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Mariners 2020 Spring Training Preview: The Bullpen

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Previewing the ‘pen and welcoming Michael Ajeto to the staff.

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

NB: Welcome to March, home to the bulk of Spring Training! People’s opinions of ST vary, what matters and what doesn’t? It can be hard to figure out what to look for when you have players like Mike Trout and players who would usually be in AA sharing the same field. Over the weeks leading up to ST, I have been interviewing some of the writers here at LL to try to see the things that they will be looking for in each position group. To wrap up this series I will be talking with brand new website addition, Michael Ajeto! I have really enjoyed some of Michael’s articles at Pitcher List. I’m excited to have him here to talk about what figures to be one of this team’s shakier position groups, the relievers. Pretty crazy how barren this group is after just having guys like Edwin Diaz and Alex Colome in the same pen just a couple of years ago.

Nathaniel Baird: Super excited to have you here both at the site and for this article Michael! Before we get started with the real article, is there anything else you’d like to say to introduce yourself?

Michael Ajeto: Not really! I suppose I can plug my Mariners podcast, Griffey’s Naptime Podcast, which can currently be found on SoundCloud, Spotify, and iTunes. (Although I should note that I will be rebranding rather soon once the podcast’s new logo is buttoned up.) Just really excited to be home (at Lookout Landing, that is). It feels like I chose a really fantastic time to join, as I really feel like the Mariners are going to take off within a few years. In the meantime, I’m excited to see Dipoto’s vision come to fruition, as we’ve got quite a few interesting young players.

NB: I couldn’t agree more. As a fairly recent addition to the site myself, it’s incredibly exciting to see some of these young guys making their way up to the majors. While this year will certainly be a bit rough, I still think that it will ultimately be rewarding to watch some of our favorite young’uns develop in front of our very own eyes! [Editor’s note: Nathaniel is himself An Actual Teen so this is some extreme pot/kettle behavior.]

Although this group certainly has less notable young players in it this year, there certainly are some young guys that have a chance to pitch quite a bit for the M’s this year, because, well, *looks around room, locks eyes with Wei Yin Chin* what other option do we have? One of the few luxuries of ST is the ability to see a lot of relief pitchers of varying experience and ability. Are there any young guys you’ve noticed in ST or in the past year or so that you think could be a potential building block for the year to come for the ‘pen?

MA: In terms of spring training, there haven’t been many relief pitchers who have stood out to me. It’s been encouraging to watch Gerson Bautista, and Zac Grotz is intriguing to me too. I think we have a really interesting group overall spanning from Triple-A to the big leagues. Unfortunately, interesting doesn’t mean good.

In terms of non-spring training standouts, I think Austin Adams is the most talented pitcher in the bullpen. Truly a shame that he’s hurt. I’m quite fond of the trio (i.e., Matt Magill, Yoshihisa Hirano, and Sam Tuivailala) the Mariners have set to share a closer role, but especially the former two. Dan Altavilla will have to wow me after disappointing me all of these years. I absolutely love the acquisition of Carl Edwards Jr. I see a bounceback year for him. Brandon Brennan is plenty interesting too. (Man, our relief arms are such bullpen spaghetti, if you will.)

NB: Not gonna lie, the relief appearances have all been, in general, pretty difficult to watch this Spring for sure. I do really think that Gerson Bautista has a chance to emerge as a real bullpen option this year though; in just a handful of appearances thus far it has looked like he’s been able to reign in his control just a bit. This puts him well ahead of another arm I was excited to see this Spring in Rule 5 pick Yohan Ramirez who, like Bautista, is oozing with stuff but has struggled with his control for most of his young career. While heading into ST I viewed him as a pseudo lock as a Rule 5 on a team that has no shot of contention, I have to think that after his first few outings that his spot on the roster is in jeopardy.

Beyond these ST guys, I’m pretty excited to see Nestor Cortes as well as Carl Edwards Jr. and Tui like you mentioned. While I was admittedly skeptical of the M’s signing of Hirano considering his age and his performance last year, he has looked mostly sharp this spring. Another guy that I am interested to see fill into his new role is Erik Swanson.

Should none of these aforementioned guys find a way to stick, do you think that there are any players that you could see sneaking their way up from the farm early this season?

MA: Honestly, there is such a long list of names. Dan Szymborski has even suggested that the Mariners’ Triple-A relievers are better right now than the big league’s bullpen (according to ZiPS). Wyatt Mills, Joey Gerber, Sam Delaplane, Aaron Fletcher, and Jack Anderson are all interesting to me, and I would be surprised if we didn’t see most (or all) of them at some point this year. Especially given that we have such a mix of youngsters and injury risks in the rotation. (Knock on wood!)

