The Mariners Have A Bullpen Problem

The Mariners have lost three of their last four games, and it was damn near four in a row. All in the 9th inning or later. All thanks to a meltdown by either Andres Munoz or Matt Brash, ostensibly our two best relievers.

This bullpen problem didn’t happen immediately following the trade of Paul Sewald, but obviously that’s the move you point to. It’s been an especially bitter pill to swallow because Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas have both had some VERY impactful hits late in games to pull our asses out of the fire; the irony being the fact that they were able to temporarily save us, but we didn’t have someone like Sewald to come in and lock it down.

In Paul Sewald news: after his own meltdown, he’s come back to save three games in four days this week. Oh cruel fate, why have you cursed us so?

The thing is, I would argue our bullpen problem predates the Sewald trade, though obviously it hasn’t helped matters. We came into 2023 believing the bullpen was the best and deepest part of this team, which has been anything but the case. Diego Castillo is struggling to stay afloat in AAA. Matt Festa, Chris Flexen, and Trevor Gott aren’t even in the organization anymore. Penn Murfee is on the 60 day IL. Now, we have the Sewald trade, and we’ve back-filled with some very uninspiring arms.

Isaiah Campbell seems to be used exclusively in mop-up duty during blowouts or lost causes. Trent Thornton has wildly unimpressive stuff (it’s no wonder he was previously DFA’d; he would be the last guy I’d use in a high-leverage situation). Ryder Ryan is the latest guy we’ve picked up off the scrap heap; he made his Major League debut at 28 years old last week, so we’ll see.

The guys who’ve stuck are, again, Munoz and Brash at the top. Justin Topa seems to get overlooked, but should probably have a bigger presence in high-leverage situations. Tayler Saucedo is an interesting breakout for this team, but I don’t know if he’s necessarily a high-leverage guy, so much as a solid 6th or 7th inning bridge arm against the bottom of the opposing team’s order. And Gabe Speier is your run of the mill lefty; he has good days and bad days.

As the Mariners have largely underperformed this season, it’s not exclusively due to the lack of hitting. It’s been kind of a nightmare scenario and you can point to two critical figures: our record in 1-run games (16-22) and our record in extra inning games (6-11). When you look at the 2021 and 2022 Mariners, those were pretty well reversed; the Mariners were remarkably clutch in tight games like these, and I would argue the bullpen played at a significantly higher level as a result.

See, it’s not JUST the hitting, it’s a collective effort. More often than not, yeah, we haven’t been able to get the big hit. But, sometimes it’s a poor start. And sometimes, these close games we used to nail down are being blown by relievers we’re forced to rely on.

What we’re starting to see is the hitting coming around. It’s a little later in the season than we’d like, but they’re finally doing their jobs. So, these blown saves, and these lost extra innings games are standing out a little more. It doesn’t help that we’ve bunched a number of these blown saves all in a row, now involving multiple pitchers. Maybe that’s just baseball. Peaks and valleys and whatnot. I’ll buy that to a point, but I think it also points to a bigger concern as we hit the stretch run. The Mariners need to win as many of these games as they can if we want to make it back to the playoffs. And even if we do manage to beat the odds and sneak into a wild card spot, can we really rely on these guys in a playoff situation?

It feels like we’re in need of one really awesome high-leverage arm. I had hoped Munoz or Brash would’ve stepped up to be one of those ace closers with a sub-2 ERA, but as we’ve seen all year, they’ve had their ups and downs. They’ll go through great runs of excellence, but then hit these spots where they’re extremely hittable, and then all hell breaks loose.

It’s a bummer, because the rotation has been largely amazing. And on the whole, the bullpen is pretty solid. But, the margin for error is so razor thin with this team that we can’t afford to be this bad in close games. This feels like a problem that’ll have to settle itself next year.

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