Are The Mariners Zeroing In On A Viable Bullpen?

We all know the pitching kind of stinks on this team.  The starters have an ERA of 3.76, but that’s mostly propped up by the amazing start of James Paxton.  The starters are also largely injured, so the hope is:  if we can weather the storm, get some guys back, then things look a lot better in the second half and beyond.  Even then, Miranda has just been sort of okay, Kuma and Gallardo have been less so, and Felix is a true wild card at this point in his career.  That’s not even getting into the fact that we don’t REALLY know if Smyly is ever going to return from injury this year, or if he’ll have setbacks and maybe this thing carries over into 2018 and beyond.

That’s sort of outside of our control right now, and quite frankly not something I want to think about until I have to.  Instead, I’d like to look at the bullpen, because I think there’s a slim chance for a turnaround, and I think that’s something that should be explored.

The bullpen, clearly, has been god awful.  Gun to my head:  I think it’s the team’s number one problem and main reason why we have such a mediocre record right now.  The numbers bear that out, as the Mariners are 13/15 in the American League in bullpen ERA at 5.43, just ahead of that atrocious Rangers bullpen, and the Tigers bullpen that’s dead last.  I don’t know if there’s any helping the Rangers or Tigers, but I think there’s reason for optimism for the Mariners.

Now, obviously, all of this could blow up right in my face as the team continues to meltdown in this all-important, make-or-break season, but hear me out.

If we’re going to continue on this path of an 8-man bullpen (which, I see no reason why we shouldn’t, given all the injuries to our starters), then let’s go down the line and count ’em out.

Edwin Diaz is what he is right now.  When he’s on, he’s lights out.  When he just doesn’t have it on a particular night, he’s really bad, and it’s doubtful we’re going to save that game.  My main issue with Diaz is an issue I have with all closers:  if, for whatever reason, their command is off or whatnot, DON’T LEAVE THEM OUT THERE TO GET POUNDED.  I’m tired of managers being afraid of taking out their closers when they’re walking the world and giving up lots of hard-hit balls.

The best part of Diaz’s game is his short memory.  He’s yet to really get bogged down in a prolonged slump.  Sure, he’ll blow a game here or there, but that has seemingly no bearing on what he’s going to do the next time out (unless he has to face Kole Calhoun, then all bets are off).  Until he does have that prolonged slump, he is our closer, and more often than not he’s good enough.

The best reliever this team has right now is Marc Rzepczynski (who I constantly refer to as Scrabble, because come on), with the caveat that he’s almost exclusively used against lefties, and more often than not is out there for less than 3 outs.  But, that’s his job, and he’s the best at it on this team.  Frankly, he might go down as the best LOOGY this team has ever had, and I don’t know if there will be a close second.

Nick Vincent would be the next-best reliever this team has right now; just don’t put him out there with inherited runners because I can’t vouch for him there.  He gets a remarkable amount of strikeouts for what kind of stuff he has, but I wouldn’t call him a “strikeout guy”.  Nevertheless, if you need a 6th or 7th inning shut down with as little damage as possible, he’s not a bad option.

What this team is genuinely lacking right now is a proper 8th inning set up guy.  Someone who can shorten the game up for you that much more.  Ostensibly, Steve Cishek will be that guy, if we can ever get him going.  He’s doing his rehab now, but had to come back to Seattle for bullpen work because his mechanics were out of whack, so that’s concerning.  Cishek can definitely have his issues at times, hence why he lost his closer’s job last year to a AA guy, but if anything he’s sort of the opposite of Scrabble; a ROOGY if you will.  Pair the two of those guys together in the 8th inning, mixing and matching righty vs. lefty (this is more down the line, in September or potential playoff situations; not on an everyday basis), and I think you’ve really got something.

So, right there, that’s half your bullpen.  I don’t think anyone’s comparing it to the 2016 Indians or Cubs, but it’s decent.  It’s good.  It’s okay.

Obviously need more than 4 quality pitchers in your bullpen, though, so what about the back-half?

