Amazingly, it's been 13 long years since the Mariners last made the playoffs, and there really haven't been many particularly close calls since then.
This year, things are looking up for Seattle as they are 31-28 heading into Friday. They have won five in a row and are tied with the Angels for second place in the AL West, 5.5 games behind the Athletics. WIth a +25 run differential, Seattle has a 32-27 pythagorean record, suggesting that they may actually be more than a mirage. Their run differential is fourth best in the American league, and if the season ended today, they would earn one of the two WIld Card spots.
Seattle probably isn't going to topple Oakland this season, but they should remain in the hunt for a playoff berth all season barring a drastic collapse. Baseball Prospectus projects them to go 51-52 the rest of the way, which puts them at a 82-80 record, though that estimate is probably on the conservative side.
So, exactly what direction should Seattle pursue this summer?
Buyers or Sellers?
Clearly in the playoff picture, it's safe to assume that the Mariners will be buyers unless they take a tumble in the standings over the next couple months.
Outside of 2010's Cliff Lee deal with the Rangers, the Mariners haven't exactly been prone to the summer blockbuster in recent years. Starters Doug Fister and Erik Bedard were traded away at the 2011 deadline, though neither brought back a significant piece. The same goes for Brandon League in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest summer deal over the past couple years in Seattle is the deal that sent Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees in 2012. While it didn't bring back much in return (Danny Farquhar and DJ Mitchell), it was monumental in terms of sentimental repercussions and pure name-value.
However, this year could prove to be different, as the Mariners were linked to a number of high-profile trade candidates over the winter. Conversations for such star-caliber players may potentially resurface in the coming months, which could make this year's deadline particularly eventful in Seattle.
For a team that has performed so well this season, Seattle has quite a few needs, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, though the pitching staff could certainly use a few upgrades as well.
To be blunt, the Mariner's offense is terrible.
With 247 runs scored, they are essentially middle of the pack, but their non-counting statistics are horrendous, as they rank near the bottom in nearly every significant offensive category including walk rate (25th), batting average (26th), OBP (28th), slugging percentage (22nd), wOBA (26th), and wRC+ (26th). While they are receiving stellar offensive contributions from Robinson Cano (131 OPS+), Kyle Seager (137 OPS+), and Michael Saunders (125 OPS+), as well as a strong year from catcher Mike Zunino (101 OPS+), a majority of the lineup is struggling. Of the 10 Mariners to receive at least 110 plate appearances, six of them currently have below-average OPS's, with shortstop Brad Miller (51 OPS+) and centerfielder Abraham Almonte (56 OPS+) performing particularly bad.
While Seattle can probably count on a bump in production from the shortstop position (more on that situation later), it can certainly use upgrades in the outfield, at first base, and designated hitter, especially with Corey Hart and Logan Morrison currently on the disabled list.
The obvious option would be for Seattle to simply re-sign Kendrys Morales. However, his market is about to explode as he is no longer tied to draft pick compensation, and he could sign at any moment now. If they really wanted him, a deal likely would have been consummated by now.
The trade market looks like it will be flush with veteran bat-first options. If they have the financial wiggle room, Seattle could take on someone like Martin Prado, whose struggling Diamondbacks would be wise to sell, or Billy Butler. Butler seems like a logical option considering Seattle's demonstrated interest in him in the past. Butler is struggling this season with a 67 wRC+ and is limited to DH only. However, his performance may actually increase the odds of him landing in Seattle, as he would cost considerably less than if he were hitting in correspondence with his career norms (117 career wRC+). His diminished walk rate and increased strikeout rate are concerning, but he has also suffered from an unusually low BABIP (for him, anyways), as his .295 mark is 30 points lower than his career average of .325. Another factor working in favor of Butler landing in Seattle is Kansas CIty's dire second base situation, an area which Seattle is flush at.
Other offensive options include the likes of Seth Smith and Michael Cuddyer. Both are defensive liabilities, but are capable of providing elite offensive production.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention a potential blockbuster for a Giancarlo Stanton or Carlos Gonzalez. While Seattle probably isn't the best fit for either, and would likely splurge on an ace rather than a bat, they would be smart to complement Cano and Seager with another middle-of-the-order threat. And as we saw with Justin Upton in early 2013, the Mariners aren't exactly afraid of ravaging their farm system to acquire an elite bat.
Trade Likelihood: High
The Mariners' rotation has been middle of the pack this season, with a 3.77 ERA (14th, though that doesn't factor in park effects) and 4.02 FIP (21st). The staff has been buoyed by outstanding starts from Felix Hernandez (146 ERA+) and Hisashi Iwakuma (141 ERA+), as well as surprisingly strong performances from Chris Young (115 ERA+) and Roenis Elias (106 ERA+). With Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez both holding ERAs north of 6.80 and Young drastically outperforming his peripherals (5.40 FIP, 1.20 K/BB), going forward, Seattle should really only consider Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Elias core rotation pieces. James Paxton would likely belong in that group as well, though he may not be back for another month as he recovers from a strained lat. Between injuries (Taijuan Walker is also hurt) and poor performances, the Mariners could use another starter to put them over the top.
