Mariners Bullpen: What are the issues, and what are potential solutions?

May 26, 2022, 11:48 AM | Updated: 3:17 pm
Scott Servais takes Anthony Misiewicz out of the game against the A's on May 24, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Mariners have a problem.

Mariners’ slide continues with 4-2 loss to A’s; Seattle falls to last place

Well, they have multiple problems that have attributed to the team’s early-season struggles in 2022.

Personally, I think the lineup will be fine. There are too many good hitters to continue struggling at the plate 1-9 for the entirety of the season, and while many fans are tired of hearing about it, the swing decisions have been good, which is a good sign moving forward. I’m a little concerned about the organization’s top-end starting pitching depth, but the Mariners’ five-man rotation is, for now, adequate for a team trying to compete, though that group could perform better and would likely welcome a more proven veteran option.

Unfortunately for the Mariners of late, when the hitting has clicked, the starting pitching has lacked. And vice versa. We saw both instances of that during this most recent series, an alarming loss to the Oakland Athletics.

And then there’s the issue of the bullpen.

The Mariners won 90 games a year ago, and a huge reason for that is because the bullpen was absolutely stellar. The Mariners were nearly unbeatable in one-run games as the trio of Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler allowed the team to drastically shorten games, which helped take pressure off the starting rotation to work super deep into their games.

But a year after finishing in the top 10 in bullpen ERA, WHIP, home runs allowed and walks allowed, the bullpen has been anything but a strength this season, ranking in the bottom 10 in ERA and home runs allowed.

That was apparent on Tuesday when Mariners relievers, clinging to a 5-4 lead, allowed three runs between the sixth and seventh innings in a 7-5 loss to the A’s.

So what’s going on with the bullpen? Let’s dive in.

Few trusted arms

First, what’s going right?

The Mariners have three trusted arms who, to date, have pitched pretty well: Sewald, Sergio Romo and Penn Murfee.

All three are fairly funky right-handers who don’t throw hard and have excellent sliders.

Sewald was stellar for the Mariners in 2021 and has carried that over into 2022, where he is once again manager Scott Servais’ go-to arm in big spots, such as when the heart of an opponent’s lineup is scheduled to hit late in a game.

Romo is the oldest Mariner at 39 years old, but the crafty righty has three World Series rings to his name, and despite throwing his fastball in the mid-80s continues to excel at limiting hard contact. Romo had an early-season injury list stint with a shoulder issue, but Servais – in part because of other pitchers’ struggles – quickly utilized Romo as a key arm and has been overall rewarded for doing so.

And then there’s Murfee, a 28-year-old rookie who started 2022 in Triple-A. He’s allowed only two earned runs in 14 1/3 innings this year and appears to be earning more high-leverage situations because of his performance. It should be noted, though, that Murfee did struggle in a key moment on Monday, failing to record an out, allowing two inherited runs and one additional earned run to score in the sixth inning against Oakland.

An honorable mention goes to Erik Swanson, who was stellar for the Mariners in 13 games, posting a 1.29 before landing on the injured list with an elbow injury. His presence is certainly missed right now.

So, the Mariners at least have more relievers than Sewald who are producing, but a unit that was such a strength in 2021 is severely lacking in impact arms as May creeps closer to an end.

It’s clear that Servais doesn’t have many arms he can count on in close games, and those are games the Mariners desperately need to win to get back in contention. Plus, you can only throw guys so many games in a row. Wednesday was a good example of that with Sewald allowing a run in what was his fourth appearance in Seattle’s last five games.

Then there’s everyone else

The Mariners, after activating designated hitter Kyle Lewis from the injured list on Tuesday, are now rolling with an eight-man bullpen. That means that more than half of the ‘pen come with major question marks.

Two key names not cutting it

Diego Castillo, who the Mariners acquired last year to be a key contributor, has had some pretty bad outings that really ballooned his numbers. But since recording two massive strikeouts with the bases loaded to close a win in New York over the Mets, he has been better, posting scoreless outings in four of his last five appearances. Castillo has still allowed 11 earned runs in just 5 1/3 innings in May, though, so it’ll take time before people feel super comfortable when he toes the rubber, especially in high-leverage spots.

