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Meet the 2018 Mariners NRIs: The Pitching Pile

Chicago White Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Each year as spring training approaches, most big league clubs will have a crop of non-roster invitees that join the guys on the 40-man roster at big league camp. Typically, that group is made up of some combination of top organizational prospects who have had a year or two of minor league experience, and major league and/or upper-minors veterans who are trying to crack an Opening Day roster one last time. Ben kicked off this series with a deep dive on former Cubs outfielder John Andreoli last week, followed by Kate introducing you to the catching depth; next came the NRI Infielders and outfielders; in our final installment of this series, we look at what is arguably the most important component of this list: the pitching pile.

The Veteran Command Artist - Christian Bergman

Before 2017, Christian Bergman had never pitched outside of the Rockies organization. His career K% was around 13%, outside of a sharp jump in 2016 over ten big-league games. Freed from Colorado’s Mystery Spot, Bergman boosted his strikeouts with Tacoma in 2017, pitching well enough to earn a spot as the top depth option as injuries began to fell the big-league pitching staff. He struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark, however, running a HR/FB% of almost 17%. Bergman depends on location to offset his low-velocity fastball, and there’s a possibility fatigue played a factor in his struggles last year as injuries pressed him into service at the big-league level. Bergman’s 140 innings were the most he’d pitched since 2014, back when he was just 26. If Bergman can keep his HR/FB rate closer to the 8% he ran in Tacoma and get back to posting FIPs in the 4s rather than the 5s, he’ll be a useful injury replacement for a Seattle staff that was Faberge-fragile in 2017. -KP

The Underrated One - Matthew Festa

When the Mariners took Matt Festa in the seventh round of the 2016 draft, the 6’2” righty became the highest draft choice ever taken from East Stroudsburg University, a Division II school in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania. I don’t know who is in charge of scouting D-2 schools in PA, but whoever it is, you’re doing amazing, sweetie (just off the top of my head I’m thinking of Festa, Altavilla from Mercyhurst, and ex-Mariner Brandon Miller from Millersville). Festa ran a straight-up heartless 34% K-rate in the offensive-happy Cal League this year, and proceeded to continue plying his strikeout trade in the Arizona Fall League. Both Festa and Warren have big-league skillsets but get very little coverage because they’re relievers; however, both have major-league tools.

The Wounded Warrior - Ryan Cook

Do you remember Ryan Cook, Mariner? Technically, he has been one since January of 2016, but you are forgiven if you forgot, since he has pitched exactly one inning as a Mariner, in Peoria. The only reason I remembered Ryan Cook is because of his Photo Day pictures:

That’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you. Anyway, Cook missed all of 2016 with a severe lat injury, and then missed all of 2017 with TJ. The 30-year-old righty reliever was an All-Star for the A’s back in 2012, when he posted a 2.89 FIP, and followed that up with an equally strong campaign in 2013, but a forearm strain sapped his effectiveness in 2014 and Cook saw his velocity dip sharply, almost two ticks down by 2015. At his peak, Cook was throwing 96 with a wipeout slider that resulted in a K% of almost 28% and a swinging strike percentage of 11.7%. It will be interesting to see if a fully-healthy Cook can regain some of his previous glory. I’ll definitely be rooting for him. -KP

The “Oh Yeah, He’s Here!” Guy - Ryan Garton

Garton came over from the Rays along with Mike Marjama back in August, and at first glance, he seemed like nothing more than a throw-in. After struggling with Tampa and tossing twelve unremarkable innings for Tacoma, he joined the big club in September, where he pitched unexpectedly well, walking a single batter (hint: his name rhymes with Bike Snout) and giving up just two runs over 11.2 innings of work in a middle relief role. Garton also showed some flexibility in Seattle, going more than one inning in three out of thirteen outings. His raw stuff isn’t overwhelming with a fastball that sits at around 92-93 MPH, but he has thrown at least sixty innings in every full season of his professional career, and has a long track record of limiting the long ball in the minors. While Garton was outrighted off of the 40-man roster back in October, and has been held out of early work this spring while recovering from offseason hip labrum surgery, he should prove to be decent and durable depth this season when fully healthy. -CD

The IwaCOMEBACK - Hisashi Iwakuma

Ohhhh, heavenly Ligament Lords; ohhhh, Masters of Musculature; bless this man, and his thirty-seven-year-old body that would be youthful were he just an average bear. But alas, he is an exceptional bear; steady as a rock for years, then suddenly smote by the injury fates and the league’s newfound bloodlust for dingers. May his recovery and rehab be swift yet complete (he had arthroscopic surgery in his shoulder back in September and is projected to begin throwing in March, and ideally game-ready in May/June), may his velocity return (it dipped down across the board last season, after remaining about as consistent as you could want a player’s velocity to be—a greater indicator of injury than simply becoming “bad”), and may he repair his relationship with the strike zone. In exchange, we promise to never again curse the time he takes betwixt his pitches. Thank you, almighty soft-tossing deities; in Jamie Moyer’s name we K, amen. -IM

The Loose Cannon - Johendi Jiminian

The winner of the annual “Most Likely to Just Be Called “Yo” By Scott Servais” award goes to Johendi, succeeding last year’s winner Yovani Gallardo. The 25 year-old Jiminian works a fastball with plus velocity that pushes into the upper nineties. That fastball should play better than it does, but despite mixing in a decent changeup and what appears to be a low-80s slider on video, Jiminian’s numbers fail to whelm. His AAA numbers do come in the clown shoes offensive stronghold that is the PCL, and his home stadium of Albuquerque is around 5,100 feet above sea level, but he’s been inconsistent at best regardless.

