It’s crunch time for the Mariners in firming up their bullpen for the regular season after a series of roster-thinning moves over the weekend that saw five pitchers shuttled to minor-league camp.
The big move was Saturday’s decision to option lefty Ariel Miranda to Triple-A Tacoma in order to keep him stretched out as a starter.
Miranda, 28, had projected as the leading candidate to serve as the relief corps’ second lefty, alongside matchup specialist Marc Rzepczynski, if the Mariners made it through March without any injuries to their established five-man rotation.
"We like him as starter," manager Scott Servais said. "Where we’re at, moving forward in the last week, there’s not a start for him in this camp. So put him on the minor-league side, keep him going, keep his pitch count up."
The Mariners made four more moves Sunday prior to their game against Cincinnati in Goodyear: right-hander Chris Heston was optioned to Tacoma; while lefty Nick Hagadone and right-handers Cody Martin and Jean Machi were reassigned to minor-league camp.
Heston and Martin will join Miranda, Chase De Jong and (presumably) Dillon Overton in the Tacoma rotation. For now, Overton remains one of 37 players in big-league camp.
So now what?
Servais effectively confirmed Sunday the Mariners will open the season with an eight-man bullpen, which suggests there are two available jobs for three remaining candidates: lefties James Pazos and Dean Kiekhefer, and righty Jonathan Aro.
Insert an asterisk here, though.
Several players are becoming available from clubs trimming their rosters as spring camp nears its conclusion. It was roughly a year ago, March 30, that general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired an out-of-options Nick Vincent from San Diego.
With that in mind, let’s break it down:
There are four locks to make the club: closer Edwin Diaz, Evan Scribner, Vincent and Rzepczynski. That’s three right-handers and one lefty.
Diaz is a rising star. Vincent and Scribner are out of options, and Rzepczynski signed a two-year deal in the December as a free agent. All four, barring injuries, were always going to make the club.
Right-hander Dan Altavilla has three options remaining, but he is a virtual lock, in part, because right-handers Steve Cishek, Shae Simmons and Tony Zych won’t be ready by opening day.
But only in part; Altavilla has pitched well enough to win a job on merit.
"He threw a 2-0 slider and a 3-1 slider," Servais noted after Altavilla’s outing Friday against Kansas City. "Those are the things you have to do in the big leagues to get middle-of-the-lineup guys out. And he had a good fastball behind it."
Veteran right-hander Casey Fien is in camp on a split contract, which means he can be sent to the minors, but he rates as a near-lock after a strong spring in which he had only one rough outing in eight appearances.
"He knows how to pitch," Servais said. "He knows who he is, and he works his stuff. This guy has had success. He has major-league time. There’s no doubt he can help us in different roles."
Pazos rates an edge over Kiekhefer and Aro for one of the remaining spots because he is already on the 40-man roster. But Pazos, acquired Nov. 18 from the New York Yankees, has also created a strong impression.
"He’s really got good stuff," Servais said. "There’s no doubt about that. The life on the fastball is really good. The thing that surprised me is his ability to land his breaking ball and get it over the plate, which is really important in that role."
Keeping Kiekhefer and/or Aro would require a corresponding space-clearing move on the club’s 40-man roster. That carries the risk of losing a player at a time when clubs place a premium on inventory.
Kiekhefer and Aro were long shots entering camp, but Kiekhefer, in particular, is building a strong case as a second match-up lefty alongside Rzepczynski.
"He has a track record of getting the lefties out," Servais said. "Not so much a length guy because the righties are not his strength. He knows that. He knows who he is.
"He is a pitch-maker, and he throws strikes with the breaking ball as well as the fastball. There’s a reason we’ve kept him in camp. We like what we see."
Servais said Aro has pitched better than the numbers indicate — nine runs (seven earned) and 18 hits in 10 2/3 innings — but he’s a right-hander, which means he’s handicapped by the anticipated mid-April return of Cishek, Simmons and Zych.
Club officials must decide whether Aro is worth adding to the roster when he looms as the likely odd-man out by mid-April. Adding Kiekhefer would merely set up a potential either/or question with Pazos if roster space becomes an issue.
The pending return of those rehabbing relievers means any decision reached over the next few days amounts to a stop-gap fix. Further, club officials are already anticipating a steady bullpen shuttle between Tacoma and the big leagues.
"We’re going to need guys," Servais said. "You know how that goes."
Right-hander Tony Zych made his Cactus League debut Sunday against Cincinnati, but don’t look for him on the 25-man roster when the Mariners open the regular season April 3 at Houston.
"I’m not expecting him to break with us," Servais said. "There is a program, spaced out, to make sure he gets the proper number of outings like a normal spring training. He ran out of time."
Zych, 26, pitched one inning March 23 in a minor-league game, which marked his first game action since undergoing surgery Oct. 11 in New York for a biceps tendon transfer.
It was 35 years ago Monday — March 27, 1982 — that right-hander Gaylord Perry signed a one-year deal with the Mariners.
Perry was 43 at the time and had a record of 297-239 in 20 big-league seasons. He won his 300th game on May 6, 1982 in a 7-3 victory over the New York Yankees at the Kingdome.
Perry was 13-22 over parts of two seasons with the Mariners before concluding his career with Kansas City. His final record was 314-265. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners