Now that May has passed the torch to June, attention on the Mariners will alternate between their efforts on the field and their stand-by status approaching the nonwaiver trade deadline. Although that won’t expire until July 31, fans already are taking sides in the sellers vs. buyers debate.
Those convinced the Mariners ought to sell see the bunched-up, anything-goes AL West standings as a mirage, very temporary and best ignored. According to this school of thought, there’s no way the team’s remarkable starting pitching can be sustained for a playoff run. A handful of more viable contenders will be desperate to plug holes. Take advantage of them.
And the buyers? They woke up Tuesday and noticed Seattle a mere 1.5 games behind first-place Texas. Add a veteran bat to the Mariners lineup, in exchange for a few prospects unlikely to contribute before 2013, and that 1.5-game gap becomes negligible. Besides, 37-year old Ichiro Suzuki, the once-flawless right fielder and nonpareil leadoff man, is aging before our eyes. How many more chances will he get to participate in a pennant race?
As somebody whose job perks include the freedom to express an opinion, I should savor the quandary of the sellers vs. buyers debate. Two months of waist-high fastballs to hit. Hoo boy!
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But I’m going to sit this one out, with the hope general manager Jack Zduriencik does the same thing. The 2011 season has been too volatile to expect judgments rendered in June to hold up beyond July 31.
Take the case of the Arizona Diamondbacks. On May 16, they were 17-22, five games behind the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. A formula devised by the respected Baseball Prospectus put Arizona’s chance of winning the NL West at 0.8 percent. The Diamondbacks were on the cusp of a fire sale likely to begin with the unloading of closer J.J. Putz.
Then Arizona got hot – winner of 13 of 14 through Monday – while the Giants took a combination punch to their body and psyche with the season-ending injury to catcher Buster Posey. Two weeks after the Diamondbacks appeared to be prototypical sellers, they are buyers.
Seattle’s ride in the AL West has been no less turbulent. On April 6, when the Mariners already had fallen four games behind Texas, Bleacherreport.com’s Austin Schendel wrote: “If the Seattle Mariners were a stock, I could imagine brokers on the floor screaming “SELL! SELL! SELL!”
As recently as May 15, when they were 16-23 and five games back, the Mariners appeared to be chasing first place on a treadmill. The prevailing wisdom was to sell now, sell later, sell every veteran who won’t be part of Zduriencik’s long-term rebuilding project.
That philosophy has taken a sharp turn over the past two weeks, but here’s the thing: It could take another turn during the next weeks, and still another during the two weeks after that. I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it.
One compromise stance, I suppose, might call for Zduriencik to participate in the trading-season frenzy on a low-key, low-risk basis: Acquire a veteran hitter in one of those player-to-be-named-later deals. In other words, buy now and pay down the road with an obscure minor leaguer.
But that can backfire, as it did in 1996. A few days before the absolute trade deadline of Aug. 31, the Mariners – needing a third baseman to fill in for the injured Russ Davis – got Dave Hollins from the Minnesota Twins for a player to be named later.
The player was first baseman/designated hitter David Arias, later named David Ortiz. While Hollins more than met expectations – he hit .351, with three homers and 25 RBI in 28 games, then signed as a free agent with the Angels – he’s remembered by Mariners fans only as the guy who cost the franchise David Ortiz.
Another seemingly harmless trade, made in 2006, found general manager Bill Bavasi eager for a clubhouse-leader type capable of serving as a DH against left-handers. The Mariners, on an 18-8 June rebound that had improved their record to 41-40 – two games behind first-place Oakland – welcomed Eduardo Perez from Cleveland, in exchange for minor league infielder Asdrubal Cabrera.
Perez was bright and charming – so bright and charming, in fact, that he took his talents to television after hitting .195 during his one and final season with the Mariners. Cabrera? A switch-hitter who excels in the field, he’s become an All-Star-caliber shortstop.
So please, no below-the-radar trades. And no blockbuster trades built around Erik Bedard, a potential free agent and the most likely name to be run through the Mariners side of the rumor mill. Bedard has survived two shoulder operations and remains an injury risk after sitting out all of last season, but, hey, this just in: He’s a pitcher. Of course he’s an injury risk.
In the unpleasant but hardly unimaginable event the Mariners rotation is rocked by a sore arm, Bedard provides insurance. Don’t forget that rookie phenom Michael Pineda figures to be subject to a vigilant observation of his innings-pitched log. If the Mariners contend in September – if they shock the world and advance to the playoffs – it’s doubtful Pineda will be counted on for consistent work.
Starting pitching is the reason the Mariners have climbed back into the AL West race. Trading any of it would sap that strength.
I know, it’ll be difficult for fans to watch Zduriencik operate in idle during baseball’s midsummer swap meet. As a conversation topic, trades are a fun way to alleviate the grind of a long season.
But trades must be conducted with extreme caution. In the case of the 2011 Mariners, such caution should call for two rules.
Don’t buy, don’t sell.