With Edwin Diaz in the closer role and several returning relievers, the Mariners bullpen should have some stability in the bullpen to start the season.
Trying to determine if a bullpen’s success before a season is sort of like predicting the movement of a knuckleball. It’s impossible.
You can look at them on paper and think they will be good or terrible. You’ll probably be proven wrong two months into the season and then vindicated a month after that. The collection of seven pitchers can be a fickle unit because often times their success is also predicated on the starting pitchers before them. Good starting pitching often leads to good bullpens because it limits usage and minimal high leverage situations.
Predicting the performance of the Mariners’ bullpen the past few seasons has been even more futile.
But going into the 2017 season, one thing is certain: General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais won’t be scrambling just to find enough pieces to fill out the unit in spring training. Unlike last year, there hasn’t been a complete overhaul of the relievers on the roster. A core of pitchers that experienced varying levels of success return for this season.
“Well, we sat here a year ago and we didn’t know much about our bullpen at all,” Servais said recently. “It was a work in progress throughout the year.”
Dipoto took one look at the dumpster fire that was the 2015 bullpen and decided to make massive changes. He traded away Tom Wilhelmsen, Jose Ramirez, Danny Farquhar and Carson Smith and designated Rob Rasmussen, J.C. Ramirez and Logan Kensing for assignment.
To fill out the bullpen, Dipoto signed Steve Cishek and traded for Joaquin Benoit to be the team’s closer and top set-up man. He also acquired Evan Scribner from the A’s to pitch in middle relief and signed free agents right-handers Justin De Fratus and Ryan Cook as bounce back candidates on cheap contracts.
But before a regular season pitch was thrown, Scribner and Cook were shut down with torn lat muscles and it was glaringly apparent that De Fratus wasn’t going to be able to make the bullpen with an 89 mph fastball and no command. Meanwhile lefty Charlie Furbush, who put off shoulder surgery, tried multiple times to come back only to experience setbacks.
The Mariners were scrambling and looking at the pile of pitchers in camp on minor league contracts with spring training invites to fill out the bullpen. Joel Peralta, who turned 40 during spring, pitched his way onto the club using a 91 mph fastball, sinking changeup, a bunch of moxie while pitching at a pace that could be timed with a sundial.
On March 30th — the second to last day of spring training — Dipoto acquired right-handed reliever Nick Vincent from the Padres for a player to be named later. This wasn’t Dipoto feeding his need to make a trade every week, or so. No, this was out of necessity and desperation.
With the season looming, the Mariners had to acquire Vincent — a solid, but not overpowering reliever — just to fill out their bullpen. If Dipoto hadn’t of made that trade, he would have had to put either Donn Roach, Mayckol Guaipe or Blake Parker in that last spot in the bullpen.
When the Mariners left for Texas to open the season, their bullpen consisted of:
- Steve Cishek, RHP
- Joaquin Benoit, RHP
- Tony Zych, RHP
- Joel Peralta, RHP
- Nick Vincent, RHP
- Mike Montgomery, LHP
- Vidal Nuno, LHP
By the end of the season only Cishek, Vincent and Nuno remained on the active roster. Zych was the first to exit, going on the disabled list on May 3rd with rotator cuff issues. He would make a brief return back to the big leagues in August, but continued discomfort led to offseason shoulder surgery.
After a few effective performances and walking the tightrope in others, Peralta was overexposed, being forced to pitch in high-leverage situations that had been reserved for Zych. The heavy workload sapped what little stuff he had left. The Mariners designated him for assignment on June 2.
By midseason, the team decided to move on from Benoit. Shoulder inflammation that started in spring was an issue in the season. He went on the disabled list and even when he came back, he was unable to pitch on back-to-back days and two out of three days, severely limiting when Servais could use him. Benoit was traded to Blue Jays for Drew Storen in a swap of struggling highly-paid relievers
In a relatively unpopular move, Dipoto traded Montgomery to the Cubs for first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn. Like the previous organizations Montgomery had pitched for, the Mariners loved his stuff and talent. But Montgomery frustrated for Seattle in high leverage situations and getting himself ready to pitch in left on left situations. Because he was out of options and the Mariners having no exact role for him going forward, the Mariners decided to trade him.
