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Originally published June 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 16, 2009 at 11:52 AM

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Larry Stone

Mariners don't have to decide yet if they're buyers or sellers

Calling up some hitters from Class AAA Tacoma might help a struggling offense now, though.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Whenever I ponder the Mariners' game plan for this crucial upcoming period, when all fence-sitting teams must make the crucial buy-or-sell decision, I can't help but think of Jim Mora.

That's Jim Sr., father of the current Seahawks coach, whose incredulous response when asked if his Indianapolis Colts team had a chance to make the playoffs, has become legendary.

"Playoffs? Don't talk to me about playoffs! Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I'm just hoping we can win a game, another game."

And to think, the Colts at the time were only two games under .500 at 4-6. The Mariners, after getting booted out of Denver on a funnel cloud, are three games under, and not looking like a team that can pass the playoff-contending sniff test.

They don't hit enough, despite the recent resurgence of Adrian Beltre (.376 in his past 22 games) and Jose Lopez (.339 in his past 15). No team in baseball has scored fewer runs; only one has gotten on base less often, and just barely.

The starting pitching, which performed so nobly the first two months, is suddenly in flux because of injuries (which they hope are minor) and the awkwardly handled Brandon Morrow situation.

And yet, by the most fundamental standard, the Mariners are indeed contenders: the standings. They stand 5 ½ behind the first-place Rangers in the AL West and six games behind the wild-card-leading Yankees. That puts them one Rockiesesque hot streak from the promised land.

It's that tease that gets you every time, luring prudent executives to do imprudent things, all in the name of "going for it."

Here's the beauty — well, it's not really beautiful, but it's reality — of the Mariners' situation (and that of the 25 other teams that entered Monday within 6 ½ games of either their divisional lead or the wild-card leader):

You don't have to make that call today, tomorrow, or next week, or even in the first half of next month, as much as some fans have clamored for the Mariners to become early sellers.

The trade deadline, don't forget, is the last day of July, not the last day of June. For the next few weeks — through the All-Star break in mid-July, certainly, which follows a crucial, and perhaps, defining, four-game series with Texas — the Mariners can go for it to their hearts content.

The main theory for acting proactively, which was to get maximum value for their No. 1 trade chip, Erik Bedard — and strike before he got injured — has fallen by the wayside.

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Bedard is hurt, scratched from his last start because of shoulder inflammation. Teams will want to wait and see how Bedard responds over a series of starts before giving the Mariners the talent-laden package they will seek.

This is not a disaster. It gives the Mariners a chance to try to contend with their best possible rotation. It's an ongoing argument whether it's best to trade earlier (see C.C. Sabathia, 2008), because teams will give up more to utilize the player longer, or to wait for the urgency of the trade deadline, when the feeding frenzy causes teams to do crazy things (see Scott Kazmir-for-Victor Zambrano, 2004).

I fall into the latter camp. Contending teams — and that's just about everyone in the wild-card era — don't want to have to face their fans without having made a move, so at the 11th hour they might be convinced to give up a prospect they wouldn't think of relinquishing on June 15.

So the Mariners don't need to make a trade today. There's plenty of time for that. But that doesn't mean they don't need to shake up the team. Anyone watching them knows the lineup has too many dead spots to sustain rallies, and that's even with Beltre and Lopez joining Ichiro and Russ Branyan in the run-producing portion of the lineup.

But, by happy circumstance, the Mariners have numerous players at Tacoma that could energize the attack. The time has come to call upon some of them.

There's outfielder Michael Saunders, who got off to a late start because of offseason shoulder surgery but is hitting .308 in 38 games (through Sunday) with seven homers and a .401 on-base percentage. Why not give Saunders a crack at the Wladimir Balentien role in left? Balentien has done little with his 110-at-bat exposure to warrant a longer look, hitting .218 with one homer, 6 RBI, and a .273 on-base percentage.

Saunders hits from the left side, as do DH candidates Jeff Clement (.278-7-38, .351 on-base, still not catching in games because of knee problems) and Mike Carp (.293-10-32, .402 on-base). From the right side, there's Chris Shelton (.307-7-46, .371 on-base), Mike Morse (.311-7-44, .376 on-base), and Prentice Redman (.316-10-17, .384 on-base).

If you've tired of Yuniesky Betancourt's act — and who hasn't, at this point? — there's Chris Woodward, who has major-league starting experience and is hitting .302 with a .374 on-base percentage. And if you want to invigorate the catching, there's Adam Moore, hitting .287 (.343 on-base) in 25 games after putting up a .371 on-base in 27 games in Class AA.

That leads us, of course, to the extremely sensitive and difficult issue of what to do about their two veteran DHs, Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. It is impossible to overstate just how important both players have been in a clubhouse that has made a 180-degree turn from last year's dysfunction. Both have been leaders and facilitators, and are looked up to by everyone.

But they're not producing. It has been 2 ½ months now, and the Mariners' DH spot has been as problematic as it was in the Jose Vidro regime. With a .696 OPS, they rank 11th of 14 American League teams — although it's better than last year's woeful .608.

At the very least, it's time to move those two down in the order. And I'd say it's time to let a younger player have some of those at-bats to see if the Mariners, in their contention quest, can unearth another weapon.

I'm not advocating cutting Griffey, mind you. He is still an asset to the team, still respected by opposing pitchers, and has earned the right to decide when to call it quits.

Besides, there still might be some thunder left in his bat that will emerge as summer comes. But with July 31 — and the day of reckoning — coming fast, the Mariners need thunder now.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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