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Checking in on the Mariners’ bullpen experiment

The highs are high, but the lows? Oh, they’re low

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Remember Edwin Díaz? He of the top-five finish in 2016 AL Rookie of the Year voting, 34 saves in his first full year as a closer, and league-leading 57 saves as a 24-year-old All-Star? He’s traded in his springtime teal for a more autumnal New York orange, signaling a momentous change in the season. Since becoming a Met, the former Mariner has introduced himself rudely to National League hitters. The rambunctious reliever is an equal opportunity strikeout artist.

Remember Alex Colomé? In just six months with Seattle the dreadlocked pitcher dominated aspiring hitters, posting 49 strikeouts in 46.1 innings, and also hella selfies on his Instagram. Anyway, he plays for the White Sox now, and remains eternally logged on.

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Remember Nick Vincent? In 181.1 innings over three seasons with the M’s, the enchanting righthander baffled everyone with low-velocity pitches up in the zone. Those impossibly functioning cutters led to a 113 ERA+ and an underappreciated tenure in the Northwest. Vincent moved down the coastline this offseason, settling in San Francisco where his laidback, non-threatening lifestyle should acclimate wonderfully.

Remember Juan Nicasio? He was Seattle’s big bullpen get prior to the 2018 season, and he responded with an up-and-down campaign ending with a nasty case of water knee. When on his game, though, Nicasio proved to be downright unhittable, as indicated by a scoreless streak from May 18 to June 5 in which the stout righty recorded 16 strikeouts and zero walks across nine innings. He fell victim to the great fire sale of last winter, finding himself stuffed into a trade package for J.P. Crawford, which also included bullpen mate James Pazos.

Díaz, Colomé, Vincent, Nicasio, and Pazos represented five of Seattle’s seven most-used relief pitchers in 2018. Along with spot starter Erasmo Ramírez, quad-A hurler Casey Lawrence, and the lovable but ineffective Marc Rzepczynski and Ryan Cook, all of these one-time Mariners left the organization in less than a year. Zach Duke and Adam Warren also came and went, but we don’t need to talk about them.

Now, a unit that served as a strength for an 89-win team has been completely dismantled. In its place lies a wonderfully eclectic mishmash of trade acquisitions, bargain bin free agents, Rule 5 picks, and guys in their early 30s who bring the excitement of leftover casserole. Of the top seven relievers from last year’s ‘pen, only Chasen Bradford and Roenis Elías are still on the 40-man roster. The men who have joined them in their left-center field hangout have already left their mark on Seattle’s strong start, both through action and inaction.

Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

When Díaz, Colomé, Vincent, and Nicasio skipped town, they brought their combined 228 career saves with them. This left their former employer in need of a qualified closer candidate. Some halfhearted searches on LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter led the Mariner front office to Hunter Strickland, known around the industry for fiery fastballs and emotions, both of which have caused problems in the past. Still, given the organization’s financial parameters and Strickland’s relevant résumé, he was as good as anyone for the job.

Less than two weeks after notching an overseas save in his Mariner debut, Strickland hit the shelf with the first non-punch related injury of his MLB career. In his brief stint on the active roster Strickland managed a blown save and a strained lat on the same night, one that coincided with Seattle’s first loss of the season. These unfortunate events, just four games into the season, took the Jenga tower bullpen and removed one of its weight-bearing blocks.

Since the team’s nominal closer went down with the shoulder ailment, five different Mariners have recorded a save in his absence. Four of them (Bradford, Elías, Nick Rumbelow, and Connor Sadzeck), had never completed an MLB save before. The other—Anthony Swarzak—has benefited outrageously from a .154 BABIP, masking much more troubling numbers including a 4.86 FIP and 2.45 HR/9. Still, somebody has to get the final out of the game, and Swarzak has already done so six times, with half of those earning him a shiny save on his Baseball-Reference page. While he’s nobody’s idea of a prototypical closer, each save Swarzak logs presumably builds the 33-year-old’s confidence and increases the impending free agent’s trade value.

While Swarzak offers some comfort through the sheer power of experience, it’s a pair of under the radar additions that have inspired the most confidence with their actual pitching. Brandon Brennan (a Rule 5 draft pick), and Connor Sadzeck (who the Mariners exchanged for low-minors pitcher Grant Anderson), have both been excellent in the early goings of this surprising season. The group of unknowns share a consistent ability to miss bats, though they do so in different ways.

Brennan already gained national attention for his Scherzer-esque changeup, a pitch he unfurls on nearly half of his deliveries. Sadzeck, on the other hand, complements a high-90s heater with a dynamic slider, eschewing a changeup completely while slinging the slider more often than his four-seam fastball. Along with Elías, Brennan and Sadzeck form the trio of Seattle’s most trustworthy bullpen workers.

Mariners’ reliever stats

Brandon Brennan 14.0 1.29 2.73 0.79 28.9 7.7 54.5 93.8
Roenis Elias 13.2 2.63 2.50 1.02 17.5 7.0 27.9 64.3
Connor Sadzeck 8.0 1.13 1.96 0.62 30.0 10.0 33.3 80.0
Data courtesy of FanGraphs

While some of these numbers are surely unsustainable, Jerry Dipoto getting early returns on low-risk moves is one of the Mariners’ stories of 2019. Should these three continue to flourish, the M’s could find themselves in the enviable position of having multiple capable relievers at virtually no cost. Brennan and Sadzeck, too, are just 27 years old with a sliver of MLB service time. It’s much easier to imagine a world where they headline the 2021 bullpen than it is to imagine Strickland and Swarzak in the same roles.

As with nearly every bullpen to ever bullpen, there have been a handful of particularly ugly blemishes. The Mariners rank second in the American League with five blown saves. This list includes a true meltdown in relief of Félix Hernández on April 18 (part of the bullpen’s 10 earned runs from the weekend series in Anaheim), and the lone loss against the White Sox.

For every Brennan, Elías, and Sadzeck wiggling their way into the pleasant surprise party, there is a Cory Gearrin—who derails the party with long, boring stories—or Ruben Alaniz and Shawn Armstrong, who probably weren’t ready for the party in the first place.

All things considered, given the low expectations, overall talent level, and injuries to Strickland, Bradford, Dan Altavilla, Gerson Bautista, and Sam Tuivailala, things could probably be even worse than a 4.98 cumulative ERA (11th among American League relief corps), and 0.1 fWAR (10th in AL). Walks and home runs have been the squadron’s major weakness, with the bullpen issuing 4.98 walks and 1.35 home runs per nine innings.

Moving forward, watching Scott Servais plug his bullpen prongs into various outlets will be a fun bit of discovery. Will everything go smoothly, and produce a calming light, or will things blow up spectacularly and engulf the room in a scorching electrical fire?