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Eyeing up the Mariners 2020 bullpen

The picture is becoming clearer

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

As the Mariners’ roster for 2020 begins to come into sharper focus with various roster deadlines forcing decisions, we’re starting to get a better idea of who will be competing for roles in the bullpen next year. Bullpens are traditionally the least stable aspect of any team’s roster, but the Mariners ended 2019 with 40 of the team’s record 67 players being pitchers. Of those players, over 20 are no longer on the 40-man, having been traded to new teams, DFA’d and claimed on waivers, sent to the minors, or cut loose from the team entirely. Here’s an overview of who’s left, who has been added, and who from the minors might push for a roster spot out of spring training.

Note that this article treats Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, and Kendall Graveman as rotation locks; Justin Dunn is also in that conversation, although it’s currently unclear whether he’ll break camp with the big-league club or in Tacoma. Ricardo Sanchez and recently-added Nestor Cortes Jr., who are both on the 40-man and who can act as either relievers or starters, might battle it out for the fifth rotation spot if the Mariners decide to open the season with Dunn in Tacoma; however, they’re both lefties, and the rotation already stacks up to be 80% left-handed, so don’t rule out a move here. Personally I’m hoping for a Kevin Gausman signing, if he’s willing to come here; he could open in the rotation and move to the bullpen if needed, similar to the role he played in Atlanta and Cincinnati last season. Anyway, to the pen!

The Locks:

Sam Tuivailala, Brandon Brennan, Erik Swanson, Matt Magill

Okay, there’s no such thing as a bullpen lock, but these are players the Mariners have either invested time and energy in (Tui, Brennan), traded for (Swanson), or who managed not to get hurt after being acquired while pitching decently (the Matt Magill stands alone). The Mariners saw Tui through a lengthy rehab process after he tore his ACL late in 2018, and he repaid them by being the biggest couch cheerleader any player could. In 23 innings in 2019, Tui showed some rust with his command (11.7% BB rate) but also struck a bunch of fools out (28.7%). Next to Dan Altavilla, he’s the longest-tenured member of the Mariners bullpen, which says something about the bullpen, but also about the Mariners.

Like Tuivailala, Brandon Brennan also got stung by the injury bug in 2019, but when healthy he showed off a wicked changeup and was one of the more reliable options out of the pen. Matt Magill, picked up off waivers from the Twins for cash in mid-July, posted .6 fWAR in 50+ innings and struck out almost 30% of batters who faced him; he finished tied for second on the team in saves despite throwing half as many innings as Anthony Bass, with whom he was tied. Erik Swanson, part of the return in the Paxton trade, bloomed once he was moved to the ‘pen, where his fastball picked up a little extra life in shorter stints and his K% jumped ten points, to 27.6%. If Tui and the alliterative twins (BB and MM) provide back-end bullpen options, Swanson, with his starter’s background and ability to work multiple innings, could be an excellent bridge to them.

The Newcomers:

Phillips Valdez, Carl Edwards Jr.

Carl Edwards Jr. isn’t technically on the 40-man yet, but that’s a mere formality. CEJ is an bounceback candidate, coming off a bad year where his poor command caught up to him in an injury-riddled season, and will hopefully be here for a good time, even if he’s not here for a long time.

Joe Doyle and I have had some strenuous disagreements regarding Valdez; he sees Valdez as someone easily outrighted off the 40-man if the Mariners need space, but I feel like they identified him for a reason, and seem to enjoy targeting Texas pitching in particular (see Sadzeck, Connor). Valdez is currently pitching for the Estrellas Orientales in LIDOM if you want to sneak a peek at him in the off-season.

The Injured:

Austin Adams, Connor Sadzeck, Gerson Bautista

Austin Adams, yet another in Seattle’s stable of alliterative relievers, was setting up to be one of the Mariners’ biggest pitching development success stories after being plucked out of the Nationals organization, but injuries kept him from rocketing to superstar level despite striking out over 40% of batters unfortunate enough to face him, including a devastating season-ending ACL tear that will keep him out until the middle of 2020. Like Adams, Sadzeck had the potential to be a feather in the cap of the Mariners’ pitching development after being acquired from Texas, but the dreaded arm sog will keep him out most, if not all, of next year. Sadzeck, unlike fellow TJ warrior Chasen Bradford, will remain part of the Mariners organization for the time being. Hard-throwing poor-controlling Gerson Bautista was acquired as part of the blockbuster trade that sent Canó and Díaz to the Mets; he’s been injured but not very effective while healthy, and is a candidate to get bumped off the 40-man if the Mariners need to clear space for off-season acquisitions.

The Struggling MLB-experienced youngsters:

Matt Festa, Dan Altavilla

Altavilla’s command remains an issue but he continues to strike guys out and, inexplicably, completely own the Astros (.610 career OPS allowed; do his blindingly white teeth interfere with the Astros’ signaling devices?); he could have slid up to the injured category after battling a variety of arm issues last year that bled into the 2019 season. Matt Festa also saw command issues pop up in 2019 for the first time in his pro career, finding himself especially, unfortunately subject to the long ball in a brief MLB stint this season, and walking almost double the number of batters he walked in 2018. Festa is spending this off-season training with the well-respected Eric Cressey in Florida, and will be one to watch this spring to see how his off-season work has paid off.

The Fresh Faces:

Taylor Guilbeau, Art Warren, Zac Grotz, Reggie McClain

A lost 2019 season meant a lot of opportunities for young players, and all four of these pitchers got to see their stats turn from italics to bold type on the various baseball stats sites this season (at FanGraphs, making the majors means getting to jump to the left-hand column in the name search box, which I think I would personally find most satisfying as a player). I don’t know much about Taylor Guilbeau, acquired in trade from the Nationals, personally, but I know Warren, Grotz, and McClain from the back fields of spring training, and the scope of their stories: Zac Grotz, who battled his way back from indy ball after the Mets gave up on him; Art Warren, who was once told he’d never pitch again, let alone professionally, and drove an Uber to finance a stay at the Mariners’ facility during the off-season; Reggie McClain, who began this season in Modesto, joking the Nuts would retire his number, and ended it by packing up a big-league locker in the clubhouse in Seattle. All of these players have minor-league options and while the roster might not be able to hold them all at once, it should make for some intriguing competition in spring and all season long.

The MLB-adjacent prospects:

Sam Delaplane, Aaron Fletcher, Wyatt Mills, Joey Gerber, Jack Anderson

These precious lil jewels haven’t made it to the 40-man yet, mostly because they don’t have to on account of being such tiny little babies, but any of them could conceivably end the year in the Mariners bullpen. I’ve listed them in the order of what I feel their MLB-readiness to be, but could be talked into flip-flopping Delaplane and Fletcher. Mills pitched for Team USA this year in the Premier 12 tournament, holding his own against some of the best in the world, so there’s an argument he might have the experience to leapfrog over the first two, as well. Each of these pitchers has his own distinct weapon: Delaplane has a nasty slurve that’s made him the Mariners MiLB Strikeout King; Fletcher has a wicked slider that made polished batters look silly at the AFL; Mills throws from a very difficult sidearm angle with surprising velocity; and Gerber has mid-to-upper-90s heat and a wonky delivery that’s murder on batters. Jack “The Creature” Anderson I initially forgot to include on this list; he’s Rule 5 eligible and could get taken if a team wants a groundball specialist who pitches from a true submarine angle. Any of them could be up towards the back half of next year, so while they might not be names to know for right now, file them away for later.