PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s a decision sure to irritate fantasy baseball owners who are looking to pick up some saves for their pun-named team from a low-round draft pick or waiver claim.
But a cynic could point out the obvious — the Mariners aren’t expected to win enough games this season for it matter for even the worst fantasy team.
For those that keep track of such things, the Mariners’ closer job will belong to “CBC.”
First name: Closer.
Middle name: By.
Last name: Committee.
The Mariners won’t have a designated player to take the ball in the ninth inning with a lead. It will vary given the situation and, well, whoever might be throwing the best (or not the worst) at the time.
“There will be no closer,” manager Scott Servais confirmed. “It’s just going to depend. Some nights it might be a particular guy matchup-wise or because he has the freshest arm and he hasn’t pitched in a couple days, and he will be asked to get the final three outs of the game.”
Well, there is one caveat.
“Unless somebody jumps up and grabs the position,” Servais said. “And he looks super comfortable and he’s just shoving it and looks great — then it might grow into that, but right now we don’t have one.”
It’s hard to see someone jumping up and grabbing it. It might be more like hopping up and holding on to it for a little while.
There are a handful of candidates.
Yoshihisa Hirano will be the oldest pitcher in the bullpen. The right-hander turns 36 on March 8 and was signed as a free agent in the offseason. The Mariners wanted an experienced arm that could be surrounded by a young core of arms by the end of the season.
It is instructive to point out that most of Hirano’s experience came in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, where he tallied 156 saves. He came to the U.S. before the 2018 season, signing a two-year contract with the Diamondbacks.
After a solid first season in which he posted a 4-3 record and 2.44 ERA in 75 appearances, Hirano regressed in 2019, going 5-5 with a 4.75 ERA in 62 appearances.
He has two pitches — a four-seam fastball and a nasty, split-finger fastball he uses as his out pitch. The four-seam fastball sits around 91-92 mph and is hittable in fastball counts. It generates swings and misses only 7.95 percent of the time it is thrown. The split-finger generates whiffs 20.73 percent of the time, but some command problems and hitters laying off the pitch led to some issues last season. They started “spitting on” the split-fingers that looked like low strikes coming out of his hand, forcing him up in the strike zone or making him to throw the four-seam fastball instead.
In the offseason, Servais pointed to Matt Magill as an early candidate to be the closer. Acquired in a trade from the Twins last season, the right-hander became a valuable reliever late in the year. Magill posted a 3-2 record with a 3.63 ERA in 22 appearances and tallied five saves after Roenis Elias was traded to the Nationals.
With a riding, four-seam fastball that has one of the higher spin rates on the team and biting a slider that works off it, Magill struck out 28 and walked just five in 22 1/3 innings. He generates swings and misses on 21 percent of his sliders.
Magill came to camp with mild shoulder discomfort. He has yet to make a Cactus League appearance and hasn’t thrown to hitters in a live batting practice. There’s still time for him to be ready by opening day.
Though Carl Edwards Jr. always had the talent and velocity to be a closer, the lack of command of on his riding fastball and offspeed pitches didn’t allow him to take that role when he was with the Chicago Cubs. The Mariners plan to use him late in games, but it seems unlikely he would be the first option in a save situation unless he finds a level of command that hasn’t been evident. Even in his best seasons with Chicago (2017-2018), he averaged more than five walks per nine innings. That just doesn’t work in the ninth inning.
Edwards also has struggled to generate the high-90s velocity on his fastball that made him effective early in his career. Last year his fastball averaged 94.1 mph. This spring it has sat around 91-93 mph. The adrenaline of regular-season games should bump it back up, but there is some belief from opposing scouts that he will never be able get to 97-98 mph like in years past.
Of the remaining candidates, right-handers Sam Tuivailala and Dan Altavilla could get opportunities.
Like Magill, Tuivailala has yet to appear in a game due to mild shoulder fatigue. But that could come early next week. Last year Tuivailala made just 23 appearances, posting a 1-0 record with a 2.35 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 23 innings. A long recovery from Achilles tendon surgery and shoulder fatigue delayed the start to his season. When healthy, he has a heavy fastball that makes him effective and the right demeanor on the mound. But he also has not notched a save in six MLB seasons. He profiles best as a setup man.
Altavilla has all the talent a closer should possess — a fastball that can touch 100 mph and a wipe-out slider to play off it. But he’s never been able to put it together at the MLB level for an extended period.
Injuries, mechanical issues and a sense of being overwhelmed in high-leverage situations have stymied him. It led to him being demoted from the big leagues to Double-A Arkansas last season. Given his build and mechanics, he will likely never possess pinpoint command. But throwing strikes and not missing wildly out of the zone are required. He has a bad habit of falling behind in counts, issuing walks and giving up crushing hits. The Mariners believe he can be effective if he can find control of his pitches, if not command.
As for the rest of the bullpen, perhaps a closer could emerge from the pile of hard-throwing relievers — most of them unproven at the MLB level. Last season after closer Hunter Strickland was injured, the Mariners were forced to try just about everyone in that spot, with nine different pitchers collecting saves. It’s not an ideal situation, but one they might not be able to avoid.