Hart’s return could affect M’s trade deadline plans

 After spending almost seven weeks on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, Corey Hart returned to the Seattle Mariners’ lineup on Friday night against the Chicago White Sox. In a corresponding roster move, the M’s designated veteran outfielder Cole Gillespie for assignment; he hit .254/.312/.324 in 78 plate appearances this year. In another move, they club opted to send first baseman Justin Smoak down to Triple-A Tacoma instead of having him rejoin the big league club, meaning Logan Morrison will continue to be the M’s regular first baseman. Smoak, like Hart, was on a rehab assignment that was set to conclude next week.

This is where things could begin to get even more interesting for the Mariners. The July 31st non-waiver trade deadline is now less than four weeks away and the club has a hold on one of the two American League Wild Card slots. Seattle’s success this season has been largely due to the performance of their pitching staff — which has been one of the best in all of baseball. Up to this point, their offence has managed to provide enough, but the need for another bat has been painfully obvious since Spring Training.

When the M’s took a one-year flier on Hart his winter, they were hoping to get something resembling the 2010-2012 Hart: a right-handed bat with 30-plus home run power. That in and of itself may have been wishful thinking considering the slugger didn’t play a game in 2013 after having surgery on both of his knees. So far this season Hart hasn’t provided much offensively. Sure, his five home runs this year are only one fewer than Robinson Cano has, but his .209 batting average in 156 plate appearances prior to hitting the disabled list is nowhere near his .273 career average.

Even after the club added Hart, many believed that Seattle was still a bat short and it’s safe to say that Logan Morrison isn’t quite the substantial upgrade that was really needed. LoMo has been hitting better of late and with Brad Miller‘s resurgence at the plate over the last month, the lineup is definitely in a good spot for a timely upgrade in the outfield/designated hitter/first base department.

A report from Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com yesterday suggested that Seattle would be willing to part with Brandon Maurer and another piece in a potential trade for Chicago White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo. This isn’t the first time that the M’s have been linked to the 25-year old, but it is the first time we’ve gotten word on what the potential cost of acquiring him would be.

It would certainly make sense for the Mariners to deal from their reliever surplus and names like Maurer and Dominic Leone could be of interest to other teams. But a deal for a player like Viciedo would only make sense depending on who the other player involved would be, of course. Myself and many others have been impressed by Maurer’s first couple appearances out of the bullpen and he does have the makings of a potential future closer, but that shouldn’t make him untouchable. The question at hand would be if Viciedo specifically, is the player that would help the Mariners.

Viciedo has mainly played right field this year for the White Sox, but has seen time in left as well, so hypothetically he would displace Dustin Ackley in left should he be acquired. It has to be noted though, that while Ackley is struggling mightily this year with the bat, he has been very sound defensively and has helped shore up an outfield that was downright terrible in the field at times last year. Viciedo isn’t even an average defender in the outfield and owns a -12.7 UZR in his outfield career. The athleticism of centerfielder James Jones could help offset some of the liability Viciedo would bring, but the downgrade that would take place defensively by replacing Ackley projects to be very noticeable, and possibly disastrous during a Chris Young start.

That’s not to be a complete downer on Viciedo however, as he does carry something sorely needed by the M’s: right-handed pop. The Cuban outfielder has a career 88 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, but also has a career 90 wRC+ against right-handed pitching so he wouldn’t necessarily be acquired for the purposes of being utilized in a platoon situation. For what it’s worth, eight of his nine home runs this year have come against right-handed pitching.

Remembering that Seattle does appear to have the financial flexibility to make a trade, it wasn’t all that long ago that they were deemed to be tapped out by the front office. Viciedo’s 2014 salary was just $2.8 million and he’s owed about half of that now so he would be a potential fit financially as well. It’s even possible that the club could pick up the outfielder as well as a starting pitcher with a low salary to provide some extra depth.

I have a hard time seeing Hart get much action in the outfield for the remainder of the year, but there could be a plausible scenario where he spends some time at first base, which would open up the designated hitter spot for someone like Viciedo. Or, the club continues to play the matchup game and starts Ackley on nights when Young is pitching and brings him in to the game late as a defensive replacement.

All that’s speculation on my part, however, and really it’d be ideal to take a week or two to evaluate Hart and see if Ackley can build off of a strong serious against the Houston Astros to begin July. But sitting back and hoping for the best is a terrible idea and something the Mariners must avoid.

If Hart is able to return to his pre-knee surgery form then certainly the M’s could get away with making a small or medium upgrade to their offence with a guy like Viciedo. But there’s a very real possibility that he won’t and Seattle should be looking at a bigger fish anyway.

Prospect Insider’s Jason Churchill compiled a list of potential trade targets for the Mariners, and on that list was Texas Rangers outfielder Alex Rios. The former Toronto Blue Jay would seemingly fit the Mariners perfectly — right-handed bat, a solid defensive outfielder, has plus speed, and is capable of hitting at Safeco. However, as Jason notes, it’s unknown at this point whether or not the Rangers will be willing to part with their outfielder as he has a $13.5 million club option for 2015. And if he is made available and ownership is willing to eat what’s left of the $12.5 million he’s due this year, he’d definitely cost more than a reliever and a secondary prospect.

But that doesn’t mean the M’s don’t have the pieces to get a deal done.

Realistically, Seattle needs a healthy, productive Hart and a secondary bat that they bring in from outside the organization to solidify the lineup. Does a healthy Hart and Viciedo take this lineup to another level? It’s unlikely. Does Hart and Rios? Probably.

The Mariners can’t afford to stand pat now that the Oakland Athletics have made the first blockbuster of the summer by acquiring starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs for three top prospects. The A’s were one of the top teams in baseball to begin with and they just got a whole lot better.

Seattle has an opportunity to make something out of Cano’s first year in blue and teal and what’s turning into an outstanding season from Felix Hernandez, and there’s no reason for them to waste it.

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Tyler Carmont

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