Back on November 15, just six days after doing something uncharacteristic for this front office and something that’s a rarity across the league, the Mariners did it again: they signed a guy with zero MLB experience to a major league contract. After inking infielder Dylan Moore to a deal nearly a week prior, the Mariners brought in RHP Ruben Alaniz to help fortify a bullpen that’s facing the departure of over 360 innings—or roughly 65%—from last year’s squad.
Alaniz, 27, spread 42.2 innings over four different levels of Tampa Bay’s system last year as he battled through two separate calf strains. When he was on the mound in 2018, his stuff was electric. Pitching at the Triple-A level for the third consecutive season, he posted a career-best 11.7 K/9 as well as showing drastically improved control, surrendering just 2.7 BB/9 through 27.0 innings. Interestingly, he managed to post a 4.00/2.44/2.99 pitcher’s slash despite posting a career-low—by nearly 10%—groundball rate of just 38.6%. His newfound tendency to get the opposition to hit the ball in the air without allowing it to clear the fence is likely what attracted Jerry & Co. to his game, particularly with the club’s two most relied-upon fly ball pitchers Nick Vincent and Juan Nicasio no longer with the club.
Formerly a starting pitcher, Alaniz rarely set down batters on strikes throughout the early stages of his career, posting just under 6.4 K/9 through his four seasons as a starter. Unlike many starters-turned-relievers, his stuff didn’t immediately pop upon switching to shorter, more frequent outings as he proceeded to post a paltry strikeout rate of just 4.8 K/9 over 88.1 innings spanning 2014 and 2015; a timeframe that featured roughly two months on the disabled list and a 100-game suspension for his second positive test for a “drug of abuse”. After his most underwhelming performance to date to close out 2015, he elected free agency following the season and ended up signing with the Detroit Tigers. Pitching at Double-A in 2016, Alaniz turned in his best season as a pro, slashing 2.77/2.91/3.19 as he racked up 9.1 K/9 and was rewarded with a promotion to Triple-A, where he posted essentially the same line. He received a big league spring training invite the next year and impressed, posting a 1.35 ERA and 1.20 WHIP while striking out seven through 6.2 innings. After producing mixed results through yet another injury-riddled season, he again elected minor league free agency, signing with Tampa Bay, where he spent the 2018 season.
In this video from 2016 (in which he’s wearing his coach’s jersey because he apparently forgot his own), he appears to flash a sinking change-up and slider.
Alaniz leans primarily on his fastball, which he’s improved from a low-90s velocity up to a consistent 94-97 as a reliever. In addition to being thrown hard, Alaniz can locate it well, up in the zone for swinging strikes or pop-ups, or in on the hands for righties. The fastball can also feature late armside movement that induces chase swings, weak contact, and foul balls.
The rest of Alaniz’s arsenal is a slider and a changeup that are both thrown in the mid to high 80s, with the change being the firmer, and better, of the two pitches. The slider has late bite that can make things tricky for lefties, which keeps Alaniz’s lefty-righty splits in line (he actually posted a lower ERA against lefty batters in Triple-A this season).
However, when the change is working, it has a nice late bite that can rack up strikeouts for Alaniz.
Alaniz will look to improve his secondary offerings, both of which are deemed less-than-average pitches, as well as stay healthy for an entire season as he attempts to make his big league debut with the M’s. Looking at Alaniz when he has all three pitches working for him, it’s easy to see why the Mariners snagged the 6’4” 27-year-old; there’s plenty to dream on with a tall, flamethrowing, (relatively) young player who might be just a few adjustments away from figuring it out. Granted his unique skillset and the complete lack of bullpen options in Seattle, Alaniz’s path to an Opening Day roster spot appears to be his to lose.
(Oh, and he’s also got some pretty quick reflexes, as he showed on this scorching comebacker off the bat of Ronald Torreyes:)