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Mariners Opening Day Depth Projection: the Bullpen

Taking a look at a projected strength of the team headed into 2018

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With Opening Day a week and a half away, it’s time to lock in on who the Mariners will be trotting out in teal this year, and who is likeliest to provide the depth behind them. These pieces will be tierings more than in-depth assessments, and will focus on the players who are MLB-adjacent more than deep dives into the farm system (those will come closer to the start of the MiLB season). If you’re looking for more detailed looks at the players on the 40-man roster, our 40 in 40 series is the place to go. Additionally, if you’re looking for quick hits on the Non-Roster Invitees, we’ve got those too!

John started us off with the backup catcher contest, which came to a surprisingly truncated end this week, and yesterday took a look at the actual battle at first base. Today we look at what’s largely considered a strength of the team: the bullpen. The Mariners will apparently roll with a eight-man bullpen to begin the season before they have to add in a fifth starter, so this list previews who we think those eight will be, with the depth pieces ranked from “closest to MLB” to “can sign a full-year lease in Tacoma.” As of the time of this writing, the Mariners have two openings on their 40-man roster (RIP Sam Moll, hello Dario Alvarez), and will likely be trawling the waiver wire as other teams make cuts to add to their pitching pile.

The Locks:

The Closer - Edwin Díaz

Sugar, Electric Eddy D, All I do is Ed-Win, whatever you call him (we prefer, as Edwin does, Sugar), Edwin Diaz will serve as the team’s regular closer in 2018. This spring he’s only pitched seven innings, collecting 8 Ks so far, but has shown an encouraging ability to self-correct on the mound when he starts losing his mechanics. When he’s on, there’s no more electrifying closer to watch in baseball, with Diaz’s whiplike arm action slashing the strikezone with his fastball-slider combo. A burgeoning friendship with newly-acquired veteran Juan Nicasio can’t hurt, either.

The Setup Man - Nick Vincent

Acquired from the Padres for a handful of circus peanuts, Nick Vincent has blossomed as a Mariner into one of the most successful setup men in baseball. He’s had a slow entry to 2018 due to some arm soreness and has pitched just three innings without scraping 90 on his fastball yet, but even at 88-89, his superior location and whirling dervish fastball has continued to fool batters, and he’s yet to surrender a run.

The Major Offseason Pitching Acquisition - Juan Nicasio

The Mariners chose not to spend on a free agent starting pitcher this year, instead opting for the 31-year-old Nicasio on a 2-year, $17MM deal. Nicasio was an attractive option for the Mariners as someone who could potentially close if things go haywire with the young Díaz, but who could just as easily offer multi-inning shutdown relief, something the Mariners’ aged, injury-prone, and potentially ineffective pitching staff will almost certainly need.

The Multi-Inning Threat: David Phelps

Mariners fans didn’t get to see Phelps in action much last year after he was acquired from the Marlins and subsequently went down with an elbow injury, and after a few rough Spring Training innings, we haven’t seen much of him this year yet. Phelps is someone Mariners fans are largely buying on spec considering his strong body of work. Hopefully his injuries are behind him and we’re able to see him in full flourish this year.

AhhaHAhahaHAHAHAhaha. Okay you win this one, Injury Gods. Move Casey Lawrence into this spot, and move everyone else up one, I guess.

The LOOGY - Marc Rzepczynski

Reportedly, the Mariners looked to move Zep during the offseason, as his limited profile doesn’t fit with a team that is looking to lean heavily on its bullpen, but couldn’t find any attractive offers. Zep, at the behest of pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., is working with a new delivery this year, shortening his leg kick to create a more downward plane and shorter path to the plate. As with most change, it’s come about in fits and starts this spring; he’s had rough outings and others where he’s looked dominant. (Personally, I always found Zep’s leg kick aesthetically pleasing and am sad to see it go.) Here’s the difference, in case you’re interested:

vs. now:

The Power Pitcher - Dan Altavilla

After a down 2017, Dan Altavilla returned back home to the wilds of Pennsylvania, where he streamlined his life, cleaned up his diet, and devoted himself 24/7 to improving as a pitcher, including building a Driveline-style plyo wall in his backyard. That investment has already paid dividends this spring, as the powerfully-built righty has seemingly conquered the command issues that plagued him last year. There’s no substitute for hard work, and Altavilla is toeing the rubber this spring with the confidence of someone who knows he’s put in the time. A fringe member of the bullpen prior to Spring Training, “Danimal” has earned a spot on the Opening Day roster with lights-out performances this spring.

