To get where they want to be, the Mariners need a lot of things to break right. Their headline-grabbing prospects need to pop, sure, but some of the under-the-radar minor leaguers becoming useful MLB players would make things much easier as well. If those things go according to plan, the Mariners are still left with a young and inexperienced team that has limited service time and even less playoff experience.
Filling out the rest of the roster – the bench bats, fourth and fifth starters, relief pitchers, etc. – could be the difference between knocking on the postseason door and ripping that sucker off its hinges. Even if the M’s do burst into the Division Series with a head full of steam, one bad outing from a starter or just one bad inning from a reliever could derail things quickly. Just ask the Dodgers, who, during Dave Roberts’ checkered run of postseason bullpen usage, have lost playoff games partially due to Joe Blanton, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Morrow, Tony Cingrani, Dylan Floro, Joe Kelly, and other relievers who picked the worst possible time for a stinker.
This is the unfortunate nature of relief pitchers. One bad night in October can both erase memories of an otherwise stellar year and write an unfair legacy clouded by recency bias. Still, someone has to pitch in those tough spots, and if the Mariners find themselves in a position where they need a reliable arm to get through the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning of a big game, they could do much worse than Sean Doolittle.
Doolittle, the 34-year-old free agent, owns a 2.42 ERA in 22.1 career postseason innings, including three scoreless ones in the 2019 World Series against a team that might have been cheating. He’s been deployed as a traditional closer and a seventh or eighth inning set up guy. Lefties have hit a miserable .187 against him over Doolittle’s nine-year career, and righties haven’t done much better, checking in at .218. He’s been an All-Star twice. He’s saved 20 or more games in a season five times. He’s also been worth 1.5 fWAR in a season five times. He’s left-handed. He’s funny on Twitter. He can read.
He can also most definitely be a Seattle Mariner in 2021.
The Mariners’ bullpen calamities this season were well-documented. While the weak, uninspiring, audition-style bullpen was an intended product of Jerry Dipoto’s design, he definitely wasn’t actively trying to sign bad pitchers, which is sort of what he ended up with. Most of these guys will be relegated to the dustbin of history, which, again, was part of the plan, but it means that the Mariners have to get moving on adding actual talent to the bullpen. It’s probably too early to figure out which of last year’s relievers will get to stick around and which ones will be cut loose, but we can definitely surmise that at least four or five spots will be up for grabs. Rather than throwing coins into a fountain and wishing for Aaron Fletcher, Zac Grotz, and Erik Swanson to catch a groove, the Mariners could simply acquire relief pitchers that have been in the pocket for years.
Aside from Doolittle, this offseason’s available relief pool includes a few other similarly-aged lefties (Aaron Loup, Jake McGee, Justin Wilson), a plethora of former closers who lost their touch (Brad Boxberger, Wade Davis, Greg Holland), and a few who have risen to the top by timing their best seasons right before they hit the open market (Liam Hendriks, Kirby Yates). We’ve also presented the case for signing Trevor May, the Twins’ strikeout artist who grew up in Washington. The truth of the matter is, the Mariners need a lot of help in this department and getting more than one capable reliever is probably the move, but Doolittle seems like a logical place to start.
The final season of his tenure in D.C. was unkind to Doolittle. A 15.00 ERA after five appearances raised the reddest of red flags, and the team diagnosed the southpaw with knee fatigue. A stint at the alternate site getting healthy and smoothing out his mechanics brought Doolittle back to the majors in late-August, but then an oblique issue flared up and held him out for the remainder of the season. Neither injury seems to be troublesome from a long-term perspective, but they will surely put a dent in his monetary value this winter. Knowing the Mariners’ spending habits, Jerry Dipoto’s track record of giving free agent deals to relievers, and the need to get more than one of these guys, a short, modest deal seems appropriate. Doolittle’s age and the nature of relief pitcher contracts suggests something in the two-year, $4-8 million range. Just looking at last offseason’s group of relief signings, Jake Diekman got two years, $7.5 million and Craig Stammen received a two-year, $9 million bag, both from teams in win now mode.
The Mariners also don’t have a clear-cut candidate for the 2021 closer job. If the team chooses to utilize a traditional ninth-inning man, Doolittle fits the job description well. Of the internal candidates, Doolittle would likely just have to beat out Kendall Graveman, especially now that the team has parted ways with Matt Magill and Carl Edwards Jr. The M’s are also short on lefties, as Anthony Misiewicz is the only left-handed reliever who even seems like a semi-safe bet to make the team next year. While the front office would obviously need to do its due diligence to make sure he’s physically up to the task, Doolittle’s career marks of 29.7 K% and 13.6 SwStr% should lend themselves perfectly to late-inning, get out of jam-type situations. The aforementioned injuries did take a toll on his velocity, though, slowing a fastball that typically sits 95.
If the injuries prove to be fugazi, some team could get quite a steal if they’re able to land Doolittle at a discounted price. Wherever he ends up, we wish the best for Doolittle, who has proven time and time again to be one of the good ones. Whether it’s supporting an organization that builds homes for wounded veterans, raising $40,000 and buying 900 tickets for the Athletics’ Pride Night, or financing a Thanksgiving dinner for Syrian refugees with his wife Eireann, the World Series champion has shown a true determination to leave an impact off the field as well.