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That Fifth Bullpen Spot

For as long as it remains healthy, the upper bit of the Mariner bullpen promises to be really good. When you combine David Aardsma, Mark Lowe, Brandon League, and Shawn Kelley's 2009 performances, you get a strikeout an inning and a 3.6 FIP, and there's not a team in baseball that wouldn't be thrilled to have any one of them, except the Astros, because the Astros are stupid.

It's behind those guys, though, that the situation becomes a little less clear. Which isn't to suggest that this issue is unique to the Mariners. We're talking middle relief. I always get a kick out of whenever Yankee fans stress out about their middle relievers, because middle relievers, almost by definition, aren't good. A good middle reliever isn't a middle reliever anymore, and while stocking your bullpen with six or seven closer candidates is a nice fantasy, it's neither realistic nor cost-efficient. Every bullpen's going to have a guy or three who's just there to throw innings and not lose games on purpose, and that's something every baseball fan has in common.

Beneath the top of the Mariner bullpen lie two roles. Possibly three, but given the offseason the M's just had, a six-man bullpen looks most likely, at least for the bulk of the year. One of those spots is going to go to one of the losers of the fifth starter competition, be it Doug Fister, Jason Vargas, Garrett Olson, or whoever. Which would seem to leave one spot open for pretty much every other pitcher in camp.

Dave talked about this a little bit yesterday, and his is a good post. The reason I'm writing this up is because I wanted to go a little more in depth on Sean White and Kanekoa Texeira. White you'll remember for making two appearances per game a season ago. Texeira you'll remember for being our Rule 5 pick in December. Both guys will enter camp competing for a job, and while there's no guarantee, my read is that they'll be competing for the same job, as the two frontrunners.

Oh, there'll be others. Josh Fields. Ricky Orta. David Pauley. Mike Koplove. More. Spring training is always littered with potential relievers, and the M's will have a number to sort through. But while the list of names runs on, at the top are White and Texeira, and unless the M's open up another job, only one of them will be able to make it.

So which should they pick? This would appear to be one of the rare instances in which spring training performance - or at least spring training appearance - will actually matter. There are enough questions about every candidate that the coaching staff and front office will want to see everyone in person and observe how they're throwing. With that said, though, I think we already have enough information to come up with a preference.

Consider Sean White. It's no secret that Wakamatsu loved White a year ago. Before going down with an injury, he appeared in a lot of games and soaked up a lot of innings, serving as a middle-inning bridge between the starters and the setup. And given that he ran a 2.80 ERA and had a .216 average against, it's easy to see why Wak kept going back to the well. White rarely imploded, and managers like relievers who rarely implode.

But as many of you should recognize, White didn't actually pitch very well. Or, if you prefer, he didn't pitch in such a way that portends good future success. I know he came in with that flashy new fastball, but all it and the rest of his stuff got him were the following rankings, out of 213 relievers with at least 30 innings pitched:

O-Swing%: 105th
Z-Swing%: 191st
O-Contact%: 192nd
Z-Contact%: 207th
Contact%: 207th
F-Strike%: 186th
GB%: 62nd
Strike%: 126th

Don't like percentages and rankings? No big deal. The take-home message here is that, despite the mid-90s heat, White was extraordinarily hittable, and for a guy who supposedly keeps the ball on the ground, his groundball rate was only all right. Meaning White allows a lot of contact, with a good deal of it launching the ball in the air.

I don't mean to convey the impression that Sean White is bad. He isn't. He throws enough strikes and keeps the ball down often enough to avoid disaster, which makes him palatable as a 6th inning guy. But he doesn't strike anyone out, ever, he doesn't have a plan of attack against lefties, and our ability to count on him to replicate last year's performance going forward is uncertain given that shoulder trouble that ended his season. White's dealt with shoulder trouble his entire career. We don't know how it's looking these days. But if we're going off last year's numbers, White can't afford to sacrifice any talent if he wants to hang around. Sean White was barely acceptable in peak shape. What are shoulder concerns going to do to an already iffy baseline?

Enter Kanekoa Texeira. We haven't talked about Texeira a whole lot around here, but the 24 year old Rule 5 pick seems to fit the profile of the guy the M's could use to soak up a middle inning or two. Texeira's stuff isn't extraordinary. He's got a sinking fastball in the 89-92 range, a decent slider, and a change that I can only imagine is "in development". But he's got two things going for him:

-a low (but not quite sidearm) delivery that makes him tough on righties

-a high groundball rate

If he's starting to sound like Sean Green, then congratulations, your brain works. Texeira's groundball rate has exceeded 60% in each year as a professional from rookie ball through AA, and last season his 63% was among the very highest in the Eastern League. That's a ton of groundballs, and even though GB% drops a little as one advances through the higher levels, Texeira's got a lot to give. Sean White, if you're curious, had a 49% GB% in Tacoma two years ago. Texeira has rather convincingly demonstrated a superior ability to keep the ball out of the air.

And the rest of the stuff? I don't like to put too much weight on numbers accumulated in the low- and mid-minors, but Texeira's managed a K/9 over 8 through AA, and though his walks can be a problem, that's neither surprising nor a critical concern. He's also demonstrated an ability to pitch pretty well against lefties, although given his profile as a pitcher I'd caution against assuming he'd be fine against the Adam Dunns and Adrian Gonzalezes of the world. Minor league splits be damned, I have to believe that a near-sidearming righty without much of a changeup will hit some speed bumps against advanced lefty competition.

Still, even allowing for some walks and some trouble against lefties, Texeira can miss bats and, more importantly, keep the infield busy. Busier than White can. White posted a decent GB%, a K/9 of 3.9, and a BB/9 of 2.8. Given Texeira's groundballs, is it really reasonable to suggest that he'd still be the worse Major League reliever? Throw in the fact that White has shoulder questions while Texeira, to the best of my knowledge, has stayed healthy, and I imagine any hesitation has more to do with Texeira's inexperience than with his actual ability. And inexperience isn't much of a drawback.

There are going to be a lot of guys competing for a very little bullpen opening next month. Among them, Sean White is the on-paper favorite, as he's got all the recent Major League experience and Wak really liked him when he was healthy. However, the team is aware of both his shoulder issue as well as the discrepancy between his 2009 ERA and his peripherals, and given Kanekoa Texeira's seemingly superior ability and Rule 5 status, look for him to get a lot of attention. White may be in front for the time being, but one slip-up and his job could end up going to somebody younger and probably better.

(If, say, Josh Fields wants to wow everyone and suddenly turn awesome, that'd be fine too.)