Baseball’s two best clubs reside in the American League West. The A’s and Angels not only have the two best records in baseball, but also the two best run differentials. However, there is another team in the division that’s built for a surprise postseason run.
The Seattle Mariners may be third in the stacked AL West, but they’re one of the better teams in baseball. They’re a middle of the road offense, but have the 4th best run differential in baseball thanks to their elite pitching staff that has the best ERA in baseball at 3.11. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma make a deadly one-two punch at the front of the rotation and there might be more starting pitching help on the way.
Often times, post-season series come down to starting pitching. The A’s have been defeated by Detroit in each of the last two ALDS because they can’t get by Justin Verlander. They just traded Addison Russell to acquire more starting pitching. Hernandez has been as good as anyone this season – he’s been worth 5.4 WAR according to Fangraphs – and nobody wants to see him twice in a short series or in a sudden death playoff game. Iwakuma is one of the best number two starters in the league.
The Mariners currently sit 8.5 games back of the A’s in the West, but they’re up by two games for the second Wild Card spot. Given how mediocre the rest of the American League is, the M’s are safe bet to to playing either Oakland or Los Angeles in the sudden-death game. And while adding another big name pitcher like David Price would make them a horrifying playoff opponent – especially in the first round – they badly need a right-handed bat in the middle of the lineup. There are options available.
Billy Butler has expressed his wanting to stay in Kansas City beyond this season, but it’s unlikely the Royals pick up his $12.5 million option for next season. Butler was an all-star in 2012, but he’s having a down season – his slash line reads .267/.319/.346 – which should lower his value. The Royals are in a weird spot. They’re just two games behind Seattle in the Wild Card race, but also would do well to get something for Butler if they’re not planning on picking up his options. The Mariners can fit him in at DH and don’t have to hold onto him for next season if he fails to turn things around. He’d be a really good fit.
Two other options are outfielders Marlon Byrd of the Phillies and Josh Willingham of the Twins. Byrd is being pursued by the Reds and Royals, so Seattle may have to get in a bidding war to get him from Philadelphia. Interestingly, he has a four team no-trade clause in his contract and two of those teams are the Mariners and Royals. Byrd has said he’d consider a trade to either team, but things could get weird if he rejects a trade. Assuming he’s willing to waive his clause, he’d be a great fit in Seattle. He can play solid defense at all three outfield spots and would fit nicely in the middle of the order between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
Willingham would also be a great fit, and has the power to potentially change the dynamics of a playoff series with one swing. As is the case with Butler, the Mariners can fit him in as the DH. Like Byrd, he has other teams pursuing him. However, he becomes a free agent at the end of the season while Byrd has one more year on his deal at a modest $8 million. Between that and Willingham’s lack of defensive prowess, he may be the easier outfielder to nab.
Even if the Mariners can’t get another bat at the deadline, they’ll still be the favorites to grab that second Wild-Card spot. They may not be exciting – which is much of the reason they’ve flown under the radar this season – but they pitch like crazy and play good defense. They can sustain a high level of play for the rest of the season, assuming the offense doesn’t fall to Padres levels of bad. Their offense is mediocre, but if Cano and Seager get hot they can win with it in the postseason. They just have to get there.
The MLB playoffs are a crapshoot. Baseball is already a high variance sport and that’s only magnified in the playoffs where the series are short. The best team rarely wins, showcased in recent memory by both SF Giants championship teams. The Mariners can be this year’s Giants. In a way, they’re kind of like Rocky in 1977.
Rocky is a good movie; I don’t think anybody would doubt that. But in the ’77 Oscars, it went up against iconic movies in All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver. It shouldn’t have won Best Picture, but inexplicably it pulled off the upset. The Mariners are like that Rocky movie. They’re solid, but unspectacular. The A’s and Angels are clearly better American League teams, and the Tigers might also be. In this analogy, the Tigers are Network, which was probably better than Rocky but its loss wasn’t egregious. If they get to the postseason, the Mariners will be underdogs. But as Rocky proved in ’77, sometimes the underdog wins.