BRENT STECKER

Three keys for the Mariners to make a push for the playoffs

Jul 13, 2016, 2:10 PM | Updated: 4:30 pm
The Mariners could give themselves insurance to make Edwin Diaz the setup man with a trade for a cl...
The Mariners could give themselves insurance to make Edwin Diaz the setup man with a trade for a closer. (AP)
(AP)

The Mariners begin the second half of the MLB season on Friday with a 45-44 record, so they’re in the wild-card race but don’t have much room for error. With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching on Aug. 1, there’s a window for Seattle to make some dramatic moves.

Since we’ve already looked at three things that told the story of the first half of the Mariners’ season, here are three things they could do before the deadline passes to improve their chances to play in October.

1. Trade for a late-innings reliever.

If the Mariners are going to make a run for – and in – the playoffs, there’s two places an addition will have the most impact. The first is the back end of the bullpen, where closer Steve Cishek has blown five saves and Joaquin Benoit (4.57 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) has looked all 38 of his years trying to be the primary setup man. Adding a new, reliable closer would allow the Mariners to find a more suitable role for everybody else, and they could suddenly have a lights-out pen. Just imagine Cishek, who is holding right-handers to a .152 batting average (80 points lower than lefties hit against him), as a righty specialist, something ESPN senior baseball writer Keith Law pointed at earlier this week to 710 ESPN Seattle’s John Clayton. Cishek would also add insurance behind rookie sensation Edwin Diaz, who could be moved into the setup role to take advantage of his incredible 17.32 strikeouts per nine innings. There’s also a number of relievers on the disabled list who might be back in the next month to give the front end of the pen tons of depth and options, including lefty specialist Charlie Furbush and hard-throwing righty Tony Zych. First thing’s first, though: find the ninth-inning guy. If I’m general manager Jerry Dipoto, I’d put in a call to the Nationals and see if there’s anything reasonable that could get them to part with former Mariners reliever Shawn Kelley. The 32-year-old righty has a 2.76 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, four saves and six holds this season, is handling lefties (.200 batting average against) even better than right-handers (.215), and is stuck behind closer Jonathan Papelbon with Washington.

2. Add a potential leadoff man.

The second spot the Mariners can target to improve is at the top of the lineup, where they’ve yet to find a consistent No. 1 hitter. Leonys Martin, hot as he was in May, isn’t a leadoff man. Ketel Marte one day likely will be, but until he finds the patience that he lost between last season and this season, he’s only an occasional rally starter who doesn’t get on base enough to hit in front of the row of run producers Seattle has in spots 2-7. With just 25 stolen bases as a team this year – tied for 26th in all of the baseball – the Mariners have proven that’s not a big part of their game, so it allows them to widen their search for someone on the trade market who could hit first. They don’t need much speed, just someone to get on base before Seth Smith, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Dae-Ho Lee, Adam Lind and/or Franklin Gutierrez all take their turns trying to bring them home. Then again, the answer may be sitting in Triple-A, which brings me to No. 3.

3. Fish or cut bait with Norichika Aoki.

The reason the Mariners need a leadoff man is because the player who was supposed to be in that role, Aoki, struggled to hit against lefties and found himself the unlucky recipient of an assignment to Triple-A Tacoma. His problems against southpaws seem like an anomaly; over the previous three seasons, Aoki hit .345 vs. lefties, but he was sitting at .177 against them this year before his demotion. The 34-year-old outfielder is hitting .333 in 42 at-bats with Tacoma, but that really doesn’t do the Mariners any good right now. If Aoki doesn’t fit the roster, the Mariners need to find a suitor to take him, but to do that they need to showcase him. And to showcase him, he needs to be with the Mariners. The good news is Aoki’s struggles against lefties have not continued in the minors – he’s 5 for 17 (.294) with a pair of doubles – so I think he deserves one more shot at the leadoff spot. By bringing him back to Seattle and giving him some opportunities, he just might prove he could still be the exact player the Mariners hoped he would be in the first place, or perhaps he will show something that piques the interest of another contender that needs a lefty bat with a little bit of speed. None of that happens unless he’s brought back up to the majors, though, even if his defense in the outfield is less palatable than that of Daniel Robertson.

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