Well, James Pazos has been a very nice surprise, and seems to be getting better as the weeks go on.  He’s got a dominating fastball, is crushing lefties right now, and isn’t too terrible against righties.  As he develops, I’ll be curious to see how he grows against right-handed bats.  He’s so young, and so good so far, that we might have a real diamond on our hands.

Tony Zych is another young pitcher with tons of upside.  He just got off the DL, but is already being thrust into pressure situations, and has so far come out just fine.  If this team finds itself in a lot of winning situations, it’s easy to see him holding down that 8th inning role.  If he fulfills his potential, that REALLY shortens the game for us, bumping Cishek/Scrabble back to the 7th and Vincent/Pazos to the 6th.

So, now we’re six relievers into this exercise and looking pretty solid in a couple weeks when Cishek returns from the DL.  What about those last couple spots?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I like what I’ve seen from Jean Machi so far.  Granted, we’re only three appearances in, and he’s already had to be pulled due to a nerve issue in his hand, but he stayed off the DL and was ready to roll on Sunday if need be.  He’s obviously not a power pitcher, and won’t strike out a ton of guys, but as potentially a 7th guy in your bullpen, what are you asking for?  Someone to keep you in the game when you’re losing?  Someone to eat up a couple innings when it goes to extras?  Like Vincent, he’s probably not someone you want to throw in there with runners already on base, but given a clean inning, you could do a lot worse than his veteran presence.

That just leaves the long reliever spot, of which there are about a billion candidates.  One of the very small advantages to having all these starting pitcher injuries is we’ve had a chance to get a really good look at a lot of these AAA guys, to see if they’ve got what it takes – not just in meaningless Spring Training situations – but in real, meaningFUL regular season ballgames.  I’m talking about Chase De Jong, Christian Bergman, Chris Heston, and Evan Marshall (before he hit the DL) on the right side, and Dillon Overton on the left side.  They’ve all shown you SOMETHING so far in the first five weeks of the season, which is better than just having the unknown of guys only starting games in Tacoma, or Spring Training.  If this team ever gets back to full strength, you’ve got some guys in this group you wouldn’t mind seeing in a spot start here and there.  Or, even better, you could build them up into some trade bait for a bona fide starter to help this team down the stretch.

Right there, that’s the nuts of an 8-man bullpen, and I didn’t even mention someone like Evan Scribner, a veteran who was lights out in September last year, who obviously will have some kind of role on this team when he gets healthy again.  And Dan Altavilla, who started the season on the 25-man roster, and has since returned (due to all the injuries) after a short stint in Tacoma to work on his command.  Altavilla has all the upside in the world, if he can harness his pitches.  He’ll have to earn his way into staying on this team as guys start to get healthy again, but I wouldn’t put it past him to do so.  Even Emilio Pagan – who struggled in his first appearance, before getting the hard-luck shaft in his second appearance when he was the last guy in the bullpen in an extra innings game – has shown you he’s at least got quality stuff.  With the jitters out of the way of making his Major League debut, he can only go up from here, right?

Even if it doesn’t totally work out, and this bullpen unit doesn’t gel, I think there’s at least a skeleton of a good unit.  It definitely hinges on Edwin Diaz continuing to mature and improve his command.  If you can keep him on his game, and slot things down from there, this team does have some ammo to go out and trade for a dependable reliever at the deadline.  I wouldn’t mortgage the entire farm to do so, but I have the utmost confidence in Dipoto going out and making a deal for a quality reliever at some point in the next couple months.

The sky is the limit for this team if we can get this bullpen together.  With a top notch bullpen, you don’t NEED your starters to carry you.  With this offense as good as it is (hoping it can stay healthy), all you need is your starters to eat up enough innings, while keeping you in the game.  I have no problem with the way Servais has handled the rotation; he seems to have a pretty good handle on when it’s time to pull guys.  He’s not going to leave them out there for too long to get shelled the third time through the lineup.  If this bullpen can hold up its end of the bargain, and Servais eliminates some of the brain farts on his end, there’s no reason why the Mariners can’t jump back into contention and even get into the playoffs.

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