A year ago, the Mariners entered spring training with few answers in a bullpen that lacked proven lefty options and possessed little in the way of power arms. Things have certainly changed.
The unit is now anchored by a soon-to-be 23-year-old in Edwin Diaz, whose velocity touches triple figures and who a year ago averaged 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings over 49 appearances.
"When Eddie Diaz came in and we slid him to the back in the ninth inning," manager Scott Servais said, "it really stabilized (the bullpen). You can manage the game to get the ball to Eddie and feel good about it."
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The club also filled it need for a match-up lefty reliever by signing veteran free-agent Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year deal. Known as Scrabble, he has limited left-handed hitters to a .222/.291/.298 slash over eight seasons.
A series of trades involving the rotation pushes lefty Ariel Miranda into a bullpen role. He’s a power arm with multi-inning capability who compiled a 3.54 ERA primarily as a starter last season after arriving in a July 31 trade from Baltimore.
"Knowing that Rzepczynski slides in as our left-on-left or situational set-up guy," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "we feel like Ariel fits very well in that second role."
There’s also more right-handed power.
Dan Altavilla provided the relief corps with a power right-handed arm in 15 appearances last season after a late August promotion from Double-A Jackson. He’ll likely battle Shae Simmons for one of five right-handed bullpen jobs.
The Mariners obtained Simmons, who rebounded last year from elbow surgery to flash 100-mph velocity, in a trade from Atlanta.
The returning group includes three reliable right-handed arms: erstwhile closer Steve Cishek, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner. The latter two are out of options, which means they are all but certain to make the big-league club.
Cishek is still recovering from off-season hip surgery, and his status is in doubt. Even so, the worst-case scenario, at present, calls from him to return by mid-April.
Injuries plagued the bullpen a year ago, which is why the Mariners spent much of the off-season building their organization depth. Additions with major-league experience include Casey Fien, Nick Hagadone, Dean Kiekhefer and Jean Machi.
Two lefty trade additions with limited big-league time, James Pazos and Zac Curtis, are in line for a look. Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte is still around. Tony Zych, a power righty, is recovering from shoulder surgery but could emerge as a factor.
"We feel like the combination of veterans with experience and young upside in the bullpen is particularly intriguing," Dipoto said. "There are a lot of hard throwers and a lot of bat-missers."
WHO’S IN CAMP? (14 on 40-man roster)
53 RHP Dan Altavilla (5-feet-11, 200 pounds): Impressive last year in 15 late-season appearances, he’s a strong candidate to break camp as part of the big-league. If not, Altavilla figures to be the closer at Triple-A Tacoma. Option status: three remaining.
31 RHP Steve Cishek (6-6, 217): Still recovering from off-season hip surgery, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be ready by opening day. Whenever he returns, he projects as the backup closer. Option status: not applicable.
62 LHP Zac Curtis (5-9, 192): Obtained in the November trade from Arizona, he made a late April jump last season from Hi-A to the big leagues before spending much of the year in Double-A. He’ll get a look but seems a long shot to break camp with the big-league club. Option status: two remaining.
39 RHP Edwin Diaz (6-3, 165): Was often dominant last year after an early June promotion from Double-A and became the closer in early August. Only real question is whether he avoids sophomore jinx. Option status: three remaining.
38 RHP Casey Fien (6-2, 212): A seven-year veteran signed to provide depth, he probably only makes the big-league club if injuries or ineffectiveness create an opening. Option status: one remaining.
68 LHP Paul Fry (6-0, 190): Validated a big-league camp invite last year by posting a solid season at Tacoma. He’s probably headed back to the Rainiers but could get a call at some point in the season. Option status: three remaining.
37 LHP Ariel Miranda (6-2, 190): Made 10 starts last year after arriving in July 31 trade from Baltimore, but his iffy breaking ball makes him a two-pitch pitcher who fits better in the bullpen. Option status: two remaining.
47 LHP James Pazos (6-2, 235): Couldn’t pitch his way into the Yankees’ crowded bullpen over the last two years but looms as an alternative to Miranda as the Mariners’ second lefty. Tacoma is more likely. Option status: two remaining.
25 LHP Marc Rzepczynski (6-2, 220): A free agent signed in December to a two-year deal to serve as the bullpen’s match-up lefty. Had 2.64 ERA last year in 70 games despite 29 walks in 47 2/3 innings. Option status: not applicable.
58 RHP Evan Scribner (6-3, 190): Didn’t allow a run last season in 12 outings after spending much of the summer on the disabled list because of a torn back muscle. He’s out of options, so he’s on the club. Option status: none remaining.
59 RHP Shae Simmons (5-11, 190): Regained his high-90s velocity last season after missing 2015 while recovering from elbow surgery. Could battle Altavilla, another hard thrower, for final spot in bullpen. Option status: two remaining.
40 RHP Thyago Vieira (6-2, 210): Spent last year in Hi-A but Mariners had to protect him after he flashed 100-mph stuff. Someone to watch, but he’s probably headed for Double-A Arkansas. Option status: three remaining.
50 RHP Nick Vincent (6-0, 185): A solid contributor last year who should benefit from this year’s bullpen having improved lefty options. That should permit Mariners to spot him in better match-up situations. Option status: none remaining.
55 RHP Tony Zych (6-3, 190): A power guy who is still recovering from shoulder surgery. That suggests he’ll be on a go-slow approach in spring, which likely means he’ll open the season at Tacoma. Option status: two remaining.
NON-ROSTER INVITES (7)
48 RHP Jonathan Aro (6-0, 235): Mariners revealed his status when they designated him off the roster in late January. When he cleared waivers, it meant no other team was willing to spend a 40-man roster spot.
41 LHP Nick Hagadone (6-5, 230): Basically signed late last month as a look-see. He missed the last year and a half because of an elbow injury. If he’s healthy, he could pitch his way into roster consideration.
45 LHP Dean Kiekhefer (6-0, 175): An off-season waiver claim from the Cardinals whose chance to make the club as a match-up lefty evaporated when the Mariners signed Rzepczynski. Should fill that role at Tacoma.
64 RHP Jean Machi (6-0, 255): Another late January signing, he has struggled since a strong 2014 with the Giants. A strong spring could boost his value. A poor one could result in a release.
75 RHP Peter Tago (6-3, 215): Has never delivered on the promise that Colorado saw in making him a first-round pick in 2010. He spent last season at Double-A in the White Sox chain and is among the longer shots in camp.
61 SHP Pat Venditte (6-1, 185): The novelty of being able to pitch with either arm somewhat obscures the fact that he has a 4.97 ERA in 41 big-league appearances. Has been better in his career against lefties, which is why the Mariners acquired him last August. That need no longer appears acute.
67 RHP Ryan Weber (6-1, 180): A swingman for most of his eight-year pro career, he offers the flexibility that the Mariners already have in Cody Martin. That was fine, until the Mariners retained Martin after designating him off the roster.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How healthy is Steve Cishek? He underwent hip surgery in October and is still recovering. He’s expected back no later than mid-April but even a temporary absence would open a job in the bullpen.
2. If Cishek is healthy and assuming no other bullpen injuries — an unlikely occurrence — the only real competition is for the final right-handed spot. The Mariners will likely want a power arm in that spot, which probably means a battle between Dan Altavilla and Shae Simmons.
3. The Mariners have a number of veteran relievers looking to reset their career. Most will struggle, but it’s likely that one or two will show promise. Those guys are probably headed for Triple-A Tacoma as insurance to await the call.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners
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