I don’t envy Jerry Dipoto.
The Seattle Mariners’ general manager has a hard decision to make. Baseball’s all-star break is over, the July 31 trade deadline is looming, and Dipoto has to decide whether the Mariners will be buyers or sellers. Logical arguments can be made on both sides of the discussion, and whichever direction Dipoto chooses will have far-reaching consequences for the club. No doubt Dipoto’s mind is racing faster than Jarrod Dyson hustling down the first-base line to break up a Justin Verlander perfect game.
But here’s the kicker: Even after Dipoto decides which path to take, executing the plan may prove neigh impossible, rendering all of Dipoto’s mental gymnastics for naught.
Here’s the deal. Seattle was 43-47 at the All-Star break, a record that normally would put the Mariners firmly in the “sellers” camp. However, the wild card has changed the mathematics, and despite being four games under .500 Seattle was just four games out in the wild-card race. Sure, there were six teams ahead of the Mariners in the battle for the American League’s two wild-card berths. But all it takes is one week-long hot streak to get Seattle back into the mix.
This year’s Mariners team, despite its record, may be the best equipped Seattle has been in some time to end the franchise’s 15-year playoff drought. These Mariners can hit, as their 4.79 runs per game through their first 90 contests were the team’s most prolific output in a decade. And although the pitching staff has been an injury-riddled mess, one can still envision a scenario in which a healthy one-two punch of Felix Hernandez and James Paxton at the top of the rotation, supplemented by a trade acquisition, may be good enough to make a second-half playoff push.
On the other hand, the odds are against the Mariners reaching the postseason. The large number of teams between Seattle and a playoff spot make those four games in arrears more like double that total. While Hernandez and Paxton may be capable of leading a playoff push, they’re also equally likely to break down physically and leave the Mariners without any reliable staring pitching. Fangraphs.com put Seattle’s playoff odds at 10.7 percent at the All-Star break. A one-in-10 chance at the postseason is a sucker’s bet when one is considering mortgaging the future.
Buy or sell? I wouldn’t want to be the one having to make that choice.
However, even once Dipoto makes his decision, he may find his hands tied.
If the Mariners decide to be buyers, they run into the problem of having an empty wallet. The primary commodity in baseball trades is quality minor-league prospects. Seattle is short on those. Among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects the Mariners have just two: outfielders Kyle Lewis and Tyler O’Neill. Lewis has only just begun playing after missing the end of last season and the first half of this season because of a knee injury, while O’Neill is still trying to solve triple-A pitching.
And the market has been set that those are the type of prospects Seattle would have to part with. The Chicago Cubs acquired Jose Quintana — a good, but not great starting pitcher — from the crosstown White Sox earlier this week. To do so the Cubs had to part with four minor leaguers, including outfielder Eloy Jimenez (ranked No. 8 on MLB.com’s prospect list) and pitcher Dylan Cease (No. 63). Even if the Mariners wanted to deal for starting pitching help, they may not have the resources required to do so.
What if Seattle decides to sell? Then the Mariners run into a similar problem. The type of players sellers deal are veterans who are productive now, but are unlikely to be either around or productive in the years when a rebuilding club hopes to be contending. The players who fit that bill for Seattle are designated hitter Nelson Cruz and second baseman Robinson Cano, both of whom made the American League all-star team this year, and both of whom are in their mid-30s.
The issue here is whether either player has enough value to warrant a return worth Seattle’s while. Cruz may be a dependable power hitter, but at 37 years old and limited to being a designated hitter it’s unlikely a contending organization is going to part with transformative prospects for him. Cano is a little younger at 34, but he also come with more than six years remaining on the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed prior to the 2014 season. If anything, the Mariners would probably have to eat a big chunk of salary to unload Cano.
So regardless of whether Dipoto decides to be a buyer or a seller, he may be forced into standing pat. And that’s the path that would probably draw the most ire from the fan base. When a team has spent 15 straight Octobers watching from its living room couches, staying the course is the last thing anyone wants to see. And given Dipoto’s proclivity for wheeling and dealing, I suspect that’s the last thing he wants to do, too.
So buyer or seller? It’s a hard choice for Dipoto and the Mariners.
But what may be even harder is accepting that the Mariners may not be able to be either.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.