Mariners Position Primer: The Bullpen

Feb 27, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Steve Cishek (31) poses for a photo during media day at Peoria Sports Complex . Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Steve Cishek (31) poses for a photo during media day at Peoria Sports Complex . Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The bullpen fell off a cliff for the Mariners in 2015 after a stellar 2014 propelled them to an almost-berth in the playoffs. With so many new arms, what can we expect from the Mariners bullpen in 2016?

The Mariners bullpen was not good last season. Fernando Rodney was predictably a disaster. Danny Farquhar forgot how to miss bats, and by the end of the season, even young fireballer Carson Smith was benched in his closing role for Tom Wilhelmsen. In an age when teams are loading their bullpens with top-tier closers, the Mariners needed an upgrade.

General Manager Jerry Dipoto went a different route in upgrading the bullpen than other teams. The Yankees paid a pretty penny for one of the best closers in the Majors and accused woman-beater Aroldis Chapman to platoon with their two bullpen aces Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Dipoto shipped relievers who weren’t effective last year, seem likely to regress in 2016, and Carson Smith this offseason for his makeover. He replaced Wilhelmsen, Smith, and Farquhar with a mix of veterans and good relievers coming off of disastrous seasons.

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Let’s take a look at the eighth and ninth inning guys and go from there. Rodney was mercifully let go last season and Dipoto also jettisoned everyone else with meaningful closing experience with the Mariners. He replaced Smith and Wilhelmsen with Steve Cishek and Joaquin Benoit. Cishek wasn’t as awful last season as you think. Yes, he lost his closing job in Miami after allowing 37 hits in 32 innings and posting a 4.50 ERA in 32 games, but with the Cardinals, Cishek improved to a 2.31 ERA. His FIP with St. Louis was much higher—4.33, but this is a guy who saved 39 games in 2014 when his FIP was a full run lower than his ERA. The biggest question for Cishek will be: can he shake off whatever was making batters hit his pitches so much in Miami and pitch like it’s 2014 again?

Joaquin Benoit is less of a question mark. The 38-year-old has made a long career out of being a setup man. The past three years, in fact, he has been particularly effective. Back in 2013, the only season in his 14 seasons in the major leagues that he was a full-time closer, he saved 24 games for the Tigers and posted an ERA of 2.01. He struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings that year. 2014 was even better for the veteran: he posted a 1.49 ERA for the Padres. His ERA is just under two for the past three seasons. He’s an obvious candidate to be the Mariners’ most effective reliever in 2016.

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We don’t know how well the other pitchers will perform because most of them haven’t pitched for the Mariners before. Furbush is a rare holdover and one of the rare members of the 2015 bullpen who was actually good. Unfortunately, his 21.2 innings last year weren’t enough. Newcomers Justin De Fratus, Ryan Cook, and Evan Scribner all had success in years past before bottoming out for various reasons last year. All three of these guys can’t all be as bad as they were last year, can they? Dipoto is betting that 2015 was an outlier for this trio.

Vidal Nuno and Mayckol Guaipe both saw time on the mound for the Mariners late last year, and they’ll be fighting for roles with Tony Zych and Jonathan Aro, both of whom could be on the verge of breakout years. Aro was acquired from the Red Sox in the Carson Smith trade and comes in as the 20th best prospect in the Mariners organization. In his minor league career, Aro posted a promising 4.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Zych is a holdover from last year who saw limited action. He averaged 96.1 miles per hour on his fastball, however, and with a good spring, could seize a meaningful role.

Next: Mariners Position Primer: First Base/Infield

Dipoto’s approach to the bullpen might seem a little antiquated in the era of Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, but he injected it with a ton of upside and flexibility. If his additions can shake off their bad outlier years, this is a squad that, with its promising youngsters, could shut games down in the seventh inning.