The Case Against an 8-Man Bullpen

As I am sure you are all aware, the Mariners opted to begin the year with an 8-man bullpen and a 3-man bench, rather than the 7 and 4 that the team went with for most (all?) of last year. When the move was announced, I recall some people questioning it, but I believe most expected it to be a short-term patch as a questionable rotation got its footing to begin the year, especially considering the injury to Drew Smyly.

And that still may be the case. It is only April 24th as I write this, and they could very easily send a reliever down tomorrow when Jean Segura returns, and this all becomes moot. But considering they opted to DFA their starting center fielder rather than simply pare down the pen seems to indicate that it is something they plan to stick with, at least for the time being.

On the surface, having an extra reliever when you have a shaky rotation is completely logical. At this point only two -- or maybe three depending on your feelings towards Yovani Gallardo -- of the team's five starters seem like good bets to go 6+ innings with regularity. Add to that the fact that the lineup has a good amount of versatility, and the team is employing a strict LOOGY, and there is certainly a case to be made for the extra arm.

The problem is, they haven't really needed that extra arm this year. For one thing, the Mariners have gotten 113.1 innings from their starters so far this year, good for sixth best in the game. They rank at 15th in WAR, so they haven't all been quality innings, but they are innings nonetheless.

They have also needed the 10th most innings out of their bullpen this year, but most of that is because they have played the 6th most innings (thanks to playing more games than some other teams, as well as some extra inning games). The bullpen has accounted for just 36% of the teams innings, which is exactly in line with the league average. They haven't had a particularly pressing need for their bullpen in general, let alone an 8th arm.

Now, one could potentially argue that the bullpen would be worse if they only had 7, as they would have had to throw more, and potentially become overworked. But they have already been awful (-0.2 WAR, 6th worst in the league), so I can't really imagine it getting much worse. If anything it may get better because more innings can be given to Diaz, Zych, Scrabble and eventually Cishek rather than tossing the likes of Casey Fien, Dillon Overton and Evan Marshall out there just because you have them.

Beyond that -- and this is what I consider to be the most damning piece of evidence -- none of their relievers have come close to being overworked so far; on the contrary, Servais has had to make it a point to get certain pitchers in the game because they hadn't pitched in a while. The best example of this is Edwin Diaz pitching in the 8th inning with the Mariners losing because he hadn't taken the mound in five days, but there are others.

Before yesterday's game (April 23rd) in which he pitched the 8th inning, Marc Rzepczynski had pitched one-third of an inning over the previous six days. Evan Scribner, who also pitched an inning yesterday, had only thrown 1.2 innings over the previous 5 days. James Pazos and Tony Zych have both thrown just 1.1 innings over the last five days.

Nick Vincent currently leads the way in innings pitched among Mariners relievers at 9.1, and after what happened to him last year, they should try to avoid overworking him again. But he doesn't even break the top-40 in terms of innings pitched among all relievers, and even if he did, does having an extra reliever just for the purpose of limiting Nick Vincent's innings really make sense? Considering no other M's reliever has thrown more than 8 innings (Pazos comes in next at 7.2 innings, which puts him tied for 98th), I'd say no.

And of course, some of that is because they have had the luxury of spreading out their innings. But considering what I noted above about their innings leaders, they don't appear to be at risk of overworking anyone if they don't want to. Of course, Servais can ride the hot hand again and burn someone, but that's his fault, not the fault of a 7-man bullpen.

One last thing to note is that, without Leonys Martin, and with Taylor Motter likely to remain a more or less everyday player in some capacity, the versatility the roster began with has been reduced. It is still fine, with Motter's ability to play basically anywhere, the fact that all three outfielders can play all three outfield spots, and Valencia's ability to fake it at all four corners, but it wouldn't take much for them to fine themselves in a roster crunch. (e.g. Pinch run Heredia for Vogelbach in the 7th, someone gets hurt in the 8th, and suddenly you have Carlos Ruiz playing first base)

My hope would be that Jean Segura replaces Evan Marshall or Chris Heston tomorrow when he returns, with Steve Cishek replacing the other when he is ready to go, but I mostly expect Mike Freeman to be shipped back down to Tacoma.