That shuffling also forced Dipoto to make some midseason moves to find relief help. After trading Wilhelmsen in the offseason, he signed the hard-throwing right-hander from the Rangers after he had been designated for assignment on June 23. With Vincent ailing with a back issue, the Mariners needed right-handed help and Wilhelmsen was willing to eschew his $1.8 million salary for the MLB minimum to return to Seattle.
Dipoto also acquired hard-throwing Arquimedes Caminero from the Pirates for more depth. Caminero was out of options and was likely to be designated for assignment. Blessed with a 100-plus mph fastball, but little command of it, the Mariners took a chance on him.
Beyond the roster moves and constant shifting of bullpen pieces for brief stints from Class AAA Tacoma, like David Rollins, Jonathan Aro, Mayckol Guaipe, Steve Johnson, Donn Roach, Blake Parker, the Mariners main problems stemmed from late game situations.
Cishek, who was had lost his closing job with the Marlins the year before because ineffectiveness, followed a similar path with Seattle. After converting 11 of his first 12 save opportunities, Cishek fell into a pattern of inconsistency. Even the saves became very Fernando Rodney-esque.
After an epic blown save in an extra-innings loss to the Cubs on June 31 and then giving up a go-ahead run in a tie game against the Red Sox the following day at Safeco Field, he was done as closer.
His replacement was a guy that few fans expected to be in that role or even on the Mariners.
Edwin Diaz had been the Mariners’ minor league starting pitcher of the year in 2015. With a mid 90s fastball, he represented the best pitching prospect in an organization lacking in them.
But after five starts with Class AA Jackson where he went 2-3 with a 3.00 ERA, the organization decided to begin the process of converting him to a reliever. Was it a direct reflection of the lack of depth at the upper levels of the organization? Perhaps. But Diaz’s lack of a consistent changeup made him profile more like a reliever. It was decision the Mariners considered during spring mini-camps.
Diaz embraced the change in roles and excelled in the shorter outings. His fastball jumped from 95 mph to touching 100 mph. He dominated Class AA Hitters — 11 appearances, 0.66 ERA. With no power arms at Class AAA Tacoma and no reliever close to Diaz’s strikeout potential, the Mariners moved him from Class AA to the big leagues on June 4.
It changed the outlook on the Mariners’ bullpen in 2016 and going forward.
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Diaz was a fastball throwing revelation and quickly became a fan favorite.In his first 24 appearances, he posted a 1.80, striking out a ridiculous 49 batters in 25 innings pitched. He also developed a better slider thanks to Benoit.
The night after Cishek gave up the decisive homer and lost his closing job, it was Diaz that came into the game in the ninth inning. It drew a standing ovation from the fans in attendance. He struck out three of the four batters he faced for his first big league save.
Diaz would go on to save 17 more games for the Mariners in the season. It wasn’t all perfection. He blew three save situations and took the loss after pitching 2 1/3 innings against the A’s when the Mariners were eliminated from the postseason.
He had moments where his unusual mechanics broke down, leading to walks and well off-target fastballs. The Mariners admitted he fatigued down the stretch. It was his first time in that situation and they were forced to use him more than they wanted at times.
Still, the Mariners had found their closer going forward and he’s only 22 with five more years of club control and with plenty of potential for more improvement.
“When Eddie Diaz came in and we slid him to the back in the ninth inning, it really stabilized a lot of it,” Servais said. “It made things a little bit easier for me because you can manage the game to get the ball to Eddie and feel good about it.”
Reliever stats from Baseball Reference:
AL bullpen rankings:
One of Seattle’s biggest bullpen flaws last season was the lack of a left-handed pitcher that could get tough left-handed hitters out. Vidal Nuno was often the only lefty in the bullpen and he was far from a situational lefty.
