Let’s state this up front: While much of the attention this past season focused on Kansas City’s potent late-game trio, Seattle had baseball’s best top-to-bottom bullpen. And it wasn’t close.
The Mariners’ bullpen compiled a 2.59 earned-run average. San Diego ranked second at 2.73. The second-best American League club was Oakland at 2.91. No other team in baseball was better than 3.00.
It was also a deep unit.
The Mariners became the first AL club in history to have seven relievers make at least 50 appearances — ranging from 69 outings from All-Star closer Fernando Rodney to 56 by lefty specialist Joe Beimel.
So what about this year?
Beimel is likely gone — he remains an unsigned free agent — and converted starter Brandon Maurer went to San Diego in the trade that returned outfielder Seth Smith.
But right-hander Carson Smith flashed impressive potential as a September promotion, which suggests the key issue is finding a Beimel replacement to serve alongside Charlie Furbush as lefty options.
Other than Rodney (and maybe Furbush), everyone is pitching to hold/win a spot in the bullpen this spring. Note also that everyone but Rodney, with one key exception, has options.
So the Mariners have lots of flexibility.
Sure, right-handers such as Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen are well-positioned, but spring competition figures to be cutthroat.
The first issue is whether the Mariners opt for a traditional seven-man bullpen or, as they did for much of 2014, choose to go with eight relievers.
The way the roster shapes up, after a series of offseason acquisitions, points to a four-man bench. That means a seven-man bullpen, which will only amp up the competition.
Do the math.
Manager Lloyd McClendon wants two lefty relievers, which probably means Furbush and one from the group of Lucas Luetge, minor-league invite Rafael Perez and Rule 5-pick David Rollins.
That leaves room (probably) for five right-handers. Rodney will be one, which positions Medina, Farquhar, Wilhelmsen, Dominic Leone and Carson Smith in a battle for four slots.
Veteran Mark Lowe is also in camp as a non-roster invite.
Now add this twist: Erasmo Ramirez is out of options. Much needs to happen for him to win a spot in the rotation, but Ramirez is still just 24 years old, has shown potential in the past and is coming off a dominant winter season.
In short, he’s unlikely to clear waivers.
The Mariners, like all clubs, are loathe to surrender inventory in spring training or early in the season. That could result in Ramirez, if he pitches well, making the club as a long reliever.
A year ago, the Mariners had to make such a decision with Hector Noesi before cutting him loose after two poor outings. Noesi then put together a solid season with the Chicago White Sox after a brief stop at Texas.
Competition this spring should be fierce.
HELP IF NEEDED
The big plus to the looming spring competition is the Mariners should have two or three reliable bullpen arms stashed at Triple-A Tacoma if replacements are needed due to injury or ineffectiveness.