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Exploring the Mariners’ options in the relief pitcher free agent pool

Look, I know we’ve seen this go catastrophically, but starting pitchers are going extinct

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In 2018, the Mariners called upon Edwin Díaz’s award-winning right arm 73 times, yielding a league-leading 57 saves, a preposterous 15.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and a superhuman 207 ERA+. Having a 24-year-old piece of scorching elastic to finish games is an excellent luxury, and a blanketing comfort when winning in the late innings, but Díaz’s whole shtick is rendered mostly useless if his boys can’t hand him a lead.

While it’s not quite a pressing need the way starting pitching or a center fielder is, the waters become a little less treacherous if the Mariners add some depth to the reliever pool. Hiring another capable seventh or eight inning dude only solidifies the back end of games while simultaneously making things a bit easier on holdovers Alex Colomé, Juan Nicasio, and Nick Vincent.

One more bull in the pen also helps Seattle bridge the gap from its talented if inconsistent starting rotation to its dominant closer. Spending a sliver of the offseason free agent budget on a low-cost substitute pitcher also can take some of the middle innings away from struggling starters facing their second or third trips through opposing lineups, a helpful security even if the five-man staff is upgraded before Opening Day.

As the playoffs seem to show us every year, it’s never a bad thing to have more reliable relievers than you might need, especially for a team that was a staggering 77-0 when leading after eight innings. Broadcasters, coaches, and players love to talk about valuable relievers “shortening a game”, and the Mariners are basically playing eight-inning affairs every time Edwin pitches. Bolstering the bullpen could make 2019 games frustratingly shorter for opposing teams before facing the final boss.

With all that in mind, let’s cruise through some of the relievers that just became free agents, and thus, are ripe for the picking. Quick shout out to Marly Rivera for this helpful tweet that nicely lays out every team and their 2018 employees who are now free agents.

The Big Names/Bags: Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson

The Mariners likely won’t (and frankly should not) chase after any of these people. They will command several zeroes in their salaries and would probably want final out duties, a role that Edwin Díaz has in a stranglehold. I would expect closer-needy teams like Anaheim, Atlanta, and Philadelphia to zero in on these guys.

Ottavino and Robertson both excelled in their setup roles last season but would require a vault of money far greater than the Mariners can offer. While Robertson has plied his trade with a massive, looping curveball, Ottavino’s repertoire is a little sexier. This two-pitch sequence should be Ottavino’s entire resume, cover letter, and online dating profile.

Allen fell off a miniature cliff in 2018 but prior to that had posted four consecutive stellar seasons. His spectacularly ill-timed contract year performance will probably cost him every 1st and 15th, and I would love for other teams to be signing those checks. Same goes for Britton, who is not nearly the same pitcher that finished fourth in 2016 Cy Young voting. Recent memories tell us he can still unleash doom upon any challengers; that doesn’t mean teams should back up the Brinks truck in hopes that a 30-year-old can regain a past form.

Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller are not coming to Seattle. Let’s move on.

Sensible Choices: Jesse Chavez, Joe Kelly, Aaron Loup, Tony Sipp

Of this quartet, Kelly is probably the freshest in your mind after turning the Dodgers to dust. Armed with a 100 MPH fastball and a pair of goggles straight from your local YMCA’s best three-point shooter, Kelly fanned 10 while allowing zero walks and just four hits in 10 World Series innings. He’s about as close as you can get to a prototypical eighth inning man, and he comes with a starter’s track record should the Mariners want to stretch him into a multiple-inning fireman. Among the relief pitchers on the open market, Kelly feels like the one who makes the most sense in terms of finances and fit.

Sipp turned himself from a 45th-round draft pick into an MLB pitcher with ten years of service time and a 108 career ERA+. He wisely did the reverse Cody Allen in 2018, putting up dazzling numbers in a contract year. Sure, Sipp is 35 years old and undoubtedly looking for a cushy contract to carry him to the twilight of his career. But, he also held lefties to .188/.263/.294 clips last year and didn’t fare much worse against right-handed swingers. Nabbing the veteran southpaw also immediately gives Seattle an established lefty in the bullpen while they hopefully groom James Pazos and/or Roenis Elías into the same archetype.

The appeal of Chavez and Loup is that they will both presumably be pretty cheap. Chavez somersaulted between eight teams before finding a stable home with the Cubs last year. After landing in Wrigleyville, the well-traveled Chavez leaned heavily into the cutter revolution and enjoyed the best numbers of his life: 42 K/5 BB in 39 innings.

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Loup, a left-hander, is a probably worse, definitely paler version of Sipp. While he stumbled through an injury-riddled 2018, Loup had a great 2017 campaign, highlighted by a 53.5% ground ball rate. He’s nasty against lefties, slightly cleaner against righties, and extremely affordable. However, he does give off some pungent Zach Duke/Adam Warren vibes. Tread lightly, Mariner front office.

Question Marks: Brad Brach, Tyler Clippard, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, AJ Ramos

Sergio Romo

This tier is a fun mix featuring five World Series rings, eight 30-save seasons, once-enchanting setup men, and Tyler Clippard, whose career map touches one-third of all American League teams.

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks
[to the tune of Frank Ocean’s “Crack Rock”] BRAD BRACH BRAD BRACH
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The common thread between these gentlemen–and really most relief pitchers–is volatility. Had Brach entered free agency after his monster 2016 season, he would have been regarded as right-handed Andrew Miller. While still a highly-destructive cannon to deploy late in games, Brach’s strikeout numbers have dipped since his glory days. A down year in ’17 followed by an extremely-Orioles ‘18 led Atlanta to rescue Brach at the deadline. He resurrected himself after re-finding his slider down south, upping his stock heading into the winter. If the Mariners were to take a chance on any of these question marks, I’d probably prefer it be Brach, and hope to high heavens it’s just a one-year deal.

Herrera, Holland, Ramos, and Romo have each enjoyed success as closers but would obviously take earlier shifts if picked up by the Mariners. Outside of the 28-year-old Herrera (who tore a foot ligament in August), each is on the wrong side of 30, with checkered histories of injuries or ineffectiveness that seem to plague 90 percent of bullpen residents. Should any of the four wind up in Seattle, put me firmly in the category of intrigued yet highly skeptical.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a reliever vacillate between unhittable and “I think I could put one in play off him” more than Clippard. 50 innings of good Tyler Clippard would result in endless maniacal laughter and changeup-induced howling. 50 innings of bad Tyler Clippard would put me in the hospital.

Absolutely Not: Jeurys Familia, Ryan Madson, Bud Norris

Just don’t.