Drayer: Mariners even more comfortable with standout bullpen for 2022

Mar 29, 2022, 6:41 PM | Updated: 7:11 pm
Mariners Paul Sewald...
Paul Sewald reacts after the final out of a Mariners win over Houston on Sept. 1, 2021. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

While all eyes have been on the starting pitchers in Mariners camp, the relievers have been quietly going about the business of getting ready for a season.

Mariners starter Marco Gonzales opens up about his up and down ’21

It’s a far cry from the situation last year where there were many questions surrounding potential Mariners bullpen members – chiefly, “Who are these guys?” In short, the Mariners ‘pen to start 2021 was very much an unfinished product, and it certainly wasn’t the group that the 2022 ‘pen will largely be comprised of.

Just for fun, a quick refresher of the 2021 Mariners opening day ‘pen:

• Rafael Montero
• Kendall Graveman
• Keynan Middleton
• Anthony Misiewicz
• Casey Sadler
• Will Vest
• Drew Steckenrider
• Nick Margevicius

This spring, the intrigue surrounding the Mariners bullpen is more of the “Will they be ready?” and “How will they be used?” variety rather than in regards to who will make the team. With two extra roster spots for the month of April, it’s likely at least one spot will go to a reliever. Manager Scott Servais has expressed a preference to add arms with both spots, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a position player in the mix.

Returning a bullpen where all but one reliever (Sergio Romo) spent a significant amount of time on the team or in the organization in 2021 seems to put the Mariners ahead of the game from the start.

“We are more stable this year,” said Servais. “Those guys understand the plan.”

“The plan” covers everything from individual plans for improvement to game usage. Team analysts figure heavily into both. In the case of Paul Sewald last year, he put himself in the hands of the analysts, taking their suggestions and working on them at the Mariners’ alternate site in Tacoma after the big league season had started. That spring he arrived in camp as a non-roster invitee thinking it could be his last spring training after accumulating a 5.50 ERA in four seasons with the Mets.

“I will try what they are preaching and see if it works,” he remembers. “If it doesn’t work, I will try Plan B. Next thing I know, it worked pretty well for me.”

The “it” wasn’t a new pitch; rather, it was more about how he was using his pitches. Location was key to the improvements, as was a slight increase in throwing the slider. Nothing too dramatic was suggested, as the focus was to work better with what he had.

“I just think the simplicity of what we have done with those guys has really helped their natural ability come out,” said Servais, whose team had a number of relievers with unexpected breakout seasons in 2021. “We don’t try to over-complicate it.”

A bit more complicated is the reliever usage. By now you should know that the Mariners do not employ a closer or setup man. Games can be lost in the ninth inning, but if you don’t take care of business in the sixth, the closer may not even come into play. The Mariners want their best available arms each night pitching when the game is on the line, regardless of inning. It is about leverage, not labels or roles.

This is where things get interesting in 2022. Sewald and Drew Steckenrider are high-leverage relievers, as is Diego Castillo when he is going good.

“One guy that has been a little under the radar, I think, (is) Diego Castillo,” Servais said of the 2021 trade deadline acquisition. “He wasn’t quite 100% last year; he wore down at the end of the year a little bit. The ball is coming out hot (this spring). He looks really good to me. He will play a major role for us along with Andrés Muñoz… It’s a really intriguing high-leverage bucket.”

Add veteran closer Ken Giles to the high-leverage bucket, and one might wonder if it is a challenge to assign where each reliever fits.

“We have all the algorithms, numbers that pop out and say ‘This matchup should be this,’ and there’s always a little variance in that how it will lead you one way or the other,” said Servais. “We look at not just how they are doing it but what the numbers say. It all comes together in the decision making. It doesn’t work out perfect every night. I talk about the planning that we do and the preparation, I wish it was that easy every night. Oftentimes it doesn’t work that way so you do have to make choices. When it comes right down to it, it is who gives us the best chance to get the first guy out.”

None of this works without communication.

“You can talk about it all you want – you have to live it and I think we have,” said Servais. “I think we do a pretty good job of giving guys a heads up of what it might look like for that given night. You are constantly talking about it – ‘Hey, be ready to go early tonight. Hey, I got you later tonight. You are against the bottom of the lineup, the top of the lineup.'”

It will be interesting to see how Muñoz and Giles fit into the mix. Muñoz brings the 100-plus mph stuff and Giles, who has three seasons of at least 20 saves and won a World Series with Houston, has big situation experience. Both are coming off Tommy John surgery but appear to be full-go, with Servais saying he won’t look to find any type of soft landing situation for their early appearances.

“You might go into the first series, I have to look at Minnesota’s lineup and how they are stacking them, but Paul Sewald’s most impactful spot may be to get us out of the sixth inning. We don’t know yet,” Servais pointed out. “Are they going to pitch back to back out of the chute? No, they will not. That’s where the soft landing comes in. That’s why I think it’s important to have the extra pitching when we break camp.”

Most relievers will not get the opportunity to go back to back in spring training, but Sewald believes they will be ready despite the short spring.

“Spring training is six weeks for the starters,” he said. “That’s the only people spring training is for. I’m ready in 2 1/2 weeks. This is not a problem for any of us. It’s the starters that need those six weeks to build up and ours came in prepared so I don’t have any problem with the spring training schedule. I hope it stays this way forever.”

It is likely that familiarity with the system and the lack of turnover is playing a role in the ease of getting ready for Sewald and his bullpen-mates. Not all ‘pens will have the ability to hit the ground running. For all the talk that “bullpens are fickle” year to year, in a shortened spring the continuity could be an advantage. For the players there should be few surprises or adjustments. On April 7, they can go to work.

“You talk about arguably the best bullpen in baseball (in 2021) and now we add two guys with some serious firepower back there?” Sewald said, referring to Giles and Muñoz. “I just think it makes us just even deeper in a spot that I thought we were already pretty deep. It rounds out to a really nice squad. I’m excited to see what we can do.”

Mariners 2B Adam Frazier likes playoff chances with their roster

Date Starting Pitcher
Thursday, March 30 @ 7:10 pm Guardians' Shane Bieber RHP vs. Mariners' Luis Castillo RHP

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