The Mariners have been one of the most surprising contenders of the 2021 season to date. Manager Scott Servais entered the season with a six-man rotation and a host of exciting young outfielders getting ready to traverse the grass at T-Mobile Park, but expectations were low for a franchise with zero World Series appearances and no playoff appearances since 2001.
Both droughts are likely to continue into 2022, but there’s at least a chance that the Mariners could continue their upward trajectory and push for a playoff spot this season. With the trade deadline two weeks away, the Mariners are 49-43, on pace for 86 wins and just 3.5 games out of a wild card spot. In fact, they have the best record in the American League for a team not currently in a playoff spot, putting them in prime position to be surprise buyers at the deadline.
GM Jerry Dipoto has his ear to the ground, as ever, though it sounds like he’s still vacillating between the buyers and sellers line. Per The Athletic’s Corey Brock, Dipoto offered this recent assessment: “Our bullpen has been awesome, and it was roughly a number of guys who no one has ever heard of that just needed another chance. That’s put us in a really good position right now to be able to make a more aggressive play in the next two, three weeks if the opportunity presents itself. But we’re not going to push the opportunity because we believe this is a window that is open and we want to make sure it stays open. We don’t want to shortchange our long term.”
Their greatest need, should they want to wrench that window open right now, would be to add another starter to an injury-depleted rotation. Logan Gilbert has emerged as an exciting young arm, and Marco Gonzales is healthy again alongside Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Flexen, but they also have nearly a full rotation on the injured list.
As Dipoto noted above, the bullpen has helped shoulder the load thanks to surprisingly competent seasons from Kendall Graveman, JT Chargois, Paul Sewald, and Drew Steckenrider, a foursome that’s accrued 3.3 fWAR of their league-leading 4.5 bullpen fWAR. The Mariners have made a practice of trading away relievers over the years, but this time around they might choose to hold onto a few of them, especially if they can’t find the rotation help they need.
That said, it’s just as likely that Trader Jerry stays true to his history and deals an arm or two to a contender. Brock suggests that Graveman is the most likely Mariner to find himself in a new uniform by August, which certainly makes some sense given his breakout season. Graveman is a free agent at the end of the year, and right now he’s presenting as a difference-maker, a transition from starter to high-leverage arm that began last season. He has locked down eight saves as the Mariners’ closer, pitching to a sterling 0.93 ERA/3.03 FIP across 29 innings.
Even if the Mariners do decide to sell a piece or two, don’t expect Mitch Haniger to be an easy get. Brock notes that Haniger “isn’t likely to be moved unless the Mariners are floored by a deal.”
On the one hand, that might be surprising given the plethora of promising young outfielders in the organization, well-known prospects like Jarred Kelenic, Jake Fraley, Kyle Lewis, Julio Rodriguez and Taylor Trammell. For now, however, Lewis is hurt, Rodriguez has just 14 games of experience in Double-A, and Kelenic and Trammell have stumbled at the big league level with marks of 12 wRC+ and 74 wRC+, respectively.
In the plus column, Fraley has absolutely raked to a 143 wRC+ by way of a .237/.409/.439 triple slash — buoyed by an above-average .202 ISO and eye-opening 22.1 percent walk rate that would be first overall in the game among qualified hitters if he had more plate appearances. Fraley doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of those other names, however, and it’ll take more than 149 plate appearances to anoint him as an above-average regular.
Which is the point, really, both behind Haniger’s value on the trade market and the Mariners’ desire to keep him. Injuries have slowed his ascension to stardom, but since his arrival in Seattle, he’s been a 127 wRC+ hitter with 78 home runs and a .269/.343/.489 triple slash line across 1,751 plate appearances. He’s 30 years old, and with one more season of team control remaining, it’s easy to understand why contenders might ask about his availability.
Despite Haniger’s importance to this lineup, however, and despite the Mariners having a chance to make a run at the playoffs, Trader Jerry likes to deal. Speculatively speaking, Dipoto likely would prefer to get the godfather offer for Haniger that forces his hand, and maybe that makes him more inclined to see that offer where it doesn’t exist. But by all accounts, Dipoto is content to hold him through the deadline.
He could, after all, explore a trade in the offseason. Besides, with Lewis hurt and Rodriguez not yet ready, there’s no real rush to vacate Haniger’s plate appearances. There’s enough run to go around if Servais wants to see Haniger, Fraley, Trammell, and Kelenic all in the lineup at the same time, though that hasn’t been the case thus far.
Still, expect Dipoto to do something. At the very least, he sounds likely to acquire some kind of starting pitcher, with the real question being the quality of arm he’s able/willing to procure.