That changed in the offseason when Dipoto signed lefty Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year contract. The veteran lefty gives Seattle a late-inning specialist.
For his career, left-handed hitters have posted a .222 batting average (147-for-661) with a .291 on-base percentage and .298 slugging percentage. He has a 3.81 strikeout to walk ratio against lefties and has given up just eight homers in 738 plate appearances.
“I think it’s very valuable if you look at what other teams in our division have done or what they bring out there,” Servais said. “With Houston picking up a couple of a couple of good lefty hitters, it’s very important. We have got a lefty to combat that.”
He’ll join Cishek as the late-inning set-up men before Diaz in the ninth. After flaming out as a closer, Cishek took the demotion with grace and embraced pitching in a setup role and had success. It also helped that he got healthy. He was diagnosed with a labrum tear in his hip late in the season. A cortisone shot and a stint on the disabled list helped him come back and feel healthy. But he had offseason surgery to repair the tear.
The Mariners are preparing for Cishek not to be ready by opening day. But believe he’ll be back by sometime in April.
Scribner and Vincent will both have spots in the bullpen. The two veteran right-handers are out of minor league options. When Scribner came back from the disabled list for the last month of the season, he was one of the Mariners’ most effective relievers. His reputation as a strike thrower was only verified. He made 12 appearances and pitched 14 innings without allowing a run and striking out 15 batters.
Vincent certainly had his struggles, but he also had periods of success, particularly against right-handed batters. Servais admitted that they were forced to overuse him and expose him to situations that he wasn’t suited for. Vincent had a stint on the disabled list with a back issue that stemmed from that overuse. He admitted to trying to pitch through the pain and the results showed.
Unlike a year ago, the Mariners also have multiple young power arms to fill middle innings role. Last year, Zych was the one of the few of them in spring training. The Mariners aren’t certain of his status this spring after the offseason surgery and wont’ rush him back. But they also have young right-handers Dan Altavilla and Shae Simmons. Altavilla followed Diaz from Class AA to the big leagues last season. He flashed a plus-95 mph fastball and a solid slider. Simmons was acquired in a trade from the Braves. He’s dealt with some injury issues in the past, but when healthy he has a fastball that can touch 98-99 mph.
The Mariners would also prefer to carry a second lefty in the bullpen that can be used in middle relief and possibly pitch multiple innings. Ariel Miranda may fill that role. While he pitched better as a starter last season, he does offer some versatility and length.
Seattle has a whole score of lefty relievers coming to camp to also compete for the spot. James Pazos, acquired from the Yankees has a big fastball and potential. Zac Curtis, acquired from the Diamondbacks, isn’t an overpowering presence, but finds way to get outs.
“Steve Cishek really had a good year last year,” Servais said. “I know we look it and in his closer role he did blow some saves and there were some tough losses but overall he did a lot of good things. Diaz in the ninth inning, Cishek will probably pitch in the eighth, seventh. We’ll use him with Rzepczynski, the free agent lefty we signed to match up with a little bit. We’ve also got Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner. Both those guys had great years last year. What Vincent did for us as a waiver claim pickup, that speaks to the differences and how a front office group can really make a difference. We didn’t know anything about Vincent. Late spring training waiver claim for basically nothing, he goes in and just has an awesome year.
The name is Thyago Vieria. You will see it written and hear it discussed often this spring and season.
He’s a right-handed flame-thrower with a fastball that touched 103 mph in the Arizona Fall League this season.
Vieria, 24, was almost a washout in the organization last spring. His mechanics were a disaster, had no idea where that fastball was going and had no semblance of a quality breaking pitch.
Enter pitching coach Ethan Katz. The Mariners new “reliever whisperer” found a way to harness all that potential, giving Vieria the type of daily attention that previous regimes or coaches might have been unwilling to commit.
The result was a power reliever that could follow a similar path as Edwin Diaz, going from Class AA to the big leagues in one season.
Vieria will get a head start on that process at big league spring training.