2:50pm: Dipoto revealed in an appearance on 710 ESPN Radio today that Sheffield has been diagnosed with a mild flexor strain in his left forearm but also a Grade 2 oblique strain (Twitter link via 710’s Shannon Drayer). The oblique injury is the more significant of the two, and based on the fact that it’s a Grade 2 strain, it seems fair to expect Sheffield to be absent from the Seattle rotation for a rather notable chunk of time. Even less-severe Grade 1 oblique strains can sideline players for around a month at a time.
10:20am: After slipping a few games below .500 in mid-June, the Mariners have rallied back with a 14-7 showing that has them three games over .500, at 45-42. That still places them nine games back in a tough AL West, but they’re only three and a half games down in the Wild Card standings. Seattle has looked like one of the many teams whose deadline trajectory could very well be determined by how the team fares in its next 10 games or so, but manager Scott Servais suggested in an appearance on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM that he expects the front office to operate as buyers (Twitter link, with audio).
“We’ve got a ton of prospect capital, and we’ve got young players in our system — our minor league system has improved so much,” Servais told hosts Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette. “…Our Major League team is moving in the right direction, so the possibility to add players to help this year and to help going forward is really important for us. I’m sure [GM Jerry Dipoto] and [assistant GM] Justin Hollander are talking to everybody out there and seeing what they can do to better us now and then also take a look into 2022 and beyond.”
Asked about specific areas of need, Servais said with a chuckle that “every manager out there says he needs more pitching.” While that was something of a tongue-in-cheek comment, the rotation is a fairly obvious area of focus if Dipoto and the front office do indeed look to add to the roster. The Mariners have received solid results from Yusei Kikuchi, Justin Dunn, offseason signing Chris Flexen and top prospect Logan Gilbert, but on the whole, their starters are 23rd in the Majors with a 4.76 ERA.
Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales missed more than a month with a forearm injury and hasn’t looked like himself when healthy enough to take the mound. The typically steady left-hander has posted a career-worst nine percent walk rate, which has been exacerbated by the fact that he’s been one of MLB’s most homer-prone pitchers in 2021 (2.29 HR/9).
Fellow left-hander Justus Sheffield, meanwhile, has recently struggled through a brutal stretch — a slump that looks all the more alarming after the Mariners announced last night that he was headed to the injured list with a forearm strain of his own. No timetable for the southpaw’s return was provided.
The 25-year-old Sheffield pitched to a 4.17 ERA and 3.97 FIP from Opening Day 2020 through June 3 of this season and looked to be settling in as a reliable member of the Seattle rotation. But over his past five starts, Sheffield has managed only 19 1/3 innings and been hammered for 24 runs on 33 hits (seven homers) and 12 walks. His velocity hasn’t dipped in that time, but it’s still the worst stretch of his young career — one that’s ballooned his 2021 ERA to 6.48 in short order.
Looking long-term, the Mariners have some high-end arms still on the way. Recent first-rounders George Kirby and Emerson Hancock were both drafted as polished college arms, but they’re currently pitching at Class-A Advanced and aren’t immediate options to help round out the MLB group. The Mariners have some depth options in Triple-A — Robert Dugger is already on the 40-man roster — but they’ve also lost a lot of their depth to injuries. Dunn is currently on the IL with a shoulder strain. James Paxton’s return to Seattle lasted just 1 1/3 innings before he required Tommy John surgery. Righty Ljay Newsome also went down with a UCL tear, and lefty Nick Margevicius underwent thoracic outlet surgery earlier in the year.
Given that slate of injuries and new concerns surrounding Sheffield, it’d only be natural for the Mariners to look for some help on the trade market. And while that’ll be especially likely if they remain within arm’s reach of a postseason berth, the Mariners are the type of team that could look to add longer-term pieces to their MLB group even if they begin to fall back in the standings. Servais foreshadowed as much when mentioning “[taking] a look into 2022 and beyond” — a nod to the possibility of acquiring a pitcher with multiple years of club control remaining.
Regardless of how the Mariners finish in the standings this year, the offseason expectation will be that they’re going to start adding to the roster via free agency and trades. Much of the team’s young core has either emerged in the big leagues already or will do so over the next calendar year. Acquiring a pitcher with multiple years of club control would only serve to jumpstart that process for Dipoto & Co.
Then again, as Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times points out, there’s at least some degree of uncertainty surrounding the organization’s top decision-maker himself. Dipoto is in the final season of a three-year contract right now and has yet to sign a new deal. Divish reports that the Mariners have “floated” the idea of a one-year extension for the 2022 season, which would give Dipoto a chance to finish off his rebuild and ownership the chance to take a look at a more finished product, so to speak.
For the time being, however, Dipoto is approaching a pivotal trade deadline with no guarantee he’ll still be at the helm this coming offseason. It’s still possible that ownership will get something done this month — Dipoto’s last three-year extension was signed in early July, 2018 — but it’s not clear whether there’s been any formal offer made.