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Sunday, July 15, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Larry Stone
Mariners have "untouchables" when it comes to trade time

By Larry Stone
Seattle Times baseball reporter

The Mariners are in very select company right now, but it's not a place they want to be: They are one of a handful of teams that can be unequivocally categorized as a trade-deadline seller.

Whether they might also be a buyer of sorts is an open question, and a fascinating one.

The addition of the second wild-card berth in each league has more teams than ever convinced they are contenders — or, at least, that they are close enough to give it a good run.

In fact, at the All-Star break, 19 of 30 teams were within 2 ½ games of a playoff spot. And just nine teams were more than five games out. One of those, the Milwaukee Brewers, reached the break six games removed from the second wild-card berth, meaning that the next 2 ½ weeks could determine whether they will trade free-agent-to-be Zack Greinke, or keep him for a stretch run.

It might even be a shorter stretch that makes the determination: In their first nine games after the break, the defending NL Central champs play Pittsburgh and St. Louis in a six-game homestand, then head to Cincinnati for three games with the Reds. If that all doesn't go well, the Brewers — five games under .500 at 40-45 in the first half — could well determine that contention is a charade. And suddenly Greinke would become the top trade chip on the market (at least, up to the point the Phillies make Cole Hamels available — more on that in a moment).

It's a sorting-out process that happens every year at this time. But with another avenue for the playoffs, fewer teams are on that bubble. And that should put those handful of teams with no postseason hopes in a more prominent position. It's simple supply and demand.

In a best-case scenario, there will be a feeding frenzy among the contending hopefuls, desperate to pick up a piece that might be a separator in a close race. I see six definitive sellers — the Mariners, Twins, Padres, Rockies, Cubs and Astros. All were at least 10 games out of a playoff berth at the All-Star break, and more tellingly, at least 13 games under .500.

Then there are the Royals, who are 10 games under .500 and reached the break having lost eight of their past 10 games. Under normal circumstances, that would be time for surrender, but in this new world of relative parity, they are still just 7 ½ games out of the second wild card. The Royals can still dream about getting hot at the outset of the second half and making a bid for their first playoff berth since 1985. The operative word being "dream."

The other borderline team is the Phillies, who still can't quite come to terms with the fact they are really bad this year. Not after owning the NL East for five straight years, with two World Series berths in that time.

The reality is that the Phillies were 13 games under .500 at the break, losers of nine out of 10. Yet at 10 games out of wild-card contention, they weren't ready to give up hope of getting back in the race.

The one thing the Phillies have going for them is that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are finally back in their lineup, and Roy Halladay could rejoin them as soon as next week in Los Angeles. They will try to make a last-ditch surge back into the race. If that doesn't succeed, suddenly Hamels — eligible for free agency after the season, with no apparent chance for the Phillies to lock him up before then — would be on the market, along with Shane Victorino, among others. Hamels and Greinke would be a formidable lure for any team, who could see them making the same impact Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia did in prior years.

The Mariners have numerous veterans who might attract interest, the likes of Kevin Millwood, Jason Vargas, Brandon League, Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo and Franklin Gutierrez. I've already written that it's unlikely that any of those would fetch top-level prospects, but if there's enough of a demand, and a small enough supply, then it's possible that the M's could leverage a better deal than originally envisioned.

Despite rampant speculation otherwise, Felix Hernandez is almost certainly not on the market, as Jack Zduriencik has indicated all along. In fact, FOX's Ken Rosenthal on Thursday cited industry sources who say Zduriencik is letting teams know that seven players are "untouchables" — in other words, they won't be traded under any circumstances. They are Hernandez, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, minor-league shortstop Nick Franklin and the "Big Three" minor-league pitchers: Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

Unless Zduriencik softens in that stance, that would seem to preclude a run at Arizona's Justin Upton, that rarest of breeds: an established star being offered up by a team that's not out of contention.

The fact that the Diamondbacks are apparently willing to deal Upton is raising red flags all over the major leagues. Why would the Diamondbacks trade a young, budding, cost-controlled slugger like Upton if there weren't some issues? I've read that they don't think he's a winning player. Funny, they managed to win their division with Upton leading the way last season in a near-MVP performance.

Upton would look great at Safeco Field — particularly a less onerous Safeco Field with closer fences (hint, hint). He is the sort of proven impact bat — as opposed to a theoretical impact bat, like Jesus Montero — the Mariners have been desperate to obtain.

As the Mariners position themselves to be a trade-deadline seller, this is one "buy" that is worth pursuing.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry

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