This Mariners bullpen is going to be an … experience.
And general manager Jerry Dipoto is not sure how it’s all going to unfold.
“Without question,” he said. “There’s no question that the bullpen is our biggest guess.”
This is one year after the Mariners had one of the most potent back-end bullpen duos in baseball. Alex Colome had led the American League in saves in 2017, and Edwin Diaz had the second-most single-season saves in MLB history in 2018.
Together they were dominant. The Mariners were 66-0 in games Diaz pitched.
But Colome was traded to the White Sox for catcher Omar Narvaez in November, and Diaz was shipped to the Mets with Robinson Cano for Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak and prospects Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista.
Mariners manager Scott Servais frequently referenced last season that when the game got to the ninth inning, his job was over. He was done managing. That’s how dominant Diaz was.
Diaz and Colome have 205 career saves between them.
How about all of the Mariners pitchers combined on the current 40-man roster before pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training on Monday in Peoria, Arizona? They have 31 career big-league saves, all coming from Hunter Strickland (19), Swarzak (six), Cory Gearrin (five) and Shawn Armstrong (one).
But someone, and probably multiple pitchers, will get a shot to pitch in the ninth inning for the Mariners in 2019. That just might not be entirely decided on by Opening Day.
“The bullpen is, right now, a work in progress,” Dipoto said. “We’re going to use this as a proving ground. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity down there. And I think opportunity for younger players is what you’re looking for. Most of the guys down there will be young.”
Opportunity will extend beyond just the closer role.
The Mariners have also moved on from their primary setup relievers from a year ago. Adam Warren, Zach Duke, Nick Vincent and David Phelps (who missed 2018 with a torn UCL), all left via free agency. Juan Nicasio and James Pazos were traded to the Phillies with Jean Segura in a deal that returned shortstop J.P. Crawford.
Right-hander Sam Tuivailala, a midseason trade pickup from the Cardinals, is back, but he isn’t expected to be healthy until June while he recovers from a torn Achilles. Swarzak won’t be ready by the start of spring, either.
The other returning relievers are Dan Altavilla, Chasen Bradford, Matt Festa and Nick Rumbelow – all of whom bounced between the Mariners and the minors in 2018.
So the Mariners are looking at using their bullpen much differently than they have the past three years – basing it much more on matchups than roles.
“I don’t think there’s any rules set for anybody right now,” Servais said. “It will probably frustrate some (fans), but as far as you know there may not be a set closer on a particular night.
“You look at the lineup and you look at different pockets in the lineup. Our hottest reliever might come in the game in the eighth inning because we’re playing the Astros and we’re at the top of their lineup and that’s the pocket where they can impact the game the most.
“It will frustrate some people, but there’s a method to the madness. Some nights it’ll work, some nights it may not. But that’ll be the approach going in.”
The only guaranteed role as far as the bullpen goes is that Felix Hernandez will not be their closer, even if he continues his struggles in the rotation from the past two years.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be banished to the bullpen in some sort of long-relief role, again, like he did last year when he made his first career relief appearance.
“Haven’t really had any offseason conversations (with Hernandez), which is the norm,” Dipoto said. “Felix went home and he’s preparing to be a starting pitcher for us which is what he’ll be. There’s really no consideration to Felix pitching in our bullpen as a regular event. He’s a starting pitcher. That’s what kind of stuff he has. He needs the game to evolve to use all his weapons.
“And, frankly, his strength is not necessarily coming out and firing in the first 20 pitches. His strength has been to incorporate all of his stuff and pitch over the long innings.”
In other words, prepare for a bumpy ride.
WHO’S IN CAMP? (12 on 40-man roster)
Right-handed pitcher, 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. Age 30
Signed in late January and has more experience closing games than anyone on the Mariners’ roster. The Giants handed him the closer role last year but a lengthy DL stint after he punched a door limited him to 45 1/3 innings pitched (2.97 ERA, 14 saves).
Ruben (RJ) Alaniz
RHP, 6-4, 219. Age 27
Spent most of last year with Triple-A Durham in the Rays’ organization. Had a 4.00 ERA in 20 appearances (27 innings) with 35 strikeouts. He’s never pitched in the majors before.
