Think hard Sugar was tough enough on a hitter’s diet? Just wait. Mariners closer Edwin Diaz is adding an extra sweetener to his pitching repertoire.
"I’m working on a change-up," Diaz revealed. "I want to throw change-ups this year. It’s going pretty good. I’ve been throwing it in the bullpen, and (pitching coach) Mel (Stottlemyre Jr.) likes it."
Think about that a moment.
A year ago, Diaz was a Double-A starter armed with a fastball that sat comfortably in the mid-90s. The Mariners saw that and, by May, shifted him to the bullpen in hopes of fast-tracking a much-needed power reliever to the big leagues.
Diaz made that jump in early June and, soon thereafter, tried a new grip on his slider at the suggestion of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit. And boom. Armed with two killer pitches, Diaz became a strikeout sensation.
He recorded 50 strikeouts in his first 25 1/3 innings, which the Elias Sports Bureau found to be the quickest that any rookie reached 50 since 1893. His nickname of Sugar seemed an understatement.
"I think he was a key to our season," manager Scott Servais said. "Just having that guy at the back end who can wipe them out. He’d come into the game, and you could feel the energy. You feel it. Our players certainly felt it."
Diaz recorded 11 straight outs on strikeouts at one point, breaking a club record previously held by Randy Johnson, and finished the year at 15.33 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranked eighth for a single season in major-league history.
"That was a dream come true," Diaz said, "but when they called me up, I was ready for that moment. They gave me the ball, and I did my job."
An injury to Steve Cishek turned Diaz into the Mariners’ closer over the final two months, and he responded by registering 18 saves in 21 chances — despite now acknowledging that he wore down in September.
"I had never pitched that late in the season," said Diaz, who allowed five runs and 10 hits over 6 2/3 innings in his final five appearances.
"Particularly in that role, where I was pitching (almost) every day. But this year, I’m preparing my body and my mind to pitch all year."
Mostly, that means Diaz delayed the start of his offseason throwing program, although not so much as to prevent him from pitching next month for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
"It’s very important for me," he said. "It’s the first time that I’ve ever represented my country. It’s an honor for me to play for Puerto Rico. Let’s see what we’ve got. We’ve got a pretty good team. We think we can win."
The same goes for the Mariners, who are depending heavily on Diaz, who turns 23 on March 22, even as they recognize he’ll need to make adjustments in his second big-league season.
"Now, is he going to continue to strike them out at the rate he did last year?" Servais asked. "I’d be surprised if he did because everybody knows him. He got tested. It comes around. He gets scouted. They know him."
Only maybe not. Sugar is working on a change-up.
The Mariners confirmed contract agreements with all players on their 40-man roster Saturday prior to their Cactus League opener against the Padres.
In effect, it means they’ve reached deals with the 19 players who were not yet eligible for salary arbitration. Those players:
Pitchers (10): Dan Altavilla, Zac Curtis, Edwin Diaz, Chris Heston, Ariel Miranda, Dillon Overton, James Pazos, Shae Simmons, Rob Whalen and Tony Zych.
Catchers (1): Mike Zunino.
Infielders (4): Mike Freeman, Taylor Motter, Shawn O’Malley and Dan Vogelbach.
Outfielders (4): Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia and Boog Powell.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners