Kameron Loe, pounded hard at the end of last year, might be the righty Seattle needs in bullpen.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Veteran relief pitcher Kameron Loe has always been the type of guy who gets noticed.
When you’re 6 feet 8 and 245 pounds with a martial arts background and known to keep a boa constrictor as a pet, most people see you coming. And yet, Loe, 31, part of a Milwaukee Brewers bullpen that came within two victories of a World Series berth in 2011, nearly sneaked through the entire winter without getting picked up as a free agent.
That is, until the Mariners, having shored up their starting rotation late last week, jumped at the chance to add needed bullpen experience from the right side. Loe is on a minor-league deal for now, but the Mariners — having freed room by jettisoning Shawn Kelley and his $935,000 salary via trade — won’t hesitate to add Loe to their bullpen if he shows something this spring.
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“They just said I’d have an opportunity to pitch,” Loe said Thursday as the Mariners held their second spring workout. “I’d love to have the seventh or eighth inning, or at least help out at the end of a close game.”
The Mariners have Oliver Perez, 31, to work the eighth inning, but he’s left-handed. Josh Kinney, 33, did some setup work from the right side late last season, but he’s appeared in only 93 big-league games since his 2006 debut.
The only other right-handers to bridge the gap to closer Tom Wilhelmsen are 100 mph flamethrowers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, but both have barely gotten their feet wet in the majors.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said that once the team addressed its rotation last week by adding Joe Saunders and nonroster invite Jon Garland, focus shifted to the bullpen. It wasn’t a coincidence Seattle’s talks with Loe’s agent got serious right around the time a decision was made to designate Kelley for assignment.
“When a Kameron Loe is still out there, a guy who’s a quality big-league reliever and … you’ve got a chance to get him, I think you need to go ahead and do that,” Wedge said. “Especially with all the youth in our bullpen.”
That youth isn’t necessarily an issue yet, but Wedge said it’s something the team needs to prepare for.
“We’ve got a lot of young pitchers who had a lot of success last year,” he said. “But this is their next go-around under a different set of circumstances. A lot of those guys broke in during the middle of the season. It’s a little bit different the next year when you come in and you have expectations on you.”
Enter Loe, a side-arming sinkerballer who still harbors ideas about becoming a starting pitcher again, something he hasn’t done in the majors since 2007 with the Texas Rangers.
“Eventually, I’d like to get back to being a starter if they see an opening for me,” Loe said. “I either want to be at the beginning of a game or the end of a game.”
Regardless of how he’s used, Loe knows he has to do something about his career-long struggle against left-handed batters, who pounded him for a .307 batting average last year.
His sinker runs away from lefties, so it’s largely ineffective. Loe is instead working on making his change-up more consistent and plans to challenge lefties inside with his fastball more.
“I think that will be the equalizer for me,” he said.
When he doesn’t do it, the results can be disastrous. Loe was lit up for a 10.45 earned-run average his final 13 outings last September as he battled a broken toe and general arm fatigue, leading to the Brewers eventually releasing him.
For now, Wedge views Loe strictly as a bullpen guy. He wants to see more of the pitcher known for generating an above-average number of swings and misses with his lower arm slot.
Loe still was trying to be a starter again in 2009 when he left for Japan to play for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. That decision led to Loe parting ways with a longtime “roommate” even more imposing than he was — a 7-foot boa constrictor named Angel. He’d received her for his 19th birthday after a childhood spent collecting snakes, lizards and frogs in California’s Simi Valley.
Angel wound up living with Loe and former Rangers teammate C.J. Wilson at a condominium they shared in Dallas, where they’d bring her a live rat to eat once a week. Loe would even bring Angel into the clubhouse.
But he, reluctantly, had to put her up for adoption when he went to play overseas.
In the end, that Hawks gig lasted just five starts after Loe was shelled and relegated to the Japanese minor leagues. But he got another shot back in the U.S. when the Brewers made him a nonroster invite to camp in 2010.
Loe actually started for two months in Class AAA and compiled a 4-3 record a 3.16 ERA in 10 outings.
“I was going pretty deep into games,” he said.
But the Brewers needed bullpen help and called Loe up. He held opponents to a 2.78 ERA over 56 outings in his first big-league stint in three years.
He’s stayed in the majors as a reliever ever since, picking up some new pets along the way. He found a tarantula in the backyard of his Scottsdale, Ariz., home last October.
“I kept him for 10 days but he wasn’t eating, so I had to let him go,” he said.
For now, it’s just his bulldog, Roxy, living with him and his wife, Nikki, and daughter, Ayla.
Loe says his pets have always been gentle. But the huge mixed martial arts fan looks like he could handle some animals gone wild, spending his spare time practicing Muy Thai kickboxing.
“I just know how quick and how balanced those martial artists are,” he said. “And if I could translate any of that into my pitching, I thought it would be a good idea.”
He’ll need it to translate better than it did in the final month of last season. But if Loe can show the Mariners something this spring, they’ll likely choose to see a lot more.
• Felix Hernandez was to fly back to Peoria on Thursday following his news conference to announce his seven-year, $175 million contract extension. Hernandez is expected to take part in the workout Friday.
• Most position players are now in camp working out on the side and will undergo physicals Friday. The first full-squad workout is Saturday.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org