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The 2017 Mariners in review: the bullpen

50 beautiful relievers and three ugly ones

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners
jk they’re all handsome even you with your increasingly encroaching goatee, Nick
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Mariners season was a disappointment. There’s really no way to sugarcoat that. Sure, there were high moments, but as a whole, the Mariners played some really unenjoyable baseball at points during this year, as both Jake and Zach pointed out in pieces this past week. The pitching staff that was supposed to be never was, favorite prospects were traded away (miss you Toenail), and injuries interrupted promising seasons from players like Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, and James Paxton. In the coming weeks, we’ll be launching some Big Picture-type pieces to assess what we as a staff believe the Mariners need to do to take a step forward this off-season.

In order to do that, we first need to complete the autopsy of the 2017 season, as icky as that sounds. This week, we’ll be looking back over each member of the 2017 squad, weighing their contributions, and projecting their role in 2018. We started with the infield and outfield; yesterday, we covered starting pitching. Today we’ll look at the other part of the pitching staff: the bullpen. In 2017 the Mariners bullpen was right around the middle of the pack, thanks in large part to a lack of consistency influenced by the instability in the starting rotation. Even as a mid-tier bullpen, however, their 3.6 fWAR was still over a full win higher than the next-closest team, the Nationals.

NB: Relievers are listed in order of descending fWAR. Not listed here are the starters who also pitched out of the bullpen, including Gallardo and Marco Gonzales (.2 fWAR apiece!), Andrew Moore (.1 fWAR despite Deadgar Weekend), Miranda, Gaviglio, Albers, Bergman and Rob Whalen (that guy again); also not listed are players who only pitched one or two innings like Tyler Cloyd, Thyago Vieira (love you, Brazilian Bazooka), and the position players who pitched (thank you for your service, Mike Freeman and Carlos Ruiz). Max Povse is listed here because he pitched out of the bullpen, but it should be noted his role with the organization still isn’t clear.

Nick Vincent

Overall performance: Nick Vincent had a weird, but effective year. He led the Mariners bullpen in fWAR—second most on the pitching staff—but he also saw a significant drop in his strikeout rate. His FIP held steady at 2.82 because he allowed just three home runs all year long. He accumulated 29 holds, one away from the major league lead.

High point: Vincent didn’t allow a single run in all of June but July might have been his best month this year. His first appearance in July was a stinker against the Angels where he allowed two runs. After that third of an inning, he allowed just one run, eight hits, and two walks, while striking out 12.

Low point: Just like last year, Vincent suffered from overuse as the year went on. This year, his fatigue didn’t set in until September. He allowed 11 runs during the final month of the season and both his strikeout rate and walk rate cratered.

2018 outlook: What Vincent provided the Mariners in 2017 was better than anyone could have hoped. It would be foolish to expect the same from him in 2018. Much of his success was driven by an absurdly low home-run-per-fly-ball rate. While he’s shown he can limit hard contact with his deceptive fastball in the past, even a slight regression towards a league average home run rate would upset his overall effectiveness. The Mariners also have to be worried about overusing him. Two years in a row he’s shown signs of fatigue and the Mariners will need to take special care if they want him effective all season long. Luckily, there are other options to replace Vincent as the primary setup man (Phelps, Pagan).

Edwin Diaz

Overall performance: 66 innings pitched, with a 4.02 FIP/3.94 xFIP, a 12.14 K/9 (10th best among all relievers with a minimum of 60 innings), and a BB/9 of 4.36. He was worth one perfect, even (Fangraphs) win.

High point: The 34 times he recorded a save. Any time he hit 100+ MPH, and every time he came in to close out the game at Safeco and they played his absurd hype video. Honestly just any time he struck anyone out- when Díaz is on, there are few pitchers I love watching more.

Low point: When his mechanics fell apart and he lost the closer role, and people started yelling about the WBC. Specifically, that game in May against Oakland when he seemed incapable of throwing strikes, and allowed two runs off of four walks.

2018 outlook: He's the closer. How effective and world-beating he'll be, given the volatility of past performances, is anyone's guess. Don't ask me, I wanted to trade him last offseason.

