The Mariners' bullpen was an epic failure in 2015 and a major reason for the losing season. General manager Jerry Dipoto brought in numerous relievers looking to bounce back in 2016 after subpar seasons. Will it lead to overall success?
No aspect of the Mariners’ 2016 season is filled with more unknowns than the bullpen. Much like the rest of the roster, the bullpen has been overhauled by general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Of last year’s main group of relievers, only Charlie Furbush returns. Dipoto has assembled a large group of arms — many looking to bounce back from struggles in 2015 — to fill out the bullpen or provide depth at Class AAA Tacoma. Can this group function at a higher level than last year’s collection of underachievers?
“Why not? I guess is the question I would ask,” Dipoto said.
Here’s is our spring-training position preview of the bullpen. Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz., on Friday.
A year ago at this time, the Mariners thought their bullpen would be a strength and a key to their presumed push for the postseason. It wasn’t without reason.
They returned all but one of the eight relievers that contributed to a record-setting season in 2014. That group led the major leagues with a 2.59 ERA. It was the sixth-lowest mark by an American League bullpen in the designated-hitter era. It was the second-lowest ERA for an AL bullpen since 1990, with only the 2013 Royals bullpen posting a better mark of 2.55
Sure, the Fernando Rodney Experience at the end of games could be nausea inducing, like a roller coaster on top of a tornado in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But he led the AL in 2014 with 48 saves, and the remainder of the bullpen — young controllable arms such as Yoervis Medina, Dominic Leone, Danny Farquhar and Carson Smith — seemed to be trending upward.
What followed was a very ugly regression to the mean.
There were signs of trouble in spring training. Tom Wilhelmsen battled back stiffness early, and Leone, Farquhar and Medina struggled with command and decreased velocity. Rodney was awful in the spring, which wasn’t a surprise. The feeling, or the hope from the Mariners, was that the group would right itself in the regular season.
It didn’t happen.
The problems began with Rodney. Quirky, unpredictable and an All-Star in 2014, his struggles with fastball command carried over from spring training into the season.
In his third appearance of the year, at Oakland, Rodney was brought in to protect a four-run lead in a non-save situation. He gave up four runs on four hits with two walks. Nelson Cruz bailed him out with a home run in extra innings. Rodney got the win, but the unhappy grumblings would only grow in frequency and volume.
It wasn’t simple for Rodney over the next two months. Even when he recorded saves it was an adventure. Then-Manager Lloyd McClendon defended Rodney and remained stubborn in keeping him as the closer even when it was obvious a change was necessary. McClendon was afraid young side-armer Carson Smith wasn’t ready to be the closer from a physical or mental standpoint.
To make matters worse, none of the other right-handers was pitching well enough to take the spot. Wilhelmsen missed 22 games after hurting himself stretching in Oakland. Farquhar, Medina and Leone were in the process of pitching their way to the minors.
McClendon also knew that with Smith moved to up closer, the setup innings would be a problem.
But on June 5 at Safeco Field, Rodney entered a 0-0 game against the Rays in the ninth inning and gave up a solo homer to Logan Forsythe — the first batter he faced. A change had to be made. Rodney had saved 14 games, but he had blown three saves and had a 6.94 ERA.
Smith, in his first full major-league season, took over as closer the next day and picked up his first save that night. It seemed as though everything had been fixed — until it broke again.
Smith’s run at closer came with predicted results. He looked dominant at times and gassed at others. He made right-handed hitters look silly, but left-handers became a a chore to retire. Smith battled the unpredictable and extended workload and had trouble bouncing back in terms of velocity and stuff. McClendon seemed prescient in his concern, but Smith still was the best option.
Smith lost the job in mid-August after 12-game stretch in which he blew three saves. That included walk-off losses in a back-to-back tied games. Lost in that stretch, he also saved four games, including a two-inning save against the Red Sox. During his time as closer, he had saved 14 games, blown three, took three losses and posted a 4.94 ERA.
The Mariners turned to one-time closer Tom Wilhelmsen for the rest of the season. Wilhelmsen looked strong in his early save opportunities, but faded late.
The closer situation was unsettled throughout the season, and the middle relief wasn’t much better.
Leone and Medina were traded. Farquhar rode the shuttle between the big leagues and Class AAA Tacoma for much of the season, and the other right-hander on the roster — Mayckol Guaipe — rarely was effective.
The only consistent bright spot was Mark Lowe, who had signed a minor-league deal and was called up May 5. Lowe posted a 1.00 ERA with 12 holds in 34 relief appearances. But with the Mariners out of it at the trade deadline, then-general manager Jack Zduriencik shipped Lowe to Toronto for three pitchers.
Rodney’s time with the Mariners lasted about two months longer than McClendon wanted after he stripped him of the closing duties. Rodney wasn’t much more reliable in a middle-relief role, and McClendon wanted him gone. He was designated for assignment Aug. 23 after blowing a lead the previous night.
The overall season numbers were ugly.
The bullpen finished with 24 blown saves, 36 losses and a 4.15 ERA, fourth-worst in the AL. It’s a reason the Mariners had 12 walk-off losses and 27 losses in an opponent’s final at-bat.
