The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It look 108 years, but it did happen. The Seattle Mariners have clinched a playoff berth. Well, not yet. But there’s legitimate optimism that for the first time in fifteen years, it will happen in 2017. The team from the North Side did just prove anything can happen, after all.

The Mariners aren’t coming into the season as favorites to win the division. That’d be the Houston Astros. They’re a worthy choice, led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, a talented pitching staff, and some veteran additions to their lineup. If you remember back in 2014, Sports Illustrated declared the Astros the 2017 World Champs. It’s possible they will be right.

There’s also the Texas Rangers who many prognosticators have ranked about even with the Mariners. The Rangers have lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in each of the last two postseasons and return a deep lineup and a one-two punch of Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. The sting of back-to-back World Series losses in 2010 and 2011 is still present.

The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels may bang a few pots and pans during the season. But the A’s are still developing a young core and the Angels are still trying to build a contender around Mike Trout.

With a three-team race and one tiered above the other two, the path to the postseason is a narrow road for Seattle. And that’s before considering that the American League East and Central will offer a couple of the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, and Blue Jays as playoff competition. But, as we have seen with the advent of the second Wild Card, the third-best team in the division can still make the playoffs. And from there, anything can happen.

The challenge is getting there. The external factors won’t be doing them any favors. The window for the Kansas City Royals may be closing but many members of the competition got better.

The internal factors may not be much better as questions have risen around many of the Mariners key parts.

It starts with Felix Hernandez. Can he rebound or is he now a shadow of his former self? Can James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma stay healthy the entire year and produce? With Drew Smyly already on the shelf, the rotation can ill-afford to have another injury.

And there’s the bullpen. Can Edwin Diaz be lights out again or will he tire out before the playoff race really heats up? Is a rehabbing Steve Cishek and a relative unknown in Dan Altavilla enough to bridge the gap to Diaz? Can the rest of the relief staff withstand the annual volatility that hits every bullpen?

Is Jean Segura going to regress or can he repeat his 2016 performance? What happens if Nelson Cruz or Robinson Cano can’t should the load as they get older? The outfield may prevent a lot of runs, but will they be able to provide any offence?

The Mariners have a lot of questions. Perhaps more uncertainty than you’d want to see from a playoff contender. But the point I’d like to make is that all teams, not just Seattle, have multiple question marks when you prod hard enough.

Boston came into Spring Training with three aces. Easily one of the best rotations in the league on paper. But, how will David Price perform once he’s off the disabled list? Will Rick Porcello be able to prove last year wasn’t a fluke? Can Chris Sale handle the move to a tougher division or will his mechanics finally get the best of him?

We can ask questions about nearly every player on every team. Even the World Champion Cubs aren’t without their own. How will the club handle the dreaded World Series hangover, especially with so many kids on the team? What if Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester get hurt? Is the bullpen deep enough? Jason Heyward?

Questions, concerns, uncertainty — they all surround every team. Things like depth and talent help ease some of the concern though, and allow us to predict that the Cubs and Indians will still be very good, even if things go wrong. Can the Los Angeles Dodgers survive an injury to Clayton Kershaw? They answered that last season.

It’s now time for the Mariners to answer all the questions pundits have put their way. These answers will determine whether or not a playoff appearance will happen.

Felix went into the offseason hellbent on reclaiming his throne. Participating in winter ball, an intense workout regime, and the World Baseball Classic were all part of his plan. On Monday he gets a chance to start answering those who feel he has lost his crown. Early returns are positive and if he can locate his fastball again, even with diminished velocity, he can still lead the rotation.

To back him up, particularly in the event he doesn’t get to where he needs to be, General Manager Jerry Dipoto beefed up the rotation with some upside in Smyly. Veteran starter Yovani Gallardo was also added in an upside play. More importantly, Seattle now has some rotation depth at Triple-A in Ariel Miranda, Chris Heston, and Dillon Overton that can offer assistance.

The Mariners had a 30-30 record in one-run games last year. Literally as few as two more runs scored could’ve resulted in a playoff spot. So, Dipoto deepened the lineup.

[pullquote]The days of lumbering outfielders are over as Seattle emphasized run prevention in the outfield this winter. Sluggers are now athletes and more hits should be outs.[/pullquote]

Cano, Cruz, and Kyle Seager remain one of the best offensive trios in the game. Some thump was added at the top of the lineup in Segura along with some speed in Jarrod Dyson. Danny Valencia, Carlos Ruiz, and Mitch Haniger help lengthen the lineup beyond the core three. The bottom of the order should be better too with Leonys Martin and Mike Zunino pushed down. Dan Vogelbach, optioned to Triple-A, may also provide some help later in the year.

The best offense can also be better defense, or something along those lines, so Dipoto beefed up the outfield defense in a big way. Three center fielders figure to patrol Safeco in Martin, Dyson, and Haniger. Not to mention the presence of Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel on the depth chart. Building a team suited to the home ballpark simply made a lot of sense. Better defense should help the pitching staff, too. Cruz spending minimal time in the outfield is addition by subtraction.

If there was one area that wasn’t reinforced, the bullpen could qualify. Tony Zych is close to returning, but along with the aforementioned Cishek and Altavilla, is a question mark. Marc Rzepczynski is a fine addition and will help against left-handers, but he isn’t exactly a high-leverage arm. Perhaps Thyago Vieira and his fastball will show up at some point or Nick Vincent can excel in a seventh inning role again. Evan Scribner is finally healthy and could be a wild card in the pen. Casey Fien may have something left too.

The goal was not to rebuild the core but add to it and perhaps find a way to extend the window. This may be the last opportunity to get the best out of Hernandez, Cano, Cruz, and Seager all at the same time.

With that in mind, Seattle made a multitude of changes this winter, particularly via trade. Taijuan Walker‘s potential was dealt to add an impact bat in Segura and shore up the shortstop position. Haniger may well be an impact piece also. Former top prospect Alex Jackson was dealt to add pitching depth to the upper minors. Luiz Gohara and his tantalizing but risky stuff was traded to bring in Smyly, an impact arm for the rotation.

The 2018 season is a long ways away. Seattle may not have gone all-in on 2017, but in Dipoto’s moves there was a trend towards putting together the best possible team for this season.

Nate Karns could still become an effective mid-rotation starter or even a dynamite reliever. Instead, Dipoto took the floor offered by Gallardo along with some potential upside.

Some things will go wrong this year. If one out of every two trades made ends up working out, Seattle may well take that — especially given they bought odds in bulk, so to speak.

The injury to Smyly would qualify as the first thing to go wrong, World Baseball Classic be darned. One of the outfielders may not hit at an acceptable level and perhaps another veteran in the lineup goes down. Maybe the bullpen is held together by glue and bubble gum by the All-Star break. That’s where the Mariners X-factor comes in: Jerry Dipoto.

If there’s one executive who isn’t afraid to make a deal it’s Seattle’s commander-in-chief. That depth at the Triple-A level can help the Mariners in two ways: through promotion or in trades. If some of the Boog Powells and D.J. Petersons can’t help the big league team themselves, perhaps they can help bring in a veteran depth piece who can. Dipoto still has a couple bullets left to play with but probably doesn’t deal his few top prospects.

The real question is simple: will the Seattle Mariners make the playoffs in 2017? I’m inclined to say yes, if only because of the two Wild Card berths available. But, like we said, you just have to get there.

It’s time to start answering some of those questions.…

Much to the chagrin of Seattle Mariners fans, their team was relatively inactive at Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. Certainly, watching two consecutive late-inning losses to the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, while other contenders improved their major league rosters didn’t help their morale either.

It’s not as if the Mariners season is over because they didn’t make any big moves. They remain relatively close in wild card race. Plus, they’re eight games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers with seven contests remaining with Texas. Plus, they’re just 2.5 games behind the second-place Houston Astros.

There is hope. But, I get it. Fans would’ve liked to have seen more action. Me too.

Frankly, I felt the Mariners needed to do more before 1 p.m. on Monday to become more than a fringe contender. But, the club didn’t do more and has 57 games remaining to end the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball.

Certainly, to play meaningful October baseball, Seattle will have to play better than they have to date. That means that the Mariners will have to do well against their division rivals — 63-percent of their remaining schedule is against the American League (AL) West.

With that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to delve into the “deadline season” maneuvers by Seattle’s four division rivals. Each club had a unique approach. There was a buyer, a holder, a sellout r, and a rudderless shipper. Let’s start with the buyer.

Texas Rangers
Most pundits classified the club as a deadline “winner.” I’m not as enthusiastic though. Don’t get me wrong. They did improve their roster and I’ve seen Texas as the team to beat in the AL West since the beginning of the season; I still feel that way. However, they solidified an already strong lineup and remained exposed to risk from a bigger need — their shallow rotation.

It’s not as if general manager (GM) Jon Daniels didn’t try to upgrade his starting staff.  But, the market was thin and he understandably didn’t want to overpay for one of the many ordinary arms on the market, such as Andrew Cashner, Drew Pomeranz, Hector Santiago, or the injured Rich Hill. Can you blame him?

Multiple reports suggested Texas was interested in top-shelf starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox. But, they were unable to acquire either hurler. We’ll never whether the Rangers didn’t want to meet Chicago’s demands, or if the duo were actually available.

For whatever reason, Daniels couldn’t secure another starter for his rotation. So, he did the next best thing for his club. He upgraded the team’s offense and added a back-end reliever to his struggling bullpen.

The Rangers aggressively sought out and attained two proven offensive players — catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran — who are certain to ensure that the club’s offense remains prolific.

The duo will help with more than the club’s run-production though. Lucroy’s game calling and defensive skills behind the plate will benefit Rangers pitchers and Beltran adds another clubhouse leader with postseason experience.

Daniels addressed his roster’s weakest link by landing Milwaukee Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress in the same deal that brought Lucroy to Arlington. Texas relievers rank last in the American League —  according to the Fangraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR), They’ve also allowed the most home runs and registered the fewest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any bullpen in the majors.

Jeffress isn’t a marquee name like Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller and he’s not a swing-and-miss type like Chapman or Miller. But, he’s surrendered just two home runs in 44 innings of work this season and has a proven track record in high-leverage situations.

Adding Jeffress into the late-inning mix with hard-throwers Sam Dyson and Matt Bush certainly improves the Rangers’ chances of holding on to leads late in games. The issue is whether their starting staff can hold leads to hand over to their improved bullpen.

At the top of the rotation, the Rangers are in decent shape with co-aces Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, plus southpaw Martin Perez. But, the back-end isn’t proven or reliable.

The injury losses of Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have forced the Rangers to turn to Lucas Harrell — recently acquired from the Atlanta Braves — and A.J. Griffin to round out the rotation. The question for Texas is whether the duo can provide enough quality innings until Holland and Lewis from the disabled list (DL), assuming they arrive back on schedule or at all.

Holland has been on the DL with shoulder soreness since late June and is closest to returning. He’s scheduled to start a rehab assignment on Friday. It’s worth noting that this is the southpaw’s third consecutive season with DL time and that he’s only started 29 games since the start of the 2014 season.

Lewis has also been out since late June with a strained lat muscle. As Mariners fans know, recovery from that injury is a slow process. Seattle relievers Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner have been on the DL with lat strains since Spring Training and neither pitcher has an estimated return date. In Lewis’ case, he’s currently doing a long toss program with no formal return date.

If it sounds like I’m nitpicking the Rangers — I am. They’re a legitimate World Series contender intent on winning it all. I’m just not certain that their rotation is good enough.

Houston Astros
Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Astros were “holders” and remained relatively inactive at the deadline. Their biggest moves were recalling rookie infielder Alex Bregman from the minors and signing Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.

Bregman — the number-two overall pick during the 2015 amateur draft — was primarily a shortstop during his brief stay in the minors. But, the Astros have that position covered for the foreseeable future with 2015 National League Rookie of the League Carlos Correa.

With shortstop unavailable and the team in need of an offensive spark, the Astros slid the 22-year-old over to third base. Unfortunately, for Houston and Bregman, he’s struggling mightily with just one hit in his first 34 major league plate appearances.

The 32-year-old Gurriel, viewed as a major league ready, will likely join the Astros after completing a short stay in the minors to re-hone his baseball skills. The right-handed hitter has played at second and third base, plus shortstop in the past. Perhaps, he’ll relieve Bregman when ready, permitting the rookie to resume his development in the minors.

The only deadline trades made by Houston GM Jeff Luhnow shipped relievers Scott Feldman to the Toronto Blue Jays and Josh Fields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects. Both pitchers weren’t that effective in the Astros’ superb bullpen and deemed expendable.

The lack of movement by Houston spurred many analysts to portray the club as deadline “losers,” but I can understand the organization’s reluctance to make “win-now” blockbuster deals. Their roster is more flawed than their win-loss record suggests.

In early July, I noted that Houston’s strong June was driven by the scorching bats of several hitters who were overachieving. Specifically, Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus, who were all dramatically above their career on-base percentage (OBP) in June.

Based on the reasonable assumption that the majority of these players’ numbers would normalize, I suggested during the Mariners mid-season report that Houston’s record would level out. That’s exactly what’s happened. The Astros had a 13-12 win-loss record in July and their OBP plummeted from number-two in the AL during June to eleventh best last month.

What happened to those super-hot June performers? Other than Valbuena, who’s currently on the DL, every other player’s OBP is below the .270 mark since July 1.

Yes, Houston’s core is outstanding. But, their lineup lacks depth and needs several pieces to improve as a unit. With that in mind, their front office wasn’t willing to forsake their future by overpaying at the deadline. Rather, they opted to be holders and ride out the season with their current cast of characters. To be honest, I don’t blame them.

Oakland Athletics
Led by president of baseball operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst, the Athletics have been masterful at orchestrating deals as both buyers and sellers during previous years. This time, they were in the latter category.

In early June, Oakland sent utility-man Chris Coghlan to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for infielder Arismendy Alcantara. The 24-year-old Alcantara was a top-100 prospect as recently as 2014, but he’s struggled during limited big league auditions. Despite his early problems in the majors, the switch-hitter is a good fielder who possesses home run power and stolen base speed. Plus, he has the athleticism to play second base, shortstop, and center field.

The club’s big sell job dispatched outfielder Josh Reddick and starting pitcher Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three prospects. The most notable being Grant Holmes, a 20-year-old right-handed starter who ranks number-82 on the MLB.com top-100 prospect list. Selected by the Dodgers with the number-22 overall pick during the 2014 amateur draft, Holmes projects as a mid-rotation starter.

Oakland also picked up Frankie Montas. The 23-year-old is a hard-throwing starter capable of topping 100-MPH on the radar gun. His issues have been command on the mound and weight control on the scales. It’s possible that the right-hander will eventually transition to reliever. Currently, Montas isn’t playing due to a stress reaction in the rib area where he had offseason surgery. As a result, he’s not likely to pitch again this season.

The third prospect acquired is 24-year-old Jharel Cotton, who projects to be either a mid-rotation starter. With that said, his 5-foot-11 frame may lead Oakland to transition the U. S. Virgin Island-born hurler into a reliever.

The Athletics also traded outfielder Billy Burns to the Kansas City Royals for Brett Eibner. The right-handed hitter is a former second-round pick, who’s endured numerous injuries in the minors. But, he’s blossomed during his last two seasons at Class-AAA level. Eibner made his major league debut in late-May as an injury replacement for center fielder Lorenzo Cain and slashed .231/.286/.423 during 85 plate appearances before returning to the minors upon Cain’s return from the DL.

Although this is a seemingly minor deal, it’s possible that 27-year-old Eibner could be a late-bloomer now that injury issues are behind him. Oakland retains club control over the outfielder through the 2022 season.

Los Angeles Angels
This is an organization in a difficult predicament. They desperately need to upgrade their minor league system — ranked worst in baseball. But, they have few appealing assets on their major league roster. Their most valuable piece — Mike Trout — is a generational talent who isn’t going anywhere.

Still, the team did have opportunities to improve as Monday’s trade deadline approached, but their strategy was peculiar — at least to me.

The club’s biggest deal sent southpaw starter Hector Santiago and minor league reliever Alan Busenitz to the Minnesota Twins for 26-year-old pitching prospect Alex Meyer and 33-year-old starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco. It’s incomprehensible to me that Los Angeles exchanged Santiago for Nolasco.

