BY Art Thiel 06:35PM 07/13/2014

Thiel: Mariners are tweeners, but have to go for it

Mariners close first half with a 4-1 loss to A’s Sunday, but take the series and further the idea that with another veteran hitter, they are playoff quality.

James Jones is the one surprise contributor to the Mariners’ offense. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Dull thud Sunday aside, the Mariners have worked themselves up a half-season of credibility. They are 7-6 against the Oakland A’s, 26-21 against the American League West and 25-14 against teams that were .500 or better when they played. At 51-44, the Mariners have the AL’s fifth-best record and have four players in the All-Star Game in Minneapolis Tuesday.

So why is there apprehension amid elation?

The simple answer: It’s the Mariners. Twelve years absent from the playoffs for no particular reason, ownership and management have allowed cynicism to rot the fan base. The default position, despite some evidence to the contrary, is, at minimum, skepticism.

But a more nuanced answer was visible in the weekend series with the Oakland A’s. In losing 4-1 Sunday and missing the chance for an eyebrow-raising sweep of the team with MLB’s best record (59-36), the roster remains imbalanced, as it has for years. The gigantic investment in Robinson Cano has been a half-season success, but the failure to support the investment invites the apprehension.

Now, losing to the A’s, who have seven All-Stars, and starting pitcher Sonny Gray, who could have been No. 8, is hardly a cause for dismay. Gray was 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA in four career starts against Seattle, and Sunday improved those numbers with no earned runs and a mere six hits surrendered. He’s allowed nine earned runs in his past 33 innings.

Seattle’s starter, Chris Young, was again credible, with three runs in six innings, but he was a victim of the Mariners’ minimal margin for error, which in this game was represented by an 0-for-12 cumulative number for the final four spots in the order — Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino.

It is that quartet’s lack of production that is the Mariners’ continuing vulnerability. At least Zunino has delivered some power (13 homers, 34RBIs). The other three aren’t helping much.

The Mariners this season have found one unforecasted solution among position players — rookie CF James Jones. Sunday, he ran himself into the Mariners’ only run when he singled in the first, then induced an error from Gray, whose errant pickoff attempt gave Jones two more bases, from where scored on an infield dribbler by Cano.

He’s hitting .287, playing an above-average center field and seems to have exhausted the Mariners’ supply of 2014 serendipity. No other position player in the system will be more than a patch.

So that leaves the non-waiver trade mart. As has been offered here and elsewhere for weeks, the Mariners need to trade prospects for a veteran hitter to solve for one among Ackley, Smoak and Miller.

But at what cost? The Mariners have some young pitching to trade. So do a lot of teams. The system is not that deep; the position guys who can play now are nearly all in Seattle. High-end prodigies D.J. Peterson and Alex Jackson should not be sacrificed for anyone.

Given the modest pickings in the trade mart and the Mariners’ modest offerings, the question becomes: Is this the summer to go for what will be, at best, an entry into a one-game, wild-card playoff?

The call is close, but for me remains unchanged: Take the risk. The Mariners have established that, in a parity-festooned league, they can hang with any opponent, and feel good about winning at least two in a playoff series with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.

It’s true that this weekend the A’s were missing injured stalwarts Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp and Alberto Callaspo, and have three good pitchers on the disabled list: A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker and Drew Pomeranz. GM Billy Beane knows he has command by his bold trades for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

But the Mariners don’t have to play the A’s in seven games now; they have to get there. The Mariners improve those chances significantly with Marlon Byrd, Alex Rios or another serious corner outfielder. Here’s a look at the marketplace.

As to the consequences for the future in trading prospects, it is balanced somewhat by improved prospects in off-season free agency with actual proof that neither ownership nor Cano were nuts in believing a contender in Seattle was imminent.

It can be argued that the Mariners in one season can’t reasonably be expected to make up all the ground from 71-91 to the playoffs. But the Mariners (51-44) have won 50 or more games by the All-Star break only five times. In a race where no one is dominant and the Texas Rangers are a one-season injury debacle, they have little choice but to seize the day because they have assembled the pitching and defense of a playoff team.

Young, the Mariners starter, echoed manager Lloyd McClendon Sunday when he said, “Our best days are ahead of us.” Maybe. What else would they say?

Still, all it would take would be the guts to act on management’s belief in acquiring Cano: That he was the one to put them over the top. He’s done his part. The bosses have done theirs . . . almost.