He’s been a low leverage/long reliever since his conversion from starting when he moved to AA, and his mix of pitches combined with strong stamina make him a passably intriguing pitcher. Mechanically, there is a lot of herk and a bit of jerk, and it’s not impossible to envision some work there leading to better results from the young Dominican. I would place Jiminian below every pitcher on this list save for Newsome in terms of likelihood to actually pitch in the majors for Seattle, but that’s pretty much what we said about Sam Gaviglio last year, so don’t sleep on him. -JT

The 30-Year-Old Rookie - Casey Lawrence

When Dipoto claimed Casey Lawrence off waivers from the Blue Jays last May, the hope was he could be like ex-teammate Wade LeBlanc: a multi-inning reliever who could stop the worst of the bleeding while waiting for reinforcements. After a strong performance in Triple-A, the Jays had promoted Lawrence, who was disastrous in a brief stint in the majors, with an FIP of 6.53 in just over 13 MLB innings. Seattle scooped him up off waivers and he spent the rest of the year as a Mariner, doing the yeoman’s work of middle relief. For the Mariners, Lawrence’s FIP decreased but was still no great shakes—4.87—but he gave the team 42 innings of injury-free pitching. Sometimes he was very bad, like in a game against Oakland where in a third of an inning he surrendered four runs, walking two and giving up a home run; sometimes he was very good, like in a game against Texas later in the month where he pitched two innings of one-hit, no-run, four-K, no-BBs ball. His highlight as a Mariner was against Colorado on June 1st, where he stepped in for an ailing Ariel Miranda and gave the Mariners five solid innings, striking out nine and surrendering just one run. Lawrence is thirty years old and had spent his entire career in the Blue Jays minor leagues--occasionally thinking of quitting--before pitching 55 big league innings last year. Injuries meant the team had to lean on the inexperienced righty much more than ideal, but with his first MLB experience under his belt, he sets up as a solid depth option in Tacoma. Not bad for someone who was ready to go back to marketing two years ago. -KP

The one who may be an Instagram bot, but a very nice one - Ljay Newsome

I’m a sucker for the average looking guys without eye popping measurables who just go out and get it done on the mound. Give me your Jamie Moyers, your Mike Leakes, your Erasmo Ramirii yearning to breathe free. The problem with this model, of course, is that most average looking guys without eye popping measurables aren’t, well, good. To love these pitchers is to be disappointed, but I love and love again.

Ljay Newsome fits the bill. A 26th round draft pick without a college commit in 2015, the prep hurler showed up in Everett in 2016 and turned in 60 solid innings against mostly older players. A troubling home run rate predictably stabilized, and the 5’11” Maryland native turned in one of the best (low bar) seasons by a Mariner prospect in 2017, which earned him the 60 feet 6 inches award (for being the top organizational pitcher in 0-0 and 1-1 counts—all together now: CONTROL ARTIST) and an invite to big league camp this spring at the tender age of 21. Not bad for a kid from a Transformers high school (seriously, Chopticon?) at the mouth of the Potomac. As you’d expect for an unheralded 26th round pick, scouting on Newsome is sparse. It appears his fastball has worked its way into the low 90s, and high school reports had him throwing a very slow curve (68-73) and maybe a change up? Not a threat to break with the MLB club, Newsome should be slated for Modesto to start the year, where he will seek to replicate his 2017 performance and also avoid being dangled as midseason trade fodder for whichever Mariners position is underperforming the most. In the meantime, enjoy one of the most wholesome instagrams around. He’s a nice boy. -TC

The one who’s just like every guy you’ve ever talked to at a house party, except he wasn’t lying when he told you about his athletic prowess- Art Warren

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young, decent starter in the low minors gets moved to the bullpen, gains some velocity, hones in on his slider, starts striking everyone out, and launches up to the majors. Sound familiar? It worked wonders with Edwin Díaz, it...sort of worked with Dan Altavilla, and now there’s a chance that we could see Art Warren make his major league debut this season. Warren sits in the mid-90s and has touched 99, but what really makes him stand out as a reliever are the three offspeed pitches in his repertoire: a changeup that he likes bringing out against lefties, a hard curve, and a slider that he picked up last offseason. He’s a guy who’s worked especially hard since being moved to the bullpen to build himself up both physically and mentally. I’m not a big fan of relievers, and am decidedly on the record in regards to my dislike of prospects, but Warren has called those beliefs into question. Watch this video he did with Bobby DeMuro at Baseball Census (and show it to every young baseball player in your own life), and try not to believe in him, too. Damnit, Kate. -IM