Position battles are always something that fans look forward to tracking in Spring Training. And while most of the roster is all but set for the Mariners, there are still a lot of ways the club could go in some key areas. One of those areas is in the bullpen. The Mariners are a club that usually leaves Cactus League play with 12 on their pitching staff, and 2012 doesn't figure to be any different. The rotation will likely work itself out with nary a surprise, but in the bullpen -- where at least 20 arms will be available to Manager Eric Wedge and Pitching Coach Carl Willis when camp opens -- there figures to be some stiff competition and some tough decisions ahead.
The back end of the relief corps is most likely set. Between All-Star closer Brandon League, fellow right-handers Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Kelley and Chance Ruffin and left-handed specialist George Sherrill -- returning to the club for a second tour of duty on a free agent contract -- the Mariners have a nice mix of veterans and youth. But the final two spots in the bullpen could be filled in a number of ways with choices between lefties, righties, 40-man rostered arms and Non-Roster Invitees.
On the 40-man, Seattle has substitute-teacher-turned-flame-throwing-righty Steve Delabar and lefties Charlie Furbush, Cesar Jimenez and Rule 5 pick Lucas Luetge as options with legitimate MLB shots to choose from.
Delabar made six big league appearances last September to finish out a whirlwind year for him. The 6-foot-5, 220 pound former San Diego farmhand that saw his career succumb to injury a few years earlier found more MPH in his arm after trying out a velocity plan, earned a tryout in front of the M's and eventually pitched at four levels in 2011, striking out 75 hitters in 63 innings along the way. Delabar is a fastball/change-up guy that also mixes in a slider at times. His fastball is 93-97 and his change sits 85-89 with good depth.
Furbush could also battle for a starters spot, but as I wrote in his prospect profile for my Top-50 reports back in October, I think he ends up in the bullpen where his stuff and his delivery can maximize effectiveness. Furbush uses his 90-92 fastball well to set up a big breaking curve that is a rough match-up for lefties.
Jimenez is no stranger to M's fans as he's tallied almost 50 innings for the big league club since 2006. Pitching in the organization since 2002, Jimenez has battled with commanding his repertoire -- which isn't overwhelming by any means -- at both the minor league and big league level throughout his career. His change (78-81 with good sink) is a swing-and-miss offering at times, but if he isn't locating his fastball (88-91) well enough to set that pitch up, all three of his offerings -- including a short slider in the 80-83 range -- become very hittable. He is left-handed, however. He is also out of options. Those facts could work in his favor due to way the bullpen sets up.
The same can be said of Luetge, and he has the added bonus (or hindrance) of being a Rule 5 pick, meaning if he doesn't make the big league club that the Mariners could be out at least $25,000. But Luetge -- who the M's selected 3rd overall in this year's Rule 5 -- is also entering his age 25 season and hasn't pitched above Double-A. He pitched well for the Brewers' Southern League affiliate in '11, posting a 3.13 ERA (2.81 FIP), 1.25 WHIP and 9.0 SO/9 while limiting left-handed hitters to a .175 average. He's also allowed just 16 home runs in his 291 innings in his entire minor league career and has a very good move to first base. But he has just fringy stuff, with a fastball topping off around 87 or 88 and a big breaking, mid-70s curve. When the M's nabbed him back in early December he probably had a decent shot at a big league job, but with Sherrill now in the fold I'd think he is the least likely of the 40-man options to stick.
Prized rookie Danny Hultzen and lesser-known minor leaguers Mauricio Robles and Yoervis Medina are already on the 40-man roster, but judging from results for the latter two and conversations I've had with front office staff the past few weeks on the former, there isn't much chance any of these three start 2012 on the big league roster.
Hultzen, of course, was the M's surprise top pick in last June's draft and he made his unofficial debut in the Arizona Fall League, where he pitched great. Still, there isn't a lot of data for the club to go on at this point and even less of a reason for them to rush Hultzen onto the big league roster while sacrificing precious service time. He may well be on the 25-man at some point in 2012, but there is little reason for that point to be in April. Look for Hultzen to get a few starts under his belt at the Double-A level before being promoted up to Tacoma to fine tune his stuff in preparation for a second half big league debut.
Medina had no luck on the mound in 2011 between three levels, posting a 6.18 ERA and 1.66 WHIP while winning just one of 15 decisions. Robles was even worse as he tried to come back from an injury last spring, giving up just barely less than a run an inning (8.91 ERA) and allowing more than two base runners per inning (2.04 WHIP) in 10 starts. Both pitchers' struggles continued in Winter Ball where Medina lost seven more games and Robles tallied just one inning (and 10 base runners) in three appearances (two starts) before being shut down.
Among the NRI candidates, right-hander Forrest Snow -- who has been both starting and relieving in his quick ascension through the minors -- Mariner-for-a-month Aaron Heilman and left-handed reclamation project Oliver Perez are the most likely trio to put in a serious challenge for one of the last spots.