Yes, the Twins are picking up a significant chunk of Nolasco’s salary for this year and next. But, he hasn’t been good for some time — 5.44 ERA during 56 career starts with the Twins dating back to 2014 — and is five years older than Santiago.

Clearly, the key to this deal for the Angels is Meyer — a 6-foot-9 hard-throwing right-hander, who’s struggled with command throughout his professional career and has been dealing with shoulder problems for most of this season. Before his health issues, Minnesota had converted the number-23 overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft to a reliever.

That’s right; Los Angeles dealt a starting pitcher, who was an all-star last season and under team control for one more year, for a struggling 33-year-old starter and a 26-year-old pitcher with command issues and shoulder problems. How does that make sense?

The team’s only other move saw reliever Joe Smith going to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Class-A pitcher Jesus Castillo. In this case, the Angels were simply moving a rental player. Since Smith hadn’t been effective as in years past, his value diminished in the trade market. In return for their submarine tossing reliever, Los Angeles picked up the 20-years-old Castillo.

Smith may have been the club’s only healthy player with an expiring contract. But, there were several players under team control past this season who could’ve been moved and brought value back to the Angels. Yet, GM Billy Eppler chose to stand pat.

A prime trade candidate was third baseman Yunel Escobar. Los Angeles holds a $7 million club option for next season with a $1 million buyout. Considering that Escobar has been productive at the plate — .322/.370/.411 — and relatively affordable, it’s hard to fathom that the Angels couldn’t find a dance partner interested in the 33-year-old.

Reliever Cam Bedrosian is a player who had to be in high demand and could’ve returned value to the organization. The son of former major league reliever Steve Bedrosian is under team control until 2022 and has been highly effective — 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings — as the eighth inning set up man for manager Mike Scioscia.

With the trade of Smith and closer Huston Street going to the DL, Bedrosian has assumed the closer role in Anaheim. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the Angels to start retooling their system by moving the 24-year-old?

Another trade piece could’ve been starter Matt Shoemaker. Granted, the club’s rotation has been so decimated by injury that moving a starting pitcher in-season might have been difficult. But, considering what the Tampa Bay Rays received from the San Francisco Giants for Matt Moore — major league third baseman Matt Duffy and two top-30 prospects from the Giants farm system — it’s plausible that the Angels could’ve found similar or more value for Shoemaker.

Admittedly, moving right fielder Kole Calhoun would be a tough pill to swallow. After all, the 28-year-old is slashing .275/.354/.415. Other than Trout, he’s the club’s best position player and under team control through the end of the 2019 season.

On the other hand, how do the Angels plan to be competitive by 2019?

Considering the current state of the Angels’ minor league system, it’s unlikely it’ll be able to provide significant relief within the next three seasons. Plus the Angels will enter 2019 with a 27-year-old Mike Trout with one year remaining on his contract and a 39-year-old Albert Pujols with two left on his deal. Both men will be making a combined $62 million. Under these circumstances, I fail to see a road map to success for the Angels.

So, Seattle Mariners fans. There is a glimmer of hope for your team’s playoff expectancy. The two teams in front of you in the AL West standings have played better, but have flawed rosters too. It’s going to come down to which teams are best positioned to overcome their flaws.

In my mind, the Rangers continue to be in the driver’s seat. But, their starting staff could be their undoing in the divisional race or postseason. Plus, the Astros are struggling enough to be caught by Seattle.

For the Mariners to leapfrog Houston and — gasp — Texas, they’d need a few breaks along the way. Most importantly, they’d need their starting staff to regain its early season form and avoid injury to their core position players. That’s a lot to hope for with less than two months remaining in the system. But, at least there’s hope Mariners fans.…

Lee Lineup“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.”Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016

Forty games into the 2016 season, hopes and expectations were soaring for the Seattle Mariners. Then, unexpectedly, one of the best teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) became one of the worst in the span of just six weeks. The team that could do no wrong suddenly couldn’t catch a break.

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners mid-season award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

Surprise
Arkins: Dae-Ho Lee, 1B
Churchill: Lee

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

Standings and Trends
The American League (AL) West division standings have shifted dramatically since our first-quarter review, when the Texas Rangers and Mariners were the only clubs with winning records and the Houston Astros were cellar dwellers thanks to an abysmal April. Here’s where the division stands at the midway point of the Mariners’ season.
AL West Standings
Tm W L GB Strk R RA vWest Home Road last10 last20 last30
TEX 52 30 L 1 4.9 4.4 26-13 28-12 24-18 6-4 14-6 21-9
HOU 43 38 8.5 L 1 4.6 4.2 16-16 23-16 20-22 8-2 14-6 21-9
SEA 42 39 9.5 W 3 4.9 4.3 15-19 21-20 21-19 6-4 8-12 12-18
OAK 35 46 16.5 L 3 4.2 4.9 14-18 17-25 18-21 6-4 10-10 13-17
LAA 33 48 18.5 W 1 4.4 4.8 15-20 16-26 17-22 2-8 7-13 10-20
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2016.

Back in May, I suggested that the division’s contenders and also-rans would be more apparent by the season’s midway point and that’s certainly turned out to be true. Both Texas and Houston flew by Seattle in the standings in June, while the Mariners have struggled to remain relevant.

The Rangers have continued to win despite losing three starters to the disabled list (DL) within the last 30 days — co-ace Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis. Credit for the club’s resiliency goes to the strong performances of co-ace Cole Hamelsfellow starter Martin Perezand their torrid offense — ranked number-four in runs scored during June.

The Texas bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in the AL during June, which is actually an improvement over its first quarter stature. Sam Dyson has done relatively well since assuming the closer role from incumbent Shawn Tolleson. But, the club only has one “swing and miss” arm in the ‘pen — former shortstop and number-one overall draft pick Matt Bush, who wasn’t even a reliever or in professional baseball a year ago. This is an area ripe for an upgrade prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

At the end of the first quarter, I referred to the Astros as “the most enigmatic team in the AL West.” Since then, only the Rangers have won more games than Houston in the AL.

The Astros flourished despite the ongoing struggles of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who has seen his fielding independent pitching (FIP) and earned run average (ERA) skyrocket this season. Sophomore Lance McCullers has been the rotation’s best performer after getting a late start to the season due to shoulder soreness, while the rest of the staff has kept their team in games.

The key to Houston’s resurgence has been several extremely hot bats. In June, the club ranked second in the AL in on-base percentage (OBP), thanks to hot stretches by Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus. It’s highly unlikely that this group can sustain their recent uptick since all are performing well above their career averages.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics have become the also-rans thanks to a barrage of significant injuries. The only questions remaining for these clubs this season is how soon will they become sellers and who are they willing to move in deals?

Although Texas is certain to cool off, they continue to be the best team in the AL West. Making the club even more formidable is the fact that, as noted in the Rangers deadline deal preview, general manager Jon Daniels possesses the assets and resourcefulness to be a major player in the trade market.

Whether Houston can sustain their current trajectory with a less-than-optimal ace and a streaky supporting cast behind young stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer is debatable. Still, general manager Jeff Luhnow has also proven that he’s willing to wheel and deal at the trading deadline.

Despite the recent struggles of the Mariners and the June bounces of the Rangers and Astros, I expect the division race to tighten as the season progresses. A lot can change within the span of six weeks. Just ask fans in Houston and Seattle. Now, let’s turn our attention to the team from the Emerald City.

Offense
Although the Mariners struggled to win games during the last six weeks, offense hasn’t been the problem. A comparison between Seattle’s MLB run production rankings at the first-quarter mark and the midway point of the season demonstrates that point.

Mariners MLB Run Production Rankings
Year Runs/Gm BB% SO% BA OBP SLG
1st QTR
7 14 11 17 16 10
Midway 6 11 8 12 10 6

Run production has remained essentially the same in league rankings and the team actually scored slightly more runs since the start of the second quarter. So, what’s working for the club? A lot. Let’s start with the heart of the batting order inherited by general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Robinson Cano continues to demonstrate that last year’s sub-par performance was actually due to health issues and not age-related regression. Kyle Seager is on track to hit 20-plus home runs and repeat his career .263/.329/.440 triple-slash. Finally, Nelson Cruz has avoided the decline that many — including me — had predicted for the 36-year-old.

The main stars aren’t the only contributors this season. New supporting cast members Adam Lind, Leonys Martin, Dae-Ho Lee, and Chris Iannetta have improved the offense to varying degrees. They’ve blended nicely with the heart of the order, plus holdovers Seth Smith, Ketel Marte, and Franklin Gutierrez to create a consistently productive lineup.

In the offseason, Dipoto placed a strong emphasis on lengthening the club’s everyday lineup and improving the roster’s on-base ability in order to withstand a slumping player — or players. Overall, his plan has worked. But, that doesn’t mean that everything has gone as well as conceived.

Take a look at how the OBP of each position ranks against the rest of the AL. Although there are mostly bright spots, a few areas of concern do exist.

Mariners OBP Rankings (by Position)
Position OBP League OBP (Position) AL Rank
C .321 .293 2
1B .306 .326 12
2B .358 .331 3
3B .346 .330 4
SS .292 .316 12
LF .321 .324 11
CF .316 .327 8
RF .331 .343 12
DH .380 .325 2
PH .312 .295 8

At shortstop, Marte has been effective at making contact. But, his OBP has tanked due to an extremely low 3.4 walk rate that ranks in the bottom-10 among qualified major league hitters. Since returning from the DL on June 6, the switch-hitter has been even worse (2.1-percent).

Fortunately, for the Mariners and Marte, there’s a good chance he’ll fix his on-base woes. The switch-hitter posted a 9.7-percent rate with Seattle during the second half of last year and 7.5-percent during parts of two seasons with Class-AAA Tacoma. Getting the 22-year-old back on track would provide a significant boost to the offense and provide Servais with another option to leadoff.

Both corner outfield positions under-performed during the first half. As a result, Dipoto shook up the roster by optioning left fielder Nori Aoki to Tacoma on June 24. The 34-year-old had battled inconsistency at the plate all season, particularly against left-handed pitching.

Considering Aoki’s career success against southpaws — .360 OBP — his struggles come as a surprise. This year, the left-handed hitter posted an anemic .244 OBP during 87 plate appearances against lefties. In Aoki’s place, the club is using Gutierrez and Smith in both corners spots, plus Cruz is getting more playing time in right field.

Aoki’s demotion not only affects the outfield. His absence changes the status quo at first base and designated hitter. When Cruz is patrolling right field, one of the members of the first base platoon — either Lind or Lee — is getting the opportunity to be the designated hitter, while the other plays first base.

Getting both Lind and Lee more consistent playing time may improve both players’ offensive numbers. Lind has been performing well below his career slash numbers and is sitting at .236/.266/.421 through the end of June. His struggles have spurred fan outcry for more playing time for Lee. Now, they’re getting their wish.

Lee has certainly created a swirl of excitement with his bat and his contagious smile. But, some observers believe that Servais’ shrewd use of Lee has helped obscure flaws in the the rookie’s game. In another six weeks, we’ll know whether that’s true and if Lind can salvage his season. For now though, management seems content to stick with their first base platoon setup.

Unlike recent seasons, the Mariners aren’t overly reliant on one or two hitters in order to score runs. Now, it’s a collaborative effort that’s been highly productive. That’s certainly a deviation from the norm in Seattle.

The Major League Baseball non-waiver trading deadline is nearing and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see how general manager Jerry Dipoto handles the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” in Seattle. With that in mind, I’ve been doing “primers” for each American League (AL) West division club to see how the club’s rivals stack up as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

In recent days, I’ve discussed each of Seattle’s divisional rivals — the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the the Mariners.

As mentioned in the earlier pieces, the trade market is certain to fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Some teams will go on a hot streak and feel like they have a chance, while others will stumble. In the end, all will have to decide whether to buy or sell and how aggressive they should be in the market.

The Mariners fall into the category of a “stumbler” and are an excellent example of how quickly a team’s trajectory can veer off course. After posting a 30-11 win-loss record during the first two months, Seattle is 6-13 since. The club’s recent spate of misfortune has probably influenced the opinion of some fans on whether the Mariners should be buyers or sellers.

For the purpose of this primer, I’m going to assume that the Mariners will be buyers. A month from now, their season may look much differently. For now, they’re still above the .500 mark and still very much alive in the divisional and wild card race. First, let’s talk about how Seattle entered their June tailspin.

What happened?
As with any baseball team — or season — there’s no one “thing” that leads to failure. In the case of the Mariners though, there’s one segment of the roster that’s clearly under-performed during the rough patch known as the month of June — their pitching. Look at the following table to see what I mean.

Mariners Run Production vs. Run Prevention
Month RS/Gm RA/Gm
Total W-L
W-L (+4 Runs scored)
W-L (Under 4 Runs Scored)
April 4.3 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9
May 5.6 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7
June 4.8 5.5 6-13 6-5 0-8

As you can see, there’s been a downward trend in runs allowed (RA/Gm) during month of the season. It’s true that club’s offense isn’t as robust in June when compared to their monster May, but it’s still averaging 4.8 RS/Gm. That should be plenty to win the majority of games.

For further proof, look at Seattle’s win-loss record when they’ve scored four or more runs during each month of the season. In April and May, the Mariners combined to go 25-5 in those games. In June, however, they’re barely over .500. In fact, the ball club hasn’t won a game when they’ve scored three or less runs this month. It’s always tough to win when a team scores three or less, but 0-8?

The declining effectiveness of the pitching staff is the root cause to the club’s June swoon. So, what’s the problem with the Mariners staff?

The ugly baby
The most apparent problem with the Mariners’ staff is the is the health of their starters. Many pundits and fans point to losing ace Felix Hernandez to the disabled list (DL) as the turning point. To a degree that’s true, but it’s a bit more complex.

Sure, losing King Felix hurts. But, his replacement — James Paxton — has performed admirably in the King’s absence. Look at the numbers of Felix’s last four starts prior to his calf injury compared to Paxton’s. There are relatively the same.

Felix Hernandez vs. James Paxton (Last three starts)
Player IP H
ER SO
BB
HR
AVG
Felix Hernandez 26.1 23 11 24 8 3 .235
James Paxton
26 28 4 27 8 1 .285

Am I suggesting that Paxton can replace Felix on a long-term basis? Of course not. But, the southpaw isn’t the problem. In fact, he’s been one of the team’s better pitchers in June.

The true pain from Felix’s absence has to do with the subsequent loss of Wade Miley to the DL and the ongoing injury issues with Taijuan Walker. With Paxton subbing for the King, he wasn’t available to fill in for Miley or Walker. That forced the Mariners to turn to Adrian Sampson to take Miley’s most recent turn.

The uncertainty surrounding Walker and the tendonitis affecting his right Achilles region will force Seattle to look to another hurler for Walker’s next scheduled start on Friday. Options include Mike Montgomery, newly acquired Zach Lee, and possibly Vidal Nuno.

Obviously, losing two and possibly three starters would be a major setback for any team. But, it’s been worse for the Mariners. Why? The team was forced to rely more heavily on a bullpen that wasn’t a strength entering the season.

The following table illustrates how the percent of workload has been slowly shifting from the starters to relievers with each passing month. Not coincidentally, the club’s win-loss record has worsened as the bullpen worked more innings. In June, the ugly baby finally appeared.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution and Results
Month SP IP
SP %
SP FIP
RP IP
RP %
RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 104 61% 4.20 67 39% 5.1

As you can see, relievers are inheriting a larger workload. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to deliver the results as a unit. I included their increasing fielding independent pitching (FIP) to make that point.

For those not familiar with FIP, it’s a metric that looks similar to earned run average (ERA), but only measures the outcomes that a pitcher can solely control — strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs. I’m not trying to be a “saber-geek,” but FIP takes out the luck and defense so we can just focus on the pitchers during this conversation. If you want to know more about FIP, you can’t read about it here at FanGraphs.

Before getting into what the Mariners can do to fix themselves during the season, let’s discuss a few harsh realities facing general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Reality check
Seattle has limited resources available to use on the trade market. Their minor league system isn’t barren. However, it started the season ranked number-28 by Keith Law of ESPN.com. Just one prospect — Alex Jackson — ranked in the MLB.com Top-100. He came in at number-85.