Logically Seattle could go after a middle-tier option such as Brandon McCarthy or Jason Hammel. Bronson Arroyo would also make quite a bit of sense considering his fly-ball tendencies would play well at Safeco. However, if Seattle does go after a rotation piece, it's likely they aim higher, going after one of the impending free agents such as Justin Masterson or James Shields, or a Jeff Samardzija, who is locked up through 2015.
Of course, there's always the option that Seattle goes after David Price, and with Tampa Bay's abysmal performance this season, they could be best served dealing him now. The Rays would certainly require Walker in a Price blockbuster, which means that concerns over his shoulder could make a trade highly unlikely. When Seattle was pursuing Price in the offseason, they did indicate that they would be willing to make Zunino available, but it's hard to say if that still stands considering his relatively solid start. While the odds are greatly in favor of Seattle not landing Price, they should be considered among the favorites if the Rays decide to move him.
Trade Likelihood: Low
Pieces to Deal
The Mariners aren't exactly loaded with expendable parts that contain reasonable value, but they do have some depth in a few areas, as well as a couple veterans that may be pawned off.
Every trade rumor surrounding the Mariners in recent months has mentioned Nick Franklin in some way or another. Franklin, a 23-year-old capable of playing both second and short, is clearly deserving of a major league role (he has a 1.114 OPS in Triple-A), but Seattle can't seem to find a spot for him, as he's blocked in pretty much every way imaginable. Seattle clearly favors Brad Miller over him at shortstop, and Robinson Cano isn't going anywhere. Even as a utility player, he's behind Willie Bloomquist.
Seattle tried dealing Franklin for pitching during the winter, and he was considered a piece that would likely end up with the Rays if a deal were put in place or David Price. Considering his youth and upside, he's a highly valuable asset. Look for him to be included in any major deal this summer.
Though the odds are low, Miller could see himself dealt instead of Franklin, especially if his performance doesn't begin to pick up. Miller is probably more coveted than Franklin, which could give the Mariners added incentive to deal him in a package for a Price or Stanton type player. Still, chances are he's entrenched as the long-term shortstop in Seattle.
Though rarely mentioned outside of Mariners-centric circles, Chris Taylor is quietly enjoying a very good year as a 23-year-old in Triple-A, hitting .372/.414/.593 in 162 plate appearances. Ranked by Baseball Prospectus as the 7th best prospect in the Mariners' system entering the year, Taylor doesn't quite possess the same upside as Franklin or Miller, but could still end up as a big league regular. Considering Franklin can't find a spot in Seattle, then Taylor likely won't either. If he keeps hitting the way he is currently, he could force the Mariners into exploring a trade.
Trade Likelihood: High
After closer look, Singleton deal makes sense
The Jonathan Singleton deal was heavily criticized by rival agents, but a deeper look makes the motivation behind it clear.
Most of Seattle's pitching depth is at the lower levels, with Victor Sanchez being the only highly rated pitching prospect in the upper minors, so while they may be willing to deal from their system if the right offer comes along, odds of that happening are slim.
The main asset here is Walker whose value is almost entirely tied up in his medicals right now. He'll likely only be available in a Price or Stanton type deal.
Trade Likelihood: Low
Ackley was supposed to be a star capable of hitting .300+ annually, but he hasn't even been league average offensively since his rookie year in 2011. Ackley's offense has picked up slightly this season due to a jump in power (he's still slugging just .375), and he adds some excess value with his positional versatility, but he will still likely never be more than a second-division starter, and the Mariners really have no use for him. With three years of team control after this season (he will be arbitration-eligible in the offseason), another team may be inclined to pick him up on the cheap and see if it can salvage some of his lost potential. If not, then he may wind up being a non-tender candidate this fall.
Trade Likelihood: Low
MLB trade deadline is July 31st
Smoak is the first base equivalent of Ackley, though he lacks the positional versatility, and has actually shown the potential of being an above-average big leaguer at times. Smoak is hitting just .211/.283/.366 this season, but is coming off a year in which he hit a career-best .238/.334/.412 with a 113 OPS+ and 109 wRC+. He won't draw much trade attention, but he is in what should be his prime years at age 27, and won't cost much over the next couple years.
The issue with dealing Smoak is that Seattle has no replacement for him unless they want to move Ackley to first (which would be a horrible idea) or give Jesus Montero another shot. Seattle would probably have to acquire another first baseman (see above) before it considers moving (or getting rid of) Smoak.