In so many seasons past, most recently since the Mariners started their rebuilding plan, when the annual Major League Baseball trade deadline would near, the speculation centered on which established MLB players they would trade away in search of prospects to fill their farm system in hopes of future success.
But with Sunday's 4-3 victory over the A's giving them three wins in the all-important four-game series, the Mariners may have forced general manager Jerry Dipoto and team ownership into being buyers in the days leading up to Friday's deadline at 2 p.m. PDT.
The Mariners improved 54-46 on the season and sit just 1.5 games back of the A's (56-45) for the second wild-card spot.
It's a position few people in baseball, including some within the Mariners organization, expected this team to be in at the deadline. Given the number of injuries to the roster, specifically the starting rotation, and the struggles to just get hits let alone score runs, this team was trending toward a sell-off at the deadline with Dipoto possibly trading outfielder Mitch Haniger, closer Kendall Graveman, several other relievers and anyone else that didn't fit into future plans.
But given their current position in the standings, and the stain that is a playoff drought dating back to 2001, it would be disrespectful to the players on the roster and irresponsible toward a fanbase that is slowly starting to regain its embrace of the organization to trade current players away for prospects.
If anything, the Mariners should add talent at the deadline, understanding that prospects depth in the farm system doesn't guarantee postseason appearances.
"We've always known what we wanted to do," Dipoto said on his weekly radio show on ESPN 710-AM. "I feel like I've tried to be clear in expressing that, especially as the last four to six weeks have shown the improvement and the progress that this team is making. We'd love to add to this team, and whether that is what we have talked about in the areas of second base or a right-hand bat or a starting pitcher."
There are still the three games against the Astros remaining on the homestand. MLB sources said that how the Mariners did on this homestand would offer a general direction of what they might do at the deadline. By taking three of four against the A's, they've solidified their relevance to the race and can keep pace even if their struggles with Houston continue.
"I think you're gonna see a lot of movement around the league," Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "I think it all comes down to the last 72 hours. Being a part of a lot of those discussions, in my past, I realize how that all works."
Servais knows it isn't simple.
"It's easy to say, 'yeah, go get that player or go get this player,'" he said. "It's really hard to make trades. I don't think people understand what's all involved with it, whether it's contracts, whether it's service time, how long you control player, all those other things play into that. I try not to get involved with it. It's not my job."
Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales offered a similar sentiment. As the leader of the pitching staff, he was vocal before spring training about the need to shift the focus away from rebuilding and improving and start making winning a priority.
Should they add to this team?
"It's not my job to think about that," he said. "My job is to get ready for my next start. You can ask Jerry Dipoto that question, or the other (people) in the front office. It's not a question for me."
But third baseman Kyle Seager, who is presumably in the final year with the Mariners, wasn't afraid to offer his thoughts. Over his 10 seasons with the Mariners, he's had teammates traded away from losing teams and watched as ownership made half-hearted attempts to add to teams that were solid.
He recognizes that being in this position in the standings isn't a given for every season.
"You always want to be on a team that's trying to win, right?" he said. "Like I've said in the past, at some point, it has to be about winning. That's the goal of baseball. You don't necessarily always want to be playing for rebuilds. Especially for me, kind of where I'm at, I want to be playing for something bigger than myself. I want to be playing for something big and you can feel how much the city is just starving for it. You can see it with the fans. It's been way too long, obviously. But yeah, you have to be about winning."
The decision by ownership at the behest of former president Kevin Mather to maintain a minimal payroll budget hasn't been forgotten. Seager, like so many of the players on the team, wants to see ownership and Dipoto believe in their current success as much they believe in their rebuild, and then prove it by investing in this current team after doing the opposite in the offseason.
"You want that obviously, right?" Seager said. " You want people to believe in you. You want them to feel like we're doing a good job and that this is a team to go for it. I think it's been preached about this rebuild so much, but I mean we're right there on the edge of this thing. So certainly, you would like to have them make moves and get the team as good as we possibly can. And I know me personally, I mean, good lord, I'd like to make a run out of it."
One of Dipoto's potential acquisitions is no longer available. Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier, who the Mariners had inquired about, was traded to the Padres on Sunday afternoon in exchange for $1.4 million and three prospects: infielder/outfielder Tucupita Marcano, outfielder Jack Suwinski and right-hander Michell Miliano.
MLB sources said the Mariners' offer was comparable in terms of one advanced prospect with two lower-level prospects with minimal pro experience.
Other MLB sources indicated the Mariners will shift their focus to Kansas City second baseman Whit Merrifield, who seems to be mentioned every year about this time.
Merrifield, 32, is a durable producer who can play multiple positions. He has a career .292/.339/.439 slash line. This season he's got a .272/.320/.401 slash line. He's a solid fit for the Mariners, who could play Merrifield at second and move Dylan Moore back to a utility role.
He's also a fit in that he's under club control through the 2023 season at a relatively affordable price. Merrifield will earn $2.75 million in 2022 and has a $6.5 million club option in 2023.
The Royals have been resistant in trading Merrifield, who is a fan favorite and a leader on the team. The asking price could be high in prospect return. Dipoto won't mortgage the future for the present.
The Mariners are still also desperately searching for a starting pitcher, though the market for that position has yet to develop. The number of injuries have teams wanting to hold onto pitching depth. Teams are also aware of the Mariners' predicament and are trying to use it to their advantage.
"You know the one thing we have focused on, and we'll continue to focus on are players who make sense for us beyond 2021," Dipoto said. "What we don't think makes a great deal of sense is forfeiting any real significant part of our future for short-term rental-type gains. So, we are focused on players who would be part of the Mariners beyond just 2021. And you know until further notice, that's our only focus and we'll continue to check in with clubs on the players we feel like make sense for us, that fit in that category."