After this month’s draft, the club’s number-11 overall pick —  Kyle Lewis — catapulted to second in Seattle’s system, according to Prospect Insider — ahead of Jackson.

Top prospect Tyler O’Neill is a rising star. Should the club consider trading the 21-year-old now? If they did, they’d be selling low. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Yes, the Mariners have a few pieces to sell and that’s the problem — they have FEW pieces. Moving O’Neill, Jackson, or Mike Zunino would bring some value back to Seattle. But, Dipoto would be selling low. He’s more accustomed to buying low.

Does this mean that the Mariners won’t be able to wheel and deal? Of course not. But, they’ll be vying for pieces coveted by market competitors — such as the Astros, Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs — who have many more prospects to offer during negotiations.

Reality check (Part two)
Let’s be honest, the Mariners entered the season as a fringe-contender capable of winning more games than they lost, but not many more games.

Thanks to a strong first two months, fan and pundit expectations for the club have soared. Now, the Mariners are leveling out. What’s changed since the start of the season? Nothing. The team is the same fringe-contender with an underwhelming bullpen. In a way, Seattle is exactly where they should be — hovering near the .500 mark.

Does that mean that club should give up on the season? No. But, selling the farm — if they had one to sell — for a shot at a potential one-game playoff would be short-sighted and unreasonable, especially for a general manager in his first season with a new organization.

Now that I’ve depressed and angered fans throughout the Pacific Northwest, what can be done to improve the Mariners pitchers and the rest of their roster? If it were up to me, I’d take a measured approach that attacked the following areas in this order — bullpen, corner outfield, rotation.

Bullpen
The biggest challenge facing the Mariners — other than limited resources — is that nearly every contender will be looking for relief help. That doesn’t mean that Seattle can’t find help. But, they’ll be facing steep competition.

We already know that Dipoto is innovative and previously fixed the 2014 Angels bullpen — they won 98 games that year. His cornerstone acquisition in 2014 was closer Huston Street. Perhaps, a reunion could take place.

The 32-year-old recently completed a five-week stint on the DL due to a strained left oblique. Assuming that he returns to form and the Angels and Mariners are willing to deal with each other — big assumption — Street would quickly improve Seattle’s bullpen. He’s set to make $9 million next season with a $10 million team option or $1 million buyout for 2018.

Having Street available would permit the Mariners manager Scott Servais to push incumbent closer Steve Cishek to the eighth inning. By doing so, Joaquin Benoit could become Servais’ seventh inning option. Suddenly, the bullpen has a different feel to it with Nick Vincent and Edwin Diaz being the primary middle relief options.

I know what some of you are thinking. Why not snag a big fish like New York Yankees setup man Andrew Miller? It does sounds appealing. After all, he’s flat out better than any Mariners reliever. Jim Bowden of ESPN.com even suggested Miller as a best fit for the Mariners not long ago. But, I don’t agree.

Bowden mentions that the Yankees would want a “young starter or young middle-of-the-order bat” in return for Miller. Who exactly is that in the Mariners organization? The guys that they can’t afford to squander on a reliever.

The same applies to Miller’s teammate — Aroldis Chapman. Having a closer capable of throwing 100-mph would be great. But, Seattle will be competing with clubs who have more valuable pieces to dangle in front of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

All of this assumes that the Bronx Bombers will be sellers. Considering that they haven’t registered a losing season since 1992, I don’t expect them to become sellers until very near the deadline. Even if the Mariners had the resources, can they wait that long?

If snagging a closer isn’t a doable do, the club could acquire relievers, who could help preserve save opportunities for Cishek. Dipoto could turn either to rentals or longer term options. Personally, I’d prefer the latter option.

I’m not going to name every possibility option, but I’ll mention the type of players that could make sense. The first one is familiar to Mariners fans — Fernando Rodney. Seattle’s former closer has been dealing for the San Diego Padres, who hold a $2 million option for 2017 with a $400 thousand buyout. Rodney is likely to be in high demand. Would the new regime bring back the “Fernando Rodney Experience” back to the Emerald City?

Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently suggested several trade options to help the Mariners, including their bullpen. Among the names was David Hernandez of the Philadelphia Phillies. The right-hander is having a good year pitching in the seventh inning with 11.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings during 32 appearances entering today.

Divish also suggested Daniel Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hudson is serving as Arizona’s eighth inning setup man and has surrendered just .786 walks and hits-per-innings pitched. An intriguing factor with the 29-year-old — he was acquired by Dipoto during his first month as interim general manager of the Diamondbacks in July 2010.

Another player that the Mariners general manager is familiar with is Angels reliever Joe Smith, currently on the DL with a hamstring problem. Assuming he returns within a few weeks, Smith could be an option. The side-arm thrower wasn’t effective prior to his injury. If Smith proves to be back to his normal self, he’d be a good value as a middle-reliever.

If the Mariners wanted to expend more resources, there are options out there. Examples include Padres rookie Ryan Buchter, Arodys Vizcaino of the Atlanta Braves, and Tyler Thornburg and Jeremy Jeffress of the Milwaukee Brewers. All are having good years and come with with multiple years of team control.

Several relievers under team control through just next year include John Axford and Fernando Rodriguez of the Athletics and Fernando Abad of the Minnesota Twins. Each player is have varying degrees of value. They’d cost more than a rental, but less than the players with multiple years previously mentioned.

Divish noted that Jeanmar Gomez of the Philadelphia Phillies as a possible fit. He’s the team’s closer and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. Gomez could help with the ninth inning or could take over the eighth inning.

Corner outfield
Mariners left fielder Norichika Aoki has been the target of fan scorn this season. The veteran has a league-average OBP of .322, but only 12 extra base hits coming into today. Plus, his outfield defense has been — at best — slightly below-average. Improving the left field spot, both offensively and defensively, may be a tall order.

Big names like Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, and Carlos Gonzalez could be available and are under team control for several years. Plus, there’s Carlos Beltran, who would be a rental. Each sounds sexy, but all have drawbacks.

Kemp is slashing .256/.274/.470 and owed nearly $64 million through the 2019 season — that’s not counting the $10.5 million that the Los Angeles Dodgers are chipping in. Even if the Padres were willing to pay some of Kemp’s contract, adding another regressing outfielder on the wrong side of age-30 would make zero sense.

Braun and Gonzalez are putting up good numbers, but the haul required to get them is realistically out of reach for the Mariners. Moreover, Braun is due to make over $80 million between now and the end of the 2020 season, when he’ll be 36 years-old. That doesn’t include the $15 million mutual option/$4 million for 2021. Getting older just doesn’t make sense.

Beltran would cost much less. But, when will the Yankees become sellers? Will they sell?

A lower profile name like Jon Jay of the Padres would make more sense. Yes, I’d rather see the team pick up a player with more control than Jay — he’s a free agent at the end of the season. However, he’s be a significant upgrade over Aoki. Entering today, the 31-year-old is slashing .296/.345/.407 slash and would present Servais with another center field option — if Leonys Martin were unavailable or needed a day off.

Tampa Bay Ray Steve Pearce would be an interesting option. Although he wouldn’t be a center field replacement. The versatile right-handed hitter has spent time at first base, second base, and both corner outfield spots during the last two seasons. Like Jay, he’ll be a free agent at season’s end.

Another potential corner outfield rental would be Josh Reddick of the Athletics. Reddick is currently on the DL due to a broken thumb, but he’s close to returning. Assuming that he’s back and healthy by the deadline, the 29-year-old would be a nice fit in right field.

Before his injury, the left-handed hitter was slashing .322/.394/.466, which were career highs. Even if he returned to his normal league-average numbers, he’d provide the Mariners with a better glove, arm, and bat.

Adding a right fielder, like Reddick, would actually help left field indirectly. Such a move would permit the Franklin Gutierrez/Seth Smith platoon to left field and significantly reduce the outfield time for Nelson Cruz. Essentially, adding one player would help both corner outfield spots.

Rotation
Here’s where I’m really going to get in trouble with Mariners fans. I recommend doing nothing with the rotation. At the most, make a minor deal late. Why do I feel that way?

To me, there’s no reason to use scarce resources on a starter. If there are any more significant issues with the starting staff, the Mariners aren’t likely to be serious contenders anyway. That probably doesn’t sit well with some Mariners faithful. But, it’s true.

As of today, Felix and Miley appear to be on track to return within the next month and there’s no indication that Walker’s problem is season ending. It’s quite possible all three could be back before or near the all-star break. Assuming that Seattle regains the trio without losing another starter, they’ll be in good shape with their starting pitching. Otherwise, there’s not much hope of postseason contention in 2016.

Finally
What I’ve presented is a plan for a team that’s two games over .500 entering today. For a club in that position, the best course of action would be to make incremental improvements to the roster without forsaking the future for a shot of instant gratification.

If the Mariners plummet during the next month, they’d be better served to consider being a seller at the deadline. Conversely, if they were soaring after the all-star break, leaning forward in a common sense way would be reasonable.

Fans don’t like to read or hear that kind of talk. But, it’s the best approach for a club that started the year as a fringe-contender.

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

AL West trade primer: Houston Astros

AL West trade primer: Texas Rangers

The Major League Baseball (MLB) non-waiver trading deadline is barreling down upon us and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see what general manager Jerry Dipoto does with the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” with the Mariners.

With that in mind, I thought I’d provide a primer for each club in the American League (AL) West division to see where the Mariners and their divisional roster stand as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

A word of caution though, the trade market will fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Injuries, poor individual performances, and changes in the standings will determine who will be the buyers and sellers in the deadline derby. Moreover, these factors will influence the aggressiveness of all parties involved in the market.

So far, I’ve discussed the Oakland Athletics,  Los Angeles Angels, and Houston Astros. Let’s turn our attention to the Texas Rangers.

After being swept by the Athletics on May 18, the defending division champions went on a 23-6 tear and currently possess the best record in the AL and a commanding 8.5 game lead over the Mariners in the AL West. With so much going right, the Rangers appear ready to make a deep postseason run and possibly win the first World Series in franchise history. That’s why they’re likely to be active players in the deadline deal market.

The roster spots that Texas attempts to improve will partially depend on the recovery of players currently on the disabled list (DL) and the production of several position players.

The most glaring injury snag involves starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who looked impressive after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, for the club and the 29-year-old, he returned to the 15-day DL with neck and shoulder tightness after only three starts.

Although he’s eligible to return this week, Darvish has yet to throw from a mound. His status has to be the key planning factor for the club’s front office as the deadline approaches.

Reliever and Seattle native Keone Kela had surgery to remove elbow bone spurs in April and hopes to return by the all-star break. Assuming there are no setbacks, getting the 23-year-old back would be a boost to a bullpen that currently ranks in the bottom third of the AL.

On the field, center fielder Delino DeShields, first baseman Mitch Moreland, and designated hitter Prince Fielder have performed well below expectations in 2016.

During his rookie season in 2015, DeShields took over the center field job from current Mariner Leonys Martin and flourished in the lead-off spot with a .344 on-base percentage (OBP) and 25 stolen bases. This year, however, the 23-year-old struggled at the plate during the first five weeks of the season. As a result, he’s currently playing at Class-AAA Round Rock. Perhaps, his stay in the minors will help DeShields regain his form so he can help the ball club during their pennant push.

Moreland has also been scuffling at the plate with his batting average and OBP hovering 20 points below his career norms. Fortunately, for the veteran and Texas, Moreland’s bat has shown of life of late — he’s slashing .361/.410/.861 during the last two weeks. If the left-handed hitter can’t sustain his improvement, the Rangers may first look to other options within the organization to improve first base production.

This season, the Rangers have used Ryan RuaJurickson Profar, and top prospect Joey Gallo at first base on a limited basis. All are inexperienced at the position and it’s possible none of them would be the solution, if Texas opted to make a change.

The biggest drop in performance belongs to Fielder. At the start of today’s action, the Rangers designated hitter is slashing .200/.269/.310 with just five home runs after winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year award last season. Complicating matters for the Rangers is the fact that he’s owed approximately $110 million through the 2020 season — his age-36 season.

Despite the offensive struggles of Fielder and Moreland, the Rangers have flourished thanks to their long lineup and the emergence of former shortstop Ian Desmond in center field, Rookie of the Year candidate Nomar Mazara in right field, and Profar. All three men have helped fill gaps caused by injury, suspension, and poor performance. But, there’s still work to be done with this roster, if the club wants to return to the Fall Classic.

Although adding depth to the relief corps was a priority for general manager Jon Daniels during the offseason, the club’s bullpen has been a weak link. The unit has been better lately, but it’s currently not good enough for a serious postseason contender.

Daniels’ biggest bullpen acquisition — Tom Wilhelmsen — struggled during the first 10 weeks of the season and is no longer with the organization after refusing a minor league assignment. Another new addition, Tony Barnette hasn’t performed well during his debut season in MLB. Used primarily as a middle reliever, opponents are batting .315 against the Federal Way, Washington native in 27 games.

The back-end of the bullpen has been a concern too. Manager Jeff Banister removed Shawn Tolleson from the closer role due to ineffectiveness and inserted Sam Dyson. To date, the hard-throwing right-hander has been effective, while holding opponents to a .206/.270/.265 slash in June. With that said, adding a front-line closer would permit the team to move Dyson back into the setup role and immediately deepen the bullpen as a result.

New York Yankees relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman are possible options for the Rangers. Either could be season-changers for the ball club. However, it’s important to note that the Yankees haven’t waved the white flag to concede the season. Furthermore, this team hasn’t posted a losing record since 1992. Becoming a seller will be a rapid departure from the norm for the organization and its fans.

The starting staff has been solid, but a serious World Series contender could use another strong arm at the top of the rotation, especially with questions about Darvish’s recovery.

A player who could interest Daniels is starting pitcher Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves. A few weeks ago, Jim Bowden of ESPN concluded that the 25-year-old could be the most coveted pitcher at the trade deadline. Although I suggested that the right-hander would be a good fit for the Boston Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays, he’d be make sense for the Rangers too.

Teheran is owed a relatively low $25.3 million through the end of the 2019 season with a $12 million club option for 2020, his age-29 season, and he’s performing at a high-level — number-seven among National League (NL) starting pitchers in wins above replacement (WAR).

The Braves don’t have to rush to trade their star pitcher and could opt to hold him until the offseason, or just keep him. With such an advantage, they’ll be able to ask for a lot of value in return and Texas could certainly meet their needs, if they want to.

Perhaps, the Rangers will pursue Athletics starter Rich Hill, who is a free agent at the end of the season and have much lower price tag. If Hill is healthy — he’s currently on the 15-DL with a mild groin strain — he’ll be a hot commodity in the trade market.

Trade rumors have linked Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy and the Rangers, but I suspect that the organization is more likely use its available chips to address other areas of concern first.

To date, the Rangers’ backstops — Bryan Holaday, Bobby Wilson, Robinson Chirinos, and Brett Nicholas — have done a nice job at holding down the position. The quartet has delivered reasonable offensive performance and value — .254/.309/.458 slash and the seventh highest WAR in the majors from the catcher position.

If Daniels wants to make a blockbuster to fill any of his needs, as he did by acquiring Hamels last year, he has the pieces to do so. The Rangers have a deep minor league system, which ranks number-nine in the majors, according to Keith Law of ESPN, and boasts four players on the MLB.com Top-100 prospect list.

The Hamels deal was a significant game-changer for both Philadelphia and Texas. The Phillies picked up three MLB.com Top-100 prospects — Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, and Nick Williams — plus, pitchers Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff, currently pitching near the top of the rotation. Conversely, the Rangers landed a top starting pitcher and a reliever — Jake Diekman — both under team control through at least the 2018 season.

Would Texas be willing to make another mega-deal? Sure, but I suspect the haul would have to include controllable players — not just rentals — just like last year. Regardless of the Rangers’ approach, it’s certain that they’ll improve their roster between now and the deadline. Whether division rivals are willing to keep pace with them remains to be seen.

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

AL West trade primer: Houston Astros

The Major League Baseball (MLB) non-waiver trading deadline is barreling down upon us and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see what general manager Jerry Dipoto does with the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” with the Mariners.