Erik Swanson is one of my favorite arms in the bullpen. In terms of fastball spin efficiency, he has one of the best fastballs in the league — its 93.0% active spin rate ranks in the 92nd percentile — and it pairs really well with his slider. I thought he could succeed in the rotation, and while those hopes are mostly gone, I still think he can be a really strong bullpen piece, especially given his ability to go multiple innings.

I’m excited to see what happens with Nestor Cortes, too. His flyball percentage was high last year, but his 2.16 HR/9 and 18.4% HR/FB aren’t going to sustain. He might end up resembling something like the non-starter version of Vidal Nuno (broadly speaking) as it pertains to their build and peripherals (e.g., FB%, K-BB%). Obviously, the command is worse, but his stuff is better. Comps are hard! Take that for what you will.

NB: I really like the guys you mentioned, I was excited for Delaplane heading into ST and was thinking that he had a decent shot of finishing up ST with a roster spot, and while that looks increasingly unlikely I think there’s a pretty good chance that he ends up being a pretty big piece of this bullpen this year. I like Anderson a lot as well, the stat that Kate included in the prospect ranking write up about him not letting a ball leave the park off of him in over 200 IP in the minors is pretty ridiculous! I like Gerber as well; however the one troubling thing about all of these guys is their ERA/xFIP splits last season in AA Arkansas where they played most of their games at Dickey Stephans park, one of the more notable pitcher friendly parks in the minors. While that of course isn’t a big deal breaker by any means, it’s something to keep your eye on nonetheless.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the M’s have been working to trade older players who have bounced back or performed unexpectedly to teams that find themselves in a more win now position. Many of the M’s BP signings this offseason were clearly geared towards that with the likes of Edwards Jr and Hirano. Who are some M’s that you could see finishing the year in another team’s bullpen here in 2020?

MA: I imagine teams would have a preference for relievers with something of a track record. If Carl Edwards Jr. has a strong first half, he would a strong candidate to be traded. Aside from him, Magill and Hirano feel likely since they’re older. The Mariners traded Emilio Pagan — who I consider one of the best relievers in the league — for Ryon Healy, who, albeit flashed some upside, eventually showed that his bat isn’t very good, with pre-existing defensive issues. So Altavilla and Tuivalala could be intriguing options for teams too.

NB: Yeah, while the RP market for guys like *gestures at spaghetti types* is never particularly good, even a flier prospect has the chance of developing into something that has the chance to contribute to the 2022ish window that the team has set for themselves. I agree with your notes on Edwards Jr, I think that there’s a pretty strong chance he bounces back and with your notes on Tui. I think that I might but Hirano in there as well if he can show that last year was a bit of a hiccup even though he has a little smaller track record.

Onto the final question! As we’ve already talked about quite a bit, this year’s pen figures to have quite a bit of turnover so some of these might be difficult. Leading into 2020 could you give us your predictions for most IP out of the pen, saves and a breakout player out of the ‘pen for the M’s this season?

MA: Given his ability to go multiple innings, I would think Erik Swanson should get the most innings, but he could also start some games, too. This is kind of a cop-out, but option 1b for me is Brandon Brennan. I would think Swanny and Brennan both pitch around 60 innings in the bullpen.

For saves, despite the fact that Servais has said they’ll go with a closer by committee approach, Matt Magill seems like the popular option with projection systems. Considering the raging youth of the Mariners bullpen, I would think that Scott Servais might want to protect the collective confidence of players who actually have a chance to contribute in the next couple of years. That’s why I think it will end up being Hirano, with him getting around 15 saves.

Assuming that Austin Adams does not qualify for a breakout player (considering what I see as a breakout in 2019), I’ll go with Sam Delaplane, as he has similar upside in terms of whiffs, and has flashed the ability to limit his walks more than Adams.

NB: Yeah, my guess was either Swanson or Cortes for most IP out of the pen for this upcoming year. I think that both have the arms that they can go a bit deeper into their appearances this season which will be extremely valuable for a team like the M’s with four largely unproven starters. I’ll go with Swanson but I’m going to put him at around 50 innings, thinking the ball will be moved around quite a bit between guys in the pen.

As far as saves I had Hirano as well; while I’d love to see him moved I have a hard time seeing it happen for the M’s this season. With that being said I also think that both Bautista and Delaplane will be taking the ball to close out the game quite a bit in the back half of the season for the M’s this season. I’ll give Hirano 12 saves for the season.

As for breakout pitcher, I am clearly pretty high on Gerson Baustista. If he is able to hone in his control (astronomically big if, I know) his stuff is just about as good as anyone out there. This could make him a pretty dangerous relief option for Seattle. Sam Delaplane is certainly the popular option for a breakout but what can I say, I like my guys!

Thanks for coming on for this article, Michael, and thank you to the other staff writers, Tim (infield), Eric (outfield) and John (starting pitchers) that did this series with me. It’s been a lot of fun to (virtually) sit down with you all and chat about each of these position groups heading into the regular season!