“I never thought we’d be as good as we were (in 2014),” McClendon said at the end of the season. “But I certainly didn’t think we’d be this bad. Those guys in the minor leagues, Rodney DFA’d. Those guys now in the bullpen, most of them probably aren’t ready. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen.”
Of the relievers on the 40-man roster and those invited to spring training, only Furbush, Guaipe, Tony Zych, David Rollins and Vidal Nuno return from last season.
Dipoto rid himself of several relievers on the roster. He included Farquhar in a trade to Tampa, and Wilhelmsen, who was in his final year of arbitration eligibility and destined to make around $3 million, was dealt to the Rangers.
Perhaps the most-discussed move by Dipoto was trading Smith to the Red Sox. Seattle got reliever Jonathan Aro as part of the return. Dipoto acknowledged that giving up Smith wasn’t part of his original plan. But when it appeared that Hisashi Iwakuma had signed with the Dodgers, Dipoto had to find a starting pitcher. The team had targeted Wade Miley, and the Red Sox weren’t making the deal without Smith being a part of it.
The other young relievers that Zduriencik left behind: lefties Rob Rasmussen and Tyler Olson and right-handers J.C. Ramirez and Jose Ramirez were either traded or designated for assignment.
Dipoto then rebuilt the cadre of relief arms with a mixture of trades and free-agent signings.
“We did pack it with a little bit of volume so that in the event that one of the guys that we hope bounces back doesn’t, there are other options,” Dipoto said. “I think it’s important to make sure that you’ve built enough depth to absorb the likely outcome, which is they’re all not going to bounce back and have good seasons, but I say that, I spent my entire major-league career pitching 400 pitched games in the bullpen, and never did anything else. If you think you’ve got it figured out, you don’t. The bullpen is about as unpredictable as it gets.”
Dipoto’s rebuild was highlighted by the signing of free-agent side-armer Steve Cishek to a two-year contract. Dipoto named him the closer. Cishek served as the Marlins’ closer in 2013 and 2014, saving 73 games. But he lost his job in May.
Realistically, Dipoto’s best move was acquiring Joaquin Benoit from the Padres in a trade for two minor-leaguers. Benoit has been one of the most consistent set-up men in baseball the past few years (stats below). And he can serve as closer if Cishek fails.
Furbush is slotted to be the late-inning left-hander. He was placed on the disabled list July 9 because shoulder tendinitis. He did not pitch again in 2015 after repeated attempts to come back. A small tear in his rotator cuff was found, and he was shut down. Furbush spent his offseason in Seattle, rehabbing and strengthening the shoulder. The Mariners believe he will be ready to go for the regular season. But it will be something to monitor in the next few weeks.
The remaining four spots will go to three right-handers and a second left-hander.
Nuno, if he isn’t used as a starting pitcher, will have the edge for that second lefty spot over Rollins, Danny Hultzen and prospect Paul Fry. Nuno’s versatility and ability to pitch multiple innings is a huge plus. Mike Montgomery, a starter last season, could be a dark-horse candidate. Montgomery was being groomed as a reliever by the Rays when the Mariners’ acquired before him last season. He has the ability to pitch the multiple innings as well. With the starting rotation full and Montgomery out of options, the Mariners could try to salvage something out of him.
The competition for the right-handed relief spot has plenty of candidates. The 40-man roster includes hard-throwing Zych, who was impressive during a September call-up. Also on the roster is right-hander Evan Scribner, who the Mariners picked up in a trade with the A’s. Both Justin De Fratus and Ryan Cook, signed to one-year contracts, are coming off down seasons but have had success. Veteran Joel Peralta is coming to camp on a minor-league deal and is an outside candidate.
Will it all add up to success?
“As I’ve often said, rookie managers, and I’m in that category right now, the thing that makes you look good is a really good bullpen,” manager Scott Servais said. “Those guys are going to be key for us, like (Dipoto) said, in the one-run games, keep us there, hold leads. The biggest thing is instill confidence in them and give them the ball, you know? I think we’re going to be just fine. I really do.”
Zych seems to be a nice find. The Mariners picked him up last spring from the Cubs for virtually nothing. Zych wasn’t part of the Cubs’ plans going forward, so the Mariners took a chance on him. He flashed a fastball that touched 99 mph and a nasty swing-and-miss slider. The best part for the Mariners is he made his big-league debut last season and is under club control.
According to baseball sources, Zych was one of the relievers most asked about by other teams during the offseason.
Fry was the Mariners’ Minor League Reliever of the Year.
A 17th-round draft pick in 2013 out of St. Clair (Mich.) Community College, he made the jump up to Class A Bakersfield to start the 2015 season and pitched his way to Class AA Jackson. In 50 total appearances, Fry went 4-5 with a 2.03 ERA and nine saves. He struck out 113 and walked 24 in 80 innings.
“I’m a bulldog,” he said. “I won’t back down from anyone. I’m not 6-foot-5 and intimidating. But even with my size (6-0, 190 pounds), I will compete.”