As the Mariners cling to their last remaining hope of securing a playoff spot—they’re Fangraphs playoff odds are down to just 14.2%—and the club continues to see vital parts of the 25-man roster dropping like flies as Marco Gonzales joined James Paxton on the disabled list, the team could certainly stand to add a couple healthy arms. That said, the looming September 1 roster expansion couldn’t come at a more perfect time!
If you’re unfamiliar with what affect that has on the active roster exactly, here’s a helpful explanation from MLB.com:
For the first five months of the season, each team has a 25-man active roster, which is composed of players on its 40-man roster. But on Sept. 1, active rosters expand, which allows a club to activate, suit up and deploy any player on its 40-man roster.
No team actually takes advantage of all of those spots, but almost every one -- contender or not -- adds a player or two, and often more, on Sept. 1. As Minor League affiliates finish their seasons in early September, more reinforcements typically arrive, with clubs seeking additional catchers, extra bullpen arms and bench bats, or a speedster who can change a game as a pinch-runner, such as the Royals’ Terrance Gore.
Last season, for example, the eventual World Series champions expanded their active roster to 33 players on Sept. 1, with a group that included Gore, then added two more players about a week later.
Last season, the Mariners added nine players after the calendar turned to September, although three of those players were guys who’d been with the club previously and were activated of the DL. Of the six players summoned from the minors, there were three pitchers, a catcher, an infielder, and a 1B/DH. While the circumstances are a bit different now than they were then—the M’s were sub-.500 and had six teams standing between them and a playoff spot—the strategy regarding how the club utilizes their expanded roster may not be all that different.
With the Mariners’ starters having logged the 7th-most innings in baseball on the season and Marco and Pax on the shelf, shortening the game might just be the club’s best best to bank some victories down the stretch. Additionally, several hot bats down in Tacoma could easily wind up on the active roster to provide the occasional breather for some of the established starters or to play the matchups late in ballgames.
So who might find themselves with the big league club this time next week? Let’s take a look at the pool of candidates that’re already on the 40-man roster and decide who’s got a real shot of getting the call.
Pitchers: RHP Dan Altavilla, RHP Christian Bergman, RHP Chasen Bradford, RHP Ryan Cook, RHP Matt Festa, RHP Casey Lawrence, LHP James Pazos, RHP Max Povse, RHP Rob Whalen
All of these guys except Povse, who hasn’t pitched since July 14, have already spent time on the 25-man this season, so it’s easy to make a case for any and all of them. The most obvious, and probably deserving candidate would be Bradford, who since providing the M’s 47.1 valuable innings this season, has worked 6.1 scoreless innings for the Rainiers. If the team wants to carry an arm simply to eat innings and work in mop-up duty, Casey Lawrence has turned in a pair of one run, no walk starts for Tacoma since his most recent demotion. James Pazos is yet to surrender a hit through two appearances with Tacoma, however he’s logged just one strikeout. Between injuries and just generally unimpressive performances, Altavilla, Bergman, Cook, Povse, and Whalen seem like unlikely options to join the big league squad for the stretch run, with Double-A closer Matt Festa seeming like a stronger candidate to return to Seattle considering his success this season and the fact that he’s still nearly 20.0 innings shy of last year’s total.
Catchers: David Freitas
The club will almost certainly recall a third catcher to help alleviate wear and tear on Zunino and Herrmann and while Freitas struggled offensively during his 29 games with the M’s this season, he’s been one of Tacoma’s most productive hitters this year, posting a 146 wRC+ through 38 games. Particularly if the club really starts to fade from contention, it’s not unfeasible to think the club may want to get a look at how the two guys likely to compete for next year’s backup gig handle the pitching staff.
Infielders: INF Gordon Beckham, 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach
Like Freitas, Beckham has struggled when given a chance in the majors this year, but has made a habit of punishing PCL pitching this season. It’s worth noting that the club has been moving him all over the infield this season, so he could see playing time anywhere in the infield, although he serves largely the same purpose as Andrew Romine, who has held the utility spot in the bigs all year long. Vogelbach is the offensive player who really stands to benefit from a September callup. While it seems likely both the front office and current DH Nelson Cruz back for 2019, the fact remains that he’s up for free agency, and the 25-year old Vogelbach has proven everything he can down in Tacoma. He’d have to leapfrog Ryon Healy to receive any type of consistent playing time, but with Cano consistently relegating him to a bench role since his return, Ryon’s future in Seattle is looking more and more cloudy.
Non-40-man candidates: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP Justin Grimm, OF Ian Miller, INF Zach Vincej
After the Mariners (finally) added RHP Shawn Armstrong to the active roster Tuesday, they’ve now filled the 40-man roster and would need to create room for any of these guys mentioned, however they could easily clear a spot by transferring Juan Nicasio to the 60-day DL.
The seemingly inevitable, one feel-good story to root for through the final month of the season is the potential return of Hisashi Iwakuma. Prior to the 2018 season, it seemed likely that Kuma’s career was over, and the prospect of him actually pitching for the Mariners this season seemed only like a pipe dream. The 37-year old tossed one inning for Everett earlier this week, and while he got hit around a little bit—he surrendered two hits and an earned run without recording a strikeout—the fact that he’s pitching in real, competitive games indicates that he could potentially work his way back in coming weeks. With what he’s done since being assigned to Tacoma, it’s easy to see the club being willing to clear a spot for RHP Justin Grimm, who’s punched out 16 through 10.0 innings with the Rainiers while walking just two. Grimm, 30, provided four consecutive 0.6 fWAR seasons from 2013-2016 before combining for -0.9 fWAR over this and last season and eventually being released by the Royals back on July 7 and snatched up by the M’s 12 days later.
If the A’s injure themselves out of the playoff picture and the Mariners want to add a valuable weapon or two as they attempt to claw their way into the postseason, Ian Miller’s speed off the bench in a pinch running role could prove valuable. The 26-year old’s bat has cooled since July, but he’s third in the PCL with 28 stolen bases, and plays exceptional defense in center field. Another option on the position player side would be Zach Vincej, who has been fairly pedestrian offensively as of late as well, but would provide a little more depth as a natural shortstop.
Things could change as the trajectory of the team shifts throughout September, but my best guess is the team opts to bring up five players. In all likelihood, we can expect Bradford and Pazos to rejoin the club, as well as one additional arm for mop-up duty in the Lawrence/Bergman mold. Look for Freitas, Vogelbach, and Beckham—all of whom spent time with the major league team already this season—to be back.