  • Trygvesture

    What’s your bet, Art? Will the Grand Lincolnland Poohbah be willing, and will Mr. Badtradez be capable? Can’t have one without the other, so it’s a double-unusual prospect. Will they/Can they?

    • art thiel

      I think they will make a move for a corner outfielder, Marlon Byrd at or near the top of the list, for young pitching.

      • Trygvesture

        Looks like Byrd just maneuvered his way into being out of reach– demanded they pick up his extension. Another anywhere-but-there unless-it’s-so-overpaid-I-can’t-resist response.

  • Kirkland

    Wonder if the M’s should take a look at the 1980s St. Louis Cardinals and tailor the roster to fit their park, i.e. pitching and line-drive hitters.

    Since Busch Stadium #1 was an airport, the Cards eschewed power in favor of singles-hitting jackrabbits, and that got them a World Series win and three NL pennants in that decade. In that light, with Safeco not friendly to homers (particularly righties) but welcoming to batters that can find gaps in the spacious outfield, getting guys in the Cano and Seager mold who get RBIs without relying on the long ball sounds logical. And with strong defense and pitchers (including Young, who can concede fly balls without worrying about homers), the Mariners won’t need to pile up that many runs to win.

    • RadioGuy

      I’ve been saying what you’re saying for years. Whitey Herzog put together good, exciting teams built around pitching, defense and speed in Kansas City AND St. Louis because he knew that he had to adapt to the ballparks the Royals and Cards called home. Going back further, Seattle’s most successful PCL teams in the late 30’s and early 40’s won three straight pennants with similar teams…and the stands were full.

      The Mariners have the pitching and some speed and defense, but not enough of an OBP to put runners on base to move around. A power hitter WOULD be nice, but not at the expense of prime prospects…not this year. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see the M’s winning, but it HAS been a surprise and this is not a team that’s likely to go deep in the playoffs. You deal prospects for a vet if he’s that one guy who’ll put you in the World Series, and the M’s are more than one guy away.

      • art thiel

        The Mariners know all of this. The question is whether they think they can sustain what they’ve done to date with one more corner outfielder who can hit and take a walk. Remember, the league is down this year.

    • art thiel

      I’m sure the Mariners see what you’re seeing. They’re not seeking sluggers. Just a guy to put a ball in play more than Ackley/Smoak/Miller.

  • notaboomer

    jesus monteeero yo!

    • Edgar Martinez

      Hart’s contract made it so he wasn’t given a fair shot when he was up last.

      • art thiel

        He was hitting .208 when he was hurt.

        • Edgar Martinez

          Yeah, I wish all decisions were performance-based.

  • jafabian

    I’ve enjoyed watching Jones play. M’s fans have been spoiled for years with some great OF’s and after Ichiro was traded that stable went dry. I’ve been wondering if he got bumped down to the #2 slot in the batting order so he can watch how a veteran like Chavez handles leadoff and will hit at #1 next season. He was IMO hitting well at #1 but Chavez later took over.

    I would hate to let go of Peterson and Jackson. But winning teams rarely trot out a batting order filled with homegrown players. I really don’t see the M’s being a player come the trading deadline because usually that’s reserved for teams looking for help for a playoff run. That should mean Chavez, Young, Bloomquist, Farquhar, Wilhemlmsen, Morrison and maybe Rodney could be in demand and available. Are they the kind of players who could bring in what the M’s need to get better next season?

    • art thiel

      No. The Mariners’ ordinary guys have no trade value. Maybe a throw-in with Walker or Guerrero (nephew of Vlad). Gotta give big to get.

      • jafabian

        I agree. I think the players I mentioned are ones that teams might inquire about but that’s a stretch. I don’t see these guys bringing in much unless there’s players out there that Jack knows about and teams are undervaluing them. And that itself is a stretch. IMO, they’ll stand pat.

  • Da Kid

    So you’re saying Jesus Sucre wasn’t the answer?

    Lincoln and Z are desperate for a winner, but they’re already getting one. You know these guys’ M.O. like the back of your hand: “Be Competitive.” That’s all they really want, so they can keep putting butts in the seats to sell $11 beer. And jeepers, this years it’s working! But the reason the M’s are up this year is because — as you correctly observe, O Great Frranchise One — the league is down.

    Expect some kind of token acquisition at the expense of kids you’d prefer to keep. No reduction in either ticket or beer prices.