|Jesus Montero (Wikimedia Commons)|
On to the actual post now.
The Mariners find themselves in a legitimate pennant chase. They sport one of the better run differentials in baseball and have been in position for a wild card playoff spot for a while now. Their offense is borderline putrid but paired with an exquisite pitching staff, anchored by King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma, and buoyed by the best bullpen in baseball.
In other words, the Mariners are a team built to acquire someone at the trade deadline. They are good enough as-is to potentially make the playoffs, but have obvious holes where they could upgrade. The focus will (and should) be on who they could acquire and who they would give up.
I want to go under the radar for a little bit here, and outline some of the more creative options at the Mariners disposal. I make it to more Rainiers games than Mariner ones, and there have been some interesting developments in Tacoma. So, instead of making random theoretical trades up, I'll highlight some unsung heroes that could make surprising contributions if given the chance:
Todd Coffey and/or Logan Kensing
I'll lead off with a pair of non-roster bullpen arms. The Mariners bullpen is the best in baseball and it's only gotten better with the recent emergence of Brandon Maurer. Behind the MLB bullpen is a pretty formidable Tacoma unit too. Some of the names are known - Stephen Pryor and Lucas Luetge have spent a little time in the majors this year, and Carson Smith isn't too far behind them (if behind them at all.) However, Coffey and Kensing shouldn't get lost in the shuffle.
Both Coffey and Kensing are veterans that have tasted success in the majors. Kensing topped out at 95mph multiple times in last night's Rainiers game and also throws a slider in the mid to upper 80s. Coffey features similar repertoire, though his fastball tends to top out around 91mph. Still, he struck out the side in the ninth inning last night, which was his second inning of work in the ballgame.
In my humble opinion, the Mariners bullpen situation is the most interesting puzzle piece the M's have as the deadline approaches. They clearly have an embarrassment of riches right now. Guys that would work the 7th and 8th innings on many staffs take care of middle relief in Seattle. However, given the M's offensive woes, their bullpen faces more high leverage situations than most teams. Their phenomenal bullpen is arguably the biggest key to their current success. The M's bullpen has a special ability to make small leads stick simply because they are filthy good from top to bottom.
I would be curious to know what kind of internal scouting reports the Mariners have on Kensing and Coffey though. They look to me like serviceable middle relievers. They could make a guy like Tom Wilhelmsen or Yoervis Medina expendable. There would be the problem of creating 40-man roster space for either of them, but that seems simple to solve to me - make a two-for-one trade. Packaging Medina with a guy like Stefen Romero could be a sneaky valuable package to a rebuilding team, given that that both players are under team control for a combined nine more seasons before they could hit the open market, and both come with some MLB experience (successful MLB experience in Medina's case). The presence of Kensing and Coffey would make me extremely comfortable considering such a deal.
I was down on Montero at the start of the season, to say the least. I made jokes and complaints at his expense given any sort of slight opening. I still encourage friends at Rainiers game to watch him try to run the bases. I haven't been kind to Montero, and I will come clean right here, right now: I gave up on him.
I am somewhere between curious about Montero and a full-fledged believer in him again though. He is white-hot at the moment, batting a whopping .464 in July with 14 extra-base hits, good for a 1.327 OPS (not a typo, I promise). Of course, this is a small sample size, and TNT writer John McGrath pointed out that Montero has enjoyed a string of lefties as of late. Still... a 1.327 OPS?!!
Moreover, it appears to me that Montero's recent hot streak corresponds with an adjustment he made in his batting stance. He starts wide open now - reminiscent of Jay Buhner, to give you an idea of how wide open we are talking about here - but quickly closes. It's worth noting that Montero has more extra bases hits in July than he had in May and June combined, and equally comforting to me is where those extra base hits go. They are up the middle, from left-center to right-center. He's regaining the hitting profile that made him an elite prospect when the Mariners acquired him.
Montero has hit home runs in both the last two Rainiers games I've been to. One was a line drive that I thought would get down for a double in right center, but it just kept going. The ball was out over the plate in the lower half of the strike zone, and Montero went with it and crushed it. The other was a home run to left center. This pitch was more on the inner half of the plate but had a similar vibe - it was a bit more towering, but again, just kept going and easily cleared the fence.
The only player on the Mariners roster who might have more raw power than Jesus Montero is the man he would logically replace, Corey Hart. Hart, to date, has posted a -0.9 WAR. Coincidentally, the increasing likelihood that Hart won't reach any of the incentives in his deal is why the Mariners might have $7-8 million of room in their budget to take on a salary at the trade deadline.
I wonder what kind of internal scouting reports the Mariners have on Jesus Montero at this point. I would be very tempted to release Corey Hart, which should guarantee that he doesn't reach any of the incentives, and replace him with Jesus Montero. If the M's get lucky, Montero could do a decent impression of Evan Gattis at the plate, plus the M's could go acquire an impact player with the added salary room.
The Rainiers fielded an intriguing lineup defensively last night. Ty Kelly started in right field. Granted, the Rainiers are very thin on outfielders right now, and Kelly has been a bit of a utility player all season because Chris Taylor and Nick Franklin get the bulk of playing time in the middle infield, but the start still seemed intentional to me. Kelly has played some third base and Rainiers utility player Leury Bonilla started there last night. Bonilla is a true utility player, as I have seen him play first base, third base, right field, and pitch. In fact, he has multiple pitching appearances the past three seasons. Nick Franklin also has a handful of starts in right field this season too, but he was at Kelly's "natural" position last night, second base. So, Kelly didn't have to start in right field, but he did.
Moreover, Kelly looked good in right field, at least last night. He took clean, efficient routes to balls, including a soft fly ball he had to charge hard in front of him, and rather hard hit line drive he had to sprint back on to make a nice running catch. However, his best play of the game came on a single, where he gunned a runner out trying to go from first to third. Kelly flashed a surprising arm - maybe not prototypical right field strength, but way better than I expected from a guy who has played second base for the most part, and the throw was right on the bag.
At the plate Kelly is a switch hitter with remarkable patience. He has more walks than strikeouts right now, which if that holds would be the fourth consecutive season he's pulled the uncommon trick. Kelly also has already established a new career high in home runs this season with 13.
It is no secret that the Mariners could use some offense, and the corner outfield spots are particularly weak spots on the roster. Kelly isn't on the 40-man roster right now, but I am a fan of his skill set. A switch-hitter with plate discipline and defensive versatility makes for a really nice bench piece, and on the Mariners, maybe a better starting option than some guys in the majors right now. Similar to the situation with guys like Coffey and Kensing, the presence of Ty Kelly would make me pursue deals where I collect a handful of young guys on my 40-man roster right now to get a quality rental player. It's a strategy that protects top prospects while improving the ball club noticeably right now.
Who knows what moves the Mariners are actually pursuing, considering, or have available to them. However, if they want to get better now and hold on to their top prospects, they will need to get creative. What makes the most sense to me is to offer multiple fringe-like guys with MLB experience on the roster right now while eating a bunch of salary. This approach could work surprisingly well if the Mariners believe in some of their non-roster guys in Tacoma. I, for one, see reasons that the Mariners should believe in some of their overlooked depth.