The Seattle Mariners welcome pitchers, catchers and players rehabbing from injury to spring training next week, officially beginning the long trek that is the 2018 Major League Baseball season. But the club lacks the upside necessary to quiet doubters, and the restrictions on rebuilding the old-fashioned way may be fading fast.

When Jerry Dipoto took the GM job in September of 2015, the belief was he’d try and rebuild on the run. That appears to be clear after two seasons and three winters.  What isn’t clear is the Mariners’ path to the playoffs anytime soon, and that’s due to a lack of aggression this offseason, and perhaps last.

Minor additions to a 78-win club will not strike optimism among the fan base. And while every team starts at zero in April, Seattle’s roster begs of another mediocre ending; compete for awhile, fade in August or September or even come up just short. What changes that kind of result is overflow.

Overflow in talent, that is. Want to win 90? Construct a roster that should win 95 and could win 100. Want to win 85? Shoot for 90-95.

BASEBALL THINGS PODCAST: 5 Reasons to Believe in the ’18 Mariners

The best-case scenario so rarely works out in baseball, even for clubs that eventually get into the postseason and win it all. The Astros lost key players for big chunks of the 2017 season.

So how did they win 101 games and the World Series?

They not only had reasonable replacements — which has NOT been the Mariners’ issue — they had so much talent in other areas of the roster that losing even a star for a month wasn’t enough to push them down below the next-best team in the division.

The Mariners not only have a razor thin margin for error in 2018, one could argue they NEED the margin for error to FAVOR them in order to wake up in late September with a shot at 90 wins. That’s not a plan for winning, that’s wishing upon a star.

The Right Path

Dipoto and the new Mariners ownership group may be on the right path, despite the club’s apparent drive toward an 18th-straight season without postseason play. Rebuilding is difficult for every team that runs into a wall and needs to start again.

The Mariners’ chances to rebuild has not existed since they signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal. Not because of the Cano deal, but because that signing was part of a win-now plan under Jack Zduriencik that also brought Nelson Cruz to town, among other win-now transactions.

Neither player-contract scenario was ever a valuable enough trade chip to jumpstart a rebuild. Neither was the value of younger, cheaper players such as Kyle Seager and James Paxton.

That has changed as time has passed amd perhaps the middle of the 2018 season will represent the first legitimate opportunity for Dipoto to seek to assist his rebuild by trading his better players, rather than low-minors prospects for young major-league talent, or in the straight young-player-for-young-player deals we’ve witnessed the past few years.

It will indeed make sense to shop Seager in July if the Mariners are nine games back of the No. 2 Wild Card with five or six teams ahead of them in the standings.

It will absolutely make sense to field calls on Cruz, or even Cano if a club has interest in taking on the vast majority of the remaining money left on that contract.

And if the return appears amiable for a few of Seattle’s veterans, it could even be wise to see what James Paxton can fetch. Put Mike Zunino‘s name out there and see what clubs are willing to give up for one of the better catchers in baseball with 2 1/2 years of control remaining.

Edwin Diaz, too.

David Phelps and Juan Nicasio, if healthy, would certainly attract interest, as would Dee Gordon, who may have value at his former position, second base, and his new one, center field, by the time trade talk begins to fly. Jean Segur also a is a trade piece.

So why this summer and not last July (or this winter) for veteran trades that bring back young talent?  A handful of reasons, beyond the cry that ownership wants to sell tickets. There absolutely is baseball sense behind it.

1. Rebuilding, especially in this manner (on the go, rather than a full tear-down, which flat out is not happening in Seattle anytime soon), is like a hoop. If you can’t connect the two ends, it’s worthless. WORTHLESS.

So if the end-result roster after making multiple veteran-for-youth trades does not look to the baseball people like a potential winner with a few tweaks and a major grab, the return for the traded veterans is not good enough and making the trades is less valuable. That’s the truth for the Mariners the past few seasons.

This is partially due to a lack of valuable trade chips and partially due to the dollars attached.  Since Dipoto arrived, it was not sensible to expect the kind of return on veterans to get the talent required to connect the two ends of the hoop.

As years go by, the dollars attached shrink down some, and while the player’s value does, too, as he gets older (Cano), it still removes dollars Seattle may have to eat. The time expired also makes it clearer the fewer opportunities to win with said player and the evaporating chances for it to happen.

2. The players the club is likely to keep (which could include Paxton, Diaz or Zunino, or a variation of the trio, since they’re valuable now and also performers in the majors and not simply hopeful prospects), were far from ready to be part of a winning core entering the past three years. They’re much closer now, with the likes of Mitch Haniger showing off his ability last season, and Zunino’s breakthrough at the plate.

3. Even though it was unlikely, though plausible, the roster the Mariners have produced at the start of the 2015-17 seasons would bust through and win a Wild Card berth, it in fact did not, which lends more evidence to the projection this core simply will not in 2018, either.

