The Seattle Mariners, ye basement dwellers of olde, are only a half-game out of the American League wild card behind the uninspiring Minnesota Twins. The Mariners are, of course, tied with the Mike Trout-led Los Angeles Angels, along with the Tampa Bay Rays, but they are at least within touching distance of breaking their 15-year playoff drought.
Their journey to this point hasn’t been without bumps in the road. Felix Hernandez has only made 13 starts so far in 2017, and hasn’t been able to pitch up to even last season’s standards. Just a few days ago, Hernandez landed back on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis, an inflammation that is expected to keep him out of game action for three to four weeks. That’s an awfully long time when one is considering half a game. Even worse for Seattle, though, is the seemingly inevitable injury to James Paxton, a reported strained pectoral muscle putting him on the shelf for potentially three weeks.
Those next three weeks, of course, are incredibly important. As we come down to the end of the regular season, every win, though technically worth as much as the 100-plus games before it, feels like it means more, as the cumulative result creeps closer and closer. Though there’s never an ideal time for an injury, especially on a team lacking depth the way the Mariners do, the “stretch run” is pretty much the worst possible time. Losing two of their top pitchers is something close to a disaster, to put things bluntly.
The Mariners went into this season in this situation, though. No one expected this to be the year that Paxton finally lived up to his flashes of greatness, and the worry about Hernandez’s age has always been there. Seattle dealt with injuries before the season even truly began, too. Drew Smyly went down with elbow issues that eventually led to Tommy John surgery, and has yet to throw a regular-season pitch in a Mariners uniform. Hisashi Iwakuma started six games, but is now on the 60-day disabled list. Offensively, things haven’t been all roses, either, what with the Jean Segura injury early in the season, and Mitch Haniger’s recent concussion and nose fracture.
Kyle Seager hasn’t been injured, but he’s had one of his worst offensive seasons since his sophomore season in the league. Since the All-Star break, Seager’s shown some improvement, but nothing near the level that would make him a primary contributor to the Mariners’ success. Seager’s swinging at more balls in the zone than at any other point this season, but he’s also missing more. That’s not an ideal situation for someone who should still be in his offensive prime. While he’s been lackluster so far in August, there’s always the hope that he’s able to pull it together when the Mariners need him the most.
Looking at the litany of issues, it’s no minor miracle that the Mariners are still in the playoff hunt. Yes, they’ve been helped by the overall mediocrity of the secondary teams in the American League, but the contributions of Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, as well as Segura’s results since his return, have done much to overcome the shakiness brought on by injury and Seager’s down season.
Paxton’s sleeper Cy Young candidacy was also a big part of the Mariners’ success, and not having an equally good prospect (or even, really, a replacement-level prospect) to pull out of the minor leagues is a problem.
It’s not particularly clear where the Mariners go from here. In these next three weeks, they face the competition for that second wild-card spot — a final game against the Angels, then Baltimore and Tampa Bay. By the time they’re expected to have those pitchers back, they could be completely out of it, once again left with only the offseason trade games by general manager Jerry Dipoto to look forward to.