Dipoto has lauded his projected bullpen as being one of the best in the American League. But Mariners fans know that bullpen success can be fickle from season to season.
Way back in 2014, before purposefully consuming capsules of laundry detergent became a popular thing, the Mariners had one of the best bullpens in baseball in a season when they were in playoff contention until their final game and finished 87-75. A motley crew of relievers led by the inimitable and unpredictable Fernando Rodney stayed together the entire season to post a 2.59 ERA, the lowest in Major League Baseball, with a 1.156 WHIP, second best in the AL and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings, which was third best in the league.
The following year they returned all seven of those key pieces to a team with postseason aspirations. The bullpen was viewed as a strength for a team that many predicted would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Instead, the group that was so good and so vital for success the year before, cratered in disarray. Of those seven relievers, three were demoted to Class AAA for poor performance and three were traded.
Was 2014’s success an outlier? Probably. But the level of expected regression was beyond typical. It was a reminder of the nature of bullpens from season to season.
Bullpens are fickle. Like the I-5 commute on a Friday afternoon, it can only take the slightest incident to throw things into chaos. An injury, consistent underperformance or extreme overusage of one pitcher can lead a bullpen from dominance to disaster. Of all things to project and predict going into season, determining the collective successes of a group of seven to 10 relievers, is as tough as any.
So why the refresher?
Because the Mariners head into the 2018 season in which optimistic expectations for the bullpen permeate from the team’s management.
By most measures, Seattle’s bullpen should be better this season with many of the top arms returning, closer Edwin Diaz having survived a first full season in the role and the addition of free agent right-hander Juan Nicasio to serve as a set-up man and a possible fill-in for Diaz when needed.
“I don’t know of anyone in the American League outside of the Yankees and Indians who can line up a deeper bullpen,” Dipoto said when the team signed Nicasio. “You might line up more famous names, but we are pretty confident in the depth of our ‘pen. We are going to have a real major-league arms that are capable of pitching in the back of major-league games that are going to struggle to make our club with the depth that we’ve put together.”
So there is that.
Much like last season, the Mariners plan to use an eight-man bullpen. Given the possible limitations of their starters and the changing nature of baseball strategy, the additional arm in the bullpen is something several teams are turning to.
“In many instances, if not the majority of the time, the best stuff on your staff is sitting in your bullpen,” Dipoto said. “So, what we’ve done is we’ve increased the size of bullpens. The first staff I ever pitched on with a big-league team, we had 10 pitchers. We ran out for most of last year with 13 pitchers. That’s how we opted to manage the innings. The innings haven’t changed. It’s still a nine-inning game. We’re still playing 162. We just distribute the innings pitched in a different way, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
It’s easy to project seven-eighths of the Mariners’ opening day bullpen.
- Edwin Diaz, RHP
- Juan Nicasio, RHP
- David Phelps, RHP
- Nick Vincent, RHP
- Tony Zych, RHP
- Marc Rzepczynski, LHP
- James Pazos, LHP
If right-hander Shawn Armstrong, who is out of minor league options, pitches relatively well at spring training, he could likely earn the eighth spot over fellow right-handers Dan Altavilla, Nick Rumbelow, Chasen Bradford and Mike Morin.
On paper, it’s a better group than any other the Mariners have had in Dipoto’s tenure. And he’s “bullish” on their potential.
“We opted to invest free agent dollars in Juan Nicasio, who’s coming off a terrific year,” Dipoto said. “Last year, we had Nick Vincent who was second in the American League in holds with 29. The combination of Nick Vincent, David Phelps, Marc Rzepczynski — who quietly threw out 20 holds for us last year — and Juan Nicasio, that gives us more pitchers in our bullpen who had 20 holds or more last year. No other team has that.”
Of course, some regression could/should be a factor. Both Vincent (69) and Nicasio (76) set career highs in appearances in breakout seasons. Replicating them won’t be simple.