With that in mind, I thought I’d provide a primer for each club in the American League (AL) West division to see where the Mariners and their divisional rivals stand as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

A word of caution though, the trade market will fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Injuries, poor individual performances, and changes in the standings will determine who will be the buyers and sellers in the deadline derby. Moreover, these factors will influence the aggressiveness of all parties involved in the market.

Let’s start with the Oakland Athletics.

It’s been a tough season for the Athletics. Many observers didn’t expect the club to contend, but no one could have foreseen the string of injuries that have plagued Oakland during this season. How bad has it been for the team? Seven of the 25 players on their Opening Day roster have spent time on the disabled list (DL).

Notable players who’ve spent time on DL — or who are still sidelined — include starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Rich Hill, Sean Manaea, Felix Doubront, Jarrod Parker, and Chris Bassitt, outfielders Josh Reddick and Sam Fuld, utility-man Mark Canha, catcher Josh Phegley, and infielders Danny Valencia, Jed Lowrie, and Eric Sogard.

Considering the toll injuries have taken on the team — 14.5 games behind the division leading Texas Rangers and in last place — Oakland is poised to be a big seller, if they opt to go in that direction.

To date, the Athletics have made one minor deal; utility-man Chris Coghlan to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for infielder Arismendy Alcantara. The 24-year-old was a top-100 prospect as recently as 2014, but he’s struggled during limited opportunities in the majors.

Despite his early problems in the majors, Alcantara is a good fielder and possesses home run power and stolen base speed. Also, he’s spent time in the outfield. Perhaps, he can flourish into a younger, cheaper version of Coghlan.

Injuries have not only affected the Athletics roster, but they could also influence the marketability of several potential trade chips.

Reddick is currently rehabbing from a broken thumb and recently started hitting ball off a tee. Assuming that he’s back and healthy by the deadline, the soon-to-be free agent will be an attractive target for teams looking to upgrade their corner outfield positions.

It’s important to note that hand injuries can hinder a hitter’s return to productiveness. I have no insight into the extent of Reddick’s injury, but his effectiveness at the plate bears watching after he returns. Certainly, possible suitors will be doing just that.

Another value trade chip currently on the DL is Hill. The southpaw has held opposing hitters to a .207 batting average and — like Reddick — set to be a free agent at the end of the season. Considering that the observers view the starting pitching market as thin, Hill should be in high demand — assuming he fully recovers from his strained groin.

The Athletics have several relievers who could draw interest from clubs looking to boost their bullpen for a postseason push. Veteran John Axford has been particularly strong against right-handed batters this season, while primarily pitching during seventh and eighth innings. Axford is under contract through 2017 and owed $5.5 million next season.

Southpaw Marc Rzepczynski is another soon-to-be free agent who could garner interest from teams trying to boost their middle relief. Versatile reliever Fernando Rodriguez has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining and making $1.05 million this season. The 32-year-old has made 12 appearances lasting longer than one inning and has held hitters to .971 walks plus hits per-inning pitched (WHIP).

Axford, Rzepczynski, and Rodriguez aren’t back-end of the bullpen types. But, any of them would help deepen the relief corps of a contending ball club.

Southpaw Sean Doolittle is a name certain to come up during trade speculation, but Oakland doesn’t have to race to deal their former closer. The 29-year-old is relatively affordable — $7.1 million through 2018 with options that could keep him under team control through 2020. The Athletics could opt to retain Doolittle due to his team friendly contract, or they could leverage that contract to acquire prospects.

Several Athletics will become a free agent after next season. As with Doolittle, there will be no sense of urgency to move any of them. However, it’s conceivable that executive vice president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst might be willing to deal some of them to manage payroll and maximize their value.

The switch-hitting Lowrie is having a good year and owns a career .330 on-base percentage. The 32-year-old could help a club looking to improve their second base situation or improve infield depth — he’s experienced at third base and shortstop.

A factor in trade negotiations would be could be Lowrie’s salary. He’s due to make $6.5 million next year with a club option for $6 million or a $1 million buyout for 2018. That price tag could scare off potential buyers on a tight budget.

Despite his DL time, Valencia is having a great year at the plate and is hitting well above his career .273/.315/.438 triple-slash. Even if he regresses to career norms, the 31-year-old would still be an attractive option for contenders trying to shore up their hot corner situation.

On the other side of the infield, first baseman Yonder Alonso is another player who might appeal to some clubs in need of first base help. The left-handed hitter is a good defender, who he’s scuffled at the plate early in the season. However, the 29-year-old’s bat has been torrid in June. Alonso is making $2.5 million this season and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining.

Whether the club would be willing to move Alonso or Valencia is unknown. If they were to move one of these players, the Athletics would have to believe that number-16 prospect Ryon Healy is ready to be a regular major leaguer.

Healy is slashing .342/.401/.615 for the season in 289 plate appearance with Class-AA Midland and Class-AAA Nashville. Although the 24-year-old profiles better at first base, he’s played both corner positions this year. From a handedness perspective, the right-handed hitting Healy makes better sense replacing Valencia — who is also right-handed.

A free agent signed while injured and nearing his debut is starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez. The 26-year-old is rehabbing from shoulder surgery he had while with the Miami Marlins. He’s currently making minor league rehabs starts and is expected to join the big league club soon, assuming he doesn’t suffer any setbacks.

On the other hand, Oakland could flip Alvarez as a trade chip now. But, that doesn’t seem probable. Even if the right-hander were to miraculously return to his pre-injury form, the Athletics would be selling low if they dealt him by next month.

Catcher Stephen Vogt could also garner considerable interest as the deadline approaches. The left-handed hitter could fit nicely into a platoon situation — he has a career .269/.327/.438 triple-slash against right-handed pitching. Moreover, he has experience at first base.

On the flip side, Vogt has three years of arbitration eligibility remaining. Plus, he and Phegley are combining to make an effective catching platoon. In fact, Oakland brags the fourth highest wins above replacement from the backstop position.

Could the Athletics deal Vogt or Phegley? Sure. But, they won’t be forced to make a deal out of a sense of desperation. Rather, they could take advantage of someone else’s anxiety, if they choose.

It’s possible that Oakland’s front office could make a blockbuster trade by moving Gray. However, Beane has avoided doing so in the past. Since his ace had injury issues this season, moving Gray now would be selling low and that doesn’t sounds likely. On the other hand, with the starting pitching market so shallow, a potential suitor might be willing to take a risk on Gray.

Obviously, Beane and his front office aren’t going to deal all of the players that I’ve mentioned. But, moving some of them would help the Athletics take advantage of the market to further their future beyond this season.…

MLB: AL Wild Card Game-Houston Astros at New York YankeesLast week, Jim Bowden of ESPN and the MLB Radio Network published a list of the 30 best players who could be on the move prior to the August 1 non-waiver trading deadline and where he thinks those players fit best.

For some, it’s a tad early to be discussing deals when the deadline is still two months away. Bowden realizes that too and refers to his list as “my first take of the year” on players who could be dealt. Yet, some fans — and writers — find it fun to speculate on deals that may never occur.

For those not familiar with Bowden, he’s served as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals and has a ton of contacts in the baseball industry. For Seattle Mariners fans, he’s the guy who sent Mike Cameron and others to Seattle in exchange for Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Personally, I think the market is still immature. At this early stage of the season, there a plenty of clubs on the fringe of contention. Therefore, finding a partner willing to “sell” may be difficult to do, unless the club is currently in a rebuilding phase.

Still, there are those dying to discuss deals. To help satisfy the appetite of those hungry for trade talk, I’m going to discuss 14 players Bowden suggested as “best fits” for American League ball clubs. Enjoy.

Julio Teheran , SP, Atlanta Braves                                    Bowden: Boston Red Sox
Bowden points out in his piece that Teheran could be the most coveted pitcher at the deadline. The right-hander is owed a relatively low $25.3 million through the end of the 2019 season with a $12 million club option for 2020, his age-29 season.

Not only is the Braves hurler affordable, he’s performing well. Teheran has gone seven or more innings in six of his first 11 starts, his wins above replacement (WAR) ranks number-15 among major league starters, and his 2.77 earned run average (ERA) puts him in the same neighborhood with such familiar names as Marco Estrada, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez.

The Red Sox certainly would be a good fit for Teheran, but another club to keep an eye on is the Toronto Blue Jays. If Toronto opts to make another postseason push at this year’s deadline, adding another starting pitcher could be in the cards.

The Blue Jays staff has been performing relatively well, but the club has already acknowledged that starter Aaron Sanchez will end up the bullpen due to an innings limit — he’s never pitched over 133 innings as a professional.

Toronto has a new front office in place and they may be more reluctant with parting with prospects, as they did to get David Price last year. Although Teheran is not an elite pitcher like Price, he would be under team control for at least three more seasons, unlike Price who departed as a free agent at the end of last season.

Teheran may be the most sought after starting pitcher as Bowden suggests, but the Braves will have the upper hand in negotiations. With so much time remaining on his contract, Atlanta doesn’t have to rush to deal their star pitcher. They could opt to deal him in the offseason — when more suitors may be interested — or retain him to anchor their rotation.

Rich Hill, SP, Oakland Athletics                                          Bowden: Kansas City Royals
Seattle fans are very familiar with 36-year-old. Hill held the Mariners to just one run in 14 innings while striking out 16 and walking just one batter. It’s not just the Mariners. He’s held all opposing hitters to a .207 batting average.

If the Athletics don’t climb back into the playoff picture, they’ll likely trade several players — including Hill. Any contender looking to boost their rotation will have interest in the 12-year-veteran.

Unlike Teheran, Hill is a “rental player,” who’ll be a free agent at season’s end. For that reason, the southpaw who’s making $6 million this season won’t be as costly to acquire as the Braves’ top starter.

If Teheran isn’t available or too expensive for contenders, Hill instantly becomes the most attractive starter in the trade market. With that kind of negotiating advantage, it’s hard to believe that the Athletics would retain the pending free agent past August 1, if they continue to have a losing record.

As with Teheran, Hill could fill the void in Toronto’s rotation once Sanchez moves to the bullpen.

Another interested party could be the Red Sox. Hill has already had two tours of duty with Boston, including last year when he resurrected his big league career after starting the season pitching for Class-AAA Syracuse and the Independent League Long Island Ducks.

It’s worth noting that Hill suffered a “real mild groin strain,” according to manager Bob Melvin, during yesterday’s contest against the Detroit Tigers. Assuming this injury causes no setbacks; his trade value should remain unchanged.

James Shields, SP, San Diego Padres                              Bowden: Detroit Tigers
“Big Game James” is an intriguing trade candidate. He’s no longer a number-one starter, although he’s having a solid year with the Padres. But, his contract limits his trade value.

The right-hander is making $21 million this season and makes the same amount during the next two seasons. There’s also a $16 million option for 2019 — his age-37 season– with a $2 million buyout. In total, Shields stands to make at least $44 million between now and 2019, unless he opts out of his contract after this season.

That’s the second challenge with Shields’ contract — enticing a team to trade for a player who could potentially walk after this season. Considering that he had to wait so long to find a team during his last free agency — he didn’t sign until February 11, 2015 with the Padres — he may not want to test the market again. On the other hand, this year’s free agent market is very thin for starting pitching.

Clubs can find workarounds to challenges like Shields’ opt out, but it requires two amenable partners and a player willing to go along. That usually means the player has to get something in return for passing on his opt out.

As mentioned by Bowden, the Tigers make sense. So do the Red Sox. Both clubs have previously demonstrated a willingness to spend and could use a durable middle-of-the-rotation type — like Shields.

Another team to watch will be the Chicago White Sox. Jon Heyman of MLB Network has reported that the Chicago White Sox have shown interest in the right-hander.

As I alluded to at the onset, Shields’ contract will be an issue — even for ball clubs with deep pockets. To move the veteran starter, the Padres may have to include money to help offset his steep salary or expect to receive very little in return.

Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers                       Bowden: Tampa Bay Rays
The seven-year veteran turns 30 next month and the Brewers hold a relatively cheap $5.25 million club option on Lucroy for the 2017 season. So, any club acquiring the services of the right-handed hitter for about a year and a half.

Obviously, Milwaukee will be looking for prospects as they continue to rebuild. However, I’m not sure that the cash-strapped Rays would be willing to part ways with top prospects for an 18-month addition, who could be the team’s third highest player in 2017.

The Tigers, on the other hand, are more aggressive when it comes to making “win-now” deals and they aren’t getting much production from the catcher position. Once again, Boston makes sense too.

Derek Norris, C, Padres                                                        Bowden: Rays/Houston Astros
Coming into today’s action, Shield’s battery mate had a .182/.238/.338 triple-slash — significantly below his career norms, although it’s important to note that offense from the catcher position is secondary. The major league batting average for catchers stands at .234.

It’s worth noting that Norris has experience at first base and a career .286/.359/.479 triple-slash against southpaws.

The 27-year-old is making $2.9 million this year and is arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons, which may scare off clubs on a tight budget, unless they’re looking for a starting backstop. Once again, it’s hard for me to fathom the Rays being interested in adding payroll and parting with prospects to get a catcher who doesn’t necessarily represent a significant upgrade at the position.

The Astros are already experimenting with Evan Gattis at the catcher spot. Whether Houston would be amenable to acquiring Norris at the deadline would come down to their long-term plans for Gattis and their position in the standings.

If the Astros’ record improves and opt to move Gattis out of the catcher spot, they might be more inclined to go after Lucroy than Norris. After all, Milwaukee and Houston have a history as trade partners. Last July, the Astros picked up Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers in exchange for prospects.

Other trade possibilities could become reality, if a contender suffers an injury at the catcher spot. Norris would be a good addition for a contender who needs an injury fill-in or wants to add more depth to the position.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH, Blue Jays                           Bowden: Chicago White Sox
Another potential rental player is Encarnacion, who’s making $10 million this season. The 33-year-old is off to a sluggish start, as is his team. Bowden also suggested teammate Jose Bautista as a best fit with the Chicago Cubs.

It’s too early to tell whether Toronto will buy or sell — they have a 26-26 win-loss record entering today. However, Encarnacion to the White Sox makes sense, assuming his numbers improve. Otherwise, the “South-Siders” would be better to look for other options or stick with current designated hitter Avisail Garcia, who’s posted better slash numbers than Encarnacion.

If I was forced to place a wager, I’d bet that both Encarnacion and Bautista won’t be traded by the deadline. Both players are popular with fans and it’s unlikely that the Blue Jays will completely fall out of the postseason race by August 1.

Carlos Gonzalez, RF/LF, Colorado Rockies                   Bowden: Red Sox
When considering the production of Colorado players, the “Coors Field affect” has to enter the conversation. Gonzalez’s slash numbers are considerably lower when playing on the road, plus he’s making $17 million this season and due to make $20 million in 2017.

Moving “CarGo” this season would be a wise move for the rebuilding Rockies. Bowden suggested catcher Blake Swihart as a possible trade target from the Red Sox. However, getting arms would be a wise move for a club that’s struggled to entice elite free agent pitchers to come to Denver.

Gonzalez is a good player, not a superstar. Nevertheless, he’d be a considerable grade in left field for the Red Sox. Another destination that would make sense — from a baseball perspective — would be the Washington Nationals, who are getting very little production from a 37-year-old left fielder Jayson Werth.

From a business perspective, making the deal might be difficult. Werth will make $21 million next year, while Gonzalez will be earning $20 million. Werth, like CarGo will be a free agent after next season. But, I have an idea.

Perhaps, both teams could swap their high-paid players and the Nationals could throw in a few top-shelf pitching prospects to make the deal worthwhile for Colorado. That’s probably the wackiest trade proposal I’ve ever concocted. However, both teams would get something they need.

The Nationals get instantaneous help in their lineup for this year and next without disrupting their budget, while the Rockies get a few top prospects along with Werth, who makes approximately the same salary as CarGo.

Colorado did something similar last year when they traded Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for highly paid shortstop Jose Reyes, reliever Miguel Castro, top-100 pitching prospect Jeff Hoffman and fellow minor leaguer Jesus Tinoco.

There’s probably no chance that this happens, but it was fun hatching that hair-brained that scheme. Okay, back to reality.