The Lefty Power Pitcher - James Pazos

A moment of RIP-ing James Pazos’s magnificent mustache, if you please. The Pazos trade was one of the earliest examples of Dipoto’s strategy of sending off lower-level talent (miss you, Zack Littell) for MLB-close players. Pazos was just okay in 2017, showing flashes of being a lefty impact arm but occasionally struggling with command. His 27% K-rate was excellent, but he has to keep his walks down to truly be a major league regular (and be worth sacrificing a career 3-FIP starting pitcher in the minors). So far Pazos has four walks in just over eight innings pitched this spring, which isn’t exactly a way to endear yourself to management.

The Surprisingly Effective Pitcher The Mets Just Gave Away - Chasen Bradford

Fun fact: I sat next to Chasen’s uncle at a Spring Training game. “Why did the Mets DFA him?” I asked. His response: a long, low, belly laugh. Bradford will probably be the first one sent down when the need for a fifth starter arises—if Casey Lawrence doesn’t win the spot away from him (NOTE: post-Phelps, they probably both get a spot)—but he’s a useful depth piece, with his high-spin slider, and will serve as either a valuable part of Seattle or Tacoma’s bullpen. Why would you just give him away, you silly Mets.

Look For the Helpers:

The 30-Year-Old Rookie: Casey Lawrence

If you missed Jake’s piece on Casey Lawrence, go read that first, and then come back. At the time of this writing, Lawrence is not on 40-man, but he will be, barring the Mariners picking up a bunch of relievers they have to put on the 40-man or lose to waivers. After a year doing yeoman’s long relief work in Seattle, Lawrence has put together a strong spring campaign that’s seen him strike out 13 in 12 innings of work with a palty 0.75 ERA. An NRI entering this spring, Lawrence has earned a spot on the 40-man, at least, and potentially more than that, and could unseat Bradford for the last spot in the pen if the team decides they want a reliever who can go three or more innings. (Post-injury note: Lawrence and Bradford should both win spots in the pen in the early going, and if Lawrence can continue to build on his strong spring, he’ll win a spot when the need arises for a fifth starter).

The LATE ADD - Dario Alvarez

I don’t know much about Dario Alvarez except that he’s on the 40-man, throws baseballs with his left hand, and has a nasty slider. He seems like a reclamation project more than someone they want to throw into major-league appearances immediately, but he’s near the top of this list because, 40-man.

The Oh Sweet Baby Dill Pickles Please Be Okay - Nick Rumbelow

Staff favorite strikeout machine JP Sears was traded away for Rumbelow, a supposedly MLB-ready piece who went down with mysterious shoulder sog this spring. When healthy, Rumbelow is a multi-inning threat, but his injury update is currently the ominous “no timetable for return.” Other than Alvarez, he is the only pitcher in this tier who is currently on the 40-man.

Not Dead Yet! - Ryan Cook

Former Athletics reliever and All-Star Ryan Cook is back from two years of injuries and seeing his velocity crank into the 93-95 mph range already this spring. Cook has been surprisingly effective for someone who hasn’t thrown an MLB pitch in over two years. If he can remain healthy, he’s potentially the best comeback story in the majors. Phelps’s injury leaves Cook a legitimate path to seeing big league time again in 2018, which must be just thrilling for him. Never give up on your dreams, kids.

The Absolute Driveline Lad - Shawn Armstrong

Armstrong was picked up off waivers from Cleveland, where he worked with fellow Driveline devotee Trevor Bauer. The Mariners successfully snuck him through waivers after he was DFA’d for Ichiro. He’ll be a useful depth piece at Tacoma, where he’ll be conveniently located near the Driveline training facility.

Lincecum Lite - Ryan Garton

Speaking of Driveline, Garton came over in the Mike Marjama trade and was immediately captivated by the program, as one might expect from a diminutive pitcher looking to get his MLB FIP under 4. A hip injury has slowed him this spring and he’s yet to appear in game action, although I did see him throwing a bullpen when I was in Arizona under the watchful eye of some of the minor-league pitching staff.

The One Who’s Not Sam Moll - Mike Morin

Mike Morin’s nickname, per his MLB.com page, is “Moosh.” This concludes Mike Morin Interesting Facts Time. Morin had a rough entree to his spring, giving up seven earned runs over his first five innings pitched, although he has recorded six strikeouts. After a particularly poor outing, the Mariners were able to outright him to Tacoma, opening a spot on the 40-man.

The High-Ceiling Reclamation Project: Johendi Jiminian

An ex-starter, Jiminian is a hard (mid-to-upper 90s) thrower who has command issues with his secondary pitches. Following a shaky spring, he should be safely stowed in Tacoma to work with pitcher-whisperer Lance Painter.

From a Distance...There Is Harmony

These guys are all a ways away, but have a chance to leapfrog some of their Tacoma compatriots as mid-or late-season callups, especially if injuries continue to pepper the club. Like the tier above them, obviously none of the names listed below are on the 40-man.

The Ingenue - Art Warren

If you read the site regularly, you know that we have been long-time champions of Fine Art, and after his impressive turn in the Fall League plus a few dynamite innings this spring, other outlets have started picking up on him as well. After a slow start to his spring due to a lingering hip injury, Warren had a few strong outings followed by a wobble and his subsequent reassignment to minor-league camp. Warren will continue working on his mechanics against tough competition in the Texas League, but could be a fast mover if he can take another step forward under pitching coach Ethan Katz.

The Dark Horse - Matt Festa

A lingering injury has kept us from getting to see Festa in living color this spring, but he has big strikeout stuff and carved through the AFL. Like Warren, Festa could be a fast mover if his stuff plays well at Double-A.

The Rebounder - Darin Gillies

After struggling some in the Arizona Fall League, Gillies wasn’t awarded a major league camp invite. He’s a little further along than Festa and Warren, having pitched in Double-A this past year, but the ASU product will need to show his AFL experience was a blip in order to move back ahead of those two. When at his best, Gillies has a fastball that bores in on lefties and can also throw a breaking pitch for swinging strikes.

The Big Boy - Bryan Bonnell

Big Boy Bonny was acquired from the Rays for international slot money and didn’t post eye-popping numbers at Modesto in 2017, but has had a chance to make multiple appearances this spring. His fastball was clocked at 94 in Peoria but with a big, strong build it seems like there’s more velocity to be unlocked in his prototypical power-pitcher frame.

The 2017 Draftees - Seth Elledge and Wyatt Mills

These guys are longer shots just because they’re such recent draftees, but each has looked impressive this spring to match up with their strong pro debut numbers. While many of us were sad to bid adieu to strikeout machine JP Sears, the effectiveness of Elledge and Mills allowed for some flexibility there. Mills is a funky sidearmer who will need to polish his command some before he makes the bigs but has shown an ability to miss bats; Elledge is more of a traditional power arm who can rush it up to the plate in the mid-90s.

The Horse So Dark It’s Invisible - Michael Koval

Koval spent last season toiling in obscurity in Clinton, Iowa. You won’t find his name on any prospect lists, not even the deepest cuts. His numbers aren’t particularly impressive for Low-A competition. He’s pitched exactly two innings this spring. However, I include him here simply because in one of those innings, he sliced straight through the heart of the Padres’ order—Freddy Galvis, Wil Myers, and Eric Hosmer—ending with this:

Who was that masked man