As things now stand, the Mariners, at 51-44, hold a 21/2-game lead in the battle for the American League’s final wild-card spot, which positions them for their first postseason appearance in 13 years.
As things now stand …
The Mariners’ strengths are easily identified: A rotation headed by two aces in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and a bullpen that, with the addition of Fernando Rodney, now ranks, statistically, as the league’s best.
Look harder and you see a defense transformed from leaky disaster into a unit that now leads the league in turning balls in play into outs. They ranked 12th a year ago in that stat among the 15 AL clubs.
Their concerns — no secret, here — center on their lineup. While they possess one of the game’s top players in Robinson Cano and a rising star in Kyle Seager, their attack remains inconsistent and too-lefty heavy.
As general manager Jack Zduriencik readily acknowledges: “We need to get better.”
It’s widely known throughout baseball that Zduriencik is looking to acquire an impact right-handed bat to bolster his club’s postseason chances.
That’s been true for a while. What’s changed, officials from other clubs sense, is Zduriencik now seems armed with sufficient financial resources to execute such an upgrade if, as expected, it requires a boost in payroll.
Club president Kevin Mather recently confirmed comments first made to The Seattle Times that Zduriencik has such flexibility. Just how much flexibility remains to be seen.
But it seems unlikely ownership will squash short-term outlays as it did earlier this year when Zduriencik had the framework for deals in place to sign Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales.
“You know what was the hardest thing about losing those games (last week) to Minnesota?” one club official asked. “It was seeing Kendrys Morales driving in runs. Because he should have been here.”
Several potential trade targets churned through the rumor mill in recent weeks. A couple — Kansas City designated hitter Billy Butler, Philadelphia outfielder Marlon Byrd — are again bobbing to the surface.
There are others. Among them: Chicago White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo, Texas outfielder Alex Rios, Minnesota outfielder/DH Josh Willingham and Tampa Bay utilityman Ben Zobrist.
It could be someone else, of course. It is axiomatic throughout baseball that the trade that gets made is the one nobody ever hears about until the last minute.
But know this: Zduriencik is on record as saying he expects to make an acquisition prior to the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. That’s less than two weeks away.
What is he willing to give up?
Officials from rival clubs suggest the Mariners seem willing to discuss anyone in their farm system other than third baseman D.J. Peterson, whom they see as an impact right-handed bat who could be ready by late next year.
If so, that means right-hander Taijuan Walker is on the table. Walker was the organization’s top prospect entering the season but is only now regaining his form after battling a shoulder injury that surfaced in February.
“Any deal with Walker would be a blockbuster,” a rival general manager said. “But Oakland shook up the board in sending (shortstop) Addison Russell to the Cubs (in the trade that netted pitcher Jeff Samardzija).
“Prospects are the most over-valued commodity in the game right now. We all know that, but we’re still afraid to make the deal. (A’s general manager) Billy Beane wasn’t afraid. Maybe that changes things.”
Maybe it does.
“If you think about this organization,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said, “and the pieces that we have within this system, if we wanted to do some things, it’s pretty (darn) good.
“If we wanted to reach out to other clubs, it’s pretty darn good. I don’t think a lot of other clubs in baseball are like that.”
For all that, the Mariners appear far more likely to make a more-limited deal that seeks, specifically, to add a right-handed bat to the middle of their lineup.
Getting a star would be nice, of course, but McClendon sums up the organization’s prevailing view in noting: “We could use a bat. He doesn’t have to be a star; just a professional hitter.”
Regarding the rumored targets: Butler, Byrd, Rios and Zobrist meet the Mariners’ ideal profile in that they are controllable through next season.
One club official said: “We’d prefer not to get a rental player.” That’s a preference, not a requirement. The Mariners are more leery of a long-term commitment to someone who is less than a star player.
Willingham, 35, would be a rental for the balance of his $7 million salary; he will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season. That also should make him more affordable than the other possibilities.
If healthy, Willingham is close to an ideal fit to slot between Cano and Seager, although his current numbers are down because he missed more than six weeks with a wrist injury.
Viciedo, 25, is making $2.8 million and controllable for three more years through arbitration. He is therefore affordable with limited risk — clubs can decline arbitration — but those factors also seem likely to boost his price.
Further, Viciedo might be the toughest to pry loose because of his age and contract, particularly since the White Sox believe they’re poised for a bounce-back season in 2015.
Byrd’s contract includes the Mariners in a no-trade clause, but he’s already indicated he’s willing to waive it. That likely means sweetening his contract — he is making $8 million this year and in 2015.
Some view Byrd, 36, as the best possible fit. He offers real pop and remains a solid defensive outfielder who, if necessary, can play any of the three positions. Plus, the Phillies seem willing to deal.
Zobrist, 33, figures to be the priciest in terms of what the Mariners would need to surrender. He’s relatively affordable, at $7.5 million in 2015, can play multiple positions and is drawing heavy interest from other clubs.
While a switch-hitter, Zobrist’s current and career splits show he’s a far better hitter against left-handed pitchers — which is what the Mariners need. Where he plays is tougher question since his best position is second base.
Rios, 33, is the costliest in terms of salary: he is making $12.5 million this year and in line for $13.5 million in 2015. The Rangers could also choose to keep him in hopes of rebounding next season from the team’s disappointing year.
Butler, 28, might be the hardest name on the list to assess. He was an All-Star in 2012, should be entering the prime of his career but is battling through a second straight disappointing season.
The Royals appear open to dealing Butler because they are unlikely to pick up his 2015 option for $12.5 million — i.e., they trade him now or lose him after the season as a free agent for no compensation.
The Mariners have long liked Butler and are among a handful of clubs that could accommodate him as a DH. They also have some pieces Kansas City covets in infielder Nick Franklin and middle relievers.
That should be enough to keep the rumor mill grinding away.
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