Earlier this offseason, Jerry Dipoto said something about focusing on bullpen additions as a way to improve the Mariners’ roster for 2021. I’m not going to hunt down the exact quote, but you read this site, you know what I’m talking about.
As visions of faceless veterans wriggling their way out of jams danced in Mariners fans’ heads, Dipoto went out and acquired Will Vest, Rafael Montero, and Keynan Middleton. These moves signified that the front office did at least have a clear plan, which was in line with the one Dipoto shared, but also that this offseason would not be the type of new player orientation that most fans were hoping for. Rather than throwing their hat in the Kevin Gausman or Masahiro Tanaka ring, or even trying to schmooze a solid everyday player like Michael Brantley, the Mariners have decided to call it a day after landing Middleton in mid-December.
I would be stunned if the Mariners add another free agent before Spring Training. This means, as I’m sure most of you are acutely aware of, that the Mariners are not making any real effort to compete in 2021. While a pandemic complicated things a bit, mainly by depriving many of the Mariners’ most important players of a minor league season, 2021 was supposed to be the beginning of the new era. Something close to a .500 record would have been a great first step, which would have then hopefully led to more spending next winter on established big-league talent. Instead, the Mariners’ hitting .500 this season is more based in reverie than reality.
This is not Keynan Middleton’s fault. The Portland-born pitcher showed a refreshing and genuine desire to play for the Mariners, citing his Northwest roots, but also the same carrot that’s been dangling in front of the franchise since the 2018 season fell apart.
Keynan Middleton said signing with the Mariners was a "no brainer" because of the location of the team, the direction the team was heading and his relationship with Jerry Dipoto— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) December 16, 2020
Hearing an MLB player buy in to the Dipoto vision is somewhat encouraging, as MLB players have their finger on the pulse in a way that none of us can ever dream of. At the same time, one has to imagine that Keynan Middleton expected to see a little more effort out of Dipoto. The way this roster is currently constructed, the Mariners would need quite literally every single thing to break right to have any hope of making the playoffs. But if they took this roster and tried to add some productive veteran hitters or an All-Star pitcher, then we might have something!
Seattle’s ongoing decision not to pursue any players on the free agent or trade market is confusing. It seems to be either a tacit admission that the young foundational pieces aren’t ready to compete yet or a complete unwillingness to spend money. Luckily, I’ve made this helpful chart to explain things.
Again, the pandemic made it extremely difficult to properly evaluate some of those guys. If you don’t know what you have there, it’s hard to fully know where your strengths are and where the areas that need improvement are. Still, with the noticeable lack of a Trevor May or Tommy La Stella-type free agent pickup, the 2021 Mariners stand to be one of the younger and greener teams in the American League once again. The only difference between this year’s team and last year’s team – which played at about a 73-win clip – is that several of those young guys got to experience a 60-game season with no fans in the stadium. Also, Keynan Middleton is here now, which should legitimately make things more fun.
Kate Preusser wrote a primer on Middleton when the Mariners signed him. If you’d like the cliff notes, he is a former Angels’ closer who had Tommy John surgery, meaning that even though he’s 27 and has been in the bigs since 2017, there’s not a lot of wear and tear on his arm. The most alluring thing about Middleton is his ability to put some extra cheese on the fastball. He’s got easy velocity that comes from a classic right-handed delivery. When Andres Muñoz returns from his own Tommy John surgery, he and Middleton could ideally form an electric late-inning duo.
Keynan Middleton's 100mph Fastball with life on the black to freeze Aaron Judge pic.twitter.com/aZSYzetjRU— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) June 21, 2017
The biggest unanswered questions about Middleton all pertain to his role and usage in the bullpen. For the third straight season, there’s no obvious closer in the Mariners’ clubhouse, and while Middleton’s physical skills could make him a candidate, he’s thrown fewer than 20 combined innings over the last two seasons. Like every other reliever not named Mariano Rivera, we don’t know how Middleton’s performance will fluctuate from one season to the next. It’s certainly possible that he ends up being the best reliever on the team. It’s also possible that he ends up in the Adam Warren or Juan Nicasio bin. The only way to find out is to watch the season play out, which, again, would be a lot more palatable if the Mariners had made any efforts at all to get better in a meaningful way.
For some on-the-field intrigue, gaze upon Middleton’s secondary pitches. When COVID-19 swallowed all of us in its oppressive gullet, some started baking, some bought a Peloton, some ultimately did nothing at all and are continuing to honor that. Middleton developed a changeup to offset his scorching fastball.
Keynan Middleton posted a lot about his changeup development over the shutdown.— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) July 29, 2020
Seems like it can be quite the effective pitch to play off his fastball, especially with the velo back up. pic.twitter.com/YajcyLbJ6S
The Mariners’ newest spring-loaded arm, who had to put his account on private after masterfully pissing off Angels fans, tweeted that he cooked up the changeup during quarantine. One can only assume that he’s continuing to progress the pitch in preparation for Spring Training. If he shows up with a real deal changeup in the same bag as his blazing fastball and whiff-inducing slider, the Oregon native will do wonders for the Mariners’ anesthetized bullpen.
It is quite unfortunate that Keynan Middleton could represent Jerry Dipoto’s splashiest move of the offseason. With that said, all we can do now is hope that he proves Dipoto right. This is entirely within the realm of possibility for someone whose fastball sits 97, who didn’t allow a single hit last year on his slider (!), and whose pandemic project caused hitters to swing and miss over 30 percent of the time.
Now if only the team had more proven starting pitchers to hand him a lead…