You probably don’t want to read another article discussing modern bullpen usage. But you also can’t argue Andrew Miller‘s success in this year’s playoffs hasn’t changed they way we look at how relievers are deployed.
The good news is that I’m not going to sell you on how great it would be if the Seattle Mariners made a habit of using their best reliever in the highest leverage situations. But what I can tell you is that something first needs to happen before the M’s can even consider the possibility.
Without oversimplifying things, the reason Terry Francona was able to deploy Miller as needed was because of Cody Allen‘s presence in the back of the bullpen. There’s less worry about holding onto Miller for a certain situation when you have Allen in your back pocket.
The Mariners have an elite reliever of their own in Edwin Diaz. With reliever usage being a hot topic, it’s been suggested that Seattle will look to maximizes Diaz’s usage by deploying him in more high leverage situations opposed to only traditional save opportunities. The problem though, is that Seattle doesn’t have an Andrew Miller to support their Cody Allen, so to speak.
Let’s make things clear; there isn’t likely to be any drastic change in how Diaz, the presumed closer, will be used. It’s possible he may pitch an eighth inning instead of a ninth once in a while. Or the occasional ask for four outs instead of three. But it’s simply impractical to use a reliever during the regular season like they are used in the postseason. There’s a good chance that we see a ratio similar how the right-hander was deployed last season.
Of Diaz’s 49 appearances with the Mariners last season, 10 required getting four or more outs. This includes a near heroic 2 and 1/3 inning appearance in what turned out to be Seattle’s penultimate game of 2016. The fact that Diaz started the year in the Double-A Jackson rotation likely worked in his favor as the now former starter was likely still used to longer outings.
The M’s did try to limit the 22-year-old’s use early on with regard to pitching on back-to-back days but that started to change down the stretch. Seattle was within range of a postseason berth and when it came time to turn things over to the bullpen, Diaz remained the best and too frequently the only option for locking down the win.
This brings us to the plans for 2017. It’s much too early to really drill down on the specifics of the Mariner bullpen. We have heard rumblings the team is in the market for a left-handed reliever and cultivating bullpen depth will again be a priority. Right now, it’s safe to say Seattle doesn’t have a two-headed monster at the back of their bullpen. But there are a couple potential options.
Steve Cishek started 2016 as the closer and had plenty of first-half success. He also succeeded in a set-up role in the second-half. The right-hander’s 2.81 ERA and 3.57 FIP don’t scream dominance, but his 10.69 strikeouts per nine rate better resembles a lock-down reliever.
The only problem is that Cishek may not be ready for the start of the season after undergoing hip labrum surgery. The 31-year-old remains an option to return to a late inning role and has the desired experience. The recovery timeline could cause some difficulties though, and it’s tough to know how he’ll perform upon his return.
Another option could be the up-and-coming Dan Altavilla. The hard-throwing righty gave up a single earned run over 12 and 1/3 innings in the season’s final weeks. He added ten strikeouts and a walk in an impressive showcase. Like Diaz, Altavilla made the jump from Double-A to the majors after being converted to a reliever at the beginning of the year. I would assume he’s penciled in for a major league bullpen role, but may need a stint in the minors to fine tune his skills.
With his repertoire, Diaz has the makings of a pure shutdown, high leverage reliever. However, the current bullpen set-up simply may not allow for use outside of the more traditional closer’s role. After all, the primary set-up options we just discussed include a recovering side-armer and an unproven rookie. Not to mention that Diaz is only a year in to his major league and bullpen career.
The Mariners know that they need to re-stock the bullpen. Middle relief arms will be a priority, but by emphasizing late-inning options and increasing flexibility there, Seattle may be able to get even more value out of Diaz.