The Seattle Mariners didn’t panic at the deadline and it’s paying off
Red Sox manager John Farrell left Seattle last week talking about how difficult it is to manage against the Mariners. Farrell said he spent the entire series trying to figure out the least damaging platoon splits, flummoxed by a team that at the time was carrying an extra position player.
Well, the M’s have played even better since splitting four games from the Red Sox, winning six straight against the Angels and Tigers to complete an 8-2 homestand. Their 15-9 record since the All-Star break is the best in the AL. Their run differential is the best in the AL West and fourth-best in the league. Fangraphs estimates their playoff odds at 37.8 percent.
The Mariners went back to 12 pitchers on Tuesday, but, if anything, their chances of erasing a 1½-game deficit in the wild-card race only seem to be improving. Their schedule is about to ease, and on Wednesday night slumping second baseman Robinson Cano went 2-for-4 with a homer and struggling ace Felix Hernandez turned in his best performance since returning from a right calf strain, allowing one run in seven innings.
The most amazing part?
It was difficult to see the Mariners making such a push at the nonwaiver deadline, when they were one game above .500, five out in the wild-card race and general manager Jerry Dipoto appeared more in sell than buy mode.
Dipoto sent lefty reliever Mike Montgomery to the Cubs, exchanged one struggling reliever for another when he dealt Joaquin Benoit to the Blue Jays for Drew Storen, then engaged in an apparent salary dump by moving lefty Wade Miley to the Orioles for lefty Ariel Miranda.
Part of Dipoto’s idea was to supplement a farm system lacking in high-end prospects. Yet the GM also tried to leverage the few prospects that he had, making a strong push for Reds shortstop Zack Cozart. And he has continued to aggressively retool in August, making minor deals for right-handed reliever Arquimedes Caminero and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte.
“I’m a big fan of trying to pounce on opportunity,” Dipoto said. “We talked with a variety of clubs about acquisitions that maybe would have been more notable — I don’t want to say star quality, but more household-type names. We also talked about the possibility of moving players out who were more household names.
“In the end, the best moves we could make were holding steady. The idea of moving Miley might have looked like a sell. You could certainly take it for that. But really, there just wasn’t a great fit for Wade here.”
The Mariners also talked about buying and selling relievers beyond the trades they made, failing to get the left-hander they wanted. Cozart would have been an even more significant addition; Dipoto envisioned maxing out in 2016 and ’17, when most of the team’s best players are under contract and likely to sustain high levels of performance.
Cozart, under control through ‘17, fit that plan. Ketel Marte, who was out at the time with mononucleosis, figured to benefit from time at Triple-A. Two other young Mariners, left-hander James Paxton and catcher Mike Zunino, took that route, then returned as meaningful contributors.
Alas, the Cozart trade did not materialize, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The Mariners rank 24th in OPS at shortstop — Shawn O’Malley filled in capably while Marte was on the DL — but no team is perfect.
“We knew when we brought this team together there was going to be a gestation period,” Dipoto said. “They came together so quickly out of spring training. We played great for two months. Then we just had an awful June where nothing went right for us.
“Injuries mounted. We played poorly. But then they caught themselves before they hit the floor. This group has done a great job of just bouncing back. I think it would have been the wrong thing to do to tear it down. Give them a chance.”
It’s funny — the Mariners are only ninth in the AL in runs per game since the break, only eighth in ERA. But for the most part, they’ve played quality opponents who were hot. Their next five series are against the Athletics, Angels, Brewers, Yankees and White Sox — teams that are a combined 40 games under .500.
Dipoto has almost completely overhauled the bullpen, trading for Storen and Caminero and bringing back righty Tom Wilhelmsen, who has once again proven effective for the M’s after bombing with the Rangers. But the biggest revelation, by far, has been rookie closer Edwin Diaz, who has replaced the injured Steve Cishek and performed at a historic level since his promotion on June 4. Diaz’s 58 strikeouts are the most ever by a pitcher in the first 31 innings of his career.
How this all ends, no one knows. But the Mariners, after giving the appearance of a seller, are performing like a buyer. They are more interesting than they were a month ago, more formidable. And their best might be yet to come.