In 2014, before consuming capsules of laundry detergent became a popular thing, the Mariners had one of the best bullpens in baseball in a season when they were in playoff contention until their final game and finished 87-75.
A motley crew of relievers led by the inimitable and unpredictable Fernando Rodney stayed together the entire season to post a 2.59 ERA, the lowest in the majors, with a 1.156 WHIP, second-best in the A.L., and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings, third in the league.
The following year they returned all seven of those key pieces to a team with postseason aspirations. The bullpen was viewed as a strength for a team that many predicted would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Instead, the group that was so good and so vital for success the year before cratered in disarray. Of those seven relievers, three were demoted to Class AAA for poor performance and three were traded.
Was 2014’s success an outlier? Probably. But the level of expected regression was not typical.
Bullpens are fickle. Like the I-5 commute in Seattle on a Friday afternoon, it can take only the slightest incident to throw things into chaos. An injury, consistent under-performance or extreme over-usage of one pitcher can lead a bullpen from dominance to disaster. Of all things to project and predict going into the season, determining bullpen success is as tough as any.
So why the refresher?
Because the Mariners head into the season in which optimistic expectations for the bullpen permeate from the team’s management.
By most measures, Seattle’s bullpen should be better this season with many of the top arms returning, closer Edwin Diaz having survived a first full season in the role and the addition of free-agent right-hander Juan Nicasio to serve as a set-up man and a possible fill-in for Diaz.
“I don’t know of anyone in the American League outside of the Yankees and Indians who can line up a deeper bullpen,” Dipoto said when the team signed Nicasio. “You might line up more famous names, but we are pretty confident in the depth of our ’pen. We are going to have real major league arms that are capable of pitching in the back of major league games that are going to struggle to make our club with the depth that we’ve put together.”
Much like last season, the Mariners plan to use an eight-man bullpen. Given the possible limitations of their starters and the changing nature of baseball strategy, the additional arm in the bullpen is something several teams are turning to.
It’s easy to project seven-eighths of the Mariners’ opening-day bullpen: closer Diaz, Nicasio, David Phelps, Nick Vincent, Tony Zych, Marc Rzepczynski and James Pazos.
If right-hander Shawn Armstrong, who is out of minor-league options, pitches relatively well at spring training, he could earn the eighth spot over fellow right-handers Dan Altavilla, Nick Rumbelow, Chasen Bradford and Mike Morin.
On paper, it’s the best group in Dipoto’s tenure. And he’s “bullish” on their potential.
“We opted to invest free-agent dollars in Juan Nicasio, who’s coming off a terrific year,” Dipoto said. “Last year, we had Nick Vincent who was second in the American League in holds with 29. The combination of Nick Vincent, David Phelps, Marc Rzepczynski — who quietly threw out 20 holds for us last year — and Juan Nicasio, that gives us more pitchers in our bullpen who had 20 holds or more last year. No other team has that.”
Of course, some regression could/should be a factor. Both Vincent (69) and Nicasio (76) set career highs in appearances in breakout seasons. Replicating them won’t be simple.
For much of last season and despite not having overpowering stuff, Vincent was the Mariners’ best reliever before wilting in the final month of the season from overuse. He posted a 1.87 ERA in his first 60 appearances and a 14.14 ERA in his final nine appearances. The true Vincent probably sits somewhere between those extremes.
Having Nicasio and a full season of Phelps will allow manager Scott Servais to control Vincent’s usage.
Health is still a concern for Phelps and Zych, who both ended the season on the disabled list. Acquired on July 20, Phelps made just 10 appearances. Elbow issues forced him to the disabled list twice, and he had season-ending arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur.
Zych dealt with a forearm strain in the final month of the season, marking the second year in a row that he was shut down early because of injury.
While Dipoto touted Rzepczynski’s 20 holds, he wasn’t dominant in his role as lefty specialist, allowing 25 of the 83 lefties he faced to reach base. Pazos was a pleasant surprise. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and slider, he had periods of dominance and showed the ability to work multiple innings. But there were times where his past command issues resurfaced.
In his first full year as closer, Diaz had expected struggles. The Mariners privately felt that pitching in the World Baseball Classic with a truncated spring training led to inconsistencies with his mechanics. After being removed from closing for about a week in late May to fix his mechanics, Diaz resumed the role and had 34 saves and a 3.27 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 66 relief appearances.
“When Eddie is right on, he’s among the best closers in the league,” Dipoto said. “We like our bullpen. I know our players like our bullpen. … We’ve got power arms down there who can do some things, and we’re excited about that, and feel it can augment our starting rotation.”
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