“The one thing I love about Juan first of all is his presence,” Servais said. “He’s a big strong guy and I threw out, ‘Juan, glad to have you, excited to be in the bullpen,’ this and that, ‘Keep in mind we need to get some four or five out appearances,’ (he said), ‘No problem, I pitch every day.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sounds great to me.’ So, he’ll fit right in. He’s been around the league a little bit and he’s made some adjustments throughout his career in how he’s approaching left-handed hitters and attacking them and stuff like that.”
For much of last season and despite not having overpowering stuff, Vincent was the Mariners’ best reliever before wilting in the final month of the season from overuse. He posted a 1.87 ERA in his first 60 appearances and a 14.14 ERA in his final nine appearances. The true Vincent probably sits somewhere between those extremes. Having Nicasio and a full season of Phelps will allow Servais to control Vincent’s usage, particularly in high leverage situations.
Health is still a concern for Phelps and Zych, who both ended the season on the disabled list. Acquired on July 20, Phelps made just 10 appearances. Elbow issues forced him to the disabled list twice and he had season-ending arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur. He’s begun his throwing program and the hope is that he’ll have minimal limitations this spring.
Zych dealt with a forearm strain in the final month of the season, marking the second year in a row that he was shutdown early because of injury. Having Altavilla and Rumbelow won’t make Seattle completely reliant on Zych’s health.
While Dipoto touted Rzepczynski’s 20 holds, he wasn’t dominant in his role as lefty specialist, allowing 25 of the 83 lefties he faced to reach base. Pazos was a pleasant surprise. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and slider, he had periods of dominance and showed the ability work multiple innings. But there were times where his command issues of the past resurfaced.
“We have built back-end experienced guys that can help us get through,” Dipoto said. “We’re hopeful that (Rzepczynski) has a better year this year. He obviously faded for us in the second half. But the rest of those guys, Nicasio’s coming of a fabulous year, led the National League in games pitched and finished closing for the Cardinals in the playoff race. David Phelps has been one of the best set-up guys in the league for most of the last three years. He’s coming back right now in a throwing program. We expect that he’s going to be 100 percent healthy on the first day of spring training. He’s ready to go.”
In his first full year as closer, Diaz had expected struggles. The Mariners privately felt that pitching in the World Baseball Classic with a truncated spring training led to some of his inconsistencies with his mechanics. After being removed from closing for about a week in late May to fix his mechanics, Diaz reassumed the role and finished with 34 saves and a 3.27 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 66 relief appearances. He was much better on the road, going 2 for 27 in save opportunities with a 1.24 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 35 appearances while posting a 5.76 ERA in 31 home games.
“When Eddie is right on, he’s among the best closers in the league,” Dipoto said. “We like our bullpen. I know our players like our bullpen. And the guys I didn’t mention, all are relatively 27 years old or younger, throw 95 to 100 miles an hour, and have some major league experience to the cases of the James Pazos, Dan Altavilla, Nick Rumbelow, etc., and Tony Zych. We’ve got power arms down there who can do some things, and we’re excited about that, and feel it can augment our starting rotation.”
A year ago, injuries to the starting rotation and the struggles of the replacement starters to pitch more than five innings forced the Mariners to shuttle long and middle relievers back and forth from Class AAA Tacoma in search of fresh arms on twice-weekly basis. Dipoto doesn’t believe that will be as prevalent this season.
“The number of 200-inning pitchers is dilapidating very quickly,” Dipoto said. “It’s why we were particularly interested in acquiring a pitcher like Mike Leake because Mike goes out and he takes his 30, 30-plus starts. He throws his 180, 185-plus innings, and he generally keeps you in those games and gives you a chance to win. That’s, in today’s game, an effective starting pitcher because if after that, you can run out Nick Vincent and Juan Nicasio and David Phelps and Edwin Diaz and James Pazos, now you get into the stuff that’s really hard to hit.”
If everything goes right for the Mariners’ bullpen, it could reach the lofty level that Dipoto predicted. There is talent and depth. They have more options and more power arms than in past years. It will be needed for success.
But how often does everything gone right for a bullpen in a season?