How Far Away are the Mariners?

Each move or potential transaction for the Seattle Mariners should not be evaluated in a vacuum. I mean that both figuratively and literally. And please don’t try and prove me wrong. Just in case.

The club was decent in 2016 and isn’t all that far away from being a legitimate Wild Card contender, perhaps one that can earn a berth and end this ridiculous playoff absence which now is old enough to operate a motor vehicle with an experienced, licensed driver in the car with it. (Excuse me, drought, I’ll drive, thank you very much.)

But they’re not there yet, and they aren’t one player away, either.

Seattle has no business selling out for Andrew McCutchen or Jose Quintana if they aren’t capable of finishing off the construction of a legitimate playoff roster. Spend money? Sure, as long as the extended impact doesn’t threaten Jerry Dipoto’s attempt to win while rebuilding the foundation. Adding a bad contract — Edwin Encarnacion for $70-plus million, for example — could very well set the club back a year or two once it’s time to move on from the current core and start anew.

Payroll isn’t much of an issue right now, but there is no evidence the new ownership has any desire to compete with the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox in terms of player salaries.

Thus the question: How many good players away are the Mariners from being a bonafide 90-plus win roster that not only can win a Wild Card but a division or even a World Series? That questions sets up another one? Can it be done? The answer to the latter is: Probably not in the next three months.

The answer to the first question: I’d say the Mariners are four players away.

Optimally, at least two of those are starting pitchers — A No. 1 or 2 (appears highly unlikely this winter), plus at least a lite No. 3 or good, reliable No. 4. Another should be in the bullpen in the form a a terrific setup man or closer — Edwin Diaz cannot be the single lights-out, high-leverage, can-get-out-of-any-jam-with-the-strikeout type arm among the seven projected relievers if Seattle wants to win close games on a regular basis.

A year ago the M’s were 30-30 in 1-run affairs. Either find a way to have fewer of them or find a way to win a higher percentage of them, or both. Best way to do either is better run prevention, particularly prior to the bullpen taking over the game.

The fourth player, for me, is one of the two corner outfield spots, or, secondarily, a stalwart at first base. If you hit a wall in adding pitching, get better somewhere else. My second choice would be defense, but it’s not a dumb idea to add another bat.

So, two starters, a reliever and a regular outfielder or first baseman.

In other words, Seattle is not likely to start 2017 as anyone’s playoff favorite, and there’s a decent chance they take a small step back from their 86-76 results from a year ago, especially considering age and natural regression.

But I’m not going to get all ‘here comes the 16th straight season without postseason baseball at Safeco’ on you, because I see a plan.

I have zero clue what Dipoto’s plan actually is, but if I were in the GM’s shoes here’s what I would do: Continue the current path.

Yeah, it’s not genius, but not trying to be a genius might actually be the genius the organization needs.

By staying on track for as competitive a 2017 team as possible without gutting the very shallow pool of young talent remaining in the organization, Seattle can accomplish the critical task of not going all-in for a slightly above-average shot and making things more difficult for themselves moving forward. And by avoiding such scenarios, the club sets itself up for another opportunity over the summer.

Let’s assume — it’s a stretch, no doubt, but for the sake of discussion, stay with me here — the club adds a legitimate No. 3 starter. Whether it’s a creative, perhaps three-team deal that lands the Mariners Drew Smyly or a deal that adds salary to help compensate for the lack of young talent to offer in return — such as Ian Kennedy — it’s something the club could benefit from quite immensely and improve their chances to stay in the picture further into the season than otherwise.

Now it makes even more sense to, maybe, go out and spend some money on a reliever or two — a little less chance it’s talent and money thrown away. Ideas? Sure. Considering the free agent market alredy is dry in this regard, again it has to come via trade.

Scratch David Robertson, he’ll cost more than Seattle can afford in trade inventory. But what about calling the Rockies and asking about Jake McGee, who stills throws hard but wasn’t nearly as effective this past season?

McGee is set to earn just under $6 million in 2016 and Colorado has $5 million committed to Jason Motte, $4 million for Mike Dunne, $3.75 million to Chad Qualls, more than $3 million to Jordan Lyles and they’ll pay more than $2 million to Adam Ottavino coming off surgery. That’s six of the top 45 reliever salaries in baseball. They could look to ship one of those away.

Anyway, the point is, spend dollars rather than potential impact talent and buy some time. Let me say that again: Buy some time.

Get to June and if some things fall the Mariners’ way — i.e. James Paxton takes yet another step forward and remains healthy, Felix Hernandez bounces back, any drop in production compared to last season for the middle of the lineup is relatively insignificant, Dan Altavilla steps up big in his first full season in the big leagues —  the club could stay in the race, and maybe the trade market develops in their favor.

Maybe Tyler O’Neill continues to hit in Triple-A where he’s likely to start 2017 and his trade value is bumped another notch. Maybe the recently-acquired right-hander Max Povse has a great first three months and alters his profile a bit or shortstop Chris Torres makes a full-season roster out of spring training and dazzles for a few months to do the same.

All of a sudden the landscape is entirely different than it is right now. It happens every year.

In July, the White Sox had little chance to get what they just did this month with Chris Sale dangling as the bait. Last winter the trade offers for elite relievers were nowhere near what it ended up being over the summer when contenders decided it was worth premium prospects.

For Seattle, they simply need time. Time to get a little more out of their farm system than they have for years. Time for the strengths of their weak crop — risky 17-20-year-olds with upside — to grow into more than that, creating real value to other clubs in trade. Time for Thyago Vieiera to turn into a viable big-league option. Time for the smoke to clear, so to speak.

Here’s the part fans don’t want to see come to fruition, but it’s real.

If the club spins its wheels the first three months of the new season, Nelson Cruz must be shopped. The club has to be willing to listen on Robinson Cano, even if it means eating some cash. Just listen, see what comes of it.

And yes, the club absolutely should have talks about Kyle Seager, who might be the one M’s player that has enough value to return a building block via trade without any thought of covering even a small piece of the multi-year contract.

It’s disappointing to think the current Mariners roster might not be good enough — yet again — because it’s the best roster the club has had in nine years now, perhaps longer. But ‘going for it’ only puts the organization at an even greater risk to get to 20 or more seasons without a postseason appearance.

Dipoto seems to be approaching this situation wisely, whether or not the choice of players are the right ones or not (only time will tell).

It’d be great if the aforementioned scenario worked out for Seattle and a few key moves could be made over the summer to thrust the franchise into the same atmosphere as the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. The reality is, however, they’re closer to being a club that should cut bait and begin a legitimate rebuild by getting what they can for proven veterans and moving toward a full-on sprint to rebuild the farm system.

But the Yankees are the most recent example of doing both; staying somewhat competitive, taking a shot at winning each year, then finding the right climate to sell hard and taking advantage of it when it presents itself.

For Seattle, that could be this coming summer and next offseason.

If I were you, I wouldn’t get too attached to Edwin Diaz and if you’re planning on buying a jersey anytime soon, put your own name and number on it.

Just in case.

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Jason A. Churchill

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