Snow, a local product from the University of Washington, was a 36th round draft pick by the M's in 2010 and has pitched at four levels since, impressing everyone along the way, before a dominant turn in the AFL late last year. His minor league resume includes 8.5 SO/9, 2.8 BB/9, a 4.01 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 188 2/3 innings. Add in his AFL-best 1.10 ERA and a sparkling 0.80 WHIP in his 16 2/3 innings in the Arizona heat and you can see why Snow earned an invite this spring. His 6-foot-6 frame and consistent delivery help maximize the effectiveness on his repertoire, which includes a riding fastball that can get up to 95 out of the bullpen, a decent slider, a change-up with great depth and deception and even the occasional split-finger.
The 33-year-old Heilman is a veteran of nine National League seasons coming off what is his worst year by far with a 6.88 ERA and 1.67 WHIP together with 2.0 HR/9. He was part of Jack Zduriencik's first big trade back in December, 2008 but was shipped off about 45 days later in a second deal before ever suiting up for Seattle.
Zduriencik talked with the media about Heilman's ability to guide younger pitchers a few weeks back and that leadership is something that certainly could benefit the young staff. If he can regain the form he showed the six years prior to 2011 -- during which he put up a 3.86 ERA and 1.28 WHIP as one of the game's most durable relief arms, averaging 71 appearances a year -- he could end up playing a big role for the Mariners in 2012.
Perez famously become the bane of many a New Yorker's existence after signing a three year, $36 million dollar extension with the Mets in '09, only to see his performance and health go down the Flushing sewer system. The Mets got 31 games of 6.81 ERA and 1.99 WHIP for their investment, and Perez got a ticket out of the big leagues.
He resurfaced in Double-A for the Nationals in 2011 and pitched well enough (3.09 ERA in 15 starts) but wound up finding himself auditioning as a bullpen lefty in the Mexican Winter League where he threw 23 games in relief, striking out 19 in 14 1/3 innings. That performance -- paired with a reported gain in velocity -- interested the Mariners enough for them to take a chance on a minor league contract for Perez.
Among the other arms that will be in camp with big league experience, 6-foot-7 right-hander Scott Patterson is a tall right-hander that has saved 33 games over the past two seasons for the M's while working with an 87-90 fastball and big curve. Fellow right-handers Matt Fox (MIN & BOS, 2010), Josh Kinney (STL, 2006-2009 and CHW, 2011) and Jeff Marquez (CHW, 2010 & NYY, 2011) and lefties Sean Henn (NYY, 2005-2007, SDP, 2008, MIN & BAL 2009) and Steve Garrison (2011, NYY) are new to Seattle as minor league FA that have all bounced around from club-to-club and from starting to relief work in their careers to this point. Kinney has enjoyed the most big league success of the group, working as a strikeout arm on some very good Cardinals teams over the years.
Right-handed starter Jarret Grube earned himself an invite with a very solid 2011. He has pitched well since signing out of Independent ball with the club in 2010, but his invite is likely a pat-on-the-back thank you. He would have to pitch out of his mind to earn a spot. Philippe Valiquette is a power lefty that can reach the high-90s with his fastball, but he rarely has been able to show that he has an idea where the ball is going, and that has led to a frustrating minor league career with underwhelming results. The Mariners picked him up after he was released by the Reds late last year and he has yet to throw a pitch in game action for the club.
Four more true prospects also received invites from the Mariners, but I suspect that right-handers Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez and Stephen Pryor and left-hander James Paxton will all be due for some more minor league action before becoming realistic options for the big league roster. The 22-year-old Pryor -- a 6-foot-6 fireballer with late-game make-up -- is the most likely of the group to have a chance, but I think the club would like to see him against more advanced competition for a longer time before giving him a defined role.
Rumors began swirling Saturday night that former Dodgers' All-Star, a December 12th Non-Tender casualty (who I highlighted as a great "buy low" option for Seattle the following day here), Hong-Chih Kuo had a few teams interested, including Seattle. Those rumors grew to a point that ESPN's Jayson Stark reported on Twitter (during the Super Bowl) that Kuo to Seattle was all but a done deal. Still, there is nothing official from the Mariners as of this writing and it sounds like he has options, so I'm going to treat this as a "maybe" right now. Kuo is left-handed and coming off a truly abysmal campaign in Los Angeles, but he easily has more ceiling than any other pitcher on this list.
Kuo, 30, had posted a 1.75 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP out of the bullpen from 2008 to 2010 while racking up 10.6 SO/9 over 170 innings (130 relief appearances) before completely falling to pieces in 2011: a 9.00 ERA, 1.74 WHIP and 7.7 BB/9 -- more than double his career mark of 3.5 entering the season -- in 40 appearances. Kuo had arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in October, but the real issue that plagued him in 2011 was reportedly a crippling anxiety disorder. It got so bad in fact that Kuo was considering retirement. Clearly he's backed off from that stance, and his career totals -- including holding left-handers to a .201 AVG and striking them out at a 38.2% rate -- paired with his obvious talent are certainly something that the Mariners should take a look at, perhaps more seriously than anyone else on this list.
There you have it. A look at the huge number of pitchers that are vying for a small number of MLB bullpen jobs in Seattle.