Emilio Pagan

Overall performance: After starting out the season with a couple of appearances for team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, Emilio Pagan made his major league debut on May 3. He would be shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and the majors a few more times before finally sticking with the big league club in mid-July. He had the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the bullpen and was capable of throwing multiple innings if needed.

High point: After bouncing back and forth between the majors and the minors a few times, Pagan really showed how valuable he could be with a 21-inning stretch across eight appearances where he allowed just a single run. Most of those appearances weren’t high leverage innings. His most valuable appearance by win probability added came on August 9, where he tossed almost three innings of shutout ball against the Athletics, forming a bridge from the starter to the back end of the bullpen.

Low point: Pagan’s first appearance in the majors was a disaster. He allowed three runs in just a third of an inning, and it could have been more if not for the heroics of Guillermo Heredia. (GO GUILLERMO HE'S THE BEST)

2018 outlook: Early in the season, the Mariners called up Max Povse in an effort to find their own “Chris Devenski.” That experiment failed quickly. What they didn’t know at the time was they already had a fireman waiting in the wings. Pagan averaged 1.5 innings per appearance in 2017 and produced a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than the original thing. The Mariners will likely utilize Pagan in the same role in 2018, though they should think about giving him more high leverage innings.

Tony Zych

Overall performance: Tony Zych had strong results out of the bullpen, posting a 2.66 ERA (3.99 FIP) for all of 2017 while slurpin’ up 40.2 innings away from the gaping maws of the Mariners’ abysmal starting pitchers. “The Anteater” (as he’s called in his innermost circles) can attribute most of his 2017 success to his extremely low HR/9 rate of 0.44. His peripherals leave a little to be desired, as he sits at a just-OK 7.75 K/9 and a not-that-good BB/9 of 4.65. These were far cries from great peripherals in 2015 and 2016 in limited stretches with the Mariners. One can only wonder how good he could have been, had he managed to stay healthy. Zych wasn’t generally allowed to throw back-to-back outings due to his limited durability, but he did manage to stay healthy from mid-April through mid-August. A high strand-rate speaks to some luck, but underperforming his career peripherals probably balances it out.

High point: Zych was pretty nutty throughout the year, but his high point came in July, when he pitched 10.2 innings while allowing only one earned run. After running an above-league average ground ball rate (49.5% on the year) most other months, Zych’s GB% fell in July, but he made up for it with 12 K’s in those 10.2 IP.

Low point: It has to be the injuries, which came at the bookends of the year. A right shoulder biceps injury kept him out the first two weeks of the year, and a right elbow injury sidelined him for a month and a half at the end.

2018 outlook: As with most of the staff, Zych can be awesome if he can stay healthy. He probably can’t keep posting a 2.66 ERA paired with a 4.80 xFIP, but his healthy floor is okay reliever. His upside is returning to his career-high peripherals of an 11.5+ K/9 and a sub-4.0 BB/9, posting a sub-3.00 ERA in the process and anchoring the bullpen.

James Pazos

Overall performance: 53.2 IP, 27.1 K%, 10.0 BB%, 4.05 FIP in first season with double-digit innings in the MLB.

High point: In late April against the defending AL champions, Pazos shredded Cleveland, touching 97, 98, and 99 mph from the left side with four Ks and just two hits allowed in what would be a 3-1 Mariners win.

Low point: I guess August 29th against Baltimore, where he allowed a solo home run, then allowed another run a few days later against Houston in early September. Pazos wasn’t lights out by any means, but he really didn’t have bad stretches. Any bad outing he had, he bounced back from with a strong appearance or two in a row. Rarely dominant, but always fine, and, more importantly, healthy.

2018 outlook: For a guy whose control problems dropped him out of Brian Cashman’s “untouchable” range into the access of mere mortals, only two multi-walk appearances out of 59 is pretty good. Pazos was likely overextended in 2017, and his splits suggest a force of nature against lefties (31.5 K%/6.7 BB%) who struggles to locate against righties (24.5 K%/11.9 BB%). Pazos’ 2.41/5.14 FIP split vs. lefties and righties suggests he is clearly best served facing left-handed hitters, although the arm-side movement on Pazos’ fastballs understandably gives hope that he can be a decent multi-dimensional reliever. At worst, Pazos is a decent middle reliever, and a bullpen with Pazos as its worst non-long relief option is a good bullpen.

