It’s hard for one reliever to maintain his level of play from year to year, let alone an entire pen.

Share story

PEORIA, Ariz. — Last season, the bullpen wasn’t just the Mariners’ greatest strength. The quirky unit was their salvation, masking the injuries and inconsistency that burdened part of the starting rotation and anchoring the team regardless of the situation.

As brilliantly as Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager played, the bullpen sustained the Mariners. The relievers logged 500 innings and posted a 2.59 earned-run average, the lowest in the majors. Though Kansas City’s potent trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera dominated the national praise, the Mariners had the most complete and versatile group in the game.

Seven relievers made between 56 and 69 appearances, and that doesn’t include Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith, who came in and often looked unhittable in the season’s second half. The Mariners may have had the deepest bullpen in American League history.

Six of their top seven relievers are back this season. But before you go assuming a glorious encore in 2015, a word of caution:

It’s hard for one reliever to maintain his level of play from year to year, let alone an entire pen. The Mariners are proven, but they must prove themselves again.

So far, the spring has been rough for the Mariners’ bullpen candidates. This is true even after factoring in that many relievers progress slowly in the preseason. Three of last year’s core members — Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen and Dominic Leone — have had perplexing struggles. In addition, the Mariners didn’t re-sign lefty Joe Beimel, so they have been looking at options to fill his role. One of those players, former starter Joe Saunders, has an 11.81 ERA in five appearances.

Another option, David Rollins, had been impressive. He looked like the favorite to be the second left-handed reliever (Charlie Furbush is the other), but Major League Baseball announced on Friday that the Rule 5 draft pick has been suspended for 80 games for testing positive for stanozolol, a steroid.

Now, if the Mariners want a second lefty, they’ll have to choose between Saunders and Tyler Olson, who has been one of the staff’s best spring-training stories. Or they could choose to go with six right-handers and have Furbush as the only lefty complement.

There’s still plenty of bullpen talent, and most of the players have impressive track records. But Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon would feel much better if they started to pitch better the next few days.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned,” McClendon said. “We just haven’t pitched very well. The results at times have been OK, but they have­n’t pitched to their capabilities.”

A year ago, in his first season as the Mariners skipper, McClendon did some of his best work managing the bullpen. He had a great feel for how to use the pitchers. He kept them fresh. He gave them roles, but he was flexible, too. The relievers competed with the belief that they were the baddest unit in the majors.

Ultimately, the Mariners should be fine as long as 38-year-old daredevil Fernando Rodney, who made the All-Star team and set a franchise record with 48 saves in 2014, remains effective despite his adventurous style closing games. If he falls apart, the pieces won’t fit as well. The Mariners have plenty of power arms capable of filling a closer role, but Rodney is the one who clearly has the mentality and experience for the job.

In spring training, it’s impossible to simulate the adrenaline rush of coming out of the bullpen during a regular-season game. It’s a different kind of pressure, and many relievers need it to play their best. As much as they set goals in the spring and try to pitch with great intensity, they aren’t as amped.

On Thursday, after Farquhar allowed two runs in two-thirds of an inning against Kansas City to raise his spring ERA to 5.63, McClendon tried to deflect a question about the setup man’s struggles.

“I told you guys before: He stinks in the spring,” McClendon said. “And if he had to make a club in the spring, he’d never make it. So you’ve got to know your personnel. He’s working hard. He’s trying hard. I suspect he will be just fine. His track record says that he will be.”

So McClendon must vacillate between concern and patience. But in the end, he’ll trust his bullpen because of what the relievers gave him during his first season.

And he’ll hope that 2014 was merely a glimpse of more to come, not the best the unit has to offer.