Saying the bullpen has been revamped over the past week may not be entirely accurate, but the Seattle Mariners continued to shuffle the deck Tuesday night. Mike Montgomery and now Joaquin Benoit are out and former All-Star closer Drew Storen is coming in after being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays along with cash considerations in exchange for Benoit. The cash included is reported to be the difference between the two reliever’s salaries. Both relievers are free agents at the end of the year. Benoit was an offseason addition to the bullpen and expected to fill the eight inning role vacated by Carson Smith. Despite an improved month of July, the right-hander still posted a 5.18 ERA and a 4.95 FIP over 24 and 1/3 innings of work. His 10.36 strikeouts per nine innings were better than his career mark of 8.94, but it was the accompanying 5.55 walks per nine that caused issues. His 13.8 percent whiff rate was down a couple ticks from the past couple seasons but was still above his career mark of 13.0 percent. The velocity was still there for the 39-year-old, averaging 94-to-95 miles per hour on his fastball. The problem was that he often didn’t know where it was going. Benoit was only able to produce a clean outing in seven of his 26 appearances. He didn’t have to be perfect, but more was expected from the seasoned veteran. Edwin Diaz and his gaudy 17.47 strikeout rate have taken over eighth inning and higher leverage duties and have done exceedingly well. The Blue Jays are getting a reliever who in terms of raw stuff is performing well enough. he’s still missing bats and striking hitters out. But they are hoping that a change of scenery will be rejuvenating, similar to the case of Jason Grilli who was acquired earlier in the year. On the Mariners end, they receive a struggling reliever with a home run issue. In 33 and 1/3 innings pitched Storen HAS posted a 6.21 ERA and a 5.00 FIP due in large part to a career-high 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate — that number is more than double Storen’s career mark. The good news is that his 8.64 strikeout and 2.70 walk rates are basically right on the right-hander’s career marks so it doesn’t appear to be a command issue at first glance. The biggest issue surrounding Storen’s troubles is not an unusual one: his velocity has declined. After previously hitting 95-to-96 MPH regularly leading up to the 2016 season, the 28-year-old has found his fastball sitting in the 93-to-94 MPH range. I mention his age there because it’s odd for a pitcher who should be in his prime to have such a sharp decline. Usually this would be due to injury, but there hasn’t been any apparent ailments. The decline in velocity has caused Storen’s hard-hit rate to spike to 39.8 percent. His soft contact rate sits at a measly 12.0 percent. Everything he’s been throwing has been hit hard. And if you’re wondering how much of a difference that relatively small decline in velocity can make, just look to the top of the Mariners rotation and the struggles that Felix Hernandez has had dealing with his reduced velocity. Is Storen fixable? His age and solid strikeout and walk rates would suggest so. Pitching at Safeco Field instead of the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre should also help some. But until he can get that velocity back up a couple ticks, or learn how to rely on his breaking pitches, he’ll be in tough to have much success. For anyone wondering how the Mariners could simultaneously buy and sell in the time leading up to the trade deadline, this is an example. They are selling Benoit, a veteran reliever, to a contending team that’s looking to bolster a playoff-caliber pitching staff. They are buying Storen, a former All-Star closer, to aid the relief corps in the middle innings. Technically they are both buying and selling low here, but it paints a picture. Are the Mariners better today than they were before the trade? It’s hard to say. You like Storen’s upside because he’s been a solid reliever up to this point and has ten years on Benoit. But you also liked Benoit for his track record and experience, though that was seven months ago. This could be a trade where a change of scenery helps both pitchers. Or both could continue to struggle. Storen was designated for assignment after all and Benoit’s numbers don’t differ much from Joel Peralta‘s when he was cut loose. Seattle gets another guy with closing experience, which could help if they decide to deal Steve Cishek who’s name has come up in a few rumors. Otherwise Storen is another middle reliever with a home run problem who you hope can be fixed with a couple minor changes. It’s far from an exciting trade, and the net result may not produce a clear upgrade, but the Mariners are betting on Storen’s upside and youth. That’s usually a bet teams are willing to take.
