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Chasen Bradford and the unsustainable composition of the Mariners bullpen

The Mariners are off to a great start, but they still need to be more efficient with their roster.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“Chasen David Bradford, sometimes known as Chase,” is the beginning of Chasen Bradford’s Wikipedia entry. First impressions aren’t everything, but if you’re looking to build a reputation, folks being uncertain on what your first name is can’t be a positive. But Chasen Bradford is worth recognition. Despite respectable work so far in the bullpen, the mid-spring waiver claim probably shouldn’t be ticketed for consistent high-leverage work. What he does better than any other reliever the Mariners have, however, is get groundballs, and because of that, he deserves a consistent spot in Seattle’s bullpen.

We know all about the Mariners’ efforts over the past year and a half to build a fly-ball oriented pitching staff, and how the coinciding juicing of the baseball/fly ball revolution/shortening of Safeco’s dimensions have helped decimate that plan. Fly ball pitchers are still useful, but as Jerry Dipoto himself has repeatedly noted, groundball pitchers tend to be more prized.

Seattle has to work with the players they have, and the team made efforts to acquire more groundball-oriented pitchers when possible. Mike Leake, James Pazos, Juan Nicasio, and Shae Simmons were/are players who elicit groundballs often. This season’s new and seemingly improved Marco Gonzales has become a grounder-maven as well. Nobody, however, is as skilled at inducing earthbound contact as Chasen Bradford.

Mariners Relievers Groundball Rates

Name Career GB Rate 2018 GB Rate 2018 IP
Name Career GB Rate 2018 GB Rate 2018 IP
Chasen Bradford 57.10% 61.3% 10.2
Edwin Díaz 42.90% 50.0% 13.1
Marc Rzepczynski 59.50% 50.0% 5.0
James Pazos 49.20% 43.50% 10.0
Wade LeBlanc 36.70% 36.40% 13.2
Dan Altavilla 38.20% 32.00% 12.0
Juan Nicasio 44.10% 27.30% 12.2
Nick Vincent 33.90% 27.30% 10.1
Active MLB roster displayed

Bradford leads the pack with a 61.3%GB rate. His other peripherals, namely his lack of strikeout stuff, hinder his viability as a late-inning staple, but what Bradford has the chance to be is what I’d hoped Shae Simmons could bring Seattle – a rally-killer. Bradford’s sinker-slider combo makes him uniquely qualified among Seattle’s RHPs in particular as a double play generator. Bradford sadly lacks Simmons’ top-notch velocity (and, relatedly, his strikeout rate) but he avoids walks and home runs. As one of just four relievers with minor league options remaining (the others being Edwin Díaz, James Pazos, and Dan Altavilla), Bradford seems likeliest to be ticketed for the Tacoma shuttle when a roster move is needed.

But Bradford brings something unique to Seattle’s roster right now, and Bradford’s uncertain status on the 25-man says more about the rest of the roster’s composition than it does about him. For all that Jerry Dipoto spoke about roster flexibility this offseason, Seattle has backed themselves into a corner, transactionally. As it stands, a useful player like Bradford seems likely to be relegated to Tacoma at some point after a game where the bullpen is taxed. That’s detrimental to the Mariners.

Seattle has four relievers who cannot be demoted unless the players accept the assignment. While this occasionally happens with veteran players (a la Leonys Martín last year) it’s rare, and even if they were willing, they would have to clear waivers unclaimed by opposing teams first. Juan Nicasio and Nick Vincent should be safe, but both of the bullpen’s LHPs create a pileup in the roster’s composition. Wade LeBlanc has served respectably as a long reliever, and there’s no explicit need to replace him.

But the role of long relief is a heavy load on a team with just two starters who have demonstrated the ability to reliably work into the sixth inning. Realistically Seattle needs at least two guys to fill that space, and that’s where the absence of David Phelps feels most pronounced. If LeBlanc had minor league options, Seattle could operate a minor-league shuttle of LeBlanc, Casey Lawrence, and one or two of their other Tacoma arms, but instead, LeBlanc must be ready to go early and often.

That leaves the other lefty, Marc Rzepczynski, whose seat has been hot since the day he signed a two-year, $11 million deal before 2017. Some teams can afford, or even need a LOOGY, but the 2018 Mariners are not that team. Expending a roster spot on a player whose role is limited to just one or two hitters a night, every other game, isn’t a luxury Seattle can afford. The roster pinch is exacerbated by the fact that Rzep has struggled to execute, even within his narrow role. He’s run a strong but non-elite 2.86 FIP against the 100 left-handed hitters he’s faced thus far as a Mariner, and a 4.84 FIP, consistent with the fact that he’s been unusable against RHHs his entire career.

With Nick Rumbelow still sidelined indefinitely there aren’t many vastly superior options in Tacoma, even if Seattle combs the waiver wire or executes another cash-for-arms deal like they did Roenis Elías. The Mariners need another pitcher capable of working multiple serviceable innings more than they need even the best version of Rzep handling one hitter elitely. Chasen Bradford could be that guy, or he could be a double play machine, or he could be both, but right now he can’t be either, and unfortunately for Rzep that needs to change.