Looking At The Mariners’ Bullpen

My concern throughout this offseason is that the bullpen wasn’t being fostered as much as it should, and that it would be this team’s biggest weakness (even worse than a probably-terrible offense). Matt Brash can still be prone to blow-ups, and Andres Munoz can be pretty inconsistent at times. And how long before either has a serious arm injury knocking them out for the season?

Gregory Santos helps in that regard. Now, we appear to have a true three-headed monster at the back of the bullpen (as long as they stay healthy), which just means we have to slot the rest in behind them.

The Mariners are pretty clearly in a three-tier system with their bullpen, with the above-referenced guys in that very top tier. In the next tier down, I’m putting guys like:

  • Gabe Speier
  • Tayler Saucedo
  • Eduard Bazardo
  • Ty Adcock

They were all varying degrees of “fine” in 2023 for the Mariners. They could grow into something more, they could regress hard, or they could stay middle-of-the-road relievers, eating up innings mostly in lost causes, with the occasional bursts of usefulness in higher leverage situations (when our elite relievers are taxed and need a rest).

Then, we’ve got the total wild cards who currently reside on the 40-man roster:

  • Carlos Vargas
  • Austin Voth
  • Trent Thornton
  • Cody Bolton
  • Jackson Kowar
  • Mauricio Llovera

Llovera was claimed off waivers and seems like camp fodder. Bolton was purchased from the Pirates and looks like he had somewhat of a rough rookie season in 2023 (after pretty good numbers in the minors). Kowar came over in the Kelenic trade (who was himself flipped by the Braves after playing in the Royals’ organization) and seems like the best possibility to make good on that otherwise terrible deal for the M’s. Kowar hasn’t really been good since 2021, so we’ll see.

I’m on record as not understanding what Thornton is doing on the Mariners. Sure, his ERA looked amazing last year (2.08), but his FIP was 4.72 and that seems to be closer to his actual value. He got lucky last year; I expect that luck to run out very soon. As for Voth, I guess he has a sweeper pitch that might be something. Both of these guys are veterans, so I guess the hope is they prove capable enough to stick and be some mentors to the younger guys.

Carlos Vargas might be the most interesting prospect of the bunch (he came over in the Suarez deal). He’s still pretty raw and I’m guessing will start off the season in Tacoma. But, we need plenty of depth to hang out in AAA until they get the call up for injuries or ineffectiveness.

I’ll tell you what, though, the bottom of this bullpen could look VERY dire, unless we have a surprise or two make it big out of Spring Training. I guess I should stop doubting the Mariners’ abilities in finding diamonds in the rough, because they’ve done it every year for God knows. But, how long until the luck runs out, or the well runs dry, or whatever you want to call it?

My sentiment on bullpens for a while now is: since they’re so incredibly volatile, you might as well not pump a ton of free agency dollars into them. Especially if you’re a team like the Mariners and there’s a finite amount of those dollars to go around. I’d rather spend that money in more useful areas. But, if our ability to develop these nobodies ever falters, or if we find the wrong set of nobodies who don’t take to our partcular teachings, then there’s nothing worse than a truly terrible bullpen. The best way to win more games than you otherwise should – i.e. the best way to paper over a subpar offense – is to go above and beyond in your bullpen. But, conversely, the best way to look like the absolute fucking worst, is to blow a bunch of games you should’ve won, because your starting rotation is awesome and your hitting is sometimes competent, but your bullpen just can’t lock it down.

Which is why I don’t usually give the bullpen a ton of thought. I don’t want to know all the ins and outs. I just want to show up when the regular season starts and find out who’s great and who needs to go.

The Mariners Made A Couple Of Trades To More Or Less Wrap Up Their Offseason

Full disclosure: I’m writing this on Friday afternoon of January 5th, the day these two trades went down. It was noted at this time by Dipoto that these were pretty much it as far as it goes for the major moves this offseason. There might be a small piece here or there coming in, but nothing to write home about. Nothing that’s going to drastically shake-up the organization’s chances to compete in 2024. So, if that’s not correct, and something huge happens between this day, and the day this post hits the Internet, you almost certainly won’t even be reading this paragraph, as I’ll need a new lede.

To recap this offseason so far:

You know what that has the feel of? A tear-down. Not an overwhelming tear-down, but you’re taking guys who were significant contributors to your team last year, you’re cutting them out, and you’re replacing them with …

Suffice it to say, the whole Root Sports brouhaha has been a disaster for our collective fan morale. This was a team that already needed to improve at left field, second base, and DH, and went ahead and added third base and right field to the mix (to say nothing of the uncertainty surrounding first base, with Ty France and his dwindling production). And what did we get for our consternation? Around $20 million.

Okay, so $20 million to play around with. There was some talk about the Mariners having intentions of still finding a way to out-spend our already-middling salary total from last year, so that’s not a zero chunk of change. But, it’s hard to see how you can fill out a whopping five spots on your everyday roster, not without significant trades to deplete your resources elsewhere. And, at this point, based on everything they’ve done, I find it VERY hard to believe we’re even going to spend as much as we did last year, let alone go past that mark.

The Mariners started their hard road back to relevancy by signing Mitch Garver to be our everyday DH (with maybe a start here and there at first base, or as an emergency backup catcher). That accounted for $12 of the $20 million, across two years. Probably means that’s it for free agency.

Which brings us to the flurry of moves made on January 5th:

  • The Mariners traded Robbie Ray to the Giants for Mitch Haniger and starter Anthony DeSclafani (in a deal notable for it being a money-neutral swap for 2024)
  • The Mariners traded Jose Caballero to the Rays for outfielder Luke Raley

If you follow me on Twitter (currently known as X) – and why wouldn’t you? I’m a mediocre-at-best follow – you already know how I feel about these trades, but I’ll reiterate here.

I like Mitch Haniger a lot as a person (and, not for nothing, I’ve never been super-into Robbie Ray as a Mariner, but that’s neither here nor there), but I don’t understand the unconditional love for this deal. Haniger is what we thought he was: consistently injured. Injured guys can’t help you win ballgames (unless it’s addition by subtraction, which at this point you have to put on the table). Haniger played in 61 games last year, with a whopping THREE stints on the IL. He played in 57 games in his final season with the Mariners in 2022. He played a full season in 2021, but no games in 2020, and only 63 games in 2019. 2018 was his last (and his only) great season at the Major League level, and we’re never seeing him play at that level again. At this point, with how broken down his body is, it’s fair to wonder if he’s even someone who’s playable. He might be a sub-.200 hitter for us going forward.

This year’s money is irrelevant (though it’s in excess of $17 million) because the money’s gone either way (we were either giving it to an injured Robbie Ray or an injured Mitch Haniger), but he’s also set to earn over $15 million next year on a player option. Why would he turn that down to become a free agent? Only someone who plays the vast majority of a full season at a relatively competent level would do that!

As for the pitcher, he supposedly “isn’t bad”. A ringing endorsement if I’ve ever heard one. I’ve never seen the guy pitch, so I can’t really sit here and tell you any different. But, based on his numbers (a FIP in the 4-5 range the last two years, a career 7.9 K/9 average – which dipped to 7.1 last year – and someone who in the last five years maxed out at 167.2 innings in a season), he strikes me as a right-handed Marco Gonzales. He also was lost to injury last year in July, and only appeared in 5 games in 2022. So, not even as durable as Marco then. Neat. At least he’s on the last year of his deal.

I think the most interesting aspect of this particular trade is what Dipoto said afterward. First of all, right out of the box it’s being declared that DeSclafani is destined for a long relief role in the bullpen. That’s assuming our five starters – Castillo, Gilbert, Kirby, Miller, and Woo – make it through Spring Training healthy.

More importantly, though, Dipoto said that the Mariners looked into the possibility of trading one of their young starters, and “never liked the way it looked.”

I think that’s tremendously informative, and might be the most important thing the Mariners have done to try to salvage the long-term viability of this team going forward.

A lot of us believed in an inevitable trade from one of those five guys, to try to bolster our lineup. Maybe we’d back-fill the rotation via free agency, or in a separate, lesser deal. But, to truly improve our lineup, we’d need to deal from a position of strength (thereby diluting it). The likeliest trade chips were Miller and/or Woo. They were the least-proven of our starters who finished the season last year, which meant they had an unknown upside, but also an unknown downside. The hope being: maybe they’re not as good as we think, so let some other team find that out the hard way, while we get one of their stud hitters.

It doesn’t shock me that the Mariners were looking at all of their trade options. Ownership really tied their hands this offseason, so what other choice did they have? I will say that it’s somewhat surprising to hear the return wasn’t looking as bright as we’d once imagined. But, we don’t know all the ins and outs. We don’t know, for instance, how much salary this organization would be willing to take on. It’s one thing to trade Woo for whatever high-priced slugger is on the trade block at the moment; but, if ownership is unwilling to take on that salary, then obviously the point is moo (you know, a cow’s opinion).

But, we also don’t know how other teams value our pitchers. Maybe they weren’t as high on Miller or Woo as we are. Maybe everyone was holding out for Kirby or Gilbert, and we’re steadfast on keeping them. OR, maybe we’re the ones over-valuing our starters, and other teams refused to match our demands. There’s a lot of variables we don’t know about.

I find it somewhat encouraging, though, knowing that we’re taking a stand. We’re holding strong to our young, vibrant rotation. We’re keeping our strength, and at least heading into 2024 knowing we’re set somewhere. It may not be enough to get us to the playoffs, but at least it’s a plan.

I’m encouraged by that, even knowing how pisspoor this lineup is likely to be.

I can already tell this post is too long, so I’ll save my Robbie Ray thoughts for another time. Spoiler alert: the upside for the Giants is significantly higher than it is for the Mariners in this trade, even though it’s likely to be inconsequential-to-bad for both teams.

I’ll tell you what, though, I actually like the trade with the Rays! Maybe that’s a bad sign; when have the Rays ever NOT swindled us? But, getting rid of Caballero and bringing back a potentially-useful outfield bat – without having to throw in more prospects to get the deal done – is pretty sweet!

I was not a Caballero fan. I know I’m in the minority here, but so be it. His best attributes consisted exclusively of bothering the shit out of the Astros and Rangers (among other teams, I’m sure), because I guess he fucked with them when it came to the pitch clock. But, I mean, we’re talking about a guy who didn’t hit for average, didn’t hit for power, was okay defensively and on the basepaths, but who also made a lot of mistakes in both areas. He started off last year relatively hot – mostly in on-base percentage – but by the end of the season he was only getting on base if guys plunked him. He was hit by 17 pitches, and I’m willing to bet a good number of those were on purpose because he was so annoying.

I was not looking forward to another year of Caballero as this team’s mostly-everyday second baseman. Now, watch the Rays turn him into an All Star.

Luke Raley, on the other hand, is a little more seasoned, and is coming off of a year where he had a 126 OPS+. In 118 games, he had 45 extra base hits, to go along with 14 stolen bases. He does garner his fair share of strikeouts, but with the loss of Kelenic, we had a need for some lefty power.

In fact, there’s a pretty interesting comparison to be had between the 2023 seasons of Kelenic vs. Raley:

  • Kelenic: 105 games, 416 PA, .253/.327/.419/.746, .359 BABIP, 25 2B, 2 3B, 11 HRs (2.6% HR rate), 13 SB, 41 BB (9.9% BB rate), 132 K’s (31.7% K rate)
  • Raley: 118 games, 406 PA, .249/.333/.490/.824, .330 BABIP, 23 2B, 3 3B, 19 HRs (4.7% HR rate), 14 SB, 28 BB (6.9% BB rate), 128 K’s (31.5% K rate)

Pretty comparable, honestly. But, Raley clearly has the better home run power, with maybe not quite as good of an eye at the plate, but also maybe better bat-to-ball abilities. In looking at their respective batted ball rates, we see some more interesting similarities and differences in 2023:

  • Kelenic: Exit Velo 90.9, Hard Hit 45.6%, Line Drive 29.8%, Ground Ball 43.8%, Fly Ball 24.4%, Pull 33.1%, Center 52.1%, Oppo 14.9%
  • Raley: Exit Velo 89.6, Hard Hit 45.7%, Line Drive 17.2%, Ground Ball 40.9%, Fly Ball 27.6%, Pull 39.7%, Center 47.0%, Oppo 13.4%

Kelenic is hitting more line drives, which contributes to a higher BABIP and a higher batting average. But, Raley is hitting fewer grounders and more fly balls, and is hitting drastically more to the pull side, which contributes to his increased home run numbers. I feel like, if anything, that’s going to help him play a little better at T-Mobile Park, considering the short porch in right. How frustrating was it to see Kelenic hit the ball hard to center or the other way, only for it to be gobbled up by an outfielder? Hopefully, we’ll see less of that from Raley.

This post is WAY off the rails, so I’ll stop here. At some point in the near future, I’ll talk about what this means for our lineup in 2024.

The Mariners Traded Eugenio Suarez For Junk

I’d be lying if I told you I understand what the Mariners are doing. Usually, when it’s this early in the offseason, I’ll sit back and say, “Let’s wait and see what other moves are coming. Because surely THIS can’t be the plan!”

The last move that made sense from a roster construction perspective was a little over a year ago, when we traded for Teoscar Hernandez. Your miles may vary on whether or not the move actually worked out, but at least it made some kind of sense. Then, starting with us giving away Kyle Lewis for nothing, trading for Kolten Wong, and bringing in A.J. Pollock and Tommy La Stella – while extending Dylan Moore and essentially guaranteeing him a near-everyday spot in the lineup – the moves started to get blurry to me. They stopped making sense. I kept waiting and TRYING to see, but the closer we got to the start of the season, the more it became clear that this was it. This was the team. We were done making moves, and content to suck it.