Josh Reddick, RF, Athletics                                                  Bowden: Royals
The A’s right fielder was off to a great start before fracturing his left thumb, while sliding into second base. Fortunately, for Reddick and Oakland, he’s projected to return by the end of June.

Like Hill, the eight-year veteran is a free agent at the end of the season and a likely trade chip, assuming Oakland can’t climb back into the postseason race.

Bowden projected that the Athletics would trade Reddick back to where he began his career — Boston. With that said, he’d be a nice fit with the Seattle Mariners from an offensive and defensive standpoint. The 29-year-old is a solid defender with one of the best arms in the game.

I don’t know if executive vice president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst would be willing to make a deal with a division rival during the season, but Reddick would be a nice addition for the Mariners.

It’s important to note that a hand injury can slow a hitter’s return to productiveness. I have no insight into the extent of Reddick’s injury, but his effectiveness at the plate bears watching after he returns. Certainly, possible suitors will be doing just that.

Yasiel Puig, RF, Los Angeles Dodgers                              Bowden: Royals/Athletics
Just 25-years-old, Puig has already produced an extensive highlight reel during four-year career. At other times though, he’s looked disinterested leading him to run afoul of managers and teammates. To top it off, his production numbers have declined in each of the last three seasons.

Despite the Dodger’s apparent frustration with Puig’s distinctive personality, the team could be reluctant to part ways with their mercurial outfielder. Trading him now would require the club to sell low with a player who has tremendous upside and is owed a relatively low $17.5 million for the next two seasons.

Perhaps, the change of scenery suggested by Bowden would be best. However, the Dodgers’ outfield production has been below league-average, which leads me to believe that they’d have to be blown away to part with their potentially best outfielder during a season when they’re trying to contend.

If the situation in Los Angeles has truly become untenable, the same actors — White Sox, Red Sox, and Tigers — may be willing to take a chance on Puig.

Melvin Upton Jr, LF/RF, Padres                                        Bowden: White Sox
The older brother of Detroit Tigers outfielder Justin Upton has experienced a nice bounce back after several down seasons with both the Padres and Braves. Bowden suggests that the 31-year-old would be an upgrade over current White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson, although I don’t necessarily agree.

Upton’s current triple-slash of .258/.323/.416 is slightly better than Jackson’s slash, but that’s a small sample size. Over the past three seasons, Jackson’s production has been better. Trading for a player on the wrong side of 30, who is two years older than the incumbent is, and set to make $16.5 million next year doesn’t add up.

For the Padres to move Upton, they’d likely have to help pay a good chunk of his salary or expect to receive little in return. Otherwise, I can’t see a contender dealing for his league-average production and exorbitant salary.

Andrew Miller, RP, New York Yankees                            Bowden: Seattle Mariners
The big left-hander has been thoroughly dominant. Currently the setup man for closer Aroldis Chapman, Miller would be closing for most teams in the majors.

There’s a big assumption with this suggestion by Bowden — the Yankees will be sellers. Considering the club hasn’t had a losing season since 1992, it’s tough for me to picture general manager Brian Cashman dealing the reliever this season.

If I’m wrong and Cashman opts to move veterans to help the future, snagging the 31-year-old — who’s making $9 million annually through 2018 — will be costly. The Yankees could simply opt to hold onto Miller, deal him in the offseason, or retain him to be their closer — if they opted to trade or not re-sign Chapman instead.

Bowden sees the Mariners as the best fit for Miller. There’s no doubt that the southpaw would significantly improve the back-end of Seattle’s bullpen, but does using so many resources and expending that much payroll to get one player sound like something that general manager Jerry Dipoto would do? His brief history in Seattle leads me to say “no.”

If Seattle is in contention, they’ll need to add more than one arm to the ‘pen, plus another corner outfielder. Using a significant amount of resources to acquire Miller — or any high profile player — would make it difficult for the club to get those additional pieces.

Perhaps, Cashman moves Chapman if he thinks he can grab a few pieces that could help his club this year and in the future. In the end though, I expect that both Miller and Chapman will end their season wearing Yankee pinstripes.

Fernando Rodney, RP, Padres                                              Bowden: Blue Jays
Seattle fans are probably rolling their eyes right now. After all, during his stay in Seattle, they dubbed Rodney’s relief appearances as the “Fernando Rodney Experience” due to the volatile nature of his outings. During this season in San Diego though, the 39-year-old has done a nice job of resurrecting his career after losing the Mariners closer job last year.

Not only is Rodney performing well, he’s affordable and comes with a low financial risk. He’s making $1.6 million this season and the Padres hold a $2 million team option for 2017, with a $400 thousand buyout.

Picking up the charismatic right-hander would be a good move for any contender looking to reinforce their bullpen depth, including the Seattle Mariners. My ears are already burning after that comment.

Joe Smith, RP, Los Angeles Angels                                    Bowden: Tigers
The side-arming reliever is a free agent after the season and has been filling in as the Angels closer during the absence of Huston Street.

Adding Smith should help bolster the bullpen of any contender, although it’s worth noting that the 32-year-old’s home run and walk rates are up and his strike out rate has decreased during this young season.

As a rental setup man, who’s not performing below career norms, Smith shouldn’t command a high price tag. Assuming that there’s no trade embargo going on between Dipoto and his former club, Smith would be another potential option for the Mariners.

Certainly, Dipoto is familiar with his former pitcher and the general manager has demonstrated an interest in bringing former players from his days in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Then again, he’s familiar with Street too.

Arodys Vizcaino, RP, Braves                                                   Bowden: Blue Jays
Trading a closer from one of the worst clubs in the majors makes sense. However, when he’s having a great season, is only 25-years-old, and under team control through the 2019 season, there’s no rush in moving him.

As with Teheran, the Braves would likely make a deal if they get a great offer. Alternatively, they can just wait until the offseason when there may be more suitors interested in their top reliever.

Final thoughts
While it’s fun and interesting to talk deadline deals on Memorial Day, a lot can change between now and August 1. Perhaps, the White Sox continue their free fall in the standings and the Mariners tank too. Maybe, the Toronto Blue Jays will catch fire as they did last year.

There’s also the possibility of injuries affecting sellers — as with Reddick and Hill — or buyers who lose a key player.

Still, I get it. Trade speculation is entertaining to many baseball fans. As the trade deadline gets closer, Prospect Insider will be providing ongoing analysis of potential and actual deals involving the Mariners and other major league clubs.

It’s going to be a fun summer.

 …

FelixPayroll is always a hot topic among Major League Baseball teams and as we get closer to Opening Day, the needle starts to settle on what dollar amount each team will allocate. Of course moves will happen during the season and many teams leave room in their budget for just that occurrence, so the Opening Day number is anything but a final tally. With Ian Desmond now a member of the Texas Rangers for 2016, we can expect any further free agent signings to be of the low-level variety after an extended free agency signing period comes to an end.

That brings us to the Seattle Mariners where the first offseason under a new regime brought significant change to the ball club. About this time last year I analyzed how the Mariners would distribute payroll by position. Unsurprisingly the rotation, featuring Felix Hernandez, and second base, featuring Robinson Cano, took up the largest allocations and combined for just under 40 percent of the team’s nearly $125 million payroll.

That percentage stands to shrink again in 2016 as the Mariners Opening Day payroll is projected to be around $140 million — a consecutive increase. The following table shows the players that have been included for each position for this exercise, and more or less are expected to fill the 25-man roster for Seattle. A few estimations were done on my part for the last few roster spots available.

 2016 Salaries by Position
Position Salary Player(s)
SP $40,230,000 Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade MileyTaijuan Walker, James Paxton/Nate Karns
RP $16,908,000 Joaquin Benoit, Steve Cishek, Charlie Furbush, Ryan Cook, Evan ScribnerJustin De Fratus, Vidal Nuno
C $4,250,000 Chris Iannetta
1B $8,000,000 Adam Lind
2B $24,000,000 Robinson Cano
3B $8,000,000 Kyle Seager
SS $600,000 Ketel Marte
LF  $5,500,000 Nori Aoki
CF $4,150,000 Leonys Martin
RF $6,750,000 Seth Smith
DH $14,250,000 Nelson Cruz
Bench $3,850,000 Franklin Gutierrez, Steve Clevenger, Shawn O’Malley, Jesus Montero
Total $136,488,000

All contract information used comes from Baseball-Reference. For pre-arbitration players I used the following scale: first-year players receive $550 thousand, second-year players receive $600 thousand, and third-year players receive $650 thousand. Typically pre-arbitration players will earn a salary in this range or slightly higher. But a the case where a player is set to earn more than $650 thousand but less than $1 million won’t be all that noticeable in the bigger picture.

Remembering that this is an estimate, the 25-man roster here totals $136.488 million for the year’s payroll. This number is not inclusive since it doesn’t reflect the salaries of other players that are on the 40-man roster.

Of this projection the bullpen is most likely to have a different shape by the time Spring Training is over as both Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook are out with lat injuries. It’s also possible that Dae-Ho Lee beats out Jesus Montero as a platoon bat. And it isn’t a given that Shawn O’Malley makes the team either. Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas are in the mix too. The salaries for the other candidates won’t differ substantially from who is shown as making the team, so for our purposes here, this will work.

With the same names and numbers from the above table, we now see how the Mariners have distributed payroll for the 2016 season in visual form.

2016 Mariners Salary Distribution 2

As mentioned, second base and Cano still make up the biggest portion of the distribution among position players, though that percentage has decreased a tick as payroll has grown. Seager, signed to a seven-year contract extension prior to the 2015 season, enters year-two of the deal and his salary will continue to rise over the next couple seasons. Felix and his $25.86 million salary tops the club and accounts for just over half of the total allocation for the rotation.

Compared to last year, more dollars have been invested into the bullpen, catching, and first base. This is consistent with the offseason acquisitions of Benoit and Cishek in the bullpen, Iannetta at catcher, and Lind at first base. Since Mark Trumbo was a midseason acquisition his salary was not reflected in the 2015 edition that took place prior to the season.

The distribution across the outfield is similar to last year’s as Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson combined to earn just over $10 million while the newly acquired Aoki and Martin along with a raise to Smith will eat up all of that.

Seattle will have the advantage of Marte and several pitchers playing in their pre-arbitration years and earning less than $1 million. This appears to be a slightly more veteran ball club compared to last year with the likes of Iannetta and Aoki taking the places of Mike Zunino, who is likely ticketed for Triple-A, and Ackley, who was dealt to the New York Yankees last summer.

Interestingly enough, the Mariners will again distribute 42 percent of their payroll to pitching. For 2016, 30 percent will go to the rotation and 12 percent will go to the bullpen while in 2015, 32 percent went to the rotation and 10 percent went to the bullpen.

There isn’t too much to be taken away from this exercise, but we can add some context by showing how the Mariners’ spending compares to the rest of the American League West division, as shown in the following chart.

2016 ALW Salary Dist

The same caveats used for the Mariners — playing time, pre-arbitration salaries, etc. — apply for the other four teams as well. Here are a few things that I made note of:

  • Josh Hamilton: the embattled outfielder will likely start the season on the disabled list, but when he does return, he stands to come off the bench for the Texas Rangers. Hamilton’s salary creates a misleading distribution of the Rangers bench situation since they are actually only paying a couple million dollars of his salary with the Los Angeles Angels on the hook for the rest.
  • The Oakland Athletics beefed up their bullpen this winter with the likes of Ryan Madson, John Axford, and Liam Hendriks and have allotted almost $7 million more to their bullpen than rotation.
  • The Houston Astros are in a similar position with several high-priced relievers remaining on the roster after a strong contending year.
  • Part of the reason the A’s and Astros have more invested in their bullpens than rotations is due to the pre-arbitration salaries for pitchers such as Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh.
  • The investment the A’s have made into their rotation is in the form of two free agent contracts to starters Henderson Alvarez and Rich Hill. Alvarez is recovering from shoulder surgery and could join the team in May while Hill is looking for a healthy, bounce-back season.
  • As was the case last year, the division is distributing very little to the catching position. The M’s Iannetta is now the second-highest paid catcher in the division with the Astros Jason Castro set to earn $5 million.
  • The Rangers have invested heavily in a handful of players at five positions in Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo with three positions receiving relatively little investment.
  • The only position the Mariners are clearly spending more at than their division rivals is second base.
  • The A’s have a somewhat interesting roster puzzle with Coco Crisp and Chris Coghlan expected to start on the bench but combining to earn almost $16 million. You’d have to think president Billy Beane has another trick up his sleeve somewhere.

WalkerThere are many ‘Under 25′ or ’25 and Under’ player rankings to go along with the farm system rankings put out by Keith Law, MLB.com and Baseball America. A good number of the sites covering prospects offer such a ’25 and Under’ type list, apparently in attempt to better evaluate where each club is in terms of young talent. Not Prospect Insider. Why? I’ll explain.

For starters, the age of 25, or any other age one might choose as the cut-off, is 100 percent arbitrary. Why not 27? Why not 23? Second, There are much more significant cut-off criterion than age, or even rookie status when attempting to determine the long-term status of an organization, and since the mere presence of these ‘Under 25′ types suggest an attempt to take the analysis deeper than the farm, let’s go yet one step further, and with more meaning. Let me explain that, too.

Baseball teams do not benefit specifically from having as many good and/or promising players 25 years of age and under as possible. They benefit from having as many good and/or promising players under club control for as long as possible, and good+cheap+now is more valuable than any other combination. No matter how good a club’s up-to-25’s are, if they’ve accrued three or more years of service time, or happen to qualify for Super 2 arbitration status, they start to dent the organization’s financial flexibility, often impacting immediate or future plans. If a player broke into the big leagues at 22 years of age and stayed there, he’d be arbitration eligible after his age 24 season, making his age-25 season one under an arbitration salary — which almost always hits seven figures.

When clubs look to rebuild — such as the Atlanta Braves the past two seasons — they do not seek players of specific ages to go with certain levels of abilities. They seek controllable talents, sprinkled across all levels of experience levels and statuses. Many played all of 2015 in the minors. Most of those will do so again in 2016. Others have four-to-six years of club control attached. Rather than having to immediately write payroll checks for seven figures on several players, the Braves will pay their young big-league talents the league minimum for up to three full seasons. This is how they’ll be able to extend the contracts of key players heading toward free agency or perhaps even splurge on an impact free agent or two as they approach legitimate contention in the National League East. It’s also how they’ll entice other clubs to part with what they desire in order to complete their roster.

The same idea is why the Houston Astros are so dangerous right now — a threat to win it all for the next three or more season. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Lance McCullers and company will make peanuts for at least two more years, barring contract extensions, which only come at the club’s discretion.

The age of the player is arbitrary. His rookie status is meaningless. This is what makes the Nathan Karns trade a potential gem for the Mariners; he’s 28, yes, but has just one year of service on the ledger. The right-hander may be entering his prime years while the club is required to pay him only the league minimum for both 2016 and 2017, his age 28 and 29 seasons.

Here are the AL West’s top players who have yet to qualify for arbitration, heading into the 2016 season. Below that is a group of players in Year 1 of arbitration, which typically are very affordable stages for the club. Add the following groups to the farm system rankings of your choice and that combo is a better representation of where each club is in terms of housing the necessary young talent to put forth its best foot for the longer-term future — beyond 2016. The overall organization ‘ranking’ may not change much when implementing pre-arbitration talents, but clubs only can house 25 players on the big-league roster, 40 on the reserve list and players run out of options. The difference between the clubs is more opportunities to mitigate cost. Front office mistakes reduce such an advantage.

After the Mariners’ groups are those of the other four clubs in the American League West, for comparison. Of course, the financial situation of each club matters when trying to determine what their chances at long-term success may be, so keep that in mind.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Nathan Karns RHP 1.033
Taijuan Walker RHP 1.142
James Paxton LHP 2.027
Ketel Marte SS 0.066
Mike Montgomery LHP 0.089
Jesus Montero 1B/DH 1.167
Chris Taylor SS 0.139
Mike Zunino C 2.084
Vidal Nuno LHP 2.015
Stefen Romero OF 0.170
Steve Clevenger C 2.123
Luis Sardinas SS 0.143

It’s worth noting a player such as Mike Zunino is far from guaranteed to earn the nearly-year of service he needs to hit arbitration status after this coming season. Taijuan Walker is likely to hit Super Two status after 2016 — as you can see, he’s paced to end this coming year with two years, 142 days of service time. After the 2015 season, the Super Two cut-off was two years, 130 days, a mark Clevenger missed by just seven days of service.

