With the Seattle Mariners' signing of Fernando Rodney, his crooked cap and archery impressions earlier this week, I wanted to take a look back at the last major FA closer acquisition the Mariners made a little more than a decade ago and how the ninth inning spot shaped up since then. Join me for this heart-pounding look at the ninth inning, as heart-pounding as it was for many years for the Mariners (a "too long; didn't read" is available at the end of this story if you want the low-down). See if you can identify a pattern as well.
Eddie Guardado (5-8, 3.66 ERA, 59 saves from 2004-'06)
After finishing three games behind the AL West-winner Oakland Athletics in 2003, the Mariners wanted to fortify the bullpen. On Dec. 16, 2003, the Mariners found an answer in pitcher Eddie Guardado. "Everyday Eddie" came off two career seasons with the Minnesota Twins in 2002-03, saving 86 victories in those two seasons both with sub-3.00 ERA.
A one-year contract with two option years gave Seattle confidence for the ninth inning. But 2004 saw injuries and implosions across the roster and season for the Mariners, and Guardado was no exception. An Associated Press article in August 2004 said Guardado suffered a torn rotator cuff and required surgery. "Everyday Eddie" had a 2.78 ERA but saved just 18 games for a team that was 17 1/2 games back after his last save on July 22 that year. For the next 16 games, the Mariners bullpen did not record a save. Right-hander J.J. Putz (more on him later) saved his first game of the season on Aug. 7 at Tampa Bay--but by then, Seattle was 41-69. Putz would be the Mariners closer for the rest of the lost season (a season lost except for the whole Ichiro-breaking-an-80-plus-year-old-record-phemonenon). As a whole, the staff saved 28 games in 2004.
Some flashes of hope occurred in 2005 for Guardado. He seemed to regain his form in '05, appearing in 58 games and saving 36 with a not-to-shabby ERA of 2.72 ERA. Though the Ms finished last in a disappointing 2005 campaign, Guardado was a bright-spot in an underachieving season.
The wheels flew off for Guardado in '06, the final year of his contract. Through 28 appearances for Seattle, he compiled a 5.48 ERA with only five saves. He blew three saves in less than three weeks and was demoted from the closer role in early May that year. He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in early July, thus ending his Mariners tenure. The ninth inning was Putz's problem now.
J.J. Putz (16-7, 2.52 ERA, 91 saves from '06-'08)
J.J. Putz took over for Guardado in 2004 and again in 2006, but now the closer role was officially his. Armed with a splitter and a fastball in the high 90s, Putz saved 36 wins after taking over for Guardado in 2006 for a team that, once again, underwhelmed with just 78 wins and another fourth place finish.
With his skills solidified, Putz was the closer for 2007, a year the Mariners seemed to finally put it together. Putz saved 40 games with an outstanding 1.38 ERA. Putz was an all-star, won the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award and broke the Mariners' consecutive save streak which ultimately ended at 30. With a second-place finish, it seemed the sky was the limit for Putz going into 2008.
The depleted farm system caught up to the Mariners in 2008, and maybe the closer role did as well for Putz. He was sent to the disabled list with right elbow problems in July. First-round draft pick pitcher Brandon Morrow took over the closer role in Putz's absence and saved 10 games for a team that by that point was 40-67. Morrow was being groomed to be a starter, so it was apparent the closer job wasn't going to him. The Mariners had a streak of 22 games without recording a save. Putz eventually reclaimed his spot but saved just eight games from Aug. 22 to Sept. 28. A 101-loss season meant change was coming, and Putz wasn't safe.
David Aardsma (3-12, 2.98 ERA, 69 saves from '09-'10)
Putz was traded to the New York Mets in December 2008 with his value somewhat recovered. Brandon Morrow was shifted back to the closer role and was the planned closer for 2009. In January 2009, the Mariners traded minor league pitcher Fabian Williamson to the Boston Red Sox for righty David Aardsma.
Through the end of April, Morrow had five saves, but Aardsma was also given chances to close out the victories. Aardsma's first career save came on April 10, 2009. With right bicep tendonitis hampering Morrow, Aardsma, with his high socks and light tan glove, would seize the opportunity and never look back. Morrow returned but this time to the rotation. Aardsma saved 38 games with a 2.52 ERA for the Ms in a surprising 2009 season for Seattle. With an 85-win season, it seems the "DA" would be set to close out cases for the Mariners next season.
But 2010 was another disastrous season for Seattle, a pattern they had gotten unfortunately used to in the past four years. Earlier in the offseason, the Mariners--for reasons I still don't understand--traded Morrow to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Brandon League. This meant the closer role was Aardsma's to lose. Even with another 101-loss season to suffer through, Aardsma converted 31 of 35 save opportunities. League closed out six games in 2010 including the last two Mariners victories of that season. But Aardma's hip was bothering him. Surgery was on the horizon, and that meant League would be on the mound in the ninth inning.
Brandon League (10-17, 3.28 ERA, 51 saves from '10-'12)
League wasn't awful as a set-up man for Aardsma. The hard-throwing right-hander who cranks his splitter and sinker into the high 90s appeared in 70 games in 2010. With his mohawk and gauged earlobes, League took over the closer role in 2011 for the injured Aardsma. At times, he was questionable on the mound and put fans at the edge of their seats with his wildness. But eventually, the Hawaii-native locked up 37 saves, a 2.79 ERA and was an all-star for a team that won 67 games in '11.
Aardsma would require Tommy John surgery and never throw a pitch for the Mariners again to this publication date. The 2012 closer spot was secured for this side-arm thrower. League was shaky at best, though, in the pressure situations. On May 26, manager Eric Wedge pull League from the closer's role after he surrendered seven runs in his last 3 1/3 innings. A closer-by-committee occurred, with Tom Wilhelmsen--former bartender--taking over the ninth inning duties. League was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline, and the bartender would take over closing time.
Tom Wilhelmsen (6-9, 3.31 ERA, 54 saves from '11-'13)
I won't spend as much time discussing Wilhelmsen because A.) I'm already at 1,160 words at this point and B.) a lot has been written on him. To be brief, Wilhelmsen had a great 2012 saving 29 games with a 2.50 ERA after taking over for League. He got off to the hottest of starts in 2013, but blew a save in Cleveland that ultimately led to his demotion to AAA Tacoma Rainiers. He lost the closer role for a second time that season but wound up with 24 saves and a 4.12 ERA. Danny Farquhar, acquired in the Ichiro Suzuki trade the summer prior, was the latest in a decade of the revolving door of closers. Farquhar ended the year with a 4.20 ERA and 16 saves. He figured to be the closer going into 2014 until the Rodney signing. Now, he and Wilhelmsen appear to be set-up men for Rodney.
I notice a pattern with Mariners closer the past 10 years. Injuries hampered the closers from '04-'13. Flashes of greatness followed by downfall the next season. Bringing in a new face in Fernando Rodney will hopefully buck this trend, but he is signed for a two-year deal. Will '14 be another fantastic year followed by injuries or turmoil in '15? Will 2014 and 2015 be the first comfortable consecutive years in the ninth innings since Kazuhiro Sasaki? Only Fernando's arm knows.