John McGrath

John McGrath: Even former reliever Jerry Dipoto can’t predict the unpredictable bullpen

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto talks to reporters Thursday. Dipoto pitched as a reliever for eight years in the major leagues.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto talks to reporters Thursday. Dipoto pitched as a reliever for eight years in the major leagues. The Associated Press

During his eight-year career as a big-leaguer, Jerry Dipoto pitched in 390 games without making a start. It’s a resume ideal for anybody challenged to assemble a roster these days.

Thanks in part to the Kansas City Royals, whose back-of-the-bullpen power throwers proved key to their winning the World Series a year after losing Game 7 by one run, general managers such as the Mariners’ Dipoto are putting an unprecedented emphasis on bullpen depth.

The pitching staffs I grew up watching in the 1960s were anchored by three or four consistent starters and a spot starter for the doubleheader often scheduled on Sunday afternoon. Because those guys were hardwired to finish what they began, bullpen roles weren’t strictly defined.

A seventh-inning, lefty-versus-lefty matchup? The premise was as unimaginable as walk-up songs, replay reviews and free agency.

Then in 1970, Cincinnati hired Sparky Anderson to manage the Reds. George Anderson’s nickname was fitting, because he sparked a strategic evolution better described as a revolution.

On their way to the National League pennant, the Reds recorded fewer complete games than saves, something that was unheard of in 1970. (Literally. Saves were not regarded as an official statistic until 1969.)

Anderson’s reliance on a 10-man staff did not endear the new manager, at first, to the Reds’ starters. “Captain Hook” was unfazed.

“My mother, I love her,” Anderson once said. “But she don’t pitch for me.”

Fast forward to 2015, when Royals’ starters ranked 24th in ERA and 26th in innings pitched. And yet Kansas City was the only team standing among 30 on Nov. 1.

Starters last season failed to pitch through the sixth inning 2,003 times — a record. There were 15,095 pitching changes — another record.

Given how starters are much more expensive and much less durable than their reliever counterparts, it’s no wonder general managers devoted their offseason to beefing up already beefed-up bullpens.

As ESPN’s Jayson Stark pointed out last week, seven teams — the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rangers, Athletics and Royals — picked up relievers who either led their former team in saves or served as the closer.

“It’s been the wave. Let’s face it,” Boston’s president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, told Stark. “A lot of clubs have improved the depth of their bullpen, and it has paid off.”

If there’s a trend, it seems to me Dipoto’s history — he and the Diamondbacks’ Dave Stewart, who spent the bulk of his career as a starter, are the only general managers who were big-league relievers — qualifies him as the right man, at the right time, to oversee a team.

Dipoto’s acquisitions of Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Justin De Fratus, Ryan Cook, Evan Scribner and Joe Wieland made no splash around the country or, for that matter, around the Seattle area. But all six have the variously intriguing potential to offer meaningful contributions to a bullpen that deteriorated from one of baseball’s best in 2014 to one of baseball’s worst in 2015.

“We did pack it with a little volume, so that in the event one of the guys we hope bounces back doesn’t, we have other options,” Dipoto said Thursday. “I think it’s important to make sure that we’ve built enough depth to absorb the likely outcome, which is they’re all not going to bounce back and have good seasons.”

It’s a kind of heave-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach.

“If we have three bounce-back candidates,” Dipoto continued, “one is going to be better than we think, one is going to be about what we think, and one is going to struggle.”

As a consequence of an overhaul that found Dipoto jettisoning Tom Wilhelmsen and Carson Smith, the Mariners will begin spring training with a bullpen absent a recently established closer. Cishek last season saved three games for the Marlins and another for the Cardinals. Benoit saved two for the Padres. De Fratus saved one for the Phillies.

That’s a total of seven saves, or what Mariano Rivera used to collect on a road trip. Still, Dipoto is confident one of the relievers he acquired will provide closure, and he doesn’t dismiss such Mariners incumbents as Charlie Furbush and Tony Zych competing for the job.

As a former reliever, Dipoto is steeped in Rule No. 1 of bullpen management: What you saw last season is probably not what you’re going to get this season.

“I spent my entire major-league career in the bullpen, never did anything else,” he said. “If you think you’ve got it figured out, you don’t. The bullpen is about as unpredictable as it gets.”

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