2004 Rookie Analysis: The Relievers
When J.J. Putz was called up early in the season to replace the injured Rafael Soriano, nobody had any idea that he would be one of 10 pitchers called up from the minors during the year.
Putz was followed by Matt Thornton, Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, George Sherrill, Bobby Madritsch, Cha Seung Baek, Scott Atchison, Aaron Taylor and Randy Williams.
So what does this all mean for the future of the Mariners relief corps?
It means that the aforementioned group was given a look to see which of the bunch is ready to step in and fill a role in the big leagues in 2005.
While Nageotte, Baek, Madritsch and Blackley are starters by trade and will likely be battling for the fifth spot in the rotation rather than a role in the M's pen, Putz, Thornton, Atchison, Taylor and Williams will fight for roles as relievers in 2005.
Despite some of the final numbers, there were more than a few bright spots that took the ride on the chaotic taxi express from Cheney Stadium to Safeco Field this season.
The 27-year-old lost his curveball at the all-star break and was basically working with just his heater from that point on. When closer Eddie Guardado went on the DL, Putz took over the closer's role and saved nine straight to end the year.
The absence of the second pitch explains, somewhat, why Putz allowed a .308 batting average against right-hand batters while his effectiveness versus lefties was more than adequate at .234.
With a fastball hitting the 95-mph range consistently and the return of his overhand curveball, Putz is a prime candidate for one of the six spots in the bullpen heading into spring training.
Thornton has split time between starting and relieving in the minors and was used primarily in relief for the Mariners this season.
After struggling into the month of August, the 28-year-old former first-round draft choice got in a groove and actually finished the season with a 3.90 ERA as a reliever.
With shaky command until his final five appearances, Thornton was used in a situational role, which might be where his future lies if he is able to stick in the big leagues beyond 2004.
Thornton followed Putz's lead in getting out the opposite side more effectively than the same-side matchups that traditionally give the advantage to the pitcher. The left-handed Thornton allowed right-handers to hit just .225 while lefties hit .300. The 6-foot, 6-inch flame thrower did hold left-handers to just one hit in 14 at-bats to end the season.
Thornton will use a mid-90's fastball to set up his slider and change, but his control is what is holding him back. If he finds his command, Thornton could break spring training with the big club. At this point, however, that is a mighty big "if."
Sherrill was shut down after pitching for nearly 17 straight months, including his time in winter ball. Perhaps the most impressive of the late-season call-ups, the 27-year-old Sherrill was most effective against left-handers, which bodes well for the former independent league signing.
Using a 90-mph fastball to establish the zone, Sherrill baffles lefties with a sweeping slider that often ends up more than a foot off the plate but appears to be headed for the plate until it's too late for hitters to do anything about it.
Sherrill held left-handers to a .239 average and should arrive in Peoria with a spot on the roster that is his to lose. Just don't expect him to lose it.
The long rest should allow Sherrill to recharge his fastball and command and start 2005 with sharp stuff, just like he did this past season.
"Atch" did an admirable job and finished the season with a very respectable 3.52 ERA. The 28-year-old right-hander was surprisingly dominating at times, striking out 36 in his 30.2 innings of work.
Topping out in the 90-92 range with the fastball, Atchison mixes in a change and a solid slider to keep hitters off balance. As is with Putz, Atchison was much tougher on left-handers than right-handers, limiting lefties to a .209 average.
Atchison is probably on the outside looking in once spring training comes along but if any of the right-handers slip up Atchison is one of the first to get a second look.
Taylor was coming off arm surgery and probably wasn't expected to do much when he was called up on September 6. Still trying to regain the velocity he was blessed with, Taylor struggled in the majors, allowing five hits in 3.2 innings.
The 27-year-old should be much stronger when spring camp opens and Taylor could be a darkhorse to come north with the club. When healthy, the 6-foot, 7-inch Taylor brings the heat at 95-mph and compliments with a solid slider.
If the big right-hander can find his command, Taylor should start 2005 as Tacoma's close and be at the top of the list when the phone rings and the caller ID reads "Safeco Field."
In limited action, Williams' overall numbers don't look so hot. A 5.79 ERA and six walks in 4.2 innings hide the one thing the southpaw did very well; get left-handers out. The 28-year-old faced 10 left-handed hitters and while he walked three, he didn't allow a hit and struck out four.
One of the more underrated minor league relievers in the system, Williams uses a low-90's heater to set up a better-than-average slider. His command isn't quite as sharp as Sherrill's, which is what separates the two left-handers.
Williams will start the year in the minors but is only an injury away from seeing more time in the big leagues.
One thing you'll notice is that not one of these relievers is younger than 27-years-old heading into 2005. That is probably a good thing in the long run, aiding in the speed of the learning process and greatly assisting them to handle the pressure-packed game that is Major League Baseball.
Sherrill and Putz will take to Peoria with less to prove than the rest of the group and are likely to make the team next season, barring injury or a colossal collapse during the Cactus League season.
Thornton is the most intriguing of the remaining four, due to the pure stuff he brings to the table. Lack of command is Thornton's only major downfall, but it's a problem he has fought since he signed with the Mariners in 1998. If the Grand Valley State product can ever corral the stuff that made him a top prospect, he still has time to make a career of it.
Atchison, Taylor and Williams will need something to happen to break into the majors in 2005, though Taylor could start the season red-hot and give the M's no choice but to see what he can do with his healthy right arm.
While Sherrill and Williams came from other organizations and by way of the independent leagues, Thornton, Putz, Taylor and Atchison are home grown hurlers. Add them to the duo of Julio Mateo and Rafael Soriano and you have yourself a nice, solid system-built corps of capable relief pitchers.
Give the organization credit for hording enough quality arms to turn some of them into serviceable relievers.
Up Next: Starting Pitchers- Friday, October 8.
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