PEORIA, Ariz. – Three weeks into spring training, Seattle rookie manager Don Wakamatsu still doesn’t know who his closing pitcher will be.
None of the candidates for the job has separated himself from the rest of the pack, and there’s increasing speculation that the Mariners may have to use a committee of closers after relying on J.J. Putz to handle the closing chores the past three years.
“I wouldn’t prefer that,” Wakamatsu said Wednesday. “I would like to, in a sense, establish that role going into the season and see where that takes us. It’s real early on for some of these guys. They will get five, six, seven more outings before we have to make a decision.”
Wakamatsu and pitching coach Rick Adair have been trying to formulate a plan for their bullpen since camp began and have tossed out a variety of names for the closer’s spot. None has been overly impressive.
Miguel Batista and Mark Lowe have both had some bad innings this spring. Tyler Walker, a closer for San Francisco in 2005 before being relegated to a setup role the past three seasons with the Giants, didn’t allow a run in his first three Cactus League appearances with Seattle after being slowed by a quadriceps muscle injury, but doesn’t yet have the velocity the team wants. Roy Corcoran has pitched well but lacks experience at the big league level.
The most impressive reliever the Mariners have used has been journeyman right-hander Randy Messenger, who came to camp as a non-roster invitee and leads Seattle with three saves.
“There’s little things we look at,” Wakamatsu said. “Command and presence and tempo.
“As we go forward (if) they can consistently do that, it puts them in more favor with us.”
Finding a closer wasn’t a concern for Seattle in the past. Putz, the colorful former All-Star reliever and clubhouse prankster, was the unquestioned closer who had 101 saves during for the Mariners before being traded to the New York Mets in December as part of a three-team, multiplayer deal.
Seattle has been searching for a replacement since.
Concerns over the starting rotation have made it even more difficult. Left-handed ace Erik Bedard was scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday with a sore left hip. Jarrod Washburn has been erratic at times. Right-hander Brandon Morrow is battling stiffness in his pitching forearm.
Morrow assumed the closer duties in 2008 after Putz developed elbow and ribcage injuries but the Mariners are intent on making him part of their starting rotation this year once the soreness in his arm goes away.
“With issues of Morrow and Bedard, not knowing the durability of them going into the season, one of the things we constantly keep in the back of our minds is depth and the bullpen and guys who can go multiple innings to try to cover that,” Wakamatsu said. “Those are a lot of things we’re thinking about right now.”
Batista, a starter for Seattle at the beginning of last season, has been hit hard in two of his past three outings. The Mariners would love to give him the job based on his versatility and experience, but at 38 years old, the veteran right-hander may best be suited for a setup role.
Lowe throws the hardest of the closer candidates but has given up six earned runs in his last 2 2/3 innings, including three in two-thirds of an inning during Tuesday’s 8-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
Corcoran, the 28-year-old righty, went 6-2 with three saves and a team-low 3.22 ERA in 50 appearances with Seattle in 2008. He was tagged for four runs in one inning during an exhibition game against Australia’s World Baseball Classic team March 4 but has been otherwise flawless in three Cactus League appearances.
While he has the best spring numbers of the closer candidates, Corcoran will likely begin the season in a setup role.
That leaves Wakamatsu and Adair still searching for their man.
“I am fairly conventional in that I would like a closer, I would like a fairly established setup man and then beyond that I would like some versatility,” Wakamatsu said. “I think even on Mark Lowe, I have been impressed with his velocity. You see a lot of power guys are up (in the strike zone) early, but I think to make a judgment on someone like that early is not real smart.”
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