And trading away the weakened chance at the postseason with the current core veterans appears less of a concern if the club wakes up on July 1 and is under .500 with a steep hill to climb.

4. Trading Cruz last winter was trading away a valuable piece to the potential playoff team. His contract is up after 2018, however, he’s 37, and in the aforementioned scenario, the Mariners with Cruz are not going to the postseason. Not trading Cruz this summer with a team out of the race would be one of the more idiotic things a club can fail to accomplish.

5. And now that Cruz is projecting to be off the roster in 2019 (at least without a new deal, of which should not remove him from the trade market this summer), what does that do the ’19 club’s chances?

It puts undue, unfair pressure on young players and other veterans such as Seager, and the club still will not project as a playoff team. So, going out of their way to retain Seager, Phelps, Nicasio, et al, would suddenly make zero sense, rather than little or some the past few deadlines and offseasons.

In year’s past, it would have made sense in some scenarios to move these types of players, depending on the return package, but in this case, at this stage, it’s bottomed out to a large extent. Now, the hoop is frayed on the front end. Waiting for it to sever completely is what the club did 15 years ago.

What Can the Mariners Get For their Best Trade Chips?

Trading Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano will remain difficult. Felix has to show something on the mound to reestablish any trade value whatsoever and it’s tough to envision any deal not including cash to the acquiring team. Cano, too, but the return in any Cano deal is likely to be worth a lot more than any trade for Hernandez, since he can still hit.

Trading Cano for the Mariners should net a valuable return, albeit far from what trade mongers would call a ‘haul.’

Look around the league the past few years for examples of similar — albeit not identical, trades — and it becomes more apparent what the Mariners could net. But keep in mind, the idea is to shorten the window to contention, not lengthen it, so options will be limited to clubs willing to trade MLB talent or near-ready talent for proven MLB players, and that group has shrunk down over the past year, as evidenced by this year’s player markets.

Felix Hernandez, RHP

Would be a pure salary dump unless a different King Felix shows up consistently this spring. The contract is up after 2019, suggesting moving Hernandez’s money shouldn’t be a priority.

Robinson Cano, 2B

There aren’t a lot of players in their mid-30s with half or more of a 10-year contract remaining being traded. In fact, it’s never happened.

Perhaps the closest example is Prince Fielder, who was in the middle of a nine-year, $214 million contract as he was entering his age-30 season. This may be a solid comparison, since Fielder’s age was advanced by his injury history and the bad body.

Fielder was sent to Texas with $25 million in exchange for Ian Kinsler, meaning the Rangers were set to pay Fielder $119 million over six seasons.  Kinsler was due $57 million over the ensuing four seasons, making the Rangers’ payroll responsibilities increase by $62 million.

Fielder was coming off a 2.3 fWAR season at age 29 and was a year removed from a 4.8 fWAR campaign.

Cano is six years older at 35 and coming off a 3.2 fWAR season, a year removed from a 5.9 fWAR season in 2016, the third-best year of his career.

Cano is owed the same $144 million Fielder was due. It’s reasonable to think the Mariners, sending cash, could get out from under the rest of Cano’s deal. I’d hypothesize, however, they’d need to send more than $25 million to do it — I’d start at $35 million, which makes Cano, essentially, an $18 million a year player through age 41.

There’s certainly a decent chance Cano retires before the end of the contract, too. He won’t need a red cent and his Hall of Fame credentials will be cemented with 2-3 more good years.

As for the return? Don’t count on a useful big-league player coming back, at least not of the everyday variety, i.e., Kinsler. But a young, cheap middle reliever with some upside? Sure. A few long-term prospects? Yep.

Worth noting in July, Cano’s total dollars owed will be cut by about $12 million.

Nelson Cruz, DH

Unless Cruz falls off the planet in production, he’ll be easy to trade. He’s due $14 million in 2018 and is currently slated to hit free agency after the season.

Looking back to last season, the deals for Lucas Duda and J.D. Martinez can serve as the guide. Somewhere between the two is where Cruz’s value likely sits; a little closer to Duda’s than Martinez’s but nearing the median.

Duda fetched minor league reliever Drew Smith, who has a shot to be a setup man or closer; he’s up to 98 mph.

Martinez returned the better package, of course, netting Detroit Jose King, Dawel Lugo and Sergio Alcantara.

I’d suggest the Mariners can get a Smith and another player for Cruz and avoid including cash.

Dee Gordon, CF/2B

No need to look further back than the deal that brought Gordon to Seattle to get an idea what the speedster may be worth this July. Seattle sent SS Chris Torres. RHP Nick Neidert and RHP Robert Dugger to Miami. The Mariners also received international slot money to make a better pitch to Shohei Ohtani.

Barring injury or extremely poor performance by Gordon, not a lot has changed, Gordon is probably worth Neidert and a lower-minors prospect with upside this summer.

The dollars, while not ideal for some clubs — $38.5 million over the next four years, about $33 million left at the 2018 deadline — but contenders will see a performing Gordon and not sweat that kind of money for a quality player in his prime.

Gordon may have draw layers of intrigue if he shows well in center field the first half of the season, potentially increasing the teams interested two-fold.

David Phelps, RHR

Phelps, a free agent after the 2018 season, will earn $5.55 million and will be due about $2 million once the deadline comes and goes this summer.

Trading relievers is an easy task for clubs out of the race and dealing Phelps should net the club a young player or two, perhaps one that fits into the Top 10 spots in the weakest farm system in the game.

The deal the Dodgers made for Tony Watson last summer may be a good starting point for a healthy Phelps. Pittsburgh received 3B Oneil Cruz and RHP Angel German from Los Angeles.

Arizona acquired RHP Luis Madero from the Angels for David Hernandez, Joe Smith got the Blue Jays LHP Thomas Pannone and 2B Samad Taylor and Addison Reed was worth Stephen Nogosek, Gerson Bautista and Jamie Callahan to the Red Sox.

Phelps is likely to be worth somewhere near two of the latter three in the Boston-Mets deal, one of which would have ranked in the club’s Top 8.

Juan Nicasio, RHR

Nicaso signed for two years and $8.5 million per season and if he repeats his 2017 performance will be worth a nice haul at this year’s deadline.

Assuming performance levels are similar, Nicasio is literally worth 150 percent as much, suggesting he could a two-player deal that includes a prospect landing in Seattle’s Top 5 and another in the Top 10-12 range.

James Paxton, LHP

Here’s where the Mariners could make a dent in their ‘rebuild.’

Paxton could impact three pennant races for a contender looking to add impact pitching. Seattleis unlikely to get full value for Paxton thanks to his injury history, but take the Jose Quintana deal as a nice place to start the conversatiom. Now walk backwards about three steps and there’s Paxton’s value, provided he pitches well again in 2018 and stays off the DL for long stints.

The White Sox acquired four players from the Cubs, including OF Eloy Jimenez, one of the game’s best prospects, and right-hander Dylan Cease.

Realistically, the Mariners could get a similar packge without Jimenez at the top, instead replacing his elite prospect status with one carrying ‘very good’ status.

Whether or not Seattle makes such a move depends on when the front office believes the club truly will be able to contend. If that’s within two years, Paxton is probably more valuable remaining on the roster, and perhaps extending for a few years.

Mike Zunino, C

Zunino’s trade value right now isn’t as high as it could be in July if he proves 2017 was no fluke. He’ll have two additional years of team control, like Paxton, and there are few teams in baseball not in need of catcher upgrades.

Gauging Zunino’s trade value is too difficult at this point, but if a deal were made today there’s no reason Seattle doesn’t fetch a pair of Top 8 prospects and a pre-arbitration big-league reliever with upside.

Again like with Paxton, if Dipot and company believe 2019 or 2020 is the year, Zunino fits into that plan and it may make more sense to keep him.

In either deal, if Seattle can gain club control and/or upside in return, it could be too tough to pass.

Edwin Diaz, RHR

Diaz may be the club’s golden ticket if they’re willing to test the market this summer.

More of the 2016 Diaz the first half of this season could create a market in July where Diaz is worth more than both Paxton and Zunino to contenders, which is why it hasn’t made a lot of sense to seriously entertain offers on Diaz until this summer.

If Diaz doesn’t show more consistency, we’ll probably have this conversation again in 365 days.

What might such a deal look like this summer of Diaz indeed performs well?

Not a lot of higher-end relievers are moved before they become arbitration eligible, so there aren’t many (none,r eally) recent deals upon which to base a 2018 trade. But the move for Ken Giles made by the Houston Astros in December of 2015 could serve well in this discussion, even though Seattle likely comes up short of that package because Diaz’s track record isn’t as stacked.

Philly received right-handers Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, Harold Arauz and Vince Velasquez, plus lefty Brett Olberholtzer.

If we slice out the first three names, Velasquez and Olbertholtzer is probably bottom rung in this scenario. Without injuries mucking up his career, Velasquez was on his way to No. 2 starter status.

Jean Segura, SS

Most clubs see Segura as a second baseman but he;s handled shortstop just fine in Seattle, which could mean a boost in immediate trade value.

Clubs with young, up-and-coming shortstop prospects and no long-term second base answer could view Segura’s contract as a major coup and offer a three-stage haul for the veteran, meaning, one prospect from each layer of the minors and/or layer of quality.

Of course, all of the above becomes 100 percent moot if the Mariners are the upstart and end up legitimate contenders in July.

But this year it would be a surprise due to a lack of impact additions this winter, and the time to connect the two ends of the hoop is near.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 and spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio. He now serves as the Executive Copy Editor at Data Skrive, a tech company that manipulates data to provide automated content to clients including the AP, BetMGM, USA Today, and ESPN. Find Jason's baseball podcast, Baseball Things, right here.

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