RHP, 5-11, 200. Age 26
Mariners have raved about his stuff, but questions have centered on his command and health. He was placed on the 60-day DL last season while recovering from a sprained UCL.
RHP, 6-2, 225. Age 28
Don’t be surprised if Armstrong is closing some games this year. He turned heads when he was finally called up from Triple-A Tacoma in late August. But Rainiers were used to that. He had a 1.77 ERA and 15 saves for Tacoma and PCL hitters batted .192 against him.
RHP, 6-3, 200. Age 23.
Has a 100-mph fastball, which led him to making his major-league debut with the Mets last season. Question has been his command, which has been noted to be as wild as his dyed-blond afro.
RHP 6-1, 225. Age 29
Bradford was one of the Mariners’ most reliable relievers last year, despite frequent trips between Tacoma and Seattle. Only Edwin Diaz and Nick Vincent pitched more innings out of the bullpen than Bradford, who also broke out as a multi-inning threat.
RHP, 6-4, 200. Age 27
Mariners swiped him from the Rockies with their selection in the Rule-5 draft after he spent most of last year in Double-A with a 3.10 ERA in 69 2/3 innings pitched.
RHP, 6-1, 190. Age 25
Made his way from Double-A Arkansas to his big-league debut with the Mariners last year because of his ability to locate. Allowed two runs over 9 1/3 innings in the majors as first of Jerry Dipoto’s draft picks to get to the Mariners.
RHP, 6-1, 205. Age 32
Dipoto said their bullpen additions were going to be on one-year deals. Gearrin was no exception. Had a 3.77 ERA and one save over 62 games with the Giants a year ago. Previously spent seven years with the Braves.
LHP, 6-2, 220. Age 30
Lefty from Clackamas, Oregon, could be the top lefty specialist after the Mariners went through a few of those last year – first with Marc Rzepczynski and then Zach Duke with little success.
RHP, 6-0, 190. Age 27
Had season-ending Tommy John surgery with the Yankees, then missed the beginning of last season recovering from a brachial plexus injury in his spinal cord. Had a 6.11 ERA in 17 2/3 innings after his return. Option status: One remaining
RHP, 6-4, 215. Age 33
Struggled last season with the Mets (6.15 ERA), but Mariners are hoping Swarzak can return to his 2017 form when he had a 2.33 ERA over 77 1/3 innings between the White Sox and Brewers.
RHP, 6-1, 230. Age 26
Hard not to like his stuff, especially with a mid-90s fastball and he’s capable of pitching over multiple innings. Was settling into key role in Mariners bullpen before he tore his Achilles. Expected to be out until June.
Jack Anderson (RHP, 6-3, 210) – Earned an invite to big-league camp as the Mariners “60 ft, 6 in. Club” award recipient. Means he controlled the strike zone at high Single-A Modesto.
Jorgan Cavenerio (RHP, 6-1, 155) – 24-year-old from Venezuela signed with the Mariners on a minor-league deal after spending last season with the Marlins’ Double-A affiliate.
Tyler Danish (RHP, 6-1, 215) – Former second-round pick by the White Sox in 2013 out of Durant High School in Florida. 24-year-old Has pitched in the big leagues over parts of the past three seasons.
Ryan Garton (RHP, 5-11, 190) – Over 35 appearances with Triple-A Tacoma last season he had four saves and a 3.16 ERA. Left-handed hitters batted .177 against him and right-handers batted .186.
Robin Leyer (RHP, 6-2, 180) – Originally an international signee out of the Dominican Republic in 2012. Spent the past two years in Double-A between the Reds’ and White Sox’s organizations.
David McKay (RHP, 6-3, 205) – Got an invite to the Arizona Fall League and now big-league camp. Spent most of 2018 with Double-A Arkansas (2.49 ERA in 50 2/3 innings).
Tayler Scott (RHP, 6-3, 185) – Rangers picked Scott up from the Brewers in 2017 and 26-year-old pitched all of last year in Triple-A, where he had a 2.26 ERA over 60 2/3 innings pitched.
Matt Tenuta (LHP, 6-4, 225) – Split 2018 between Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma. Allowed five runs in 14 innings over 10 relief appearances with the Rainiers.