The Seattle Mariners’ bullpen has been under fire of late, both in terms of workload and by way of criticism stemming from losing late leads and contributing to losses in heartbreaking fashion. It’s stabilized a bit over the past few weeks, thanks to the emergence of rookie Edwin Diaz and closer Steve Cishek avoid the middle of the plate versus left-handed batters. Nate Karns is part of the mix now, but another reliable, late-inning option could be critical to the club’s chances down the stretch, even if the starting rotation improves.
The Mariners’ relief problems stem largely from overuse and injury. Nick Vincent will return, but Tony Zych may not. Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook may not see the field at all and while it appears Charlie Furbush is nearing a return, which version of the lefty the club will get remains to be seen. Overall, Cishek has been solid in the ninth, but he’s not exactly a light-out closer and the high-leverage situations could use another high-leverage option to pair with Diaz.
Let’s talk about some names, then. But first, a note: Players on teams right in the thick of even the Wild Card race will not be considered. Things can change in a matter of days and weeks, so we’ll check back on or around July 25 for new additions, but there’s no point in adding predictions of several club’s win-loss records over the next three weeks to this exercise.
Here’s a snapshot view of the relief pitching market, with a special focus on what’s logical and realistic for the Mariners in 2016, while covering the bigger names and why or why not they may be a fit:
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP — Atlanta Braves
Vizcaino sits 96-98 mph and complements with one of the best sliders in baseball. He strikes out more than 12 per nine innings and has recorded 10 saves for the Braves. Problem is he also walks 12.8 percent of the batters he faces, suggesting he’s not an arm you want to win or lose with late in games, at least not yet.
He’s also going to be rather pricey, since the Braves have no motivation to move him without the price giving them no choice. Vizcaino will be arbitration eligible for the second of four times after this season and will not qualify for free agency for three more seasons.
Count the Mariners out here, at least for now.
Alex Colome, RHP — Tampa Bay Rays
Unfortunately, Colome and Vizcaino are twins; big-time sliders, velocity, club control on the cheap, all of it. He’s my favorite long-term answer for Seattle but any chance he becomes a Mariners soon will have to wait until the winter, at least, and by that time Colome will be the second-best long-term answer.
Liam Hendriks, RHP — Oakland Athletics
Hendriks is an efficient arm sitting 92-96 mph with both a four-seam and two-seam fastball. He throws both a slider (15% usage) and a curveball (6.6%) and the rare changeup (3%).
The A’s certainly are sellers and Hendriks will be arbitration eligible after the season. Typically this scenario would create a “they don’t have to trade” him approach, and while that’s true, the A’s behind David Forst and Billy Beane are all about taking advantage of the market. With clubs paying what amounts to premiums for rentals, Hendriks is among those with plenty of cheaper, control years left.
That also means a higher cost, however. If the Mariners get involved, perhaps we’re talking about more than one player coming north.
Tyler Thornburg, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers
Jeremy Jeffress, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers
Jeffress is the Brewers’ closer, suggesting he’ll be the more expensive arm. He’s due to hit arbitration for the first time after this season and has 21 saves. He’s not missing bats as much you’d think a 96 mph average fastball would. He also throws an average CB. Jeffress does throw strikes — 5.5 percent walk rate — and keeps the ball in the ballpark.
Thornburg is the Brewers’ big strikeout artist, sitting 93-96 mph setting up a plus changeup. But for Thornburg it’s about the fastball, which shows big-time late life, helping the right-hander induce swings and misses with it. Thornburg, too, will be arbitration eligible after the season.
The Brewers are certain to listen on these two arms and it would be surprising if neither were moved, considering the demand for relief help in July. While neither will command the elite package Ken Giles did over the winter, the control years for both pitchers will create a strong asking price. Not necessarily out of the Mariners’ range, however. Stay tuned.
Aroldis Chapman, LHP — New York Yankees
The Mariners might have the ability to make a play here but the chances it’s the right one are slim if not zero. He’s the ‘name’ and throws the hardest and while he’s a rental he’ll be the most expensive reliever rental this summer. The Yankees keep saying they believe they’ll stay in the race, but the club probably shops Chapman regardless.
David Hernandez, RHP — Philadelphia Phillies
Dipoto and Tom Allison know Hernandez from their days in Arizona and while Hernandez doesn’t throw as hard as those above — 93.6 average fastball — he does find a way to pile up 11.34 strikeouts per nine innings. His control is fringe-average and he’s a pure rental earning another $1.95 million this season.
Hernandez is likely to be among the least expensive options this month, but how much better will he be in the AL than a fixed Wilhelmsen or the transitioning Karns?
John Axford, RHP — Oakland Athletics
At times, Axford looks like a solid late-inning arm, sitting 94-96 with plane and life. But both breaking balls are ordinary and he’s not missing bats as a result.
Axford is a free agent at season’s end, does have closing experience from his days in Milwaukee and while he’s 33 years old, 33 isn’t 40. The question for Seattle again is whether or not Axford serves as an upgrade, since once Nick Vincent returns, Joaquin Benoit, currently the weak link in the bullpen, is the odd-arm out.
Huston Street, RHP — Los Angeles Angels
Street, 33 August 2, has been a shell of his prime self this season, spending time on the disabled list and struggling through 17 1/3 innings of mediocre production. His strikeout rate down (5.71/9), his walk rate is way up (5.19) and his velocity is down a half tick. He’s signed through next season with an option for 2018 and is due a total of $14 million between now and the end of his deal, including a buyout of the 2018 option.
Street was among the more underrated closers in the game until things took a turn for the worse last season and right now he’s not even worth a roster spot. Of course, if fully healthy perhaps there is something left in the tank, but at this point Street seems like a reclamation project, not a reliable, late-inning option for a contending club.
Trevor May, RHP — Minnesota Twins
May, like Hernandez, doesn’t sit 95-99 mph but misses a lot of bats — 13.5 per nine this season. He, too, has average control at best and is just now coming off the disabled list after nearly a month.
May comes with tons of club control. however, as the right-hander will not be arbitration eligible until after 2017. If May shows he’s healthy and back to form, he’s certainly going to generate interest. Whether or the Mariners have the ammo to land a long-term bullpen piece remains to be seen, but they probably don’t have any business spending significant assets on relievers for a club that may or may not be legitimate contenders.
The bullpen is the most likely area addressed by the Mariners this month and undoubtedly is a market that gets flooded as teams decide to sell leading up the deadline. Still, it will be pricey and the longer a club waits the more expensive a high-leverage reliever gets, as options dwindle and rivals make deals to get better. These dynamics make it the trickiest market to assess, but that very well could be this regime’s greatest talent: market assessment.
Other names that could he shopped later in the month include Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mark Melancon, Miami setup man David Phelps, Detroit Tigers left-hander Justin Wilson and Chicago White Sox setup man Nate Jones.
This includes likely trade cost, upside to Mariners roster with 2016 the focus but not the only consideration, probability of performance, cost in salary and risk of injury.
1. David Hernandez
2. Liam Hendriks
3. Trevor May
The price for upper-level closers such as Chapman, Colome, Melancon or the longer-shots to be shopped such as David Robertson, likely will be to too steep for the Mariners talent bank to support.