We’ve covered catchers, infielders, outfielders, and the plucky rotation. If this series was inexplicably the only contact you’d had with the 2020 Mariners, you might think this club shocked the world and broke their playoff draught in the middle of their rebuild. But you, my diabolical friend, have not met the Mariners bullpen yet, and I envy you for it. Not only was the Mariners bullpen the worst unit in baseball in 2020, by several measures it was among the worst relief cores in MLB history. As a unit, they accrued -1.5 fWAR and -3.6 bWAR in just 60 games, while cashing in a staggering 53% of inherited runners. Several of the major names on the M’s list won’t be back in 2021, and others could be DFA candidates in the coming weeks, but we’ll cover every actual pitcher, at least in brief. Sorry Tim Lopes.
2020 Mariners Bullpen
|Carl Edwards Jr.||4.2||1.93||1.26||4.09||29.40%||0.2||0.2||0.1|
Several of the players listed are already gone. Yoshihisa Hirano is a free agent in the most traditional path, while Bryan Shaw, Carl Edwards Jr., and Nestor Cortes have joined Seth Frankoff, Zac Grotz, Jimmy Yacabonis, Gerson Bautista, and Chasen Bradford in free agency as well. Beyond that, Taylor Guilbeau and Art Warren were placed on waivers, both claimed by other clubs. And, of course, Taylor Williams and Dan Altavilla were traded midseason in the returns for Taylor Trammell, Ty France, Andres Muñoz, Luis Torrens, and RHP Matt Brash.
Rule-5 Draft pick Yohan Ramírez wasn’t expected to headline the Mariners bullpen heading into 2020, even when the season was shortened to 60 games. Thanks to injuries, trades, and ineffectiveness elsewhere, the rookie fireballer was at a certain point Seattle’s high-leverage specialist, belying his massive ERA-FIP gap. Ramírez was everything advertised: high velo, plus slider, and at least two pitches per PA nowhere close to the plate. Yohan’s delivery was loud enough to wake the neighbors, but the stuff was as electric as anyone in the Mariners system. A toned down Ramírez could easily be a high-leverage arm for a quality pen instead of whatever Seattle was running out, but he’ll either need an offseason of mechanical refinement or improvement on his command naturally as he goes from 25 to 26. Yohan will get some more reps in the Dominican Winter Leagues, like several Mariners prospects.
Despite Yohan’s 2.61 ERA, the most encouraging reliever in Seattle’s pen this year was another converted starter: LHP Anthony Misiewicz. The Michigan State man finally managed to turn his high-spin curveball into a devastating weapon in a bullpen role, able to pair it with a boosted 94.1 mph fastball and a sharp, ~90 mph cutter. With a strong four-seamer and cutter to pair with his breaking ball, he handled hitters from both sides of the plate and endured an elevated BABIP while putting together excellent command and whiff numbers. Misiewicz is one of the only player truly locked into a bullpen spot next year, and needn’t face any LOOGY concerns.
Among the classic pile crew was a number of long relievers, led in innings by waiver claim Brady Lail. Lail, Bryan Shaw, Walker Lockett, Nestor Cortes, Zac Grotz, Seth Frankoff, and Jimmy Yacabonis had varying degrees of usage, but all were expected to gobble up innings first and foremost. Unfortunately, even with 28 players on the roster for most of the season, a six-man rotation put outsize pressure on the bullpen to handle innings on any game day where the starter couldn’t take it deep. All of them had very bad times on the mound this year, and Seattle notably was without both high leverage consistency and any modicum of depth when they needed relief, unable to keep games close if their starters struggled in addition to coin-flipping leads consistently. Only Lockett and Lail remain in the M’s organization, with Lail clearing waivers in October. Lockett has a touch of intrigue thanks to his upper-level velocity and potential for long relief. Still, the Mariners should hope to be calling on this group as their 8th to 14th option out of the pen in 2021, if possible.
The M’s hardly went big in free agency last winter, but two of their three bullpen acquisitions were unable to stabilize much of anything. Carl Edwards Jr. was hurt quickly, undercutting a comeback attempt, and Yoshihisa Hirano was waylaid for weeks by a COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent symptoms, returning to unsurprising ineffectiveness when thrust into high-leverage reps. Kendall Graveman was expected to spend his season in the rotation, but after a tumor was discovered in his spine, the M’s determined his best route forward was shorter outings in the bullpen. The move seems inspired, as Graveman was re-signed on a one year deal at $1.5 million, heavily incentive-laden, having thrown 96-100 mph with a sharp set of secondaries. Graveman could easily be the M’s best reliever on the roster at press time, but hopefully further augmentation will take some pressure off the newly converted starter.
A few other young players also debuted in 2020 in the M’s pen, but success wasn’t on the table. Joey Gerber was able to work some acceptable numbers thanks to fortuitous strand rates, but his ability to miss bats eluded him entirely at the MLB level. Conversely, Aaron Fletcher made at bats tough for hitters when he put the ball near the plate, but too often he couldn’t get anything even slightly near the plate. Both players could join a number of young relievers in Seattle’s system that might help stabilize the pen, but Seattle is short on established relievers, even with the waiver claims of Domingo Tapia and Ian Hamilton, as well as the trade that brought in Andres Muñoz. A couple fringy additions that hopefully will continue to bear fruit are Casey Sadler and Brandon Brennan, who showed good velo and had better results than most of the pen, and would be well served, if healthy, as the lower leverage middle relief options as opposed to the No. 2 or 3 guys. Similarly, Erik Swanson showed the stuff to be dominant with his velo, but a lack of secondaries and command set him up for failure again and again, making for a peculiar future.
Seattle’s bullpen is the easiest place to see the club add several wins next year, even on the mere benefit of a return to mediocrity. If the M’s are able to cobble together internal options and external additions that bring stability and promise for the future, the M’s could be looking at a balanced, dangerous team for 2021 and beyond. But that gap requires at least four or five new and/or improved options than they had this year. Like any bullpen, it will take work and luck.