Few if any baseball teams end the season with the bullpen they started with on opening day. Whether it is injuries, inconsistent performances or natural attrition, relievers come and go. Such is the nature of the game, managers simply adjust and move forward.
The Seattle Mariners are no exception.
The Mariners opening day bullpen included Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez – both of whom would join the starting rotation by the end of the season. Brandon League was slated to be the closer – a job that he won in 2011 and would subsequently lose early in 2012. Tom Wilhelmsen was picked as the eighth inning setup man, and no one quite knew how to pronounce Lucas Luetge’s name.
It’s the nature of relief pitching – volatile, short-term and unpredictable.
Sure Mariners manager goes into this spring training with a pretty good idea of who could or should make up his seven-man bullpen. But even he knows that things and plans can change quickly. And even if the expected seven pitchers make the opening day roster for the Mariners, it seems unlikely that those same seven pitchers will be on the roster on the final day of the season.
For as many changes that the Mariners’ bullpen underwent throughout the season, the unit still produced a 3.39 ERA – fifth lowest in the American League. The unit also had 23.5 percent strikeout percentage, which was the third highest in the AL. The Mariners bullpen also had the highest average fastball velocity in the entire AL at 94.6 miles per hour according to Pitch F/X data.
But there were plenty of rocky moments for the bullpen, starting with League pitching himself out of the closing job.
After saving 37 games in 2011, the Mariners assumed that League would pick up right where he left off the season before with his hard-sinking fastball and nasty splitfinger.
Instead, League struggled with his command and then his confidence. It started out positive. League picked up five saves in his first seven appearances. But on April 19, he blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning. From there, it continued to get more difficult. In his next 13 appearances, League saved four games, but also blew three saves. Even worse in the 12 2/3 innings pitched over that span, he gave up 15 hits and walked nine batters.
Wedge had seen enough and moved League out of the spot.
The hard-throwing Wilhelmsen was there waiting. The unassuming, one-time bartender took control of the closer’s job. On June 2, he notched his first save of the season and kept rolling, racking up 29 in 48 subsequent appearances. Wilhelmsen showed a fierce competitive side that gets hidden by his laid-back personality. Of course, it wasn’t all easy. He blew four saves in that span as well. But the Mariners head into spring training with a proven closer.
The bullpen also featured a series of surprise performances, starting with Lucas Luetge. The Rule 5 draft selection not only made the roster out of spring training, he was a valuable contributor.
Luetge went 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA with two saves in 63 appearances. He made 26 appearances before allowing an earned run. But his specialty was getting left-handed hitters out. He did that, limiting lefties to a .193 batting average (16-for-83) with 12 walks and 26 strikeouts.
The Mariners also got solid contributions from three players that weren’t even on the roster at the start of the season. Veteran Oliver Perez, who signed a minor league contract in the offseason, and flame-throwing rookies Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps were added to the bullpen during the season and all contributed significantly.
Perez, a one-time starter, reinvented himself and rejuvenated his career as a reliever. After starting the season in Triple A Tacoma, he was called up and appeared in 33 games, posting a 1-3 record with 2.12 ERA. In 29 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 24 batters, while walking 10. The velocity on his fastball average 93.1 mph in comparison to 89.0 mph in 2010 – the last year he pitched in the big leagues.
Both Pryor and Capps started the season in Double A Jackson, moved to Tacoma and then made their big league debuts. Pryor was called up on June 1 and went 3-1 with a 3.91 ERA in 26 appearances, despite missing almost a month with a groin injury. In 23 innings pitched, he struck out 27 batters. Capps was called up on August 31, and appeared in 18 games, he had a 3.96 ERA and struck out 28 batters in 25 innings pitch. Both Pryor and Capps have fastballs that reach the high 90s. Pryor’s fastball averaged 96.2 mph, while Capps’ fastball averaged 97.8 mph.
With Shawn Kelley designated for assignment, the bullpens seems a little easier to project. Obviously, Wilhelmsen goes into spring training as the team’s closer. Having three-quarters of a season in that role, should prepare him for the upcoming season. Of course, the same thing was written about League last spring. But Wilhelmsen’s command of his overpowering stuff and personality seem a little more predictable for success.
Pryor and Capps will likely be the right-handed setup men, while Perez, Charlie Furbush and Luetge will likely be in the bullpen. The Mariners could make Furbush their long reliever and bring in another right-hander – perhaps Josh Kinney or Chance Ruffin - as a middle reliever. Or, they could bring in someone else as a long reliever. Hector Noesi has big league stuff, but still hasn’t figured out how to consistently focus for long periods. But he could fill that role. There’s also a handful of non-roster invites that could vie for the spot, including veteran starter Jeremy Bonderman.
The Mariners don’t seem to have many open spots in the bullpen. However, Wedge has always believed in competition.
The future is now for the bullpen with Capps and Pryor. But beyond that, there is some talent in the minor leagues. Ruffin, who the Mariners acquired in the Doug Fister trade, has talent and big league experience. He struggled with his command last season, but is only 24 years old. Lefty Bobby LaFromboise was the Tacoma Rainiers pitcher of the year, going 5-2 with 4 saves and a 1.59 ERA in 27 relief appearances. He’s quite versatile and can pitch multiple innings.
Another name to remember is Carson Smith. The right-hander was taken in the eighth round of the 2011 draft. He has a ¾ delivery featuring the best slider in the Mariners minor league system. Smith was dominant in the hitter friendly Class A Cal League. This season, he will likely start in Double A Jackson. Could he go the same route as Capps and Pryor?