Mariners have tough decisions regarding future

The Mariners’ approach to the non-waiver trade deadline should be determined by the answer to one straightforward question.

Do they have a good chance of passing the Angels and Rangers to win the American League West?

I happen to think they have a chance — just not a good one.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what Jack Zduriencik thinks. So, I asked him that question earlier this week.

And he smiled.

“I wouldn’t even touch that with a 10-foot pole,” he said.

Zduriencik is a first-year general manager who is taking a very veteran approach to the July 31 run-up. He’s not fretting about what to do. He’s not getting carried away because his team performed better than even the sunniest projections.

He’s standing back, making a realistic assessment of where his club stands and considering the same three options presented to every GM in the game: buy, sell or hold until the August waiver period.

As it stands now — a little more than one week prior to the non-waiver deadline — I doubt that he’s going to buy big, if at all.

Zduriencik entered this year with a focus on the future. A third-place standing at this point of the season probably won’t be enough to change that.

Even though the Mariners are 51-44 overall, even though they are 5-2 in the second half, they have been outscored by 13 runs. At some point, the discrepancy — more specifically, a lack of consistent hitting — is likely to catch up with them.

Zduriencik avoided making any definitive statements about the deadline when I interviewed him on Tuesday. But he did say this:

“You have to make decisions that are the best for the organization. Sometimes, they’re decisions that are not always easy. At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for the organization, and, hopefully, your fan base understands that.”

Doesn’t sound like someone who’s about to mortgage the farm system, does he?

And as tempting as it might be to deal away the future and help the surprising present, Zduriencik would be right to resist the urge.

I’ll admit it. Until this week, I believed that Zduriencik should swing a deal for a big hitter — hey, maybe two big hitters — and really go for it. Seattle has had the best pitching in the American League, with a 3.68 ERA entering Thursday. Key starters Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard will be free agents at season’s end, which adds to the urgency.

We all know that pitching is the lifeblood of any postseason run, and there’s no telling when the Mariners’ pitching will be this good again. Suffice it to say, none of the hardball pundits figured that David Aardsma, Sean White and Mark Lowe would form one of the majors’ most reliable late-inning bullpen trios this year.

So, I thought Zduriencik should try to trade for Freddy Sanchez. Maybe Luke Scott, too. Add some thump to what has been a very good pitching-and-defense club. Seize the opportunity during a year in which the Angels’ pitching has been uncharacteristically erratic. Win the division now, when you can, before the prospects in Texas and Oakland fully mature.

And when the news came on July 10 that the Angels had placed Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero on the disabled list, I became even more convinced: The Angels were going to slide, and it was time for Zduriencik to make a deal.

Well …

The Mariners have done their part, going 7-3 since then. But the Angels have a remarkable 9-1 record — including a sweep of the Yankees — without the two big bats.

The Los Angeles lead was 5 games entering Thursday night. That may not sound like a big deficit, but as of Thursday morning the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds projection gave Seattle only a 12.8 percent chance of winning the division. And the second-place Rangers are fresh off a three-game sweep of the Red Sox.

“The Angels gotta cool off a little,” quipped Washburn, a former Angel. “They’re hot lately. But if we pitch as well as we’ve been pitching lately, we’re going to be right there at the end.”

Take, for instance, this week’s series against the Tigers.

Detroit won the opener. Then Felix Hernandez was dominant in a 2-1 win. Then Washburn was dominant in a 2-1 win.

Four runs. Two wins. Mariners baseball. When Thursday’s game ended, four players in the Seattle lineup were batting under .215: Wladimir Balentien, Rob Johnson, Jack Hannahan and Ronny Cedeño.

How exactly is this happening? Well, players are quick to credit the pitching staff and the team’s new management — Zduriencik, manager Don Wakamatsu, the coaches — in no particular order. Veterans Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. have been great influences on the young players.

Wakamatsu talks about a “belief system.” Zduriencik speaks with the optimistic vocabulary and upbeat cadence of a high school football coach, which, not coincidentally, he once was.

Zduriencik said he would like his players to be able to “look back 20 years from now and say, ‘That ’09 season was a helluva fun season.'” Hey, I realize that many pro athletes are motivated by other means, but notions of pride and togetherness are serving the Mariners well so far — particularly after a 2008 season during which the clubhouse went south.

In the end, the team’s decisions will be based on much more tangible factors. Bedard and Washburn are the team’s best trade chips. And if they’re not dealt by next Friday, Zduriencik could try to move them using waivers next month.

On the other hand, the Mariners may want to extend one or both of the left-handers, because their farm system is thin on starters in the upper minors.

Both Bedard and Washburn said in interviews this week that they have interest in signing an extension. (Third baseman Adrian Beltre did, too.)

“I would love to stay here,” said Bedard, now in his second season with the team. “It all depends on what they want to do — trade guys or rebuild. All I can say is I’d love to stay.”

One week from now, we’ll have a better idea if Bedard and the others will have that opportunity.