The Mariners pulled back to .500 this afternoon, blanking the Twins to get to 48-48. They’re still in fourth place in the AL West, 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Rangers. They’re five games out of the final Wild Card spot pending Houston’s night contest in Oakland.
With the club hovering around average all season, the front office finds itself in a borderline position approaching the August 1 trade deadline. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto suggested the team was taking a flexible approach in a chat with Mike Salk this morning during his weekly appearance on 710 AM ESPN in Seattle.
Dipoto conceded the M’s have “not really separated ourselves in a meaningful way to be aggressive on the buying end.” While he left open the potential for short-term additions, he noted they’ll use the next 11 days to evaluate if it’s “better to make a push for the ’23 season or to better situate ourselves for ’24.”
In any event, it doesn’t seem the Mariners are preparing to play at the top of the rental market. “Last year, we were very aggressive in the trade market for what I would call the big fish and we were able to land Luis Castillo,” Dipoto said. “This year, we’re probably not going to be in that market. We’re going to be more in the margins market, trying to find a way that we can get a little bit better in ’23 and better situate ourselves for ’24.”
It’s possible that could involve moving a shorter-term veteran off the MLB roster in a deal for controllable talent. Asked by Salk whether selling is off the table, Dipoto replied, “No, and it never has been. … We are always one foot in the camp of buyer and one foot in the camp of seller, believing that the best way to approach any trade deadline is with the mindset of ’how do we make the Mariners better?’”
That’s not an uncommon approach for executives whose teams are on the periphery of contention. The Red Sox and Brewers attempted (unsuccessfully) to thread that needle last summer, dealing veterans with dwindling control windows while bringing back more controllable upper level talent. As Dipoto pointed out, the Mariners have found themselves in a similar position — most notably in 2021, when Seattle traded impending free agent reliever Kendall Graveman to the Astros for infielder Abraham Toro while Houston was narrowly ahead of the Mariners in the standings.
While Dipoto’s comments leave open the possibility of parting with veteran players, they’re not about to kick off a rebuild. The baseball operations leader expressed confidence in a core centered around the likes of Julio Rodríguez, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, J.P. Crawford, Bryan Woo and Castillo.
Dipoto attributed the club’s middling performance in large part to a lack of depth, particularly in the lineup. “We’re about an average major league offense by most advanced metrics. We need to find a way to be better than average,” he said. “In order to do that, we can tap into a lot of different avenues. Some of it is going to come from our system; some of it is going to come from outside. It has to, and maybe that starts now.”
It’s hard to argue with that characterization. Seattle entered play Thursday ranked 18th in runs. They’re 25th with a .310 on-base percentage and 24th with a .388 slugging mark, though that’s partially a product of a tough home hitting environment. By measure of wRC+, which accounts for ballpark, the M’s have been one percentage point worse than a league average offense.
Conceding that “we don’t have a next wave of bats at Triple-A ready to come and push us over that edge,” Dipoto suggested that building out the lineup depth will be a priority. He took responsibility for the club’s current struggles in that regard. While Dipoto predictably didn’t single out any players, none of Seattle’s top three offseason acquisitions has performed up to expectations.
Teoscar Hernández is hitting .243/.296/.428 across 399 plate appearances. That’s serviceable but certainly not what the M’s had in mind when they sent reliever Erik Swanson and pitching prospect Adam Macko to Toronto in November. Hernández had been an impact bat for the Blue Jays from 2020-22, combining for a .283/.333/.519 line.
Kolten Wong and AJ Pollock, on the other hand, haven’t found any success in 2023. The former is hitting .158/.240/.211 in 58 games after an offseason trade that sent Jesse Winker to Milwaukee. He has lost the starting second base job to José Caballero as a result. Pollock is hitting .169/.222/.315 since signing a $7MM free agent contract to add some right-handed pop to the outfield.
Seattle won’t be able to drum up much interest in either of the latter two players. If they seriously consider moving short-term veterans, though, Hernández should still be on the radar for clubs looking for offensive help. The M’s wouldn’t recoup the kind of value they surrendered to get him, of course, but his pre-2023 track record could make him an appealing change-of-scenery target.
Hernández is playing this season on a $14MM arbitration salary. He’ll be a free agent at season’s end. A couple months ago, he looked like a lock to receive and reject a qualifying offer. That’s no longer an obvious decision, at least raising the possibility of Seattle getting no compensation if they hold him past the deadline and he departs in free agency.
Seattle’s only other impending free agent is backup catcher Tom Murphy. He’s affordable ($1.625MM arb salary) and mashing at a .275/.330/.539 clip in a limited role. As a rental backup catcher, he wouldn’t bring back a major return, but the M’s shouldn’t have a problem finding a trade partner if they were to put him on the market.
Reliever Paul Sewald could be Seattle’s most appealing realistic trade chip. The righty owns a 3.03 ERA with a massive 37.7% strikeout rate over 38 2/3 innings. He has been excellent in all three of his seasons in the Pacific Northwest.
Sewald is eligible for arbitration for one more year, so the Mariners would hold firm to a huge asking price if they made him available at all. Dealing him would probably be their best chance to get an upper level bat with an extended window of team control, assuming they’re not interested in dealing any of their prized young starting pitching.