David Phelps

Overall performance: Phelps was solid as advertised prior to his injury, with 8.2 innings, an 11.42 K/9, and a 2.70 FIP in relief.

High point: In his first outing as a Mariner, Phelps set down four straight Yankees in 1.1 IP, with two strikeouts, earning a hold in what would eventually be a 6-5 walkoff victory in 10 innings.

Low point: Phelps only really had two bad outings, once in a frustrating loss to the Mets, and the other in a rematch with those same Yankees, but the real low point was Phelps’ flexor bundle strain injury that held him out for the entirety of September (which, based on his velocity, already had impacted him in that Yankees appearance on August 25th).

2018 outlook: David Phelps arrived in the trade for Brayan Hernandez, who *checks Fangraphs* did not become incredible once leaving the Mariners organization, so far. A starting pitcher for most of his career, Phelps transitioned fully from so-so starter to lights out reliever in 2016 and continued to dominate in 2017. There was some discussion of Phelps being used as a starter next season, but, “Wolfpack” not withstanding, after surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, it seems likely Phelps retains a position in the 7th or 8th inning in the bullpen next year to minimize prolonged strain. Phelps is a legit top-notch reliever, and could help anchor a stellar pen if the Mariners have any manner of fortune, and in his contract year, at worst Phelps could yield a struggling M’s team a decent prospect yield. Otherwise, they’ll have David Phelps, who is good.

Ryan Garton

Overall performance: Acquired along with catcher Mike Marjama in a trade with the Rays in early August, Garton didn’t impress me at all when I saw him in Tacoma. Standing just 5’11” with mostly meh stuff, I figured he was just a throw-in along with the team’s real target, Marjama. Garton’s FIP of 4.88 for the season doesn’t look that impressive, but for Seattle he posted a 3.33 FIP, striking out seven and issuing just one walk in 11.2 innings. After seeing bullpen-mate Dan Altavilla training with Driveline equipment, Garton expressed interest in becoming a client there during the off-season. Perhaps that can spur an improvement from the otherwise replacement-level righty.

2018 outlook: The Mariners gave up speedy but glove-first infielder Luis Rengifo and LHP Texas League All-Star Anthony Misiewicz to get Garton and Marjama, which indicates both of them will figure in the team’s plans moving forward.

Shae Simmons

Overall performance: 4.33 FIP/4.72 xFIP; Baseball Reference gives him a much kinder 1.04 WHIP, for what it's worth (not much). He had a super fun 26.7 K% but also a 13.3% walk rate.

High point: Mercilessly striking out each Rangers batter he faced in his inning of work on September 20th. He also got a puppy named Darth Maul.

Low point: Giving up a walkoff home run to Mark Canha at the end of September. Also that time he allowed four runs in 0.2 innings against the Angels, but the season was already toast by that point anyway, and no one wants to remember that.

2018 outlook: Health is going to be a huge factor in the future of Simmons' career. When healthy, and confident with his mechanics, he has the potential to live up to all those Craig Kimbrel comps; as James Truplin wrote, "Simmons is a big moment pitcher packed into a wrestler's frame." If you're looking to root for a reliever before they're "cool," and something about Emilio Pagan bothers you, root for Shae Simmons. If things go well, we'll be hearing his name quite a bit next season.

Cody Martin

Overall performance: I nicknamed Cody Martin “Brave Little Toaster” last year because he did the dirty, unglamorous work of the bullpen: either mopping up in blowouts or covering multiple innings when starters imploded, trying to buy time for a comeback. All that strain of carrying the team through the dark times led to Martin developing the dreaded soggy elbow, and he spent the first few months of the season rehabbing in Arizona. Martin only pitched a few innings with the big club this year and things didn’t go...great, but he had a strong season at Tacoma, running the best K/BB ratio of his career (4.8).

