SEATTLE — Trying to define who the Seattle Mariners are heading into the second half of the season is going to be a challenge that leaves the club in a difficult spot. The team only has a short time in July to decide how to move forward for the final two months.
Are they in position to be wild card contenders in the American League? Or would they be better served by punting on an injury-filled season and building for the future prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?
In the view of general manager Jerry Dipoto, those questions are one and the same with the Mariners four games back in the wild card standings following the All-Star break.
"We are playing in a league of 15 teams, I believe 12 are within five-ish games of a playoff spot. We're one of them and we have as much talent as anybody else on that board," Dipoto said before the break. "We've seen what this team can do when they're clicking on all cylinders, so as we move forward, whether it be for the second half of 2017 or 2018 and beyond, our goal is to continue to build onto the core of this team."
Seattle could have made the situation far simpler for Dipoto if not for an awful two weeks prior to the break when the Mariners failed to take advantage of a favorable schedule. In the final 14 games before the break, the Mariners went 4-10 just as they were finally getting closer to full health after patching together a lineup, rotation and bullpen since opening day.
Most puzzling was that the slump came after a promising period during which the Mariners appeared ready to be contenders.
"We have underperformed, truly," Dipoto said. "Particularly over the course of the last couple of weeks. We just haven't played well, and we are at probably our most, the longest stretch of positive health that we've had since opening day, and we've played perhaps as poorly as we've played all year long."
Inconsistency has defined most of Seattle's season. The Mariners have been sloppy at times, making careless mistakes. The offense has disappeared for stretches or the bullpen has failed to close out winnable games. During other stretches, the Mariners have shown the punch to be the playoff contender that most believed them to be before the season began.
Sitting at 43-47 is probably where Seattle deserves to be. But are they markedly better or worse? That's the unknown.
"We have most of the guys healthy. We just have to be consistent. That's been the issue," slugger Nelson Cruz said.
THE GOOD: Cruz is leading the American League in RBIs with 70 at the break despite playing through leg injuries during big chunks of the first half. When healthy, Jean Segura has been the best hitter in the AL and Seattle may have figured out its outfield of the future between Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel, who was hitting .323 at the break.
On the pitching side, Ariel Miranda wasn't supposed to be in the rotation at the start of the season but injuries made him the ace for much of the first half. He went 7-4 with a 4.15 ERA. James Paxton, when healthy, showed signs of being at the top of Seattle's rotation going forward.
THE BAD: Injuries. Paxton, Cruz, Segura, Haniger, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma all missed time with injuries and while all but Iwakuma have returned, the impact of their absences may ultimately be too much to overcome. Kyle Seager finished the first half hitting just .248. Mike Zunino had a huge June but was that an anomaly or can that become the norm? Seattle's bullpen has been overused due to the injuries and that led to inconsistency.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Seattle's schedule makes the first two weeks after the All-Star break critical in determining where the Mariners go. After a six-game road trip, the Mariners return home for 10 games against both New York teams and Boston. If facing the top two teams in the AL East isn't difficult enough, it's just the precursor to an awful August where Seattle plays just seven games at home and has road trips of nine and 12 games.