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Originally published July 5, 2014 at 3:39 PM | Page modified July 6, 2014 at 5:31 PM

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Mariners find themselves in a rare position: Contention

The debate has shifted from the one that usually exists at this time of year. Instead of “What’s wrong with the Mariners,” the burning topic, as the July 31 trade deadline nears, is this: “What can the Mariners do to get better?”


Seattle Times columnist

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The skeptics, like me, are being won over. The excitement is mounting along with the wins. This is Mariners baseball the way it used to be, the way some were starting to fear it never would be again.

Yes, it’s still possible that doom is residing around the corner, that all this is a pleasant mirage. But the legitimacy of this Mariners team, of Lloyd McClendon’s remarkable melding job, is growing as June turns into July, and the All-Star break approaches rapidly.

Kevin Mather, barely five months into his stint as team president, sensed he might be walking into a situation about to blossom. He told the media as much when he was hired in late January, and now he’s enjoying the Mariners’ emergence along with everyone else.

“It’s been really fun,” he said. “Our fan base, they’ve been patient. It’s nice to see them have fun. Every once in awhile you walk out and say, ‘Boy, that was a stinker.’ But as a general rule, it’s been an entertaining product.”

And so unexpectedly (to most) successful that the debate has shifted from the one that usually exists at this time of year. Instead of “What’s wrong with the Mariners?”, the burning topic, as the July 31 trade deadline nears, is this: “What can the Mariners do to get better?” The urgency ramped up Friday with the A’s stunning acquisition of two frontline pitchers, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, from the Cubs.

It’s a fun debate, and more nuanced than it first appears. Of course, the Mariners could stand to add a bat or two, maybe an arm. But at what cost in young talent? The give-and-take of “going for it” now, balanced against the potential to disrupt the future, is an eternal dilemma this time of year. And one in which the Mariners have come out on the wrong end of too many times.

Mather says, emphatically, that the Mariners have the financial resources to enhance the roster, despite speculation to the contrary.

“I’ve heard national reporters have said that Jack (Zduriencik, the general manager) has no flexibility, that’s why he’s trading like (salaries) for like,” Mather said. “One day, I called him in and I said, ‘You know, we have flexibility.’ He said: ‘I know. Kevin, it’s just part of the negotiations.’ ”

Mather added: “We have flexibility. Our owners are excited where we are.”

Mather said the Mariners were going hard after free agent Kendrys Morales as the draft approached in early June, after which other teams could sign him without giving up draft-pick compensation.

Morales wound up signing with the Twins for a reported $7.4 million – roughly the pro-rated portion of the $14.1 million qualifying offer that Morales had turned down from the Mariners in the offseason. Morales also turned down a “real offer” the Mariners made last September, Mather confirmed.

“As the draft got closer and closer, we were the only ones in a good spot to sign him,’’ Mather said. “We had numerous conversations with his agent. Whether it was miscommunication, whether he was representing he could get more than he ended up getting, I don’t know and I don’t want to say. But we think he’s a heck of a hitter. We would have loved to have had him.”

Mather notes that the second wild card has made it so that most of the teams are convinced they’re still contenders, complicating trade negotiations.

“The three or four that are really trying to move, they think they’re the only ones moving,” he said. “So we’re going to be patient. We’re going to be smart. Jack’s been great about that. I’d like to make the playoffs four out of the next five years. So let’s make smart long-term decisions and make sure we’re not selling our souls for ’14, because we’ve got young talent. Other clubs are interested in our young talent.”

Again, it’s a delicate balance. The Mariners remember Adam Jones for Erik Bedard, Shin-Soo Choo for Ben Broussard and Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez as much as you do. We won’t even get into ancient history like David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe. They are very cognizant of the danger of giving up top prospects now and watching them blossom elsewhere later. The A’s are facing that risk in the Cubs’ deal by giving up shortstop Addison Russell, one of the top prospects in baseball, as well as last year’s first-rounder, outfielder Billy McKinney.

But a sniff of the playoffs can be alluring, especially for a franchise that has been shut out for 13 years.

“It would be nice for the fans,” Mather said. “It would be nice for this community, the whole Northwest.”

And so the debate will continue through July – beef up, or sit tight? And at what cost?

“The one thing that gives us an advantage – we have flexibility,” said Mather, who was interviewed Thursday, before the Oakland deal. “I’ll take that player, and I don’t have to give up as much because I’m taking the money as well. Because we have flexibility, we’re in a pretty good spot. And this little run of good baseball we’re playing puts us in a pretty good spot, because there will be more sellers than buyers, hopefully, in the next two or three weeks.”

The ensuing debates over possible trades are going to be fun. It sure beats the alternative.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146

or lstone@seattletimes.com



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