2018 outlook: The Gonzaga grad is a free agent and his return to the team is questionable. As the Mariners need pitching depth, they should offer him a minor-league contract and send him to Tacoma, where he’ll again be at the ready should the need for toast arise. Also, he needs to stay with the organization so we get more pictures of his newborn son Cash’s fabulous head of hair:

Sunday morning snuggles with these two ☺️ ❤️☀️ #cashanthony #myheartisbursting

A post shared by Andréa Martin (@_drea_martin_) on

Marc Rzepczynski

Overall performance: Scrabble was fine. Per Fangraphs, he posted a 0.00 fWAR, indicating that he was exactly replacement level. Not bad for a middle reliever in general, but a hell of a lot worse when you consider that he got paid $5.5 million last year and is guaranteed the same next year. The weird part is that he never got hurt— Scott Servais just never really pitched him. The LOOGiest LOOGY that ever LOOGied, Rzepczynski didn’t get a whole lot of situational run against lefties, which just didn’t make a lot of sense. It’s possible his underwhelming performance speaks more to Servais’ bullpen management than Scrabble’s actual talent, but something will have to change if he’s going to give any return-on-investment next year.

High point: Zep started out hot, posting a 1.48 ERA through the first two months of year. This made it all the more frustrating when he was used minimally from then on.

Low point: Used sparingly throughout the year, Scrabble started getting more of those 0.1 IP outings in September, and couldn’t deliver. Thrown in against just-one-lefty after just-one-lefty, he managed a 13.50 ERA for the month of September.

2018 outlook: The M’s don’t have much choice: they’ll have to keep Zep. No one is likely to trade for that contract, and cutting him wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Hopefully Servais can be a bit more conscientious about using him next year. If he’s put in a position to succeed against mostly lefties, he could be a core piece of the ‘pen.

Max Povse

Overall performance: Max Povse: Reliever pitched 3.2 Bad Innings. He posted a 7.36 ERA on the year, which doesn’t mean very much over just 3.2 IP. That being said, I went to his debut (also Andrew Moore’s debut!), and it was Bad. The good news is that after this failed experiment, he is again working in the AFL as a starter. Whether he will remain a starter or the tallest wolf in the pack will be a question we probably won’t have the answer to until spring training.

High point: Making it to the Majors at all? Maybe a 2.0 IP, 0 ER outing in July against the Angels?

Low point: The aforementioned debut outing in which he gave up 3 ER in just 0.2 IP.

2018 outlook: If the Mariners use Max Povse: Starter in 2018, something has gone horribly wrong with the rotation (again). If the Mariners use Max Povse: Reliever in 2018, something has gone horribly wrong with the Max Povse: Starter project. I don’t know how we could see him on the 25-man roster next year in a good context.

Dan Altavilla

Overall performance: Dan Altavilla entered 2017 with high expectations after a breakout year in the minors last year. A 4.79 FIP was definitely a disappointment, though he did improve after a midseason demotion to the minors.

High point: Altavilla’s best outing by win probability came on May 15, in relief of starter Yovani Gallardo. With the Mariners leading by one and runners on second and third, Altavilla was called on to shut down the Athletics. He walked the first batter on four pitches, loading the bases, but struck out the next batter and induced a ground ball to get the final out.

Low point: There were a number of poor outings from Atlavilla early in the season, but none was worse than his appearance on April 12. Leading the Astros by one run, Altavilla allowed three runs on four hits in the seventh inning to hand the Mariners their eighth loss of the year.

2018 outlook: Altavilla will need to make some adjustments before he’s able to be a reliable member of the Mariners bullpen. His performance in September provided a glimpse of what could be if he’s able to reign in his wildness—he struck out four batters for every walk he allowed in that month, good for a 2.99 FIP. Depending on how he looks in spring training, he’ll probably start the year as a middle reliever but has the upside to take on high leverage innings if he can control his fastball.

Evan Marshall

Overall performance: A 5.77 FIP and 7.09 xFIP with a 10.5% K-rate and a 13.2% walk rate. His overall numbers look uglier than they were because of a disastrous appearance in Detroit when Scott Servais pulled straws and Evan Marshall's straw was the shortest.

