. After two straight obvious sell deadlines, Seattle has played themselves into a difficult decision, and one that will likely be elucidated by their situation one week from now.
At present, Seattle is 51-45, with 66 games remaining. Let’s look at what the major projection systems think their odds of a playoff run are.
Mariners Playoff Odds on 7-21-21
|Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA)
Hardly rosy! The absolute best is FiveThirtyEight, which is coincidentally one of just two (B-Ref) to project Seattle to even finish the season with a record above .500. These projection systems either hate the Mariners personally or have serious concerns about the stretch run capability of a club whose strength is its pitching and also only has four starting pitchers.
Hence, the next seven as a fulcrum, a lever, the tiny gear in the center of a watch from which the present is determined and the the future is foretold. If the Mariners take three of four from Oakland or better, and end the weekend at least 4-3, it’s nigh impossible to imagine they keep their toes out of the buyer’s end of the pool by deadline day. There are too many easy upgrades to give this club credibility in the short term, rewarding their current roster of mostly young players under club control for years to come for their effort with at least a degree of reinforcement. Small to medium moves like adding 2B Jonathan Schoop and a starting pitcher or two like RHPs Jon Gray or Michael Pineda wouldn’t cost the club crown jewels of the farm system but would provide stability for the team to keep competing if they continue performing. It’s likely not enough to push them over the top, but it could be, and the simple act of making it close already, on a penny-pinching budget, might easily be enough to earn the current front office group an extension, as they continue to operate on the hot seat.
Buying has a cost, of course, and it is not merely the loss of prospects those moves might require, but the unfulfilled possibility of packing it in once more, selling off the most desirable players on short term deals, and pushing contention out at least one more year. Keeping Mitch Haniger, Kendall Graveman, Kyle Seager, and the rest of the bullpen is a positive for the competitiveness of the 2021 Mariners, but Seattle may never find a hotter market for any of those players, nor a better chance to infuse further talent into their minor league system.
But a selling push can’t come, most likely, if the team continues to battle and find ways to win this weekend. It will await a Mariners team that fails to gain ground, gets cemented and pile-driven into the concrete for the audacity to think they compared. The Mariners have prioritized pitching and right-handed bats, ideally for not just the 2021 season, yet they may find themselves shipping out similar players by the end of the week if they fall flat in this seven-game home stand. If they do indeed target multi-year players, the options are wide-ranging but murkier in terms of requested return. What would Luis Castillo or Kyle Hendricks command as a trade headliner, and would Seattle pay it? If Arizona covered some costs or added in prospects, might they send a declining but decent Madison Bumgarner to the M’s for a mixture of inspirational and physical invigoration?
There is a significant possibility that this deadline is the last sizable direct impact Jerry Dipoto has on the Seattle Mariners. It could be his job, it could be a serious advancement or massive delay in the competitive cycle of this club, it could be a light buy and a light sell. But this weekend will define it, and are the most important games the Mariners have played since at least 2018. Something definitive this way comes. Let us be ready.