Keep in mind that if James Paxton doesn’t win a spot in the starting rotation this spring, there’s a great chance he starts the season in Triple-A Tacoma. He enters 2016 needing almost a full season in the majors — 145 days, to be exact — to reach three years of service. He needs just 105 days of or so to join Walker in Super Two status, however, if we assume the cut-off repeats at two years, 130 days (it typically is different every season, however). In order for Paxton to miss out on arbitration after this season he’ll need to spend more than two full months in Triple-A, not counting rehab assignment time.

Mike Montgomery and Jesus Montero are out of options, but if the latter makes the club out of spring training and spends most of the season in the big leagues, arbitration likely will be part of his offseason, too.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Leonys Martin CF $4.15m
Evan Scribner RHP $807,500

Steve Clevenger, clearly, will get to arbitration status after this season, needing but a week or two to get there. Karns is set for two more full seasons of club-controlled contracts with no chance to get to arbitration until after the 2017 season. Evan Scribner was a Super Two qualifier this season, but remains affordable at under $1 million for 2016. Leonys Martin was a rather pricey first-year arbitration qualifier and a poor 2016 likely means a non-tender scenario for the center fielder next winter.

The Texas Rangers rank between No. 6 and No. 10, depending on who you ask, but we can add the following to their future chances to sustain the success they started a year ago.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Rougned Odor 2B 1.121
Sam Freeman LHP 2.050
Nick Martinez RHP 1.143
Delino DeShields, Jr. SS 1.000
Keone Kela LHP 1.000

Rougned Odor is a rather key name here, as is Delino DeShields, Jr., since both were big parts of the club’s success in 2015. The pair’s value, while earning just league-minimum salaries, is especially critical with other large contracts on the books, including Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder. Once Odor, for example, gets expensive, Fielder’s deal will be nearing expiration.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Shawn Tolleson RHP $3.275m
Jake Diekman LHP $1.255m
Tanner Scheppers RHP $900,000
Jurickson Profar SS $605,000
Sam Dyson RHP CC

For Texas, this group may be more important, since their best bullpen arm, Shawn Tolleson, and a potentially-terrific trade chip in Jurickson Profar, remains relatively cheap. Profar’s health is a major concern at this point, but if such injuries would have occurred in 2018, instead, Profar might be in non-tender territory. The Rangers can afford to sit back and hope for another year or two, which could pay off big, considering Profar’s immense talent.

The Los Angeles Angels ranked near the bottom of everyone’s list, topping out at No. 26 and bottom out at, well, the bottom. Their list of controlled contracts and first-year arbitration players isn’t impressive, either. At press time, the club was rumored to be near acquiring former Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders, who is a first-year arbitration player.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Matt Shoemaker RHP 1.166
Tyler Skaggs LHP 2.066
C.J. Cron 1B/DH 1.110
Mike Morin RHP 1.137
Cory Rasmus RHP 1.155
Johnny Giavotella 2B 2.055

Tyler Skaggs could be the key player here. The lefty has a chance to be a reliable No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but is coming off Tommy John surgery and may not reach such status in 2016, but there appears to be a good shot he nets the service time to hit arbitration status. He’ll likely remain super cheap into 2017, however. C.J. Cron being a cheap, useful bat — especially with Albert Pujols’ current health situation — is a pretty big deal for the Angels, who remain nearly $30 million from the luxury tax threshold for 2016 but did not go out and add insurance for their incumbents.

Cory Rasmus, Mike Morin and Johnny Giavotella are role players who have some value as long they’re not making much money.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Kole Calhoun RF $3.4m

Kole Calhoun reached Super Two status after last season and is one of the Angels’ best players — probably No. 2 behind Mike Trout — and is a value at $3.4 million for 2016. It may be on Damon Oppenheimer’s to-do list to seek controllable players — there’s no doubt it is — but doing so without return value is difficult and certainly will test the first-time general manager’s ability to get deals done with creativity.

The Oakland Athletics are in a unique position; they’re lacking in talent down on the farm, sitting at No. 18 in Keith Law’s Org Rankings, and having but a small handful of controllable talents that figure to be key cogs in whatever machine they’re looking to build.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Khris Davis OF 2.104
Liam Hendriks RHP 2.038
Sonny Gray RHP 2.061
Stephen Vogt C 2.084
Josh Phegley C 1.114
Marcus Semien SS 1.118
Kendall Graveman LHP 1.014
Chris Bassitt RHP 0.127
Jesse Hahn RHP 1.086
Billy Burns OF 1.020
Mark Canha OF/1B 1.000

There are two pieces of good news, however. First, Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt are two of Oakland’s club-controlled players that aren’t yet earning arbitration dollars in 2016. Second, the A’s have but $34.7 million on the books for 2017 and just $13.7 million on the books for 2018. This strong suggests the financial flexibility to cover most or all of Gray’s arbitration years, and perhaps even a free agent year or two. Marcus Semien is a big value here, too, manning the shortstop position with some upside at the plate, all for the league minimum.

The A’s haven’t a single first-year arbitration player, though, and as shown above many of their key pre-arb players will hit arbitration status after 2016.

The Houston Astros are in the best shape of any club in the division, even when it goes beyond the farm system itself. Their strong rookie class of 2015 — Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr. leading the way — puts them in a great spot for years to come, but the Astros are in good shape at all levels of service time.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Carlos Correa SS 0.119
Lance McCullers RHP 0.139
Ken Giles RHP 1.113
Collin McHugh RHP 2.085
Brad Peacock LHP 2.124
Will Harris RHP 2.102
George Springer SS 1.166
Mike Fiers RHP 2.085
Jake Marisnick OF 1.145
Matt Duffy 3B 1.059
Dan Straily RHP 1.126
Preston Tucker SS 0.150

Three of the Astros best six players reside in 0-3 territory, an impressive roster set for GM Jeff Luhnow and staff. One cam make an argument that 10 of the club’s 15 best players will earn less than $6 million in 2016, with five of them earning less than $1 million.

Not only is the Houston farm system still solid enough — No. 17 by Law — despite graduation several over the past two seasons, but their list of 0-3s and first-year arbitration players is as impressive as it gets in Major League Baseball, and Luhnow added to that over the winter in the form of closer Ken Giles.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Dallas Keuchel LHP $7.25m
Josh Fields RHP $900,000

The one area that may get a bit difficult for Houston is with Dallas Keuchel, whose first-year arbitration salary broke a record for pitchers. His Cy Young Award didn’t hurt, but the Astros may not be in a position to compete with Keuchel’s future market. The onus will be on Luhnow to continue to find starting pitching so he can trade Keuchel — if they prefer not to pony up the big dollars to keep him. His 2017 salary projects north of $10 million — perhaps somewhere in the $12-13 million range — with another bump to the $17-18 million or higher likely heading into 2018. The other controllable assets on the roster make it plausible for the Astros to keep such a salary, however, so don’t expect a break-up of this ultra-young group in H-town.

In the end, 0-3s and first-year arbitration talent is a continuation of the poor farm system for the Angels, but the Astros get a significant boost from the 17th-best farm system, suggesting long-term success as well as the immediate chance to win. The Rangers’ top-10 farm system doesn’t get a huge lift from their 0-3s or first-year arbitration eligibles, but there’s enough there to maintain the optimism moving forward beyond the next two seasons. The Mariners have some upside in their 0-3s that isn’t present in a bottom-quarter farm system, thanks to Walker, Paxton, Karns and Marte, lifting their overall future outlook a full step or two. Walker’s solid final three months to 2015 lend an extra half-step, too, since we could be talking about a No. 2 or No. 3 starter this season.…

 

Hamels
Last season was a forgettable one for Seattle Mariner fans who were forced to watch the American League (AL) West division standings turned upside down in a way that didn’t result in their team reaching the postseason. The two worst teams of 2014 reached the postseason and the two teams that had reached the postseason the season prior took a step backwards. At the same time, the Mariners – who were projected to be a World Series contender – ended up losing 86 games.

This abrupt change of fortune made for an exciting baseball season, plus helped set the stage for an interesting Hot Stove season. As with every off-season, priorities vary between teams as will their respective approach to address weaknesses and/or accentuate areas of strength. With pitchers and catchers set to report next month, it’s about time to review what the Mariners’ rivals have done to improve their rosters so far. It’s important to emphasize the “so far” because there’s still time for deals to happen, especially with several high-impact free agents still on the market.

For each team, you’ll see a payroll projection from baseball-reference.com. The numbers will become more firm after the arbitration process has run its course. For those interested in specifics, MLB Trade Rumors provides arbitration estimates that are widely used by numerous baseball sites, including Baseball Reference and Prospect Insider, which can be found here.

Next, up is each organization’s needs at the end of last season – based on projected free agent losses and areas of weakness. After that, there’s some background information on each club, a summary of their moves to date, and what’s left to be done before the teams break camp for the regular season.

Houston Astros
Estimated payroll: $88.9M
Needs: 1B/ LF/SP/RP

The massive roster reclamation undertaken by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow propelled the team into the playoff picture much sooner than most observers had predicted. Houston led the division for most of the season before falling on hard times in September. Despite their late season setback, Houston managed to beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and extend the World Series champion Kansas City Royals to five games before bowing out in the Divisional Series.

It’s reasonable to anticipate that last year’s rapid improvement and high expectations for 2016 will lead to a groundswell of fan support in 2016. What’s unknown is club owner Jim Crane’s willingness to provide Luhnow with more payroll flexibility. Player salaries have incrementally increased over the past few seasons from a league-low $26 million in 2013 to approximately $72 million last season. Although the team’s payroll will increase again, it’s projected to remain in the bottom third of the league despite the fact they franchise is based in the fourth largest city in the United States.

Off-season action:
Thanks to the bevvy of young talent that Luhnow and his predecessor – Ed Wade – have amassed and the fact that they were able to retain a couple of key free agents, the Astros haven’t made dramatic changes to their roster. In fact, they’ve added the fewest new major league players of any club in the AL West.

The club’s biggest move was picking up closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles’ arrival permits Houston to make former closer Luke Gregerson their eighth inning set-up man. Another move that helped bolster their bullpen was their retention of southpaw Tony Sipp, who was in high demand on the free agent market.

The Astros filled their left field hole when Colby Rasmus became the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer. As with the Giles deal, keeping their own player improves their overall by keeping Jake Marisnick and prospect Preston Tucker waiting in the wings.

What’s next?
It appears that the Astros plan to use Evan Gattis as their primary designated hitter and rely on former top prospect Jon Singleton at first base after the club non-tendered Chris Carter. The team would be well-served to either acquire a full-time first baseman or at least someone provide depth at the position.

Since Chris Davis has opted to stay in Baltimore, the market for first baseman has thinned out considerably. Justin Morneau can still play, but his concussion history makes him a risk. Another option would be Steve Pearce who can play first base or in a corner outfield spot. That kind of versatility is always a plus for any organization, especially if the team carries eight relievers and only has three bench players  – including a catcher. Based on market availability, the club may be best served to look for a trade partner.

As far as the rotation, adding a solid starter like Texas native Yovani Gallardo – who’s made 30 or more starts in seven consecutive seasons – would help provide depth and an innings eater for the Astros. Another option could be former Mariner Doug Fister who hasn’t been as durable, but would come with a lower price tag.

Fortunately for the team, the main pieces of their roster are relatively inexpensive and the lineup should improve simply by having AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and fellow rookie Lance McCullers for an entire season as long as they avoid a sophomore letdown. Also, healthy production from outfielders Carlos Gomez and George Springer for an entire season provides an instant improvement. With that said, the areas that I just noted need to improve in order for the club to get ahead in the competitive AL West.

Peter Gammons of the Gammons Daily noted yesterday that three different baseball executives have told him that they believe that free agent Yoenis Cespedes could end up in Houston. Certainly, the Astros could afford the 30-year-old outfielder from a financial standpoint, especially with so many young stars under team control for the foreseeable future. However, the club would likely need to move one of their outfielders or Gattis to make room for the right-handed slugger on their roster.

Oakland Athletics
Estimated payroll: $83.1M
Needs: 1B/2B/SP/RP

The Athletics are attempting to get back on track after a disastrous last place finish. Oakland fans were forced to watch their team finish with 68 wins, while former Athletic Josh Donaldson – who was traded last off-season – won the AL Most Valuable Player and helped the Toronto Blue Jays reach the AL Championship Series.

The fact that the club has demonstrated a willingness to deal a budding superstar, like Donaldson, has led to speculation that the A’s might do something similar with ace Sonny Gray. After all, the 26-year-old would bring a significant return. Team vice president Billy Beane recently told MLB Radio that he doesn’t intend to trade their star hurler and best player. The right-hander has a 2.88 earned run average (ERA) in 74 career starts and is under team control through the 2019 season. That’s right, the pitcher who finished third in last season’s AL Cy Young award voting will earn the league minimum in 2016. If Beane changes his mind, he won’t have trouble finding potential trade partners.

Off-season action:
Since the cash-strapped club is never in the market for a upper-tier free agents and management is currently unwilling to part with their staff ace, the Athletics are more inclined to assume risk and make unconventional acquisitions like free agent starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who was signed to a one-year $4.25 million deal. Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins after having shoulder surgery last summer, will open the season on the disabled list. However, he’s only entering his age-27 season and will be under team control through 2017.

Another reclamation project is southpaw Rich Hill. The 35-year-old – who’s been a reliever for the majority of his 11-year career – will be starter for the Oakland in 2016. Both Alvarez and Hill present different kinds of risks for the club. Time will only tell if either gamble pays off for the Athletics.

To upgrade second base, the club obtained infielder Jed Lowrie from the Astros, which prompted them to ship Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for minor league pitchers Jeffrey Wendelken and Zack Erwin – a fourth round pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur draft. I’m sure that some Oakland fans feel a sense of irony in seeing Lawrie leave just one season after being part of the package received for Donaldson.

At first base, the A’s acquired Yonder Alonso in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The left-handed hitter represents a significant upgrade at the plate over Ike Davis and is viewed as a good defender. Alonso will likely pair with the right-handed hitting Mark Canha to form a first base platoon when Canha isn’t playing in the outfield.

Oakland aggressively addressed their bullpen needs by adding relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski. The team hopes that these four veterans – plus a healthy Sean Doolittle – will help reinvigorate a relief corps that permitted an AL-worst 34-percent of inherited runners to score last season.

What’s next?
With the trade of righty Jesse Chavez for Hendriks, Manager Bob Melvin will have to rely upon Hill and youngsters Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Aaron Brooks to form a rotation behind Gray. Jarrod Parker could also be in the mix after missing the past two seasons due to arm surgery.

Teams with higher operating budgets would have the payroll flexibility to address their rotation needs by going after a lower-tier free agent starter like Gallardo, or even Fister. Perhaps, the market will drive down the price on one of the remaining free agents. If the club stands pat with the current roster, a lot of things have to go just right for Oakland to contend in 2016.

Los Angeles Angels
Estimated payroll: $167.7M
Needs: C/3B/LF/more offense

The Angels remained in postseason contention until the last day of the 2015 season, but fell short to Houston for the second wild card spot. The abrupt mid-season departure of former general manager Jerry Dipoto provided an opportunity for the Angels to redo their front office and assess their roster with a fresh set of eyes.

New general manager Billy Eppler inherits a roster weighed down by the $45 million that veterans Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson will be earning in 2016. Plus, the team is on the hook to pay former Angel Josh Hamilton $26.4 million, although he’s playing for the Texas Rangers. In total, the Halos have over $70 million obligated to four players who are either in decline or playing for a divisional rival.

To compound matters, owner Arte Moreno is on record saying that he’s reluctant to go over the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. As a result, the team hasn’t been active in an big-ticket free agents.

Off-season action:
Shortly after taking over the baseball operations, Eppler pulled off his first significant deal by getting shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league player Jose Briceno from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for shortstop Erick Aybar and pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.

