Juan Nicasio might want to be careful what he asks for.
He met with Mariners manager Scott Servais and some other Mariners stalwarts – Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Jean Segura – for dinner in the Dominican Republic this offseason. It was Servais’ first chance to meet his newly signed $17 million reliever.
“I threw out, ‘Juan, glad to have you. Excited to get you in the bullpen,’” Servais recalled. “ ‘Just keep in mind we might need you to get some four- and five-out appearances.’”
Servais smiled and rubbed his hands together at Nicasio’s response: “No problem, I pitch every day.”
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And now Mariners might need to take him up on that. They announced Wednesday night that reliever David Phelps will miss the 2018 season because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow after he tore his ulnar collateral ligament on the final pitch of his Saturday outing.
Phelps woll have the surgery on Monday, performed by Dr. James Andrews, with the Mariners set to open the regular-season against the Indians Thursday at Safeco Field.
Nicasio was tied for the National League lead in appearances (76) last season between the Pirates, Phillies and Cardinals. And with Phelps out, that throws a wrench into the Mariners’ expected set-up trio of Phelps, Nicasio and Nick Vincent to bridge the finals innings to closer Edwin Diaz.
“Now it’s a little more pressure on the rest of us. And me,” Nicasio said. “(Phelps is) a guy you could throw in the eighth and seventh and now Vincent, Diaz, me – we got to go work hard every day and go fight.”
Phelps said Thursday that he entered this spring feeling healthy after ending 2017 on the disabled list because of season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur on Sept. 13.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Phelps said. “You come back from surgery and you’re healthy and then you go and you’re really looking forward to helping this ball club win some games. We have a really talented group out there and I was looking forward to being part of it.
“There are some arms out there. That’s part of the reason why it’s so frustrating because we have a chance to be really special out there. It’s a chance for someone to step up – that’s what it boils down to.”
Servais and Dipoto have raved about the spring right-hander Dan Altavilla has put together, and Casey Lawrence has made a strong case to break onto the Mariners’ Opening Day roster as a long reliever – a case bolstered now with Phelps out.
But that Nicasio signing is looming much larger for the back end of the bullpen now.
And he makes no qualms about it – he wants to pitch wherever and whenever he can.
Nicasio broke into the Majors in 2011 as a starter with the Rockies. He tossed 157 innings for them in the 2013 season before converting somewhat to the bullpen. But he really transitioned into a late-inning reliever just last season. He had four saves in nine appearances after he was traded to the Cardinals.
“When I came to the bullpen I just said I like pitching every day,” Nicasio said. “I like competing every day. The last three years for me is like, ‘Every day I’m going to get to the stadium and I want to pitch.’ ”
Wouldn’t he worry about his arm falling off?
“Yeah,” Nicasio said. “But I don’t know. My mind is I just want to pitch.”
Servais and the Mariners take that mindset gladly. Especially if Nicasio can continue what he did last season with his 2.61 ERA in 72 1/3 innings of relief.
“It’s really rare to see a guy pitch 162 games,” Servais deadpanned. “But if anybody can do it, I’m betting on Juan Nicasio.
“He’s in really good shape and he’s just wired that way mentally and physically. He’s strong as an ox. He wants to take the ball and that’s his thing is to be available as often as possible. I don’t know a manager alive who doesn’t appreciate that.”
Diaz, who turned 24 years old on Thursday, has attached himself to the 31-year-old Nicasio’s hip this spring. He said he refers to Nicasio often about how to attack hitters, and Diaz is a former starter, himself.
“It’s tough for us because (Phelps) is a great pitcher, a great competitor and a great teammate,” Diaz said. “That will affect us because he was the setup guy, but we have to keep going. We will push this year for the postseason. It’s rough for us to lose him but we have to compete.”
OPENING DAY ROSTER
The Mariners will likely figure out their Opening Day roster by this weekend, Servais said, likely after Saturday’s game against the Cubs, with Felix Hernandez set to start.
The indications the past couple of days have been that Hernandez will start Opening Day instead of James Paxton depending on how that Saturday start goes.
“Seeing how Felix comes out of the outing against the Cubs here, that will help determine where we go pitching-staff wise,” Servais said. “But I think we’re getting to the point in the spring where we can start finalizing and making some calls here. No reason not to finalize things by Saturday or Sunday.”
He made no indication on whether the Mariners would keep two first basemen on Opening Day – whether they would keep both Ryon Healy and Daniel Vogelbach to open the season, especially since they’ve said they’ll roll out with just four starting pitchers until April 11.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Servais said. “We’ll make that decision here on Saturday.”
SS Jean Segura (thumb) could return to the Mariners’ lineup Saturday night against the Cubs, Servais said. He hit in the batting cages on Thursday.
OF Ichiro Suzuki (calf) exited Wednesday’s game against the Brewers and Servais said they’ll keep him out of the Cactus League lineup for a few more days to recover but he could get in some minor league games, including Friday.
Nelson Cruz (quad) returned to his DH spot in the lineup on Thursday. He hasn’t played since March 13.
OF Mitch Haniger isn’t injured, Servais said, but he was sent to the minor league fields Thursday to get some extra at-bats as he regains his timing at the plate as oppossed to playing Thursday night.
“It’s just more about seeing pitches,” Servais said. “Seeing breaking balls and trying to make some adjustments and try some things. Guys are more willing to do that in the minor league games.”
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