We all saw how that turned out.

There hasn’t been a lot going on with the M’s so far this offseason. We let Teoscar Hernandez go away without a fight, which seemed like a bad move at the time, considering I figured there was little risk of him signing his qualifying offer. I haven’t heard of him signing anywhere, but I also don’t think he’s finished as a Major League baseball player. In conjunction with that, comes the news that the Mariners traded away Eugenio Suarez to the Arizona Diamondbacks, just as they did with Kyle Lewis, Ketel Marte, and Paul Sewald. In return for this deal, we get back Carlos Vargas (a relief pitcher) and Seby Zavala (a backup catcher). Pretty much the least you can get in return for a viable starting third baseman.

If I squint, I can sort of see what’s going on here: the Mariners just shed themselves of 425 strikeouts between Hernandez and Suarez. They were the second and third-most strikeouts in all of Major League Baseball last year. Nevertheless, they also accounted for a combined 4.3 WAR between them. That’s not an insignificant amount of production we need to recoup somehow, someway.

There was another deal that happened a couple weeks ago – indeed, on the first day of my honeymoon – that I was going to let slide under the rug and never think about, because it seemed so inconsequential. However, in the wake of the Suarez deal, there have been rumblings. Distressing rumblings.

The Mariners traded reliever Isaiah Campbell – one of our bevy of rookie arms from this past season who was fine at times, but far from great – to the Red Sox for infielder Luis Urias. I had assumed Urias was just another Quad-A utility infielder to throw on the pile. I think I had good reason for this assumption: he’ll be 27 next year, he hasn’t done much of anything at the Major League level, he’s coming off of really a nothing season, and his good numbers were from 2-3 years ago when he played for Milwaukee. That’s a prototypical guy you take a flier on in Spring Training, who maybe ends up as your 25th or 26th man.

However, once the Suarez deal went down, there were some people In The Know saying that this paved the way for Urias to be our starting third baseman, which is absolutely shocking to me! I really want to dismiss it, and again retreat into my cocoon of Wait & See, but coming off all the inaction of our previous offseason, I have to at least somewhat take this threat seriously.

I guess Urias doesn’t strike out as much. That’s something. He also doesn’t hit for average, hit for power, walk a ton, or steal any bases. Maybe his defense is good? That’s fine, but so was Geno’s. This feels like a significant downgrade, and that’s before you consider the hit to morale in the clubhouse. A clubhouse that’s been pissing and moaning for the better part of two years, whenever we get rid of highly-regarded teammates (Graveman, Sewald, now Suarez).

The fact of the matter is, the 2023 Mariners already had at least one significant hole to fill in our everyday lineup (probably more like two or three, but let’s not be greedy). Now, with the loss of Hernandez and Suarez, that’s a MINIMUM of three major holes (and, again, probably more like four or five). We’re going the wrong direction. Our goal was supposed to be improving upon the 2022 playoff squad, to start fighting for a World Series. We sat on our hands last season and regressed our way right out of the playoffs. Now, we’re actively ridding ourselves of productive players, and potentially replacing them with cheap nobodies who will do nothing for us.

Granted, in defense of Mariners brass, both Hernandez and Suarez took steps back in 2023 compared to 2022. If either one of them had managed to just maintain their level of production, we easily would’ve been in the playoffs. But, you can’t dismiss the possibility that they just had down years, and will bounce back in 2024. These are pros, and baseball is wonky as hell. Sometimes you have a bad season for unexplained reasons. That doesn’t mean you’re just finished forever.

As for our return in the Geno deal, Seby Zavala looks like a disaster at the plate. Maybe I’m being a little hard on him, but we’ll see. This surely means the end of Tom Murphy, which I’m fine with. I like Murph as much as the next guy, but he can’t stay healthy, and this team (and Cal Raleigh in particular) is severely taxed whenever he goes down. Zavala appears to be a quality defensive backstop, and if he can just be better than Brian O’Keefe, or whoever in the hell we had in 2022, then bully for us. But, a backup catcher isn’t going to move the needle on this team’s playoff chances.

Carlos Vargas has appeared in exactly 5 Major League games, all in 2023. He’s only 24, and allegedly throws the ball hard, but he also doesn’t seem to have great command yet. This trade will work out if we can harness his power and get him in the strike zone (without getting hit too hard in the process), but I read somewhere that there isn’t a lot of movement on his pitches. It seems like we just traded Isaiah Campbell for an Isaiah Campbell clone. Which means we traded Suarez for Urias and Zavala. Which feels like an absolute massacre for the Mariners.

