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America Spells Relief M-A-R-I-N-E-R-S

I apologize for that post title. It's really stupid.

Anyway, as you've probably noticed, I spend a lot of time talking about the Mariners. Not just on the website, either; there's also email, IMing, text messages, phone calls, and in-person conversations. All told, I probably spend more time talking about this team than I do performing any other task, including sleeping, since one of them sort of cuts into the other (see: last night).

That's all well and good, but in recent weeks I've begun to notice something about the nature of these discussions that I thought was worth bringing up. More specifically: at least 60-70% of the time I'm talking about the Mariners, I end up drooling over how awesome next year's bullpen is going to be. It's a neat little weapon to have at your disposal in conversation, since not too many people can say with confidence that they think their team'll have the best 2007 relief corps in baseball. Particularly the scores of Red Sox fans with which I interact on a daily basis.

Barring some sort of ridiculous offseason roster shake-up, the bullpen's easily going to be the biggest strength on the team next season. It might even be the biggest strength on any team in the division. Just look at the list of names, arranged in approximate order of ability:

JJ Putz
Mark Lowe
Rafael Soriano
George Sherrill
Jon Huber
Emiliano Fruto
Sean Green
Francisco Cruceta
Julio Mateo
Eric O'Flaherty
Jake Woods

You can't really find a weakness until #6, and even then the guys still have one tool that's good enough to let them stick in the Majors (Fruto's strikeouts, Green's groundballs, Mateo's multiyear contract, etc). The bullpen's going to be young, the bullpen's going to be cheap, and - most importantly - the bullpen's going to be effective, to the tune of a strikeout an inning and an obscenely low ERA.

Where does this help us the most? On any given day, the Mariners will be able to shorten the game to five or six innings, provided the arms are rested and the manager's not clueless. On a team that's looking to fill three rotation slots this winter with a limited amount of spending money, that has a lot of value, because it'll let them get away with a Cha Baek or two without killing their chances. Replacement-level pitchers aren't so bad if you can restrict the number of replacement-level innings they throw, so having to go that route isn't as much of a disaster scenario as it usually is. And hey, if the Mariners go out and fill the rotation with quality arms, all the better. The main point here is that, when these guys get a tie or a lead, they aren't going to blow it very often, taking some pressure off the starters and off the lineup.

Perhaps even more impressive than the talent, though, is the depth. The Mariners go at least 11-deep in arms that could relieve for pretty much any other team in baseball, and that doesn't include a group of others who're currently just below the threshold (people like Jimenez, Kahn, Rowland-Smith, and so on). This comes with a few considerable advantages:

(1) Protection against DL stints. We've seen the relievers drop like flies over the course of the summer this year, but should the injury bug repeat itself in 2007, the Mariners will be able to survive without taking too much of a hit. There are suitable replacements for every role in the bullpen save for maybe Sherrill's job as the resident LOOGY, but even if he ends up going down for a couple weeks/months, guys like Soriano and Lowe are good enough against lefties to make up for the loss if O'Flaherty/Woods aren't quite up to speed.

(2) Protection against underperformance. Relievers are a notoriously volatile species, even moreso than starters, which is why you never want to pull an Ed Wade/Jim Hendry and start giving them expensive multiyear contracts. If someone starts underachieving next season, there's plenty of room for role-shifting and, for a few of them, temporary demotion. We won't have to worry about someone completely losing it while still trying to sop up important innings, because even our current manager would be able to realize who's going well and who isn't.

(3) Trade value. Apparently never having understood that it's the easiest job to fill in the league, GM's continue to pay out the ass for decent relievers, which gives the front office something to work with in trade negotiations. Even if it lost one of its top arms this winter, our bullpen would still be fine, and the return from the trade could bring in something much more significant. The most obvious name here is Rafael Soriano; with the emergence of Jon Huber (who, with that slider, isn't a fluke), Soriano's become somewhat expendable, and he'd instantly be the best relief pitcher on the market were Bavasi to make him available. The return could be huge. Guys like Green, Woods, and Cruceta could also be dealt away for more useful players without the ML squad even feeling it.

(4) No front office desire to plug a hole with an expensive veteran. Don't even think about it, Bill.

I could go on and on about this, but I won't. Here's what it comes down to: the 2007 Mariners are in position to have the best bullpen in baseball, and they'll do it for less than the annual cost of Jarrod Washburn. Deal away Soriano and you're still talking about one of the top groups in the league despite JJ Putz being the only guy making more than $1m. Given the current state of the five-man rotation, next year's games may not start very well, but by golly, the last few innings are going to be a lot of fun.