Until his elbow gave out on him last weekend, the Mariners were counting on right-handed reliever David Phelps as a key component of their upgraded bullpen. Because the team is not blessed with an abundance of starters capable of throwing complete games – what team is these days? – bridging the gap between the sixth and ninth innings became a priority for general manager Jerry Dipoto.
But Phelps won’t pitch this season, seemingly reviving a story line that sabotaged the 2017 Mariners.
“There’s no way to sugar coat it,” Dipoto said of losing Phelps. “It is a big loss for us.”
A big loss, perhaps, but far from devastating. Among the reasons Dipoto acquired a stockpile of relievers was for some injury-protection insurance. Pitchers get hurt. The odds of the Mariners bullpen staying intact through the summer were next to none.
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Not to minimize the challenge Phelps faces in recovering from the torn ulnar collateral ligament that will require Tommy John surgery, followed by a 12-15 month healing process. Pitchers – especially younger pitchers – often return to the mound at full strength after the operation, but Phelps will be 32 when he attempts his comeback.
Meanwhile, the Mariners would be wise to adhere to a philosophy associated with football teams, which deal with injuries on a weekly basis: Next man up.
Phelps’ absence creates an opportunity for Dan Altavilla. Impressive as a September call-up from Double-A in 2016, the right-hander battled control problems last season. Promised a set-up slot in spring training, Altavilla pitched his way out of the Mariners plans and down to Tacoma.
A weight-room zealot, Altavilla went home in October to Pennsylvania, where he worked on a more efficient delivery with a shorter leg kick and polished a grip on the slider he’s added to his repertoire.
Going into Thursday night, Altavilla had 12 strikeouts in eight appearances. The strikeouts aren’t a surprise – his fastball, which approaches 100 mph, is a swing-and-miss pitch – but the revelation has been his control: Two walks over 8 2/3 innings.
At 25, Altavilla has plenty of experience as a big-league reliever and the drive to excel in a permanent role. There is no reason to suspect he can’t fill in for Phelps
It’s still a deep and versatile bullpen, with a trio of right-handers (Juan Nicasio, Nick Vincent and Altavilla) setting the table for Edwin Diaz in the ninth inning. Like Altavilla, lefty James Pazos has the lights-out stuff to close games. Veteran Marc Rzepczynski is on board as the lefty summoned to face left-handed hitters in the eighth inning.
Potential reinforcements include righties Chasen Bradford, Casey Lawrence and Ryan Cook. Each has pitched in the majors – Cook was named to the AL All-Star team, representing Oakland, in 2012 – and project as long relievers.
Of course, baseball being baseball, and the Mariners being the Mariners, sprains and strains and aches and pains will complicate what on paper appears to be a team strength.
Complications tend to happen in a hurry. Take Phelps, hindered by elbow issues in 2017 but deemed healthy enough for Dipoto to sign him to a one-year, $5.5-million contract. Phelps was fine until Saturday, when the final pitch he threw in an exhibition game turned out to be the final pitch he’ll throw this season.
A $5.5 million investment, gone in an instant. There’s no way to sugar coat the disappointment.
For that matter, there’s no way to sugar coat the possibility that another Mariners reliever (or, heaven forbid, a starter) won’t be sidelined by a serious elbow or shoulder ailment. Dipoto is familiar with the drill. It’s why offered a two-year deal, worth $17 million, to Nicasio, a workhorse whose 76 appearances last season were tops in the N.L.
When the Mariners take on Cleveland in their 2018 opener Thursday night at Safeco Field, it’s almost certain Felix Hernandez will get the start as a sort of lifetime achievement award. If Hernandez throws well, and the Mariners end up beating an opponent that profiles as a playoff contender, the good vibes will be tangible.
But unless Hernandez is rocked around early, he won’t be the difference between the Mariners winning and losing. The difference will be the bullpen’s ability to keep the game in check.
David Phelps was counted upon to be a reliable resource out of that bullpen, and then his elbow screamed. An isolated moment, or an omen suggesting another cruel season is in the forecast?
My fingers are crossed.
Next man up.