Adding a defensive stalwart like Simmons is a plus for the Angels. But, it came at the cost of two prospects and didn’t address an area viewed as an urgent need – shortstop. Newcomb is a potential top-end starter, who is ranked in the top-20 among all major league prospects and number-two in the Braves system. Filling a more urgent hole in a deal would have beneficial for the Angels’ 2016 outlook.

The remaining moves made by the Angels were low cost additions. With the departure of last year’s third baseman – David Freese – via free agency, the club acquired Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals in exchange for reliever Trevor Gott and minor leaguer Michael Brady. Newly acquired Geovany Soto is expected to pair with youngster Carlos Perez to form the Angels’ catching tandem. Plus, free agent Cliff Pennington can play second base, shortstop and third base and some outfield, if needed.

What’s next?
Although Eppler has stated that he believes Moreno would approve exceeding the luxury tax mark for the right player, the team has yet to find that player and make a significant upgrade at any position from an offensive standpoint.

The area that desperately needs that “right player” is left field. For a club that ranked number-25 in on-base percentage last season, upgrading the position with an established offensive player would be a step in the right direction towards reinvigorating the club’s offense. Currently, the club has arguably the best player in the game – Mike Trout – in center field and Gold Glover Kole Calhoun manning right field. Calhoun has pop in his bat, but his batting average and on-base percentage are just league-average.

That leaves a potential tandem of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry to man left field. Other outfielders currently on the team’s 40-man roster include Todd Cunningham, Efren Navarro and minor leaguer Rafael Ortega. If the Angels can’t find more offensive punch from their outfield, 2016 could be another year of the club’s offense being Mike Trout and eight other guys.

Three free agent outfielders who would be an immediate upgrade be Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Justin Upton. But, it comes back to the same thing – ownership’s reluctance to go over the luxury tax mark. Perhaps, they can sign a lower tier free agent like Austin Jackson or Denard Span. Neither is a perfect fit, but would present better options than what’s on the current 40-man roster.

Texas Rangers
Estimated payroll: $144.2M
Needs: C/SP/RP

The defending AL West division champions were forced to take a broken road to postseason contention last year. First, the club lost ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John elbow surgery in Spring Training. To make matters worse, the club was forced to go without the services of fellow starters Derek Holland and Martin Perez for the first half of the season. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding slugger Prince Fielder – who was returning from neck surgery – and the Rangers 2015 outlook appeared bleak.

While most observers didn’t expect Texas to be a contender after their run of bad fortune with their rotation, general manager Jon Daniels never waved the proverbial white flag. He continued to look for opportunities to improve his roster for 2015 and beyond throughout the season. He first reacquired former Ranger Hamilton from the Angels after he wore out his welcome in Anaheim. Hamilton’s contributions proved to be limited. But, Daniels made his most significant moves in July when he traded for Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels and added relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson to bolster his bullpen.

Fortunately for Daniels and his ball club, the Rangers were able to ride out their early misfortune. Holland and Perez returned after the all-star break, Fielder earned American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, and Hamels helped the club make a late surge to pass the Astros and Angels to win the division. Now, the club is poised to compete for the postseason again.

Off-season action:
To a degree, Daniels got an early start with his off-season shopping when he picked up Hamels, Diekman, and Dyson last July. The club’s major hot stove move was trading outfielder Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan. The key to this deal for Texas was adding the hard-throwing and versatile Wilhelmsen to buoy their bullpen, which now brags a core of closer Shawn Tolleson, Diekman, Dyson, sophomore Keone Kela, and their newest addition from Seattle.

The Rangers also signed former Mariners outfielder Justin Ruggiano – who rakes against left-handed pitching – to boost outfield depth and possibly be a back-up first baseman. Ruggiano also provides the team with some insurance in case Hamilton encounters performance or availability issues. Although the fan favorite is expected to be a regular contributor, Hamilton underwent another knee procedure this off-season and has struggled to stay healthy. The silver lining for Rangers’ management is that the Angels are paying the majority of his salary. So, the team won’t be fiscally constrained if they need to move past the former league MVP.

Despite the speculation that the club wouldn’t retain their arbitration-eligible catchers – Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos – both players are still on the roster. Gimenez would appear to be the low-hanging fruit if another option were to be found. He had a strong 2015, however, his .255/.330/.490 slash in a small-sample size of 113 plate appearances were well above career averages.

What’s next?
The team appears to be satisfied with going to the Cactus League with Darvish and Hamels serving as co-aces and having Holland, Perez, Colby Lewis, Nick Martinez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez competing for the final three rotation spots.

Top prospect – third baseman Joey Gallo – wowed fans with his tape measure home runs after being called up to fill in for the injured Adrian Beltre last season, but his high strikeout rate landed him back in Class-AAA ball after Beltre returned. The team began playing the young slugger in left field last season and could permanently transition him to the outfield, especially if reports are correct that the club is working on extension for the seemingly ageless Beltre. It’s also possible that Gallo could be an injury replacement at first or third base.

It’s possible that Daniels will, once again, wait until the regular season to further upgrade his roster. One potential trade chip – shortstop Jurickson Profar – could be in high demand if he proves that he’s ready to play the field after two shoulder surgeries and a long recovery. It’s unlikely that Daniels would be willing to move the former number-one overall prospect in the majors when his value is so low. It’s more probably that he’ll hold onto Profar until he regains his form either with the big league club or at Class-AAA ball.

Final thoughts
It’s important to note once again that there’s still time for deals to be made, especially with several high-profile and many lower-tier free agents still on the market. Position players like Cespedes, Upton, and Dexter Fowler would make sense for more than one AL West club, if the price was right. The same could be said about Gallardo or Fister.

Every one of these clubs will continue to attempt to add major league talent, plus extend minor league invites to players in order to create more depth opportunities, especially with relievers and starting pitchers. Even after the season starts, there’s still time to make additions to the roster. Just look at the 2015 Rangers and their in-season maneuvering if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to upgrade on the fly.

Later this week, I’ll cover the Mariners’ very active Hot Stove effort to upgrade their roster and brighten their 2016 outlook.

 

It’s no secret that the Seattle Mariners are in the market to improve their catching situation during this offseason – their backstops collectively ranked last in the majors in every major offensive category in 2015. In order to contend next year, the team must get better value from the position.

There’s one area where the team’s catchers actually excelled – they were really good at sacrifice bunting.  Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre each laid down sacrifice bunts 10 times and were successful 85-percent of the time. I think that everyone can agree that having your catcher position give themselves up 20 times doesn’t bode well for a team’s offense, especially when one of them – Zunino – possess above-average power. Further proof that the team needs to upgrade at catcher.

Just yesterday, Tacoma News Tribune beat writer Bob Dutton reported that free agent catcher Chris Ianetta and the Mariners were closing in on a deal. It’s fair to say that the social media reaction to this news trended towards being negative. Fans generally viewed Ianetta’s offensive numbers to be as bad or even worse than Zunino’s, which isn’t true.

What exactly is a fair expectation from the catcher position in 2016? Where should the bar be set for catchers when it comes to offensive output? The short answer is lower than many fans realize.

It’s important to note that major league catchers had a combined .240 batting average last season, which is lower than any field position other than pitcher and 16 points lower than the next lowest position – left field.

Of the 24 catchers who played in more than 100 games last season, only seven were above league-average for the catcher position in all three triple-slash categories – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. Six were below league-average in all three. Buster Posey should be considered the exception – not the expectation.

It’s not just standard offensive statistics where catchers lag behind. When you look at value of catchers – using the baseball-reference.com version of wins above replacement (WAR) – you’ll see that only nine catchers provided starter-level value, which is generally viewed as two or more WAR.

Player WAR Age Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Buster Posey 6.1 28 SFG 150 623 177 28 0 19 .318 .379 .470 .849
Stephen Vogt 3.5 30 OAK 136 511 116 21 3 18 .261 .341 .443 .783
Russell Martin 3.3 32 TOR 129 507 106 23 2 23 .240 .329 .458 .787
Francisco Cervelli 3.1 29 PIT 130 510 133 17 5 7 .295 .370 .401 .771
Brian McCann 2.7 31 NYY 135 535 108 15 1 26 .232 .320 .437 .756
Derek Norris 2.5 26 SDP 147 557 129 33 2 14 .250 .305 .404 .709
Caleb Joseph 2.2 29 BAL 100 355 75 16 1 11 .234 .299 .394 .693
Salvador Perez 2.2 25 KCR 142 553 138 25 0 21 .260 .280 .426 .706
J.T. Realmuto 2.2 24 MIA 126 467 114 21 7 10 .259 .290 .406 .696
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/12/2015.

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Every other fielding position – other than pitcher – had 14-18 players with starter-level value. The position with the highest number of starter level players was third base at 18. All-star level value is normally viewed as five WAR or higher and Posey was the only catcher to provide that much value last season. Again, he should be considered the exception – not the expectation.

It’s not just starter-level value that differentiates catcher from the other positions. According to baseballprospectus.com, the average annual salary for a major league catcher in 2015 was $1.78 million, which is the lowest for any non-pitching position on the field. The highest-ever contract awarded to a catcher was to Joe Mauer. His eight-year/$184 million deal is followed by Posey’s nine-year/$164 million contract.

Mauer no longer plays catcher though. After suffering a concussion in 2013, the Minnesota Twins moved the then 30-year-old to first base. The San Francisco Giants appear to be going in the same direction with Posey, who turns 29 in March. During each of the last three seasons, he’s incrementally played fewer games behind the plate and more at first base.

Who can blame the Giants? The likelihood of injury is higher behind the plate, plus the grind of catching affects a player’s ability to hit. Having banged up hands/wrists and crouching for 900-plus innings annually has to impact a catcher’s offensive tools. Although Posey is an outstanding backstop, it’s a lot easier to find a defensive-oriented catcher than it is to find a hitter like Posey.

Another scenario that can occur is moving the advanced hit tool catcher to another position in the minors, so that they’ll reach the majors sooner. It generally takes a catcher longer to develop as a game caller, thereby they take longer to reach the big leagues.

Okay, so it’s clearly apparent that finding a plus-hitter to wear the tools of ignorance isn’t easy. Let’s turn our attention to potential and realistic options for Seattle. Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill recently discussed catchers who are free agents, plus potential trade targets who could help fill the Mariners’ gaping hole at backstop.

Player WAR G Age Tm PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Stephen Vogt 3.5 136 30 OAK 511 116 21 3 18 .261 .341 .443 .783
Nick Hundley 1.8 103 31 COL 389 110 21 5 10 .301 .339 .467 .807
A.J. Ellis 1.5 63 34 LAD 217 43 9 0 7 .238 .355 .403 .758
Geovany Soto 1.0 78 32 CHW 210 41 8 0 9 .219 .301 .406 .708
Matt Wieters 0.8 75 29 BAL 282 69 14 1 8 .267 .319 .422 .742
Dioner Navarro 0.7 54 31 TOR 192 42 7 0 5 .246 .307 .374 .682
Chris Iannetta 0.7 92 32 LAA 317 51 10 0 10 .188 .293 .335 .628
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 0.5 79 30 TOT 227 45 15 0 9 .225 .310 .435 .745
Brayan Pena 0.4 108 33 CIN 367 91 17 0 0 .273 .334 .324 .659
Alex Avila -0.1 67 28 DET 219 34 5 0 4 .191 .339 .287 .626
Michael McKenry -0.2 58 30 COL 152 26 7 3 4 .205 .329 .402 .731
Jesus Sucre -0.3 52 27 SEA 142 20 6 0 1 .157 .195 .228 .424
Mike Zunino -0.7 112 24 SEA 386 61 11 0 11 .174 .230 .300 .530
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/12/2015.

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Multiple sports reporting agencies are reporting that Matt Weiters will accept that the qualifying offer from the Baltimore Orioles. So, that’s one less option for teams in need of a catcher.

As you can see, Ianetta sits in the middle of the pack. Adding the 10-year veteran would provide the Mariners with a good pitch framer who has a .344 on-base percentage over the last three seasons. Granted, his 2015 was sub-par, but he’s only 32-years-old. So, it’s plausible that he could bounce back next season.

Among the players on the list, only Oakland’s Stephen Vogt provided starter-level value in 2015. But, most of his value came during the first half of the season. Dealing for him would be costly. I’m not saying that the deal won’t happen. Just that Vogt won’t be easily pried away from the Athletics.

Lake Washington High School grad Nick Hundley was the only other player to approach starter-level value, although it’s important to note that he played half his games in Colorado.

The ideal strategy would be for the Mariners to add two catchers from the above list or acquire similar players who can mesh together and provide depth, defense, and value. These three elements have been in short demand for the Mariners at many positions during the last half-decade.

Whether Zunino fits into the Mariners’ plans depends largely on how GM Jerry Dipoto views the 24-year-old and the progress he’s made in overhauling his swing under the supervision of hitting coach Edgar Martinez. Even if Dipoto decides to retain the former first-round draft pick, the cautious approach would be to still add two other catchers.

Regardless of Dipoto’s strategy, I’d caution fans to keep the offensive statistics of any new catcher in perspective. Unless the new GM pulls off a miracle blockbuster deal for Posey or can wrangle Vogt away from the Oakland Athletics, the Mariners will likely end up with two catchers who provide reserve-level value individually. That’s not a bad thing provided that the duo’s combined value is at or near starter-level.

Maybe Ianetta will sign with Seattle today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe he’ll sign elsewhere. Regardless of what happens, adding two players with a similar skill set to Ianetta’s would be a wise move for Seattle. Reading my last comment may infuriate some fans who are sick and tired of the recent dismal offensive performance by Mariner catchers. But, it’s a common sense strategy for a team that wants to contend next year.…

ChapmanEvery day through July 31, and even deep into August to a lesser extent, there will be multiple reports regarding clubs having trade discussions with other clubs, about certain players, and there always are contract details, payrolls and many roster scenarios to consider. We won’t be the rumor round-up hub, but we’re here to fill in some of the missing pieces, offer thoughts on the process and if we happen to run into some information that is useful, we’ll share in in this column.

Royals Going For It
The Kansas City Royals reportedly were close to acquiring right-hander Johnny Cueto Saturday night. The deal fell through due to an apparent lack of medical clearance for one of the players headed from Kansas City to Cincinnati in the deal. Even with the deal failing to go through, this news tell us the Royals are going for it.

Cueto, a legitimate No. 1 starter, is a two-month rental and the Royals went for it. Certainly they will continue to attempt to land such a piece, perhaps even Cueto still. With such aggressiveness at the forefront, one has to wonder if the club also will look to grab an outfielder. Alex Gordon is out for a few months, and while Alex Rios has swung the bat better in July, he may not be a trustworthy bat. Gordon likely will return for October but if there are any setbacks with his rehab the Royals could be down a hitter in the postseason.

Brewers’ Sale
Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tweets that right-hander Mike Fiers has drawn trade interest, but adds that the club is trying to move Kyle Lohse and/or Matt Garza, instead.

Good luck.

Lohse and Garza started the year with a chance to create nice value, but neither have pitched well. Garza has $25 million guaranteed still on the books, too, with a vesting option based on games started and the avoidance of the disabled list worth $13 million or a $5 million buyout. Lohse is movable, perhaps even without cash going with him. Garza is not, unless a bad contract is coming back.

Garza has posted a 4.89 FIP while seeing his strikeout rates fall for the fourth straight season. He’s still throwing 91-94 mph with three offspeed pitches but his fastball is getting hit hard and his above-average slider and curveball have also dipped in effectiveness. He’s 32 in November and has not gone more than 163 1/3 innings since 2011.

Milwaukee, however, is expected to strongly consider offers for Carlos Gomez, who may net the club a future impact piece. Fiers, by the way, is a solid No. 3 starter with four more years of club control remaining. He will not be arbitration eligible until after the 2016 season.

Chapman, Kimbrel
Aroldis Chapman may or may not be traded this summer, but if he or Craig Kimbrel lands in Washington the Nationals will have even fewer excuses for an October failure than they have had in the past.

ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark tweeted Saturday that rival executives believe if Nats GM Mike Rizzo makes a move it will be a big one. Chapman or Craig Kimbrel would be pretty big. Either’s presence would push solid closer Drew Storen to the eighth inning.

