Forecasting the Mariners needs

With the trade deadline only days away and the Seattle Mariners currently on the outside looking in, much space has been put towards dissecting what exactly the team should do this week. Should the M’s be sellers? Could they be buyers? Sitting 9.5 games back in the division and 6.5 games back of a wild card berth entering Tuesday’s games likely suggest the former more so than the latter.

Whatever the case, getting a head start on filling holes for next season should be more important than attempting an incremental upgrade for the season’s final two months. There’s enough talent on the ball club that a hot stretch in August could put them back in the wild card race, but not enough performance to merit another acquisition to bolster the club in 2015 alone.

The players most often discussed as being pieces to sell — Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, Austin Jackson, Fernando Rodney, and Mark Lowe — are free agents. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill mentions Brad Miller and D.J. Peterson among other names that have been brought up in conversations.

Starting with the rotation, the potential departures of Happ and Iwakuma open two spots. Despite his prolongued stint on the disabled list, Iwakuma has played the crucial role of No. 2 starter as recently as last year and has flashed glimpses of having his stuff back since returning. Happ has been excellent in the back-end of the rotation and owns a 3.77 FIP in 104 and 1/3 innings of work.

Felix Hernandez isn’t going anywhere while Taijuan Walker should have one of next year’s rotation slots essentially locked up at this point. Both Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias have had success in the big leagues this year and are solid options. James Paxton is still on the disabled list with an injured finger and a return doesn’t appear imminent.

A rotation of Felix, Walker, Montgomery, Elias, and Paxton has plenty of upside, but none of the non-Felix pitchers really stand out. Walker could presumably take another step forward as a solid No. 3 starter but Elias and Montgomery project more as back-end guys. With the potential loss of Iwakuma, there will be a hole in the rotation, particularly in the No. 2 spot.

A healthy and effective Paxton can fill that role, though he has thrown barely over 130 innings since Opening Day 2014 — the track record simply isn’t there.

Seattle will need more out of what’s been a league average rotation this year and an additional veteran starter will be required as well as the usual depth.

The bullpen has almost literally gone from first to worst. What was a strong point last year has been a weakness this year. Rodney has turned into a pumpkin — though he may have been tipping his pitches — while Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar have taken their turns heading up and down the I-5. The Bartender has been better of late, though, and his peripherals suggest he’s outperforming his earned run average.

The good news is that Carson Smith has adapted nicely to his role as closer and has been excellent. Vidal Nuno and Charlie Furbush are doing well enough in their roles.

Gone are Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone, dealt for Welington Castillo and Mark Trumbo respectively. The dealings of relievers for bats, including Brandon Maurer in the winter, have eaten away at the depth that existed in 2014.

If Lowe leaves as a free agent, the Mariners will need to find eighth inning help, which never seems to come cheap in free agency. The bullpen likely needs an additional major league arm or two as well. It’s possible Nuno competes for a rotation spot but has otherwise worked out well enough in the bullpen.

The infield picture is a little more clear with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both locked into long-term extensions. Seager is in the midst of another excellent season while Cano is enjoying a red-hot July and finally showing signs of life after a terrible first half. Miller is also having a solid season and has a firm grasp on the starting shortstop job with Chris Taylor still waiting in the wings.

As has been the problem for more than a few years now, first base needs an upgrade. After showing progress with the bat last year, Logan Morrison holds an 87 wRC+ and has been replacement level. Mark Trumbo has been better recently, but his season performance is still below league average. Both players are under team control through 2016 so it’s unlikely Seattle seeks a significant upgrade, though there’s an argument that it’s still needed.

Behind the plate Mike Zunino has still played solid defence and picked things up with the bat this past week, but has struggled to hit his weight throughout the season. A trip to Triple-A has been suggested as a potential antidote the struggles at the plate. He’s still only 24 and could very well be the catcher of the future still, but the team needs a second catcher capable of playing three times per week — that’s the real issue. Doing without is only hurting Zunino in the short and long-term.

The outfield picture will become even less clear with Jackson set to depart. Seth Smith is under contract for another year and is enjoying an excellent season as a platoon bat in the corners. Nelson Cruz has played right field more than anyone is comfortable with and that will probably continue next year. If manager Lloyd McLendon is smart it won’t, but it’ll likely depend in part on his other options.

Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano were brought onboard to solidify a pair of outfield platoons but are no longer on the big league team. There’s an increasing chance that Seattle will move on from Dustin Ackley before next spring. Franklin Gutierrez has had a nice return but is likely best-served as one-half of a platoon. He’s a free agent at the end of the year, but it’s not difficult to envision him being kept in the fold beyond.

Assuming Smith, Cruz, and Trumbo are returning and the others not, Seattle will need an outfielder capable of playing center field and another corner bat. Smith and Cruz can probably handle right field duties and Trumbo isn’t really an outfielder. Talk of turning Miller into a super utility player a la Ben Zobrist has cooled but there is a real possibility shortstop prospect Katel Marte could eventually convert to an outfielder.

Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins was on hand to see Marte’s outfield debut for the Tacoma Rainiers and opined that the youngster is going to need time to make the defensive adjustments. By many accounts his bat is big league ready, but we probably won’t know how viable of an option he is until Spring Training.

By my count, when constructing the 2016 edition of the Seattle Mariners there is at least one need in the rotation, a couple holes to fill in the bullpen, perhaps help at first base and definitely behind the plate, and two-thirds of the outfield will need to be revamped.

Seattle lacks the type of players that command high prospect prices at the trade deadline which makes them a less traditional seller. There’s no reason to think that Jackson and Iwakuma couldn’t net a couple decent prospects — probably nothing that helps the M’s immediately. If neither player is part of the future plans, there’s no reason to let them walk for nothing when they could be traded for something. Even Happ would be an upgrade for a club in need of some short-term pitching help and you can’t forget about Lowe as a potential trade piece — teams are always looking for bullpen help this time of the year.

It won’t be easy for the Mariners to admit defeat on a season that was riddled with expectations, but it’s not as though the window for a playoff berth has closed. The core of the club is in place long-term. But as we can see, there are several holes that need to be filled — some remaining from this past offseason.

If possible, the Mariners should be looking to get a head start on filling those holes. Now is as good a time as any and selling the pieces that are about to become free agents can help solve potential problems in 2016 and down the road.

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Tyler Carmont

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