Even as the Mariners continue their uphill push to reach postseason for the first time in 15 years, they are simultaneously engaged — like all clubs — in evaluations to shape their 2017 roster.
Those plans are still evolving, but discussions with various club officials privately point to several likely steps:
***The Mariners will pick up their $7 million option on outfielder Seth Smith even if outfielder Nori Aoki triggers a $5 million player option for next season by reaching 480 plate appearances.
Aoki could return even if he falls shy of the threshold — which seems likely; he’s at 436 with 10 games remaining — but there’s a caveat: Club officials concede next year’s roster is unlikely to contain both Smith and Aoki.
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One of the two would likely be shopped in a trade to address another need.
"Both of those players have value," one club official said, "especially when you look at the free-agent market. It’s a thin market. Aoki will be a free agent. There will be interest in him if he wants to look elsewhere.
"Seth is a real good complementary piece on a good club. His contract is affordable."
The Mariners see both primarily as platoon players who also have defensive shortcomings. Manager Scott Servais, operating this month with an expanded roster, regularly substituted for both players when looking to protect a late lead.
But it’s unlikely next year that a 25-man roster will have room for Smith, Aoki and two defensive replacements, especially since…
***The Mariners want to retain veteran outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, a pending free agent who also shows increasingly limited defensive range, because he offers right-handed power that is tough to find elsewhere.
"Against a lefty," one club official said, "you can get away with him for six or seven innings because he’s been such a good outfielder that he knows how to set up."
A projected five-man outfielder corps starts with Leonys Martin as a fixture in center field. Retaining Gutierrez and either Smith or Aoki allows the Mariners to keep Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia (or someone else) on the roster.
Gamel is a left-handed hitter who is likely to get a long look next spring as the leadoff hitter. Heredia’s spot on the roster is less certain, but he’s a right-handed hitter and a good defensive player.
***The Mariners want to give Dan Vogelbach, a left-handed hitter, an opportunity to become their full-time first baseman. So they are unlikely to make any effort to retain Adam Lind, a left-handed hitter who is eligible for free agency.
But Dae-Ho Lee is another matter.
Lee will also be a free agent, but he’s a right-handed hitter who would provide the Mariners with a backup plan if Vogelbach struggles. The two could also operate in a platoon set-up much like Lee did this season with Lind.
If Lee departs, the Mariners will try to find a similar platoon option through a trade or free agency.
***The Mariners, as reported earlier this week, are likely to renew trade discussions with Cincinnati regarding shortstop Zack Cozart, who has one year remaining before reaching eligibility for free agency.
The two sides had a loose deal in place prior to the the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline that centered around the Reds acquiring left-handed pitching prospect Luiz Gohara. Final details couldn’t be completed prior to the deadline.
Club officials still see current shortstop Ketel Marte as a long-term fit, but they seem to prefer a proven veteran next year to bolster the postseason chances for their aging core.
***Few changes are anticipated in the rotation. One club official pointed to a notoriously thin free-agent pitching market while noting there are few young arms with better "upside potential" than Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.
One rival scout agreed.
"You look at both of those guys and wonder, `Why aren’t they better?’" the scout said. "I don’t know the answer, but I know I’d like to have both of those guys."
Beyond that, Felix Hernandez still has three years remaining on his deal. Hisashi Iwakuma has already triggered a player option for next season, and rookie Ariel Miranda has been a pleasant surprise since arriving July 31 from Baltimore.
Right-hander Nathan Karns, sidelined since late July by a strained back muscle, will also compete next spring for a spot.
***What had been a much-maligned farm system produced two impact power relievers this season in Edwin Diaz and Dan Altavilla. Both had been starting pitchers prior to this year before seeing their two-pitch arsenals blossom in relief.
Diaz projects as the closer for years to come.
Veteran Steve Cishek, who began the year as the closer, is also under contract through next year. Nick Vincent is also certain to return.
What the Mariners want is a true situational lefty — "a guy who can pitch with a one-run lead in the eighth inning," one club official said. But they aren’t likely to pursue high-end guys such as pending free-agent Aroldis Chapman.
"We have too many other needs," a club official said.
Long-time ace Felix Hernandez settled for a no-decision Wednesday despite allowing just two hits in seven shutout innings against Toronto. (The Mariners won 2-1 in 12 innings.)
If that sounds familiar…well, it should.
Hernandez has a 2.65 ERA in his 96 career no-decisions, which is the lowest for any pitcher with at least 75 no-decisions since 1920, according to research from Major League Baseball.
Hernandez has made 357 starts in his career.
Here’s more, courtesy of Mariners broadcaster Gary Hill Jr.: Hernandez leads all active pitchers with 173 ultra-quality career starts. An ultra-quality start is defined as pitching seven or more innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs.
The rest of the top six: CC Sabathia (Yankees) 165, Bartolo Colon (Mets) 158, Cole Hamels (Rangers) 146, John Lackey (Cubs) 140 and Justin Verlander (Tigers) 133.
THREE TIMES 90
Robinson Cano’s game-winning sacrifice fly Wednesday in the 12th inning of a 2-1 victory over Toronto was his 90th RBI of the season.
The Mariners have three players with 90 or more RBIs for the first time since 2007. Kyle Seager leads the club with 95, while Nelson Cruz has 92. It is the eighth time in franchise history that three or more players reached that threshold.
The 2007 trio: Raul Ibanez (105), Adrian Beltre (99) and Jose Guillen (99).
It was 19 years ago Friday — Sept. 23, 1997 — that the Mariners clinched their second American League West Division pennant in three years with a 4-3 victory over Anaheim at the Kingdome.
Jay Buhner capped a four-run first inning with a three-run homer, and Randy Johnson struck out 11 in eight innings before Heathcliff Slocum closed out the victory.
The Mariners open their final trip of the season this weekend with three games at Minnesota.
Lefty James Paxton (4-7 with a 3.88 ERA) will face Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson (6-10, 5.10) at 5:10 p.m. Pacific time Friday in the series opener at Target Field in Minneapolis.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, which includes 710 ESPN.
The Mariners conclude their six-game trip next week with three games at Houston before returning to Safeco Field to end the regular season with four games against Oakland.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners