As you may have heard, the Seattle Mariners have a bullpen. Quite a few teams in Major League Baseball have bullpens as well, but the interesting thing about the Seattle Mariners bullpen is that it's one of the worst bullpens in all of baseball. Third in total earned runs. Third in walks. 25th in opponent batting average. 29th in ERA. They were somehow first in strikeouts, but that's an entirely different story that I'm not going to get into here.
Unfortunately, as bad as the Mariners bullpen was, the numbers seem to be lying just a little bit. We all know the Mariners took a bit of a defensive plunge when they taped Brendan Ryan to the bench and sent Raul Ibanez out to shag fly balls. But it's easy to think of misplayed balls as isolated moments--hell, we have an entire .GIF gallery devoted to one man's blunders here--and it effects more than just the starting pitcher's line for the day. Without making excuses, or changing my thesis that the Mariners bullpen was awful last year, they rank roughly around the nebulous league-middle in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. I mean, 19th in any category is still pretty awful, but it's far from the crisis that a 29th-in-ERA designation might entail.
League-average doesn't exactly swing doors open to the playoffs, though. So it seems pretty clear that in addition to everyone and the moon, the Mariners are going to be looking to add a few relief arms this offseason.
Lets forget about the whole trade-rumor spiel we go through after reading one of these (God, can it be spring training already?), and think about the implications of what Rosenthal is saying here. We all know that the Mariners had a pretty crummy bullpen last year, results-wise. We can also take this statement a step further and say that the Mariners front office has had a pretty crummy couple of years, results-wise. Wow! This works hand in hand! But whether or not they are looking to add an "elite" closer in this offseason, and how much that changes their current philosophy, I think the Mariners have actually made some pretty quality bullpen decisions that they haven't quite gotten credit for. Some of these have produced great results. Some have produced...well...moments of vague promise.
The Mariners have managed to keep a pretty dirt-cheap bullpen and produce whatever-comes-above-lackluster results. The toxic-contract drum hasn't been beaten around those parts for at least as long as I can remember. Before we get down on ourselves here, lets look at some success stories:
1. Brandon League: The Mariners acquired Brandon League from the Blue Jays in the 2009 offseason after sending starter Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays. It wasn't the sexiest trade--or the most well recieved--but few knew that Morrow was going to suddenly put up a few 3-win seasons and that League would be sucked in to the Dark Star's orbit alongside Chone Figgins and the remnants of a bat smashed by Milton Bradley. It was at least a defensible trade, and both teams got pretty great results for a time. League would go on to be an All-Star in 2011 and have pretty electric stuff late in games, and here's the key--the M's were able to get out after maximizing the guy's few great moments. By the time he started to unravel like a ball of string in mid 2012 (I'll never forget the boos cascading throughout Safeco when he blew his last save against the Angels in May), the Mariners weren't out of options. They had given him a pretty gross contract, but they were able to unload it before it inflicted too much damage.
And they were smart about it too--they unloaded him on the Dodgers, where he signed an absolutely insane 3-year $22.5 million dollar contract to be their *CLOSER®!!!!!* but was pulled from the role only three months later because he can't remember how to pitch when someone gets on first base. The M's ran away from that fire fast, and didn't lock themselves into three years of despair. No...because they had...
2. Tom Wilhelmsen: Tom Wilhelmsen had a pretty rough summer in 2013, but do you remember this?
For a while in the 2012 season, Tom Wilhelmsen had the meanest 12-6 curve in the entire American League. He was consistently my favorite part of watching the Mariners last year, next to Felix's late summer run around his perfect game. And for all of this, he has never been paid more than $510,000. That kind of money is about average for a typical young relief arm, but he wasn't a typical young relief arm.
This was a perfect blend of a bit of luck meeting a hand of well-played cards. The Mariners shed a contract from an All-Star who was probably going to get paid even though he was struggling--and it worked perfectly. They replaced League's contract with a player making a twelfth of the amount, one which they had been holding onto for quite some time and waiting for the eventual success they knew would come like the sprouts hiding inside a Chia Pet, fresh from the store. When Tom Wilhelmsen's green afro blossomed, it was so, so beautiful. The stems may be browning a bit now, but that shit was on sale and they lucked out: he still fits on the shelf, and now they have money left over to run to Target and buy another Chia Pet.
3. OIiver Perez: In 2011 Oliver Perez was getting paid $12 million dollars by the Mets just to leave town and never come back. That summer, the Nationals picked him up on a minor league contract in AAA, after which they quickly moved him to AA. They didn't want him. Obviously now you know the Mariners picked him up and turned him into a durable lefty arm out of the pen, and he only cost $1.5 million last year. Now, apparently the Nationals want him back and the story should be pretty clear that the Mariners found a guy for dirt cheap that nobody wanted and turned him into their best bullpen arm. In fact, his $1.5 million contract in 2013 was at one point the seventh largest contract on the team--tied with Dustin Ackley.
4. Lucas Luetge: Luetge had a few rough patches last year, but has been another decent lefty, especially considering the Mariners picked him up in the Rule 5 draft and are only paying him around $500k, about as much as if they had drafted him or traded for him, without all the contract stuff and "investment" ideas that make teams hold onto players they should probably just let g*coughhectornoesicough*o. I'm not sure Luetge should be a part of the plan going forward, but look, this pattern should be pretty obvious right now. Low-risk decisions that have worked out surprisingly well in the long run.
5. Steve Delabar: He had a few bad outings before the M's traded him to Toronto last year, but this was another wonderful reclamation project that worked out beautifully. He had retired with a blown out elbow in 2009 and went back to teaching high school in Kentucky. He found some new miracle arm surgery, and the Mariners picked him up on a
low no risk minor league contract. And while it just seems to be the story that they traded him before he really got great, the Mariners once again were creative, and found gold where others had stopped looking.
6. Danny Farquhar: The other half of the Ichiro trade, which is a bit disingenuous because the Mariners didn't really care who they got in return from the Yankees. Farquhar just happened to turn into gold in Tacoma, having reworked his delivery a bit, and again, the model keeps working. Whether or not he's going to be the team's closer going forward, he's an extremely valuable piece in relief, especially if he can keep doing what he has been doing, though we all know how volatile relievers can be.
And sure, for every success listed here, you can all throw tomatoes back at me and talk about poor attempts to convert failed starters, or note injury problems and rookie struggles with Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, and Yoervis Medina. But every team deals with unpredictability out of the bullpen. That's a part of the game.
So this tweet from Rosenthal doesn't scare me one bit. Forgoing the "closer" talk that is sure to arise (and is entirely beside the point here), the Mariners haven't really spent a lot of high-risk money for relief arms. They got out of the Brandon League fiasco pretty quick. Even our proposal to bring back Oliver Perez for 2 years at $3 million a year seemed like sacrilege to some. But maybe it's okay for the Mariners to spend a little here for once. It's clear they have had some great success stories dragging their net behind the boat and finding some good fish. But go back and read that first paragraph. The Mariners bullpen needs fixing, whether you can pin all the blame on defense or arms or management or this or that. Doing what they have been doing, as lucky as they've been doing it, might just ensure more of the same: cheap success stories with below-league average results.
Now, please, let me make myself clear. I'm NOT proposing that the team go out and give some huge contract to a closer only to have it blow up in their faces in June, or shell out lots of money on unpredictable arms that always fluctuate year to year. There is a reason most teams are conservative in building bullpens, and $500k is pretty league-average for a bullpen arm. But my argument here is that maybe--just maybe--spending a little won't be the end of the world. Maybe getting someone like Grant Balfour wouldn't be the end of the world. Maybe giving Oliver Perez $6 million over 2 years isn't all that dangerous. Maybe nobody knows and bullpens are as confusing as all get out to predict.
The LL offseason plan has the M's plugging more money into the pen. And whatever they end up doing next year, it seems pretty clear that taking the same path might not cut it anymore. Besides, think of all the leftover John Jaso beard hats that can be dyed black for Brian Wilson beard hat night now!