Seattle Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen’s recovery from a hyper-extended right elbow seems to be progressing well and it’s likely that he’ll be ready to return from the disabled list (DL) in the middle of the month. Once the 31-year-old is ready for big league action, the Mariners will have to determine which reliever will be sacrificed in order to make room on the team’s 25-man roster for Wilhelmsen.
The Mariners’ bullpen, which stumbled out of the gate, has actually shown signs of a rebound. Entering today, the relief corps’ fielding independent pitching (FIP) is 3.52 – third in the American League behind the Yankees and Astros and better than the league-average of 3.99.
For those not familiar with FIP, it’s a statistic that estimates a pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) based on their strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs while assuming average luck on balls put into play. Since pitchers have little or no control on the outcome of balls put into play, FIP is a better indicator of a pitcher’s performance than ERA. As a point of reference, the Mariners’ bullpen led the AL with a 3.24 FIP in 2014.
Although there’s been some signs of improvement, there are still reasons to be concerned with the pen – they are last in the AL with a 4.82 walks-per-nine innings rate – and several pitchers are still struggling. Most likely, one of these pitchers will be sent out to make room for Wilhelmsen.
Dominic Leone – The last pitcher cut at the end of Spring Training was recalled from Class-AAA Tacoma to replace the injured Wilhelmsen on April 13. Since returning to Seattle, Leone has been inconsistent with higher walk and lower strikeout rates than in 2014 and he possesses the second highest FIP of any pitcher on the team. If all things were equal, the 23-year-old would be the logical choice to be sent to Tacoma. But, in baseball, all things are rarely equal. There are two other pitchers who have underperformed during the young season and could be thrust into the conversation.
Danny Farquhar – The 28-year-old’s numbers haven’t been up-to-par during the first three weeks of the season. Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan – Jason A. Churchill – recently provided detailed analysis of Farquhar’s 2015 performance. Jason points out that the right-hander’s fastball velocity has dropped in each of the last three seasons, although he’s willing to wait a few more weeks – which happens to line up with Wilhelmsen’s return from the disabled list – before casting judgement on Farquhar’s prognosis, .
Tyler Olson – The southpaw – who had never pitched above Class-AA level before making the team in Spring Training – has encountered some challenges. His FIP is the highest on the Mariners’ staff and he’s surrendered 20 hits and walks during 9.1 innings, although it should be noted that six of his walks were intentional. One thing that the former Gonzaga Bulldog has in his favor is his handedness – the team has a desire to have two left-handers in the bullpen.
Being a left-hander may exclude him from consideration for demotion when Wilhelmsen returns. But, that doesn’t mean Olson is immune from being sent to Tacoma. Despite Leone’s slow start, he’s been highly effective against left-handed batters by holding them to a .143 batting average. Even if someone else is sent down to make room for Wilhelmsen, Olson could still be in jeopardy at some point. Lucas Luetge, who had a brief stay in Seattle in April, and former Mariner Joe Beimel are other minor league southpaw options if the 25-year-old Olson doesn’t stabilize.
A lot of things can change before Wilhelmsen is ready to take the mound with the Mariners. The big right-hander could suffer a setback, injury could befall another reliever, or someone else could become ineffective enough to merit demotion. The best thing that could happen for the Mariners is that Leone, Farquhar, Olson, and the rest of the bullpen performs well and makes the team’s choice a difficult one.