Castillo has been disappointing, and so too has Drew Steckenrider, who was a huge part of the Mariners’ success in 2021.

Steckenrider has allowed at least one run in three consecutive outings, and of his 16 appearances to date, he’s pitched only one 1-2-3 inning. His WHIP has nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022, as has his hits per nine inning mark.

Looking at his Statcast page, Steckenrider is in the lowest possible percentile in expected ERA, expected batting average and expected slugging percentage.

A big reason? Well, Steckenrider’s fastball is being hit at a .333 clip with a .528 slugging percentage. Compare that to a .216 opponent average and .346 slugging in 2021. Additionally, Steckenrider’s go-to secondary offering – the changeup – has been lit up to the tune of a .391 opponent average and .652 slugging percentage. Opponents hit only .149 with a .213 slugging percentage off the change a year ago.

(NOTE: The Mariners optioned Steckenrider to Triple-A Tacoma Thursday afternoon)

The flamethrower’s heat is getting torched

Andrés Muñoz was my pick to be the Mariners’ breakout star of 2022, and for good reason. Muñoz is absurdly talented, possessing a triple-digits heater and wicked slider.

After allowing a home run in his first outing of the season, Muñoz didn’t allow a run until May 1. And, like the Mariners in general, he hasn’t performed very well in May.

Four of Muñoz’s eight May appearances have resulted in him allowing at least one run. The worst was last Sunday when he allowed five runs, including a walk-off grand slam, in Boston.

Muñoz is still striking out more than 14 hitters per nine innings, but he’s also allowing more than 10 hits per nine. The issue? Despite possessing a fastball with a velocity that, per Statcast, is in the 100th percentile in all of baseball, Muñoz is getting rocked when he throws it.

Opponents are hitting an absurd .579 off the fastball with a .947 slugging percentage. The expected numbers are better (xBA of .425 and xSLG of .777) but are still nowhere close to good enough. Muñoz has allowed 11 hits off just 92 fastballs in 2022, including two home runs.

Muñoz’s slider, however, is still elite, with opponents hitting only .158 off it. He’s throwing that far more than the fastball, and for good reason.

The (current) lone lefty

I’ve wrote about this before and I’ll say it again: the Mariners needed to do more in the bullpen when it comes to combating left-handed hitters.

The Mariners have had a few lefties in the ‘pen this season, but none have stuck around for long aside from Anthony Misiewicz.

When the Mariners have turned to Misiewicz to get lefties out, it hasn’t always worked out. Misiewcz has allowed runs in three straight outings and lefties are slashing .292/.346/.500 off him this year. Nowhere good enough to be the lone lefty in a bullpen.

The other guy

Matt Festa just came back from an injured list stint, and he’s been a high swing-and-miss arm for the Mariners this season with a strikeout rate rivaled only by Muñoz in Seattle’s bullpen. But Festa has also allowed five home runs and has a FIP over 5.7.

Maybe Festa can be more of a reliable arm, but as far as the current bullpen goes, he’s basically just a guy at this point.

Any reinforcements?

Obviously the Mariners would welcome a trade to help boost the bullpen. But Jerry Dipoto made it clear during his Thursday visit on Seattle Sports 710 AM that he doesn’t expect any notable trade to happen at this point of the season.

If the Mariners do want to shake things up, they have some in-house options. Currently, there are five members of the Triple-A Tacoma bullpen who could potentially contribute at the big league level.

Three of those relievers are guys we’ve seen with the Mariners this year: Matt Brash, Riley O’Brien and lefty Roenis Elías.

Brash, who began the year as the Mariners’ fifth starter, is working on transitioning to the bullpen and is averaging roughly a walk per inning with the Rainiers, so he needs more time. His ERA is 6.70 in 10 innings over six appearances.

Elías and O’Brien each made just one appearance with the Mariners in 2022, but both are pitching well in the hitter-friendly PCL. Elias owns a 3.63 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 17 1/3 innings while O’Brien has a 2.70 ERA and 1.60 WHIP, but he’s walked 11 in 10 innings.

The other two names: Nick Ramirez and Patrick Weigel.

Ramirez is a 32-year-old lefty who has posted a 1.59 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 17 innings with 14 strikeouts to four walks. He has MLB experience, appearing in 64