Robinson Cano’s star turn in Miami is receding in the distance. So, too, is Nelson Cruz’s scene-stealing photo op at the All-Star Game with umpire Joe West (thanks to an assist from St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina).
The Mariners’ season resumes Friday night against the White Sox in Chicago, and the focus throughout Major League Baseball is already shifting to the next big item on its schedule:
The non-waiver trade deadline is July 31.
This is when clubs philosophically separate themselves into postseason contenders and non-contenders. Buyers and sellers. Deals can be made through July 31 without restrictions.
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Thereafter, players on the 40-man roster must clear waivers before they can be traded. (Doing isn’t rare, but it’s another hurdle.)
So where do the Mariners sit?
Pull up a chair and let general manager Jerry Dipoto fill you in. Dipoto has a reputation as one of game’s premier wheeler-dealers, which could mean a wild ride of whispers, rumors and (just maybe) action over the next two-plus weeks.
“We are positioning ourselves to both buy and sell at the trade deadline if that’s what presents itself,” he said. “Which is to say we could do nothing, or we could do both, and we have to be creative in our thinking.”
The Mariners took a similar approach last summer when they traded lefty swingman Mike Montgomery to the Chicago Cubs and lefty starter Wade Miley to the Baltimore Orioles.
Both moves, initially, appeared targeted more toward the future, although lefty Ariel Miranda, acquired for Miley, pitched well last season before developing this season into a steady performer.
The Mariners got first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn from the Cubs for Montgomery and pitcher Jordan Pries. They flipped Blackburn to Oakland in a November deal for first baseman Danny Valencia.
Looking back: Were those “buy” or “sell” trades?
The Mariners also nearly acquired shortstop Zack Cozart from Cincinnati just prior to last year’s deadline for a cache of minor-league players before the deal fell through at the last moment.
Look for a similar approach – working the edges of the roster – in the days leading up to this year’s deadline.
The Mariners aren’t in a rebuild mode, which means a major sell-off is unlikely, but they also appear thin in possessing the sort of high-profile/near-ready prospects typically required to acquire an impact veteran in his prime.
One plus is the Mariners have the ability to take on salary because injuries should, effectively, jettison Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly from next year’s payroll. That’s more than $20 million to play with.
Iwakuma has virtually no chance to trigger a $15 million option for next season, while it’s similarly unlikely the Mariners will agree to arbitration with Smyly, who is unlikely to pitch next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Smyly is making $6.85 million and, through arbitration, would likely be in line for a small raise.
Rejecting arbitration will turn Smyly into a free agent. Once that happens, the Mariners might pursue a multi-year deal that includes a low guarantee with considerable performance bonuses. But other clubs could do the same.
So, yes, the Mariners have payroll flexibility, but the ability to improve a roster simply by buying off a pricey contract from a non-contender doesn’t occur as often as it once did. Plus, this year, there just aren’t that many non-contenders.
It shapes up as a seller’s market.
“Need and what’s realistic are two different things,” Dipoto acknowledged. “I could think of 50 ways that we could improve the team…Some of them aren’t realistic, and we have to be realistic within the confines of our resources.
“And by resources, that could mean the prospects we have to make deals, the ability we have to fit guys on the roster or the available payroll space to go make it happen.
“We have some level of all three of those, but if you burn any one area or any one of those resources, that limits your resources moving forward, and we have to be realistic about what our situation is.”
The situation is this: The Mariners, realistically, are playing for a wild-card berth. At 43-47, they are 17 1/2 games behind first-place Houston in the American League West but just four games back in a crowded wild-card hunt.
“We are playing in a league of 15 teams,” Dipoto said. “I believe 12 of which are within five games of a playoff spot. We’re one of them, and we have as much talent as anybody else on that board.
“We’ve seen what this team can do when they’re clicking on all cylinders, so as we move forward, whether it be for the second half of 2017, or 2018 and beyond, our goal is to continue to build onto the core of this team.”
That’s been a consistent theme. Club officials like their club. While they acknowledge it has underperformed, they see no reason why it can’t or shouldn’t mount a postseason push over the final 72 games.
“You watched it last year,” Dipoto said. “We’re more talented than we were a year ago. Last year, from a similar position (at the break), we made a run at what would be the most unusual or most difficult time of our schedule.
“We were playing real teams. We were playing a lot of road games, and we made a run. We almost made it.”
The Mariners, a year ago, were five games back in the wild-card race at the break but weren’t eliminated from postseason contention until a loss in their next-to-last game.
Further, the Mariners see no need for an overhaul. Few things irritate Dipoto more than the general perception of the Mariners as an aging club or that his “win now” approach stems from the anticipation of a bleak future.
“We’ve got, I think, 11 players on this team who are in their 20s, who are controllable for five more years and who are all making positive contributions in some way or another,” he said.
That group includes shortstop Jean Segura, who recently signed a five-year extension, emerging ace James Paxton, outfielders Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, and recently promoted starting pitcher Andrew Moore.
Dipoto calls that group a “good foundation” and cites others in the pipeline: pitcher Nick Neidert, outfielders Kyle Lewis and Tyler O’Neill, and just-drafted first baseman Evan White.
“We do have a pair of All-Stars (Cano and Cruz) who continue to do the things that they do,” Dipoto said. “Robby and Nelly have done a great job. The rest of the group has to step up.”
Longtime ace Felix Hernandez, though just 31, is at a pivotal point in his career and has been inconsistent since returning from a two-month absence due to shoulder bursitis. He did flash vintage form in his last start, however.
“All of the elements are there,” Dipoto said. “He just needs to reinvent how he puts the pitches in order, and I trust that he has enough pride in what he does and enough care about his legacy that he’ll figure that out. He’s been too good not to.”
Bottom line: The Mariners might add a piece or two over the next few weeks, but if they are to make it postseason run, it will likely be because the players already on hand jell into what Dipoto and other club officials still expect they can be.
“We’ve got to find some consistency and some impact,” Dipoto said. “Consistency has eluded us all year long. Whether it’s consistency of staying healthy or the consistency of our performance, we just haven’t been consistent at all.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners