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.
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.