With the All-Star festivities now in the rear-view mirror, the quest for October baseball will ramp up a couple notches as play resumes on Friday. The Seattle Mariners entered the break with a 45-44 record and sit five games back in the Wild Card and eight games back in the division. It’s not an ideal position for a team with postseason aspirations, but at this time one year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the second-half with a 45-46 record before going on an incredible run to end the longest postseason doubt in professional sports. I know, that’s a lousy comparison. The Mariners offence is nowhere near as prolific as the Jays was in 2015 and the club doesn’t have the trade chips to acquire reinforcements along the lines of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. What the record comparison does speak to, is the fact that this season is far from decided. The Texas Rangers have been one of the top teams in the American League so far this year but are being hammered by injuries. The Houston Astros have recovered from their slow start as well, making conquering the West a tall task. There’s no reason to believe a wild card slot is out of reach, however. Here are three things that need to happen in the second half for Seattle to be best positioned for a return to the postseason. A return of the King This really could write itself: the Mariners need the best incarnation of Felix Hernandez available. At this point, regaining 2016 Felix would be an upgrade for the rotation. But what the team really needs is its ace back. The 30-year-old has nearly completed his rehab assignment for the calf injury suffered in May and is expected to rejoin the rotation next week. There were some concerns that Felix wasn’t 100 percent earlier in the season, with particular regards to his decreased velocity. The calf injury is unlikely to change anything there and probably won’t ease much concern over what he’ll be able to produce over the remainder of the season. The right-hander has made this year he owns a 2.86 ERA and a 4.16 FIP in 63 innings over 10 starts this year. Hernandez’s strikeout and walk rates of 7.57 and 3.71 per nine innings respectfully are both nearly an entire point in the wrong direction from his career marks. The increase in walks speaks to some of the command troubles he has encountered earlier in the year. Not having the sharpest of stuff either has likely hurt the strikeout rate. On the year he owns an 8.5 percent whiff rate, his lowest since 2011 when he posted a 9.1 percent mark. The good news from Felix’s first half are that the ground balls are still there and the home run rate is within his career norms. The challenge will be responding to the decreased velocity and making adjustments to his appraoch. The changeup and breaking balls are still there and more than a few starters have been successful with diminished velocity. At the very least, the King comes at a time when reinforcements are sorely needed in the rotation. Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker have both been on the disabled list and Nathan Karns was moved to the bullpen. Reliever Mike Montgomery is expected to make another start following the break. Expectations for Felix immediately returning to greatness will need to be tempered, but if he can regain more of his former self than he has shown, it will be a significant boost to the club. Dipoto at the deadline Rarely does a team enter the beginning of a season complete, and practically never does that team have everything go according to plan over the first three-plus months of the year. Injuries and under-performance have a funny way of messing things up. Even the Chicago Cubs have shown that they are indeed fallible. Tinkering is required throughout the season, but transactions come under extreme scrutiny leading up to the trade deadline. This will be Jerry Dipoto’s first deadline as general manager of the Mariners. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill has thoughts on the various players the M’s could target, while Luke Arkins digs into Dipoto’s past for clues about how he may act over the next couple weeks. The primary areas of concern are the rotation, bullpen, and outfield. Some help at first base would be nice, but Dae-Ho Lee is doing enough to make that a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have upgrade. The difficulty is that, even more than usual, prices are already sky-high with supply as low as it has been in years. Not to mention that fact that Dipoto has precious few trade chips to work with. I’ve often felt that a club can have a successful deadline without making a move. If the price of the product is too high for your taste, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it on the shelf. And really, it isn’t as if the Mariners are a piece away. Drew Pomeranz or Jason Grilli, or even Aaron Hill for that matter, won’t catapult the team to the top of the division. With minimal help waiting in the wings at Triple-A, making an upgrade or two could be crucial to the club’s Wild Card aspirations. Maybe Nori Aoki figures it out and can contribute something or one of Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook is able to pitch effectively once healthy. But, as we knew heading into the season, there was probably still a missing piece that would need to be found outside of the organization. It’s up to Dipoto to find out. The bats keep rolling It may be odd to say, but nonetheless it’s true: the Mariners have been one of the better offensive teams in baseball this year. The club’s 109 wRC+ ranks fourth among all teams, due in part to the 132 home runs hit so far this year. That number is second only to the Cubs. The Mariners enter the second half averaging 4.89 runs per game, just three ticks lower than the Texas Rangers’ 4.92 average. The combination of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager have combined for 8.9 fWAR so far this year. Cano, the club’s lone All-Star representative in San Diego, is an MVP candidate in a year of resurgence, while Cruz and Seager were plenty deserving of a trip down south. Seager especially. Part of Dipoto’s offseason plans was to augment the lineup surrounding the core. With the exceptions of Adam Lind and Aoki, plenty of those moves have turned out well. Leonys Martin has solidified the center field position and was crushing the ball before a stint on the disabled list. Bringing back Franklin Gutierrez for pocket change to platoon with Seth Smith has stabilized the No. 2 spot. The pair have also combined for 20 home runs. Lee has found his way into the hearts of Mariners fans as well as a 127 wRC+ in a part-time role that is starting to increase. Chris Iannetta has come as advertised behind the plate, and while unexciting, has an 11 percent walk rate and is a serious improvement from 2015. All this to say that Seattle needs to keep the level of offense going through the second half, especially if reinforcements aren’t able to arrive for the pitching staff. Cruz probably has another red-hot stretch in him and Cano has better career second-half numbers than first-half. Conclusion The reality is that Seattle is a fringe contender right now, which isn’t that far off from where they were projected to be on Opening Day. Help required for the pitching staff could come from within, particularly on the disabled list, but realistically will need outside help. Though I have nothing against Stefen Romero and Daniel Robertson as depth pieces, the help needed for the outfield simply isn’t here right now either. And no, playing Cruz more in right field is not the answer. The M’s already grade out as one of the poorest fielding teams, and run prevention is just as important as run scoring. Bottom line: Felix needs to be Felix, Dipoto needs to work some magic, and the offense can have a couple hiccups, but can’t afford to go cold for an extended period of time. The second-half starts tonight and the Mariners are on the clock. Five games out and two weeks until the trade deadline. A lot could be decided between now and then.