SEATTLE — The question most asked these days regarding the Mariners as they prepare to resume their season is one that stumps their general manager. Specifically, why aren’t they better than 45-44?
"I don’t know," Jerry Dipoto responds. "We should be better than we are. We’ve outscored our opponents by 51 runs. We're among the best teams in the league at scoring runs. We’re among the best teams in the league at preventing runs."
The Mariners ranked sixth among the 15 American League clubs in both scoring and preventing runs. The Pythagorean computation, based on run differential, contends the Mariners should be 50-39.
That record would place them just three games behind first-place Texas in the American League West Division and tied for first in the race for the top wild-card berth.
"Somehow our sequencing is super bad," Dipoto added. "How that turns into a .500 record, I’m not entirely sure. We’re going to keep on peeling the layers back (in a search for answers), but we have so many players who are independently having solid years.
"We have so many instances where everything’s working."
Except it hasn’t worked as well as expected overall or, as the numbers suggest, as well as it should be working.
So what comes next?
The Mariners remain in a killer stretch in their schedule. They entered the break with a run of 23 games against legitimate postseason contenders, and their series this weekend against Houston begins a run of 18 more games against such clubs.
The non-waiver trading deadline is Aug. 1. (Making trades after Aug. 1 gets trickier, since all players involved must clear waivers before they can be dealt.) All of which begs an obvious question:
Will the Mariners be buyers or sellers at the deadline?
"I think we’ll always be both," Dipoto parried. "That will be our way for as long as I am here — or wherever I am. You’re always looking to add to your present, and you’re always looking to balance it out with your future."
But Dipoto doesn’t expect the Mariners "to wobble too far from center" in large part because "we like our team" and club officials believe major upgrades are coming from within as key players return from the disabled list.
Long-time ace Felix Hernandez, out since May 27 because of a strained right calf muscle, is scheduled to make a rehab start Friday at Triple-A Tacoma and return to active duty July 20 against the Chicago White Sox.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker should resume baseball activities within a few days in his recovery from tendinitis in his right foot. He could be return the rotation before the calendar turns to August.
Lefty reliever Charlie Furbush is two appearances into his rehab assignment for biceps tendinitis in his shoulder, and right-handed reliever Nick Vincent is poised to start his rehab assignment in his recovery from a strained back muscle.
Dipoto said those four pitchers are better than anyone the Mariners are likely to acquire in trade-deadline deals. The one exception, a big possible upgrade if the opportunity presents itself, is an impact back-end reliever.
That’s because the gamble that Steve Cishek could re-emerge as a reliable closer gets mixed marks. Like many closers, his failures are more easily recalled than his successes, but he has 21 saves in 26 chances for an 80.8-percent success rate.
The AL average is 68 percent, but among the 14 AL relievers with at least 10 saves, all but three have a higher saves percentage than Cishek. And two of the three with a lower percentage are no longer closing.
The Mariners are open to an upgrade, although that, too, might come from within. Manager Scott Servais is already shifting rookie right-hander Edwin Diaz into higher-leverage situations.
The biggest lineup need is for a left fielder who can bat leadoff and serve as a reliable table-setter for the potent middle corps of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.
The Mariners thought they filled those needs last December by signing veteran Nori Aoki, but Aoki played so poorly that he got demoted to the minors last month for the first time since he arrived five years ago from Japan.
A longer-term fix in outfield is also on Dipoto’s shopping list since Franklin Gutierrez will be a free agent after the season, and the club must decide whether to exercise a $7 million option next year on Seth Smith.
First base is also a need on the horizon since Adam Lind will be a free agent.
All three are potential trade chips as short-term rentals for other contenders if the Mariners stumble coming out of the break. Aoki is also available, clearly, perhaps as a throw-in to a larger deal.
Officials from other clubs point to the Mariners’ pitching depth as possible acquisition targets even though Wade Miley and Nathan Karns have generally underperformed, and James Paxton is still seeking bankable consistency.
Some clubs like Hisashi Iwakuma, but he has full trade protection and would likely only agree to a deal if his new team guarantees aspects of his contract beyond this season.
Lefty Mike Montgomery is drawing interest after a strong spot start last Sunday at Kansas City, which followed his successful conversion earlier this year to bullpen duty.
"Look, the Mariners have a lot of pitchers that you’d like to have," said one veteran scout from a rival organization. "The question is what do they want in return, and what are you willing to give up?
"Right now, they still think they’re in it. And they are. But if that changes — if they fall back over the next two weeks — then a lot could change. We all know Jerry is a guy who likes to deal."
As for help from within, the Mariners plan to recall catcher Mike Zunino from Tacoma in the near future to team with veteran Chris Iannetta, whose current workload is on a career-record pace.
Outfielder Guillermo Heredia, the Cuban defector signed in March, is also likely to get a summons at some point. Heredia, 25, is batting .323 in 15 games at Tacoma since his promotion from Double-A Jackson.
The Mariners figure to recall Aoki, if he isn’t traded, at some point as a fourth outfielder. While his demotion stemmed from poor play, the club doesn’t want him to get the 196 plate appearances necessary to vest a $5.5 million option for 2017.
Bottom line? It could be a busy two-plus weeks.
"As you get closer to the deadline," Dipoto said, "and you position yourself as both a buyer and a seller, the pieces may change. Then all of a sudden, there may be a better fit for somebody or to do something."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners