First, some good news: in the Cal League and the Texas League this year, the Mariners’ affiliates led in K-BB ratio, WHIP, and came in second in both leagues in strikeouts (losing out to the Dodgers and Astros, respectively, but walking way fewer batters than either of those two clubs). The most important quality for a reliever, and the one that will transfer up the minor league chain, is the ability to strike people out; again, you can see Houston and LA are willing to live with less-than-perfect control as long as their relievers strike people out. The good news is the Mariners have a host of guys in the minors who can do exactly that, while keeping their walks in check: Aaron Fletcher, Sam Delaplane, Joey Gerber, and Wyatt Mills are all among fast-moving relievers we could see in Seattle as soon as 2020.
The bad news is none of those guys were up this season, when the Mariners bullpen finished 25th in K%. and 22nd in K-BB ratio, despite a purported emphasis on controlling the zone. However, things probably wouldn’t have gone quite so poorly for the big-league bullpen if a few of their promising, yet desperate, acquisitions had managed to stay healthy.
Chasen Bradford was a 2018 bullpen stalwart, chewing up over 50 innings for the post-fun Mariners, but went down in April with the scary sounding diagnosis of “right shoulder inflammation” that was later changed to the even-scarier-sounding “right forearm strain.” Bradford had TJ in August and will be out all of 2020; when he returns, he will be on the wrong side of 30, and entering his first year of arbitration.
The next man down was also, at that point, Seattle’s most consistent backend bullpen option. Brandon Brennan was acquired in the Rule 5 draft, installed on the MLB roster, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly for the first month-plus of the season, with Brennan pitching to a tidy 3.32 FIP and solid K-BB numbers in April. Things started to slip in May and by mid-June Brennan wound up on the IL with the ominous-sounding right shoulder strain diagnosis, which would keep him out until August (and again for most of August, as he had complications in coming back). The good news is Brennan’s numbers looked to recover in September to where they had been in April, and his final season line of a 4.5 FIP/ERA and 12% walk rate probably doesn’t represent his true talent level. If he can stay healthy, a back-end bullpen job or even the closer role are likely for Brennan next season, and he’ll likely be a tasty trade chip at the deadline.
In April, the Mariners got righty Connor Sadzeck from Texas for Grant Anderson, an A-level sidearmer drafted in 2018. They made a shift in his pitch mix, having Sadzeck throw his slider more, and the results were encouraging, as Sadzeck struck out a quarter of all batters he faced. Unfortunately, the Mariners only had Sadzeck for two months before their new toy broke, and Sadzeck went on the IL for the remainder of the season with right elbow inflammation/strain. No TJ was ever formally announced for Sadzeck, but he did post this picture on Twitter earlier this month:
Surgery went well. Sometimes you gotta take a step back to take two steps forward. I am so grateful for all of the love and support I’ve received. Looking forward to making a full and speedy recovery so I can get back to the mound where I belong pic.twitter.com/o0BTWbZodX— Connor Sadzeck (@connorsadzeck) October 3, 2019
Austin Adams was acquired in early May for the low, low price of Nick Wells, a High-A lefty starter slated to miss the rest of 2019 with a broken wrist. The Nationals had struggled to unlock the potential in Adams’s big right arm, which, to their credit, the Mariners were able to do. Adams had never done worse than striking out a third of batters who faced him in the minors, but struggled with control, walking anywhere from 15-20% of batters he saw. The Mariners helped Adams adjust, having him lead with his slider, a pitch he’s better able to control, before mixing in his high-90s fastball, mixing the two pitches more equally. Control is still an issue for Adams, with a 10% walk rate in the bigs, but he also struck out an incredible 42.6% of batters he faced this season.
Unfortunately, Adams won’t be able to work on refining his control this off-season; after missing almost two months with a right shoulder strain, Adams sustained an ACL injury in a meaningless game in September that will likely knock him out until well into next season, especially because the discovery of a blood clot in his leg further delayed his surgery. Baseball, sometimes you are a real jerk.
Bullpens are notoriously fungible, and pitchers get hurt more than any other class of player, but it was disappointing to see so many potentially bright spots for the Mariners blink out prematurely. On the bright side, unless the Mariners go reliever-heavy in free agency (something that’s always a possibility), there should be plenty of spots available for young players to compete for, which should lead to some entertaining Spring Training battles as a grip of prospects try to pitch their way onto an MLB roster. There are also some healthy holdovers from the 2019 bullpen to contend with, who will be covered in a later article. It’s incredibly early in the off-season (not even technically the baseball off-season yet), but the bullpen battle already promises to be one of Spring Training’s major storylines.