The hard-throwing lefty was acquired from the Yankees this offseason for bullpen depth. But he could pitch his way into a spot for the opening day roster
PEORIA, Ariz. — In the brief 25-plus pitches of his first live batting practice session on Wednesday, you could see all the reasons why James Pazos could force his way into the Mariners’ bullpen as the second left-handed reliever.
“(Pazos) would be a nice fit for us if it clicks there,” manager Scott Servais said.
But in those same 25 pitches, you could also see the issues — meandering fastball command and slider control — that have kept him in the minor leagues despite a left arm that produces velocity and stuff, which scream big leaguer.
“A guy that throws that hard, well why isn’t he in the big leagues?” Servais said. “For him, it’s been the command, getting the ball in the strike zone and landing his secondary pitch. He’s aware of that.”
Which portion of pitches from that ‘pen that Pazos replicates on a consistent basis will be the determinant on where he starts or possibly finishes the season. If it’s the Pazos that dotted the strike zone early, then he could be on the opening day roster. But if not, he’ll be in Tacoma trying to find that consistency. In his first time facing hitters this spring, he came away pleased.
“It felt really good,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to do too much. Coaches pointed a few things that I could work on that maybe would help be a little more consistent. I’m excited to work on those things and see what happens.”
The changes aren’t highly technical.
“Just staying balanced and finishing and trying to stay online in general,” he said.
There is little doubt about his talent, starting with a fastball that averages 94.8 mph per Brooks Baseball. The Mariners believe Pazos can touch 97-98 mph with that fastball on certain days.
“You see the power,” Servais said.
But harnessing that power and locating it where it’s supposed to be has been admittedly an issue for his professional career. It all starts with the fastball.
“The first thing has to be commanding that fastball,” he said. “Once I get a handle on that, I’m going to have to use the slider as much as I can keep them off the fastball. But that fastball command is going to have to come first.”
The lack of command manifests itself obviously in walks — a career 10.5 walk percentage — but it’s also in a lack of quality strikes or at-bats where Pazos falls behind into hitter’s counts. In a compressed role of a reliever with lesser margins of error, those mistakes can be costly.
An opposing scout rated Pazos’ command “as below average with a chance to improve.”
When the command is there, he can be almost unhittable. But it hasn’t been completely sustainable for extended periods.
“Sometimes it can be really good,” he said. “Once I fine tune my mechanics and get those things in order, it will be permanently good.”
In search of left-handed relief depth, the Mariners acquired Pazos in the offseason in exchange for minor league starting pitcher Zack Littell.
Pazos, once considered an untouchable prospect by the Yankees, could never throw enough strikes to manager Joe Girardi’s liking. In 18 big league appearances combined from 2015 and 2016, Pazos posted a 5.40 ERA, giving up 10 hits and walking four batters in 8 1/3 innings pitched. Those numbers were counter to the success he had in the minor leagues. In 23 relief appearances with Class AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre in 2016, Pazos posted a 2.63 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 19 walks in 27 1/3 innings pitched. Lefties hit just .152 with a .467 on-base plus slugging percentage in 52 plate appearances.
The trade was blessing for Pazos. He was born and raised in Gilbert, Arizona and attended the University of San Diego, where he was a standout and selected in the 13th round of the 2012 draft by the Yankees. Pazos lives across the valley in Chandler with a few friends.
“It’s been a dream come true getting back on the west coast,” he said. “The Yankees were great, but I’d much rather be on the west coast and be at home. My friends and family can come see me. It’s been great so far.”
More important, the trade offered a chance to compete for a spot in the Mariners’ bullpen along with Zac Curtis, Nick Hagadone, Paul Fry and others. Pazos wasn’t certain he’d have that chance had he remained with New York.
“It’s huge,” he said. “There wasn’t much going on with New York. But here, they’ve told me a spot is open. There’s opportunity. They’re going to give us all an opportunity to make that happen.”
Servais pulled Pazos aside after Wednesday’s live batting practice session to talk with him about what he needs to do in this camp and going forward.
“It’s his ability to make adjustments,” Servais said. “I was talking to him a little bit about it yesterday. It’s the separator for minor league players and big league players. You’ve just got to make adjustments a little bit quicker instead of throwing three or four or five balls out of the strike zone in the same spot. Big leaguers don’t do that. They miss once, they might miss twice, but an adjustment is made.”
*** Right-hander Tony Zych (shoulder) played catch for an extended period on Thursday, close to 100 throws. He will throw a flat-ground bullpen session in the coming days.
“I’m getting close to getting off the mound maybe a week,” he said.
*** The Mariners will use right-handers Cody Martin and Ryan Weber as the immediate relievers following starter Ariel Miranda’s two innings of work in the Cactus League opener on Saturday. First pitch is set for 12:10 (PST). That game will be broadcast live on ESPN 710.
*** The Mariners will hold their now annual situational hitting game on Friday with two teams captained by Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. A year ago, Cano’s team prevailed in a surprisingly tense and trash-talking filled competition. The losing team had to buy lunch for the entire Mariners’ complex — major league and minor league. Cruz picked up the bill.
“We’ll have maybe a little different wager on it this time,” Servais said. “I’ll explain it to the guys in there. Last year’s get really expensive. It might have been cheaper just to take the winning team out to dinner instead of paying for everyone here at the complex to eat. Cruzy had to pay the bill last year. We’ll have somebody new to pay for the bill.”