My faith in the Mariners was already dwindling. Now it’s almost gone completely. I hope they do something awesome soon.

Mariners Made A Couple More Trades, Ended Up With Drew Smyly

Last week, there were two trades in a matter of hours?  Minutes?  Usually, I just lump these deals together because I’m constantly a week behind – a byproduct of this being the playoffs and my football posts taking precedence – but these deals actually go together:

  1. Mariners trade Luiz Gohara & Thomas Burrows to Atlanta for Shae Simmons & Mallex Smith
  2. Mariners trade Mallex Smith, Carlos Vargas, & Ryan Yarbrough to Tampa for Drew Smyly

Gohara and Burrows are a couple of low-level minor league pitchers with not a lot of experience, but some real potential.  Mallex Smith is another speedy, Quad-A outfielder type (of which this team already has a hundred billion).  Yarbrough was our AA pitcher of the year, but projects to be maybe a 5th starter in a Major League rotation if everything breaks right.  Vargas is a 17 year old infielder.  At worst, this is a deal that will come to bite us in the ass in 3-5 years, if some of these prospects actually pan out.  Obviously, the Mariners don’t have time to wait around for a bunch of low-level prospects to MAYBE turn into actual players, so the rationale behind these moves – if nothing else – is sound.

Shae Simmons is a right handed reliever to throw onto the pile.  Just like toilet paper and Bud Lights, you can never have too much!  Eventually, we’re going to work our way through all these relievers until the job gets done!  Simmons doesn’t have a ton of Major League experience, but he does have some, so you could say he’s ready to compete right now.  And, he also has options, so we can stash him in Tacoma until the time is right.  His boggle sounds like he can’t stay healthy, so that kind of stinks, as it seems like we have a lot of those types of guys in our bullpen pile right now.

Obviously, the big “get” out of these moves is starter Drew Smyly.  He looked like he’d be an absolute stud coming out of Detroit, but then they traded him to Tampa, he’s suffered some shoulder issues, and last year wasn’t totally amazing even though he lasted the full season.  Nevertheless, a good outfield defense should help him, as well as playing half his games at Safeco (although, oddly enough, Safeco was a home run paradise last year, so who knows?).

We didn’t bring him in to compete, though.  This sets our rotation, in some way shape or form:

  1. Felix
  2. Kuma
  3. Paxton
  4. Gallardo
  5. Smyly

That’s … not the worst.  I only put Smyly in the 5-hole because I think the team will look to separate Paxton and Smyly so as to not have two lefties pitch on back to back days.  Really, after Felix, you can shuffle that rotation anyway you want – as long as you split the lefties – and you should be fine.

I like it!  I could be wrong, but I like it.  Obviously, the first thing that stands out is that it’s VERY veteran.  That’s a good thing, in the sense that we won’t have to worry about young pitchers and their emotions (I’m looking at you, Taijuan Walker).  But, between injury concerns for every one of those guys, not to mention recent bouts of ineffectiveness for every one of those guys, and you’ve got a volatile mix that could lead the Mariners to upwards of 90-100 wins, or that could fall apart and drag this team down to the 70-80 win range.

How does that work for you?  If I told you right now that the Mariners will win somewhere between 70-100 games, what would you say?

I’m sorry, but the correct response you were looking for was, “No doi.”

Still, it feels better with these five guys than it would have with Walker and Karns.  I just don’t trust Walker to save my life, and I think Smyly is definitely a steadier, more sensible option.  And, I think Gallardo – warts and all – is a better option than Karns.  Then, we’ve got Ariel Miranda in reserve for the inevitable rotation injury.  We just have to hope there aren’t too many injuries at once.  There isn’t much depth left behind Miranda, and Yarbrough theoretically would’ve been one of those guys, as he was slated to start the season in Tacoma after doing so well in AA.  Cody Martin was DFA’d to make room on the 40-man as a result of these deals, so he’s likely out unless no one picks him up.  The only other AAA guy I’m even remotely aware of is that Rob Whalen guy we got in the Alex Jackson deal with the Braves.  Not for nothing, but considering the sorry state of the Braves these last few years, it’s not encouraging to be getting all these guys from them in trades.

But, let’s worry about depth when it comes time to actually see it pitching in a Mariners uniform.  For now, the roster is mostly set, although the last time I wrote that, the Mariners almost immediately went out and made two more trades, so what do I know?