David Aardsma has saved 69 games for the Mariners the past two seasons. But his success, the fact the Mariners have several hard-throwing young relievers and Aardsma's rising salary make him a candidate to be traded before next season.
After a disappointing first half to this season, Mariners closer David Aardsma was called in for a chat with his boss.
Former manager Don Wakamatsu asked Aardsma to look deep within himself to figure out whether he was doing all he could to remain an elite level closer. When Aardsma replied that he wasn’t, the two men broke down all the elements of his outings and determined Aardsma needed to throw his fastball less often.
“I was throwing a lot of fastballs,” said Aardsma, who threw a major-league high 87 percent fastballs last year, but is now down to 77 percent and using his splitter and slider more. “I was trying to attack guys with fastballs and trying to beat them with fastballs constantly when I have several other pitches that can be successful. And make my fastball better.”
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Aardsma recently topped 30 saves for a second straight year, blowing just one opportunity in the second half. But with each step toward improvement taken by Aardsma, it becomes less and less likely he’ll get a shot at a third season in a Mariners uniform.
Aardsma’s improved numbers mean he’ll be in line for a hefty arbitration raise from $2.85 million to around $4 million or beyond. Throw in his growing name recognition and it’s likely the Mariners will cash in on a trade this winter rather than keep Aardsma around on a rebuilding squad with cheaper bullpen alternatives.
“This is the way I look at it: I can’t control that, obviously,” Aardsma said. “I’ve been around a decent amount of teams so far. There’s no question I’d love to be here. It’s a great organization, great guys. Yeah, we didn’t win a lot of games this year but … we’re going in the right direction.
“I want to be here next year. But they own my rights and they’re the ones who’ll decide whether I’m going to be here. The hard facts are, very simply, for two years, they absolutely own my rights. So, I can just sit back and relax. It would be a very different situation if I was a free agent and I controlled my future.”
Instead, Aardsma’s future will very likely be affected by the guy sitting in the locker stall immediately to his left. That’s Dan Cortes, just called up from Class AAA and owner of a fastball clocked up to 102 mph.
Between Cortes and Brandon League, under club control one more year at less cost than Aardsma, the Mariners have two potential closer successors. They also have Josh Lueke and former No. 1 draft pick Josh Fields in the minors.
The Mariners traded away Mark Lowe as part of the Cliff Lee deal that netted them Lueke. Subbing out the Aardsma-Lowe duo for a minimum-salaried tandem of Cortes and Lueke next season would save the team at least $6 million once arbitration figures are factored in.
That’s no small change for a team that needs to add offense and starting pitching to a roster that figures to break in several untested prospects. Cortes has reinvented himself as a back end bullpen guy after mediocre results as a starting pitcher.
“I don’t hold anything back,” Cortes said. “As a starter, I was holding back energy. I was reserving energy just to go six or seven innings.”
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is still living off the haul he brought in from the trade of closer J.J. Putz two years ago. That deal netted him center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, starting pitcher Jason Vargas, first baseman Mike Carp, minor-league pitcher Maikel Cleto and others since traded as parts of packages for first baseman Russell Branyan, pitcher Garrett Olson, shortstop Jack Wilson and pitcher Ian Snell.
Like Putz had done, Aardsma is steadily establishing himself as a top closer, despite giving up more home runs this season. His earned-run average has risen from 2.52 to 3.44 and his strikeout rate is down slightly, but he’s getting more ground balls and stranding runners just as effectively.
On Sunday, Aardsma got his 31st save in 36 opportunities with two weeks left. Last year, he had 38 saves in 42 chances, meaning he’s blown only one more save this season despite his admittedly poor first half.
“Every day, after I get done throwing, I throw a bunch of off-speed stuff,” Aardsma said. “And then, I get in the game and it’s like ‘Oh my god, I’m throwing more strikes with it and I’ve got better stuff. Why didn’t I do that all year?’ “
But the game, he said, is about making continuous adjustments. Aardsma felt too many hitters were sitting back waiting on his fastball, to the point where they could foul off even his best strikeout pitches.
“If I didn’t make that adjustment, I might not have been around too much longer,” he said.
He still might not be around Seattle come 2011. But wherever he is, he figures he’ll be a better pitcher.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.