The biggest key to the Mariners’ success to date in 2018 is the starting rotation staying healthy (for the most part) and vastly improving after the month of April (where just about everyone was either adequate or terrible, up to and including James Paxton). I would argue that even the injury to Erasmo Ramirez was a blessing in disguise, as Wade LeBlanc has made a name for himself with this opportunity. But, with Paxton, Gonzales, and Leake all overcoming rough starts to the season, turning into reliable and often dominant pieces to this puzzle (alongside LeBlanc’s baffling greatness from Day 1), the Mariners have been able to weather a lot of storms and build up a record that all but guarantees a playoff spot in October.
The biggest hit to the Mariners’ chances going forward is NOT the loss of Robbie Cano for all those games (plus the playoffs) but rather the depth of the Mariners’ bullpen (or lack thereof).
It’s truly remarkable what the Mariners are doing with this scotch taped-together bullpen. Phelps went down in Spring Training; he was supposed to be an 8th inning type guy (who could also go multiple innings in a pinch). Scrabble was so terrible at doing his one job (getting lefties out) that he was DFA’d. Juan Nicasio hasn’t been nearly the dominant force we thought he’d be when we signed him to that big 2-year deal (and is currently on the DL). Nick Vincent had a rough start to the season and is also currently on the DL (having just had a setback with his groin injury). Dan Altavilla has had multiple DL stints this year and might be out for a very long time with his arm injury. Casey Lawrence – while tearing it up in Tacoma as a starter right now – got off to a rough start and had to be sent down after 4 appearances. Ryan Cook was hot when he returned from the DL, but has been hit around in 3 of his last 4 appearances. Alex Colome has closer-type stuff, but he’s been far from perfect since coming over from the Rays (especially AGAINST those very Rays).
And yet, if you didn’t get into specifics and just asked me, “How’s Seattle’s bullpen doing this year?” I’d likely tell you, “Pretty great!”
Edwin Diaz is taking the league by storm in his third year in the bigs. James Pazos – in his second year on the Mariners – has been outstanding. Chasen Bradford came out of nowhere to be a reliable back-of-the-bullpen guy to eat a lot of innings for us. And even those guys who’ve had their struggles from time to time – Nicasio, Vincent, and Colome in particular – have also been successful in a lot of high leverage situations.
With a number of those guys on the DL (hopefully Nicasio & Vincent will be back soon), though, it’s hard not to be concerned about the future. There are a lot of high leverage innings left this season! With the way this team plays, with all the close games, it seems like there’s zero margin for error every single night! Sure, a lot of the guys are young and healthy now, but will they succumb to over-use?
The good thing is, I don’t believe for a minute that the Mariners are finished making moves to improve the big league club. We have a number of quality starters down in Tacoma, in the event we need long relief help or spot starts. Nick Rumbelow is another guy who figured big in the Mariners’ bullpen plans before he got hurt; he’s coming back from injury and getting his feet wet in Tacoma as we speak. Also, it usually doesn’t take a whole lot in trade to get a quality reliever back before the deadline, and with plenty of teams tanking this season, the supply should be pretty significant.
Either way, though, if you told me the Mariners would have to roll with a playoff bullpen consisting of Diaz, Colome, Nicasio, Vincent, Pazos, Bradford, Cook, and Elias, I’d be okay with that. Two dominant closer types, two solid 8th inning guys behind them, two solid 6th/7th inning guys who can shut down rallies and go multiple innings if need be, along with a wildcard in Cook (who has 8th inning stuff, he just needs to work on his command a little bit) and a spot-starter/long-reliever in Elias … I just don’t know how you improve upon that a whole lot. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and October. Guys can get injured, guys can lose their stuff or their confidence, but for the most part that’s a reliable bullpen group.
What most concerns me is what happens if a lot of guys get injured, and we have to start replacing too many of these pieces. As we’ve seen this year with the bullpen, last year with the rotation, and on and on and on, injuries can mount in a hurry. We lose Diaz, we’re pretty much shit out of luck. We lose too many of our 8th inning guys, same deal. We already use Diaz too much as it is; I don’t want to see him in there for too many save opportunities where he has to get more than 3 outs. At least not until we’re actually IN the playoffs.
The rotation and the solid hitting will carry us to where we want to go, but to do any significant damage once we get into the post-season, it’s going to rest precariously on the all-important bullpen arms. I hope they’re up to the challenge.