High point: Pitching in the major leagues after taking a line drive to the head; existing in this world with the knowledge that Butters, cutest life-saving dog ever, loves him; allowing only one run (ignoring the monstrosity of Black Tuesday in Detroit, when he was essentially a sacrificial lamb) on a (harmless) solo shot from Ichiro.

Low point: May 5th, when he gruesomely injured his hamstring. Also the aforementioned Black Tuesday disaster.

2018 outlook: Marshall's performance in Tacoma, once he was reinstated from the DL, was interesting. In 21.2 innings he allowed seven walks but struck out 26, with a WHIP of 1.62. When he was first acquired, Marshall was an overwhelmingly groundball-prone pitcher, but in his brief stint with the M's he actually had a higher FB% than GB%. I'd started taking notes for a piece about this transition when he got injured, and I'm intrigued by what kind of performance we'll see from him next season.

Also, here, have a gratuitous Butters pic:

Casey Lawrence

Overall performance: In Casey Lawrence, scooped up in late April after he was DFA’d by the Blue Jays, Dipoto hoped to get another Wade LeBlanc: a replacement-level innings-eater who could limit damage and make the occasional spot start. Lawrence’s performance was inconsistent: he’d have stretches where he gave up no runs, and others where he’d give up six, and was ultimately worth -.3 fWAR (LeBlanc, for contrast, was worth .1).

High point: On June 1st against Colorado, making just his fifth appearance as a Mariner, Lawrence pitched five innings in a mop-up effort after Yovani Gallardo gave up five runs in three innings with two home runs (also known as a “Gallardo”). He allowed just one run while striking out nine.

Low point: Lawrence was involved in the 20-run debacle against the Twins on June 13th, although his performance (3.2 IP, 11 H, 6 ER) doesn’t look that bad against starter Christian Bergman, who allowed 9 ER in just 2.2 innings that day.

2018 outlook: There is precious little pitching depth on the farm and Lawrence provides useful depth for a low price. His ability to be a long reliever/swingman makes him especially valuable to Seattle.

Departed relievers: Jean Machi, Steve Cishek, Zac Curtis, Evan Scribner, Casey Fien

Jean Machi became a Sporcle quiz answer after throwing a single scoreless inning and earning the win; he spent all but seven innings with the Rainiers this season, and is now available to fart in anyone else's bullpen.

There was a lot of talk, after the trade with the Diamondbacks, that what was being referred to as the Jean Segura trade might end up being remembered as the Mitch Haniger trade. It will likely never be recalled as the Zac Curtis trade. He threw 4.2 innings for the Mariners, which is honestly kind of amazing, and somehow is now being heckled by the fans in Philadelphia. Consider that your fun fact of the day, friends: Zac Curtis is a Philadelphia Phillie.

Were you worried about Sk8er Boi Curtis being lonely in Philadelphia? Worry no more, because somehow Casey Fien is also there. In the most pleasing stats of his career yet, Fien managed to pitch an even six innings in a single month for both the Mariners (in April) and the Phillies (in June).

Evan Scribner did his Great, Disappearing Evan Scribner Act again, but this time he did not return to impress people in September and October. He was also not great in his limited time in the bigs, giving up nine earned runs and three homers in 7.1 innings of work. He's currently a free agent recovering from a flexor bundle strain, but I wouldn't be too mad if they offered him some sort of low-level deal this offseason.

Any time you can acquire something other than a reliever, when trading a reliever, it should be considered a win. In the case of Erasmo Ramirez for Steve Cishek it was a need-for-need swap that has thus far worked out pretty well for both sides. Since Cishek has been in Tampa he's been good (his FIP dropped from 4.37 to 2.14 during his time with the Rays- that's a crazy drop, but we're not D Rays Bay so we're not going to ponder that much more), but not good enough to warrant bemoaning this trade, particularly given the utter dearth of capable starters in Seattle. He was weird and wonderful, though, and will be missed like you miss that favorite thing that you lost but forgot about until this very moment when I prompted you to recall it.