WHAT NOW? PAXTON’S INJURY AND OAKLAND’S SURGE PUTS SQUEEZE ON MARINERS AS TRADE DEADLINE NEARS

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — A scout from a rival club, whom I’ve known for many years, called earlier this week and asked, in the brutally caustic manner that often characterizes his fraternity: “What’s wrong now with Potato Chip Paxton?”

   That’s harsh but not entirely unfair.

   It’s undeniable that Mariners left-hander James Paxton, who often seems poised to blossom into a genuine ace, has acquired brittle reputation because he simply can’t stay healthy for an entire season.

   You’re probably familiar with Paxton’s latest malady but, to recap, he experienced back soreness July 12 in the first inning at Anaheim. That forced him to the disabled list, and the ailment is now lingering longer than anticipated.

   “I’ve made the mistake in the past of pushing it,” he said, “…with me not pitching my best for a period of time. We are fighting for the postseason here and we need the best version of me out there.”

   True enough, but Paxton’s injury comes at a particularly bad time.

   The non-waiver trade deadline is 1 p.m. on Monday, and the Mariners’ once-healthy lead in the wild-card race is rapidly evaporating under Oakland’s relentless surge.

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   Club officials want to believe Paxton is merely experiencing a minor setback.

   “We are trying to do the right thing here,” manager Scott Servais seemed to plead Tuesday in confirming Paxton would remain on the disabled list. “He’s really important to what we are doing in the second half.

   “We are going to give him a few more days. That was the call we decided to make. He just didn’t feel like he’s 100 percent ready to go.”

   Plans call for Paxton to throw another bullpen workout later this week when the Mariners head to Anaheim and, if all goes well, return to active duty in time to start next week, possibly as soon as Monday, against Houston at Safeco Field.

   Maybe it will all work out, but the Mariners won’t know that until Paxton returns to the mound, and pitches well for a couple of starts. Even then, how can club officials (and fans) not be wondering when he’ll get hurt again?

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   The Mariners, even before Paxton’s injury, were sifting through the market for possible rotation upgrades.

   That search, at least viewed from the outside, had the appearance of due diligence. If so, that’s not surprising because right-hander Erasmo Ramirez is expected to return in early August from the disabled list.

   A healthy Ramirez provides a viable, experienced option for the back of the rotation. Not too long ago, that seemed sufficient.

   No longer.

   Now, not only is Paxton a question mark, but the Mariners’ once-healthy lead in the wild-card race is rapidly evaporating under Oakland’s relentless surge. Bolstering the rotation suddenly has an increased urgency.

   It won’t be easy.

   The cost for acquiring an impact starting pitcher at the trade deadline is typically steep in terms of upper-level prospects. The Mariners don’t have many (any?) ready-now or nearly-ready prospects.

   General manager Jerry Dipoto’s reputation as a master wheeler-dealer will get a major test over the next few days.

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   For example: Toronto lefty J.A. Happ, an ex-Mariner, is often cited as the best available starting pitcher. And he’s been solid: 10-6 with a 4.18 ERA in 20 starts. He is a pending free agent with about $4.8 million left on his contract.

   Now consider this: Multiple reports say the New York Yankees, in need of a starter, are pushing hard to get Happ. The Yankees have a lineup that appears set for years to come, a boatload of high-end prospects and available payroll.

   Plus, they’re the Yankees…and they say the Blue Jays are asking too much.

   It’s likely that Toronto is just posturing, and the price will come down as the deadline approaches. It’s a game of chicken at this point because, from all indications, the Jays want to make a deal. 

   Even so, their current approach offers a snapshot of the market for starting pitchers — that is, starting pitchers who (a) you’d want and (b) are realistically available.

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   UPDATE: The Yankees acquired Happ on Thursday afternoon by sending infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder/first baseman Billy McKinney to Toronto.

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   The Mariners were among roughly a dozen clubs that scouted New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler (4-6, 4.33 in 19 starts) on Tuesday against San Diego. Like those odds? 

   While the Mariners have the ability to add payroll, sheer salary dumps are much rarer than they once were. When they occur, they typically involve a player who is pitching poorly and, consequently, can’t bring much of a return in prospects.

   Reports link the Mariners to two possible examples: Texas left-hander Cole Hamels and Cincinnati right-hander Matt Harvey.

   Hamels is 5-9 with a 4.72 ERA in 20 starts and projects as a two-month rental with — are you sitting down? — about $14.5 million left on his contract. That includes a likely $6 million buyout on a $20 million team option for 2019.

   A team could also pick up that option, of course, if it wants to invest roughly $28.5 million to keep Hamels through next season.

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   UPDATE: Hamels appears headed to the Chicago Cubs although, as of late Thursday night, neither team had confirmed the trade.

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   Harvey is a combined 5-6 with a 5.21 ERA this season in 21 games (17 starts) for the Reds and New York Mets. He’s been a little better since joining the Reds in a May 8 trade: 5-4 with a 4.50 ERA in 20 starts.

   A pending free agent, Harvey is far more affordable rental at about $2 million for the rest of the season.

   Interested in either of those guys? Someone similar? Or should Dipoto aim lower? The Mariners could also stand pat and hope Paxton returns quickly to form, and that Ramirez provides a boost.

   Not a lot of good options here.