The Mariners are a decidedly mediocre team. They are 51-52. They have averaged 4.7 runs per game and given up an average of 4.8 runs per game. Their BaseRuns record is actually one game worse than their actual record, but that’s pretty darn close. They are projected to win half of their remaining games. When you include baserunning, their offense is 15th in the majors. Their defense ranks 18th, three runs above average. Their starters rank 23rd in WAR and their relievers 21st.
In other words, nothing about this Mariners team says go for it, yet the team has dipped its toes in that water acquiring bullpen help in the form of David Phelps and a potential bottom-of-the-rotation starter in Marco Gonzales. Despite their mediocrity, there are rumors the Mariners will dive all the way in this season, attempting to acquire Sonny Gray. And, it does make a little sense.
First things first, its best to assess the Mariners in relation to the rest of the Wild Card contenders in the American League. The FanGraphs playoff odds all put the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros in the playoffs. Here are the playoff odds for the rest of the teams with at least a 5% chance. Two of these teams will make the playoffs.
The New York Yankees appear to have a really good shot. After that, the Royals have put themselves in good position. Of the rest of the teams, the Rays have about a one in three shot and then the Mariners hold a slim lead over the Rangers followed by the Blue Jays, Angels, and Twins. As you might expect, the number of wins a team is expected to have at the end of the season plays a role in how likely a team is to make the playoffs. Here are the same teams from above with their expected wins at the end of the season.
We have the Yankees at 85, the Royals at 84, Tampa Bay at 82, the Mariners and Rangers at 80, and the rest below that. Those five teams have something in common: they are all expected to win roughly half of their games going forward. The Yankees already have a lead so they are in good shape with the Royals not too far behind. The Rays were projected to be below .500 before trading for Lucas Duda, but now they, too, are expected to win half of their remaining games. It’s important to keep in mind that the projections above are not static. They are based on the talent on hand, and can change pretty significantly when the level of talent changes.
Take a team like the Toronto Blue Jays. They aren’t likely to get back in the race because of their current deficit, but the talent on hand (14.3 ROS WAR) is expected to win about 52% of their games going forward. The Mariners don’t have as much talent on hand with 13.2 ROS WAR projected and as a result, they are expected to win about 50% of their remaining games. So what happens if the Mariners get Sonny Gray, projected for 1.2 WAR the rest of the way? On a talent level basis, they shoot right up to the Blue Jays. All of a sudden, the Mariners are projected to win 31 more games instead of 29 and they jump ahead of the Rays and just two games behind the Royals.
Now let’s say the Mariners added a bat to play first base as well, all of a sudden, they are really close to the Royals. The Mariners also have a series next week against Kansas City as well as a series against the Rays in the middle of August to gain ground on their two closest competitors. Mediocrity in the American League gets you close to the playoffs and it doesn’t take much more than that to make you a favorite. For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, making the extra effort this season makes some sense, especially given their long-term outlook.
Seattle’s best players this season by WAR have been James Paxton (3.6), Ben Gamel (2.1), Kyle Seager (2.0), Robinson Cano (2.0), and Jean Segura (2.0). Paxton, Seager, and Segura, are all locked up through at least 2020, and it’s fair to expect continued solid production from them. Cano is locked up well past that, is good this year, but less will be expected of him with each passing season. Gamel doesn’t hit for power and has a .420 BABIP that makes it reasonable to question whether he is much more than a bench bat going forward. Seattle has a decent core to compete over the next few seasons, and their financial situation isn’t quite as bad as you might think given the $50 million plus per season owed to Cano and Felix Hernandez through 2019. But even with this core, they’ve still been a middling team this season, and those players won’t be quite as good as they age.
Seattle has about $100 million committed to 2018 with another $15 million or so in arbitration cases, nearly half that due to David Phelps. Last season, the Mariners ran a payroll close to $170 million and this season, they should get pretty close. That means the Mariners could afford to take on a contract like Justin Verlander’s if they saw fit, but going after a pitcher like Gray might make more sense as they could still use some money in the offseason to fill the holes they are still going to have. Gray is cheap and isn’t likely to make more than $15 million over the next two seasons, so he provides more budgetary wiggle room.
Adding Gray to go with Paxton and a diminished King Felix, along with maybe Gonzales or perhaps Andrew Moore — assuming neither would go to Oakland in trade — is a solid rotation for the rest of this year as the Mariners try to make the playoffs, and it would put them in position to have a good rotation next year if they want to add in free agency. With $30 million or more free for next season the team could add in the rotation or fill in holes at first base or in the outfield. Their farm system isn’t great, and this trade would really hurt them, likely giving up one, if not both, of Kyle Lewis and Nick Neidert, but they aren’t really in a position to conduct a fire sale. Seager and Paxton are their only plus assets with good contracts, and they’re both officially on the back end of their prime years. Plus, they still owe a lot of money to Cano and Hernandez.
Acquiring Sonny Gray allows the Mariners to go all in for this year without sacrificing 2018. It will almost certainly hurt the 2020 and 2021 Mariners, but without a miraculous recovery by the farm system, those will likely be down seasons anyway. The Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs in a long time, and thanks to the rest of the American League, they have a window now, and they should have a window next year. If they really do want to maximize this current window, Gray fits their needs perfectly.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.