The Padres and Reds aren’t contending and could jump start a busy offseason by maxing out their value this month, rather than reducing their value by hanging onto them for two more months. Expect both to be dealt, as A.J. Preller and Walt Jocketty get busy on a reload job.…

Every day through July 31, and even deep into August to a lesser extent, there will be multiple reports regarding clubs having trade discussions with other clubs, about certain players, and there always are contract details, payrolls and many roster scenarios to consider. We won’t be the rumor round-up hub, but we’re here to fill in some of the missing pieces, offer thoughts on the process and if we happen to run into some information that is useful, we’ll share in in this column.

Cishek Deal Not A Market Setter
While Oakland’s haul in return for Scott Kazmir may indeed help set the market price for starting pitcher rentals this summer, the Steve Cishek acquisition by the St. Louis Cardinals won’t come close to doing so.

For one, Cishek, 29, has struggled this season. So much that at one point he was shipped back to Triple-A. His velocity is down a bit, he’s walking more batters and striking out fewer and simply allowing more hard hit baseballs. He’s also owed more than $2 million over the final two months of 2015.

Not only does the trade cost for Cishek — 25-year-old Class-AA reliever Kyle Barraclough — not set the market for closers, it likely doesn’t do so for setup men, either. He may very well end up a solid pick-up for the Cardinals, but we’ve yet to see a legitimate high-leverage reliever change teams, so we’ll have to wait until one does to get a sense of what the price is going to be for such arms.

Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria and Francisco Rodriguez are among the proven closer rumored to be somewhat available this month. Late-inning, setup or mid-level closer types that may be available include Brad Ziegler, Joaquin Benoit, Addison Reed, Jake McGee, Will Smith, Jim Johnson, Mark Lowe, Brad Boxberger, Jonathan Broxton and Shawn Kelley. The Red Sox, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, have received interest in Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara but there are no indications Boston will move either right-hander.

Who Needs CF Help?
Contenders that have not received much production from their centerfielders and could be on the lookout for some assistance there before the July 1 deadline:

St. Louis Cardinals: 76 wRC+, .279 wOBA
Peter Bourjos has taken away most of the playing time from Jon Jay and has been much more acceptable offensively with a .314 wOBA and 100 wRC+ supporting a solid .339 OBP.

With so little available on the market, the Cardinals do not appear likely at all to try and trade for a Cameron Maybin, Austin Jackson, Ben Revere or Rajai Davis.

Houston Astros: 76 wRC+, .280 wOBA
Jake Marisnick is a solid glove but at .229/.266/.367 and a .275 wOBA, the contending Astros could use a little more offense. But they also need corner-outfield help and it appears they’re more likely to get a decent player in that search.

San Francisco Giants: 86 wRC+, .286 wOBA
Angel Pagan has scuffled most of the season — .302 OBP, 277 wOBA, 79 wRC+ — and he’s not the glove he was three or four years back. The Giants may prefer to go after starting pitching — they have been linked to Mike Leake and might be a terrific fit for Hisashi Iwakuma if the Mariners end up selling — but center field is a weak spot without question. Pagan has hit left-handed pitching well in the small sample that is 102 plate appearances, suggesting perhaps a platoon partner might make more sense than attempting to land an everyday replacement. Revere is the ideal option in this case.

Tampa Bay Rays: 91 wRC+, .294 wOBA
Moving Kevin Kermeier to a corner or acquiring another centerfield-type defender and playing him left — even if the offensive output isn’t significant — may be the best way a surprise Rays club can get better without spending big in trade cost or salary. Of course, a healthy Desmond Jennings could change the approach and he’s on the comeback trail after knee surgery last month.

Catchers
Several clubs would like to add at least a No. 2 catcher, if not a split-advantage backstop or even a starting-quality option, but there’s not much available and the cost for those that are is quite steep.

Seattle, since trading Welington Castillo in the deal to land Mark Trumbo, has been one of those clubs. One of the clubs they spoke to requested a high-end prospect in exchange for a veteran backup catcher who will be a free agent after the season. The talks, apparently, dies right there.

Here are some catchers that may be discussed over the next week, and some of them perhaps beyond into the waiver deadline period in August:

Rene Rivera, Tampa Bay
Alex Avila, Detroit
A.J. Pierzynski, Atlanta
Stephen Vogt, Oakland
Nick Hundley, Colorado
Geovany Soto, White Sox
Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia
Brayan Pena, Cincinnati
Michael McKenry, Colorado

There aren’t a lot of clubs contending right now that are having significant issues behind the plate. Minnesota is getting a down year from Kurt Suzuki at the plate, Baltimore’s Matt Wieters hasn’t hit much yet and the Rays, who may end up selling instead, are getting nothing offensively from their group. Chris Ianetta’s poor year is hurting the Halos but they aren’t going to move on from him at this stage of the season while they lead the division.

Some have speculated the Padres may be willing to listen on Derek Norris, and if that is the case, like with Oakland and Vogt, clubs may come out of the woodwork to consider him.…

IwakumaIf Hisashi Iwakuma goes out in five days and pitches well again, the Seattle Mariners absolutely will have the opportunity to trade the right-hander to a contender, and the package Oakland received in exchange for Scott Kazmir could serve as a baseline for any deal Seattle makes involving the 34-year-old. This should increase the chances the club makes such a trade.

Iwakuma isn’t going to bring back the same level of package as Kazmir just did — he hasn;t been as good in 2015 and is even more of a concern to clubs in terms of his health, but Kazmir returned a potential future above-average everyday catcher in Jacob Nottingham plus a future back-end starter or reliever in Daniel Mengden.

Such a haul suggests Seattle could net something useful in return for Iwakuma, provided he doesn’t blow up next time out. He’ thrown the ball well three straight times out and despite giving up for homersin his first start off the disabled list, he did show something in that one, too. He’s struck out 18 in his last 20 2/3 innings, walked just four over that span and has induced a lot of ground balls outs. His four starts since being activated have been versus Detroit twice, the Yankees and a red-hot Angels club, too.

Iwakuma could be attractive to clubs that don’t like the asking price for Jeff Samardzija, David Price, Johnny Cueto and even Mike Leake. Those interested in Leake or other mid-rotation types could end up with a better deal and a better pitcher in Iwakuma, who has looked the part of a No. 2-3 type starter of late.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted earlier Thursday that indications are the Mariners are “hesitant to sell.”

Of course they are, because it tells the fan base that 2015 is a failed season, which doesn’t bode well for attendance, TV ratings or the job security of the general manager. It’s the right things to do, however, which is why the A’s went ahead and did so, even though starting play Thursday they were ahead of the Mariners in the standings.

Reports surfaced last week that Detroit, who sits several games ahead of Seattle, is exploring trading their own pending free agents such as ace David Price and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. More evidence that a smart seller can take advantage of so clubs preferring to buy this summer.

Clubs that may see Iwakuma as ideal may include the Baltimore Orioles, who want to add a bat and perhaps a starter, too, but don’t have a lot of ammo to land both and as a result could get left in the cold for the bigger names. The Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals (who need multiple starting pitchers) and even San Francisco Giants also could see a reasonably-priced Iwakuma as a solid option.

Waiting to ‘make sure’ they’re out of the race before selling could cost the Mariners a chance to capitalize on the market. Doing so with Iwakuma and/or J.A. Happ is a ridiculous mistake, especially considering a perfectly capable Roenis Elias is awaiting a recall from Triple-A Tacoma. If the M’s get hot and somehow find themselves in the race in late September, it won’t be because of a negative value differential between Iwakuma (or Happ) and Elias. Not to mention there’s still a chance James Paxton makes it back at some point.…

"<strong/Every day through July 31, and even deep into August to a lesser extent, there will be multiple reports regarding clubs having trade discussions with other clubs, about certain players, and there always are contract details, payrolls and many roster scenarios to consider. We won’t be the rumor round-up hub, but we’re here to fill in some of the missing pieces, offer thoughts on the process and if we happen to run into some information that is useful, we’ll share in in this column.

Advantage Sellers
Since there aren’t as many sellers as there are buyers those clubs ready to sell have a chance to take advantage of the market. The wisest of those clubs will sell aggressively if they get the opportunity. The Seattle Mariners could be one of those.

Even with David Price and Yoenis Cespedes added to the trade market, there still is a shortage. Some clubs that want to add to their rosters may not be able to do so because they either cannot afford or prefer not to part with the talent it takes to land Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija or Cole Hamels. Some clubs looking for starting pitching will prefer the mid-rotation, innings-eater type, or may even want an option to cover a spot in the rotation until an injured arm can return. J.A. Happ isn’t going to return much, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be advantageous to move him. This landscape may allow for the legit return necessary to bother pulling the trigger.

Teams that ultimately balk at the price for Mike Leake could look to Happ or Rangers righty Colby Lewis.

Teams looking for offense may run dry on options once Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Justin Upton and Ben Zobrist are moved. Mark Trumbo has some value. Like Happ, Trumbo isn’t bringing back anything earth shattering, but a piece that can help? No doubt.

The Mariners, though, will have to be aggressive in shopping their available players because they aren’t alone. The Padres, Red Sox, White Sox and Rockies have a similar opportunity, and at some point the buyers could run out. Timing is of the essence. Happ’s last start in a Mariners uniform should already have been made. Trumbo’s days should be numbered. Austin Jackson‘s .271/.311/.376 triple-slash since May 26 is just reasonable enough to poach a useful piece from a contender needing help in center field, too. Jackson could be more than just useful in a time share, as he’s hitting .275/.315/.464 versus lefties this season.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins are two contenders that have not received much offense from their centerfielders. So little that Jackson would serve as an upgrade.

Trading Nelson Cruz
Trading Nelson Cruz might be a good idea for the Seattle Mariners. Maybe this summer, maybe over the winter. He’s had another fantastic season at the plate, his best in the big leagues. He’s owed $42 million over the next three years, which hardly is a burden — if he keeps hitting.

Cruz is 34 and probably isn’t going to be much more than a league average DH soon. The Mariners, who have had significant issues building a competitive offense, seemingly should cling to Cruz and keep building, and maybe that’s the right move in the end. But if trading Cruz can answer another question or two for 2016, dealing the slugger pushes the reset button a bit.

Cruz, though, is the James Shields of hitters. Teams were in no hurry to give him four years last offseason and their assessment of his value may not have changed enough to all of a sudden encourage them to take on the final three years of the contract plus trade talent to do so.

In theory, Seattle should trade Cruz and start anew over the winter, attempting to build a roster with more speed, defense, pitching and a bat or two that plays well at Safeco Field. Giving him away to cut payroll doesn’t make sense. If an offer comes along that helps the club get where they need to go, they should pull the trigger. The market for Cruz, however, may to dictate the Mariners keep Cruz.…

Every day through July 31, and even deep into August to a lesser extent, there will be multiple reports regarding clubs having trade discussions with other clubs, about certain players, and there always are contract details, payrolls and many roster scenarios to consider. We won’t be the rumor round-up hub, but we’re here to fill in some of the missing pieces, offer thoughts on the process and if we happen to run into some information that is useful, we’ll share in in this column.

The Mets and Ben Zobrist?
The New York Mets have been linked to Ben Zobrist, among other left-side infielders, but Tuesday Ken Rosenthal tweets that discussions have been set aside.

The Mets are in the thick of the races in the National League and need offense in the worst way. David Wright may not be back in 2015, Michael Cuddyer now is hurt and the lineup was down a bat or two even with those two healthy.

Zobrist could play some shortstop for the Mets, or he could slide into a corner outfield spot. He’s a rental that will likely interest a number of clubs. The Mets may need two acquisitions, however, perhaps a shortstop or third baseman plus an outfielder. Zobrist helps, but another addition to go along with him might put the Mets over the top. The problem is, the Mets, like a few other clubs in buy mode as the trade deadline nears — Orioles, Angels, for example — the Mets don’t have a ton of talents that make sense for them to part with for two-month answers. Their pitching is either hurt — Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler — or completely off limits — Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and there aren’t a ton of mid-level prospects in their system.

Finding at least one match may be doable, however, it’s the second one that’s difficult to see happening.

Where Zobrist lands is anyone’s guess, but it’s almost certain he gets moved. Several clubs could use him in a number of spots on the field and in the batting order, including the Yankees (2B, SS), Baltimore (OF), Angels (OF, 2B), Kansas City (OF, 2B), Mets (SS, OF), Pirates (SS), Dodgers (SS, OF).

My List of Sellers
Philadelphia
Milwaukee
Oakland
Seattle
Boston
Texas
Miami
Cincinnati
Arizona
Colorado
White Sox
Boston
San Diego

Oakland, Seattle, Boston, Texas, Arizona, San Diego and the White Sox have an outside shot to get white hot for the next 8-9 days and play themselves into buying. It doesn’t appear Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Miami and Colorado have even that kin of shot. TMany of the former seven clubs may look to buy for the future, including Texas, who continues to be linked to Cole Hamels.

Bubble
Detroit
Cleveland
Atlanta

The Tigers already have reportedly decided to field calls for Yoenis Cespedes and David Price, but at 46-47 and four games back in the American League Wild Card race, it’s tough to expect them have already decided to sell a few pending free agents and close up shop. Detroit may be the classic sell-buy combo club this month: Trade Cespedes and Price for players that can help them now as well as in the future.

Cleveland is the quintessential bubble team at 44-48, 5.5 games out in the Wild Card. A poor next nine games they could find themselves in a position to plan more for 2016 than worrying about this season. If they were to lose three or more games in the standings and perhaps even get pass by the Rangers and/or White Soxm for example, aggressively buying no longer makes much sense. The Indians don’t have the group of pending free agents some other potential sellers have, however, and they’re actually a talented team with a chance to win immediately, so we’re not talking about the big names here, and perhaps not even many of the smallers ones.

Atlanta is likely to sell, but if they were to find a way to close the Wild Card gap from six games to, say, 3-4 games, they may not be quite as aggressive in sell mode. Buying for this season appears to be the one thing the Braves won’t do, however, so they are as much sellers, really, as the top group.

Buyers
Kansas City
L.A. Angels
Houston
Baltimore
Toronto
Minnesota
Washington
St. Louis
L.A. Dodgers
Pittsburgh
Chicago Cubs
San Francisco
New York Mets

The Mets may have a tough time landing what they need, but they have the ammo to get at least one helpful deal done. The Royals likely will be looking for starting pitching and the Halos are linked to Jay Bruce, among other bats. Baltimore apparently is after another bat, but can someone get Buck Showalter a frontline starter, please? Chris Tillman isn’t a No. 1 — or a No. 2. Neither is… anyone else in that rotation.

The Blue Jays need pitching help, as do the Astros. The Twins may choose the dull route, but they aren’t selling off pieces as the current holder of the No. 2 Wild Card berth. The Nationals are loaded, but aren’t healthy, and shortstop Ian Desmond has been awful at shortstop. Maybe another bullpen arm is on Mike Rizzo’s radar.

The Cardinals don’t have any glaring needs, per se. On the surface it would seem they could use a frontline starter to fill in for Adam Wainwright, but Lance Lynn (.278 FIP, 9.67 K/9) has done that job nicely and Michael Wacha (3.20 FIP), John Lackey (3.5 FIP) and Carlos Martinez (3.51 FIP, 9.3 K/9) have been strong solidifying the starting five. With Jaime Garcia also out, howver, St. Louis could set out to acquire a mid-rotation option, perhaps as solid as Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake or Tyson Ross or as ordinary as J.A. Happ.

The impact move is Hamels, Johnny Cueto, David Price or Jeff Samardzija. A few potential under-the-radar targets include Hisashi Iwakuma, Andrew Cashner or John Danks. Yovani Gallardo, reportedly being shopped by the Rangers, could fit, too.

The club to watch here is the Cubs. They have the inventory to get just about any player, perhaps any two. With bait that for the right return could include Starlin Castro, Javier Baez or Jorge Soler, plus prospects such as Billy McKinney and Albert Almora, the North Siders can bully their way into trade discussions for any available player. There’s probably zero chance two of Castro-Baez-Soler is moved, and it’s unlikely but not out of the question that one of them is moved.

The Cubs could use a starting pitcher, a reliever and not a lot else. Dexter Fowler hasn’t been stellar in center field or at the plate, but unless it’s Carlos Gomez the center field market isn’t likely to help here, and Fowler is showing signs of life since the break.

The Giants are tough to figure out for me. Anyone?…