By Marc Normandin
The Mariners lineup is flawed. The rotation is relying on 35-year-old, oft-injured Chris Young to continue to stay healthy and out pitch his peripherals in order to keep the rotation strong from top to bottom. Their offseason additions on the offensive side have not worked out, and some of their younger players are scuffling yet again.
Here's the thing, though: The Mariners are in possession of the second wild card spot in the American League, and have been playing far better baseball since May than even that current standing and 49-42 record indicate. Their run differential since April ended is +62, while they've gone 38-28 in that stretch. Hisashi Iwakuma is once again pitching well, and Felix Hernandez is as great as he's ever been. The bullpen is lights out, and the pitching staff as a whole has a 119 ERA+, good for second in the AL behind only the AL West-leading Athletics.
Even with the reliance on Young and a lineup that is awkwardly top heavy, gaining most of its production almost exclusively from Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Michael Saunders, the Mariners are in a pretty good place. The pitching has allowed for this, and it's made the Mariners into something of a mirror image to the Angels, the one team in front of them in this wild card race: The Angels are once again a fantastic collection of hitters, but their rotation is a mishmash of above-average and it'll have to do, much like Seattle's lineup.
Everyone in the AL is flawed, in fact, except for maybe the Athletics, who addressed their most significant need with their trade of Addison Russell and change to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. What this means is that there is no question about what the Mariners should attempt to do in the next few weeks, and that's go all-in on 2014.
The Royals are chasing the Mariners, but they're built much like Seattle, with a pitching-heavy roster and a lineup that shows up sometimes. Losing Alex Gordon to a wrist sprain, the kind of injury that can mess with a hitter for longer than they are on the disabled list, is a potentially serious blow to a lineup that can't afford one. The Blue Jays are also behind the Mariners, and they've lost one of their star bats, Edwin Encarnacion, to a quadriceps injury, and Adam Lind to a broken foot. The Jays need to hit, because Mark Buehrle aside, that rotation is more solid than it is spectacular. The Yankees are lucky to be where they are in the standings, and if they end up losing Masahiro Tanaka for a long time following his MRI, they'll be lucky to approach watchable the rest of the way given how many blows their rotation has already been dealt. Go down the line, and it's the same story all around: all of the Mariners' competition is flawed.
The Mariners are also flawed, as we've covered, but they've at least been trending in the right direction, and might have the pieces to make a major move. David Price was reportedly a possibility in the offseason, with the centerpiece being Taijuan Walker. While Walker's shoulder trouble that kept him on the DL for most of 2014 exists and could hamper negotiations, the Rays are also owners of a losing record and half-a-season less of Price to dangle to potential suitors. It all depends on how much the Rays want to move Price right now, and how willing the Mariners are to give up the pieces for him. Walker is a must, though, that much is obvious even without insider knowledge of the situation.
If the rotation is comprised of Felix, Iwakuma, and Price, suddenly the dependency on Chris Young to keep pitching better than all of his numbers say he should is lessened. Suddenly there's another dominant arm in the mix with the potential to pitch during a probably one-game Wild Card Round playoff. Suddenly their rotation looks wicked in a five- or seven-game series, because it contains two Cy Young winners who are still under 30 years old along with Iwakuma, who finished third in the Cy race in 2013. That rotation plus that bullpen would be trouble for anyone in October, even if the Mariners can only squeak out 2-3 runs per game against postseason pitching.
Price isn't the only way to help the M's out. If they decide they could keep Walker around instead, there are always bats to look out for. Josh Willingham is a free agent at the end of the season, and is batting .215/.364/.424 for the Twins. That might not sound like much, but in a story Mariners' fans are familiar with, Target Field leans pitcher friendly: Willingham's line translates to a well above-average 119 OPS+, which would rank third for Seattle. If the Mariners say the right names on a phone call with the Rockies, maybe they can convince them to part ways with Michael Cuddyer, who is batting .317/.366/.500 (127 OPS+) in the final year of his three-season pact with Colorado. They might want to even see if someone like Adam Dunn could be had: the White Sox are trying to rebuild with youth, and Dunn is a 34-year-old pending free agent batting .226/.363/.437 for a team that's chasing six teams for a wild card spot. In a few weeks, if the White Sox are no closer or are even further back, they might be willing to talk. Dunn's not what he used to be, but he can still get on base and hit the ball very far, and the Mariners need more of that in their lineup.
The market for hitters this July 31 is thin, but that's even more reason for the Mariners to pounce. A hitter they grab is one another flawed team can't use for their own chase of October, and people would be able to take Seattle's chances more seriously if they could field five decent hitters on a given day instead of the current bunch, where league-average backstop Mike Zunino makes four along with the aforementioned Cano, Seager, Saunders trio. If shortstop Brad Miller can build on his June gains (by wiping out his July struggles), then they're even better off. They can't just hope for that to happen, though: Waiting around for something to go right is what brought us the last few years of Mariners' baseball. They should be proactive this deadline, and add to a team that's less flawed than their competition. Anything can happen once they get to October, but they need to get there first.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin