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June 26, 2009

Dancing on a Knife-edge

Sorting Out Seattle

by Christina Kahrl

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Should we pity the Mariners, or envy them? They're two games over .500, but also only 2 games out of first place in the AL West. Operating in year one under new management from General Manager Jack Zduriencik on down, the franchise actually may already be in a position to cash in on the promises that Bill Bavasi's old regime couldn't keep. They may also only be a mediocre team in a mediocre division, fighting for the right to be squashed in October by the American League's heavyweights in the East. So Zduriencik and company are left pondering the question posed by existential philosopher Mick Jones: Should I stay or should I go?

There isn't a lot of joy to be found in assessing the Mariners' record on the sabermetric side of the proposition. They're 37-35 as is, and a straight Pythagorean translation on the basis of their runs scored and allowed gets them to a less-happy 34-38; taking things up a notch and adjusting their record on the basis of what they've done and who they've played where-or what BP's Clay Davenport has termed as "third-order wins"-gets us to a team that's been good enough to go 36-36. A 19-13 record in one-run games suggests that they've been moderately lucky. Good pitching helps to create some of that luck, however. Seattle boasts the best rotation in the league, having posted a .543 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, and their bullpen trails only Boston's in Fair Runs Allowed (at 3.87) while relying on relative no-names like Dave Aardsma and Sean White; installed in-season as the team's closer, the well-traveled Aardsma has delivered the best relief performance in all of baseball.

That much good stuff ought to mean a better record than bouncing around .500, but fielding one of the league's worst lineups-posting a collective .249 Equivalent Average, 11th in the AL-means that they've got an equally obvious handicap. Dealing with the now-predictable weak performances from Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt up the middle, tepid contributions from Ken Griffey Jr., Endy Chavez, and Wladimir Balentien from the left-field and DH slots, and horrifically weak contributions from their collection of catchers, they've needed every little bit of offense they've gotten from Russell Branyan's flirtation with slugging .600 and Ichiro Suzuki doing his usual thing.

Fixing an offense by adding a productive outfield bat can be easier to do than fixing a pitching staff, but are the Mariners' odds so good that Zduriencik can go shopping? Here again, the answer's not exactly easy, as the Mariners have less than a 20 percent shot at winding up in the playoffs according to both our plain jane and our PECOTA-enhanced Playoff Odds Reports.

Add in that the Mariners are coming into a window in which some of their best commodities on the roster will never be more valuable in trade than they are right now, as the trade deadline approaches. Starting pitchers Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn and third baseman Adrian Beltre will all be free agents after the season, and while all represent a possible slew of early-round draft picks who might help a player development impresario like Zduriencik start recasting the Mariners into a shape more to his liking, they also represent considerable value in trades that could bring more advanced prospects into the organization than whatever they may get out of the draft in 2010.

Complicating matters as far as how much value the Mariners might receive, should Jack Z. decide to chuck it, is the nature of the players themselves. Beltre, while a brilliant defender, is not the offensive centerpiece he appeared to be in 2004, when he gave the Dodgers a .332 EqA, and delivering a .254 EqA at present isn't pimping his value any. Oft-injured Erik Bedard can be an ace-worthy hurler, but everyone knows to expect the unexpected where his availability is concerned. Although due back from the DL in time to start on the Fourth of July, that gives the organization just a few short weeks-interrupted by the All-Star break-to decide to fish or cut bait with the unpredictable lefty.

Put all of that together, and I'd argue that the Mariners would be best off going for it. As much as buyers have outnumbered sellers at the July deadline thanks to the addition of the wild card, it's increasingly rare to pull off deals as impressive in the talent received as the one the Rangers did with the Braves in 2007 for Mark Teixeira. Teams prefer to hold onto their best prospects, and in this economy the teams that may be willing to afford to add salary could be few indeed. As canny a judge of talent as Zduriencik is, his track record for scoring major successes has been delivered on draft day for the Brewers; giving him a shot at making multiple first-round picks for Seattle stands a better chance of success than it does for most organizations.

Which leads to this argument-the Mariners should make a go of it. With Washburn and Bedard backing up King Felix in the rotation, the team has a front three who all rank among the best 20 or so starters in baseball in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage. That's a platform you can win with now, and maybe stand a better-than-hopeless shot in a short series in October, but you have to get them runs. To that end, getting the Indians' Mark DeRosa, a utility supersub who can play anywhere every day, would go far toward giving the Mariners a correct choice for their multiple-guess lineup problems. Dealing for a free agent-to-be or an arbitration-eligible outfielder-say, the A's Matt Holliday, or the White Sox's Jermaine Dye, or ringing up the talent-hungry Nationals to see if any of their extra outfielders are in play, especially Josh Willingham-would be worthwhile. Maybe a deal with the Nats can involve Ronnie Belliard, letting the former post-season hero get one last shot at some glory before following through on a threat to retire, while also giving the Mariners an infielder who did some good slugging before being banished to the bench. Regardless, it's a way to make an even better first impression on a disheartened fan base in Year One of the Zduriencik Era in Seattle. Let's see if they go for it.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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