Lefko: Mariners must add at trade deadline, but it shouldn’t be Soto

Jul 25, 2022, 9:07 AM
Mariners Adam Frazier...
Adam Frazier sits in the Mariners dugout during Sunday's loss to the Houston Astros. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Mariners are a good team, but they just saw what a great team looks like.

Astros start fast, chase Robbie Ray for three-game sweep of Mariners

Heading into their weekend series against the Astros – the first three of their final seven games against the American League West leaders – there was the real possibility of climbing into a division race, but Houston efficiently ended all discussion by sweeping the Mariners for the second time this season.

Meanwhile, the Aug. 2 MLB trade deadline is rapidly hurtling toward us, and it’s clear that the Mariners need to upgrade their roster. But with the expanded playoffs keeping more teams in contention later into the season, plus a thin crop of top-tier talent expected to be available, the choice becomes one or the other in deciding between chasing the golden goose of Juan Soto or upgrading the starting rotation.

There are two key questions to consider when assessing this decision for the Mariners.

What’s the goal this season?

That might seem like an obvious question – uh… yeah, win the World Series, obviously! However, in baseball we know that for most teams it isn’t a practical goal year in and year out. Is the goal this season to simply make the playoffs, even if it involves being overmatched in a postseason series? For this franchise sure, that would be a resounding success to end the longest playoff drought in North American major pro sports.

It also is a realistic one considering where the Mariners are right now: dealing with an injury to Julio Rodríguez and asking him to play nearly double the number of games he has ever played in a season, trying to work Kyle Lewis and Mitch Haniger back into the lineup, and closely monitoring the innings workload for rookie starter George Kirby. There are more questions than firm answers right now, so to throw Juan Soto into the mix instead of stabilizing and giving depth to the rotation could end up undermining the biggest need for the Mariners in trying to reach the playoffs this season.

Don’t discredit or undersell what it would mean to make the playoffs even if the Mariners did lose in the first round. They would take a young core of homegrown talent into an offseason with a year of MLB experience under their belt, keep a rotation intact that has shown it can be among the best in baseball, and have another wave of prospects ready to make an impact. That is the total package when trying to sell free agents on joining the team. The money will have to be there, as it was with Robbie Ray, but just like the Blue Jays these past two years the Mariners could turn into the desired spot for players to land.

At this point, the logical question from someone reading this is, “Well, wouldn’t having Juan Soto on the team achieve all of that as well?” Ah, glad you brought that up. It leads right into our second big question for the Mariners.

Can you beat the Yankees and Astros in the playoffs?

The path to the World Series goes through those two teams, and in the next 1-2 years the Mariners will have legitimate World Series aspirations. Does acquiring Juan Soto make you better during the life of his current contract than both the Yankees and Astros? No, it unequivocally does not.

The Mariners are not established enough, not ready to simply plug in that final piece to take them over the top. This is not the Astros acquiring Justin Verlander as the final piece to the puzzle in 2017. That Houston team was 60-29 at the All-Star break, and it tore through the American League and had the luxury of adding the pièce de resistance to an already complete roster.

This M’s team isn’t there. Maybe in a year it could be, but for now there are still too many unknowns in the lineup, an uncertainty about the rotation because of Kirby, and a fight still to come just to simply make the playoffs. Adding Soto now would be reckless, and it would negate the opportunity to add a player of nearly similar caliber next year when they could very well be in position to add a superstar to a great team, not simply a good one.

The Astros just displayed the full force of their ability to beat the Mariners in a series by tagging what had been a rock-solid rotation. Even Soto’s addition now wouldn’t be enough to overcome a team like that in a seven-game series. It would certainly be a boost and a great starting point to build around in 2023, but with the expected haul the Mariners would have to give up, it’s impossible to project just how many key MLB contributors they would have to replace, not to mention the key prospects who would no longer be in the organization.

Adding a pitcher this year will require the Mariners giving up significant players and prospect capital as well. They cannot afford to come away from the trade deadline empty-handed, and with the thin supply of starting pitchers on the trading block, plus the myriad of teams in the hunt at this point of the season, the demand will be at a fever pitch among every playoff-contending team. It is not the headline-grabbing move, but having another starting pitcher is vastly more important than having Soto for this final sprint to the finish.

It is not now, but the day is coming – and coming soon – where the Mariners will be perfectly aligned to make the major splash. To make the talk-of-the-trade-deadline deal, the move that shakes the baseball world on its axis and shifts the balance of power. The move that will finally vault the Mariners over that last great hurdle and make the sun rise in the west.

More on the Mariners from Seattle Sports

Injury Updates: M’s hopeful Julio Rodríguez can return for series vs. Texas
Mariners at the trade deadline: MLB Network’s Morosi “big believer” in hitters
How Julio Rodríguez has impressed Mariners legend Mike Cameron in CF
ESPN’s Passan: What a trade for Juan Soto would cost the Mariners

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Lefko: Mariners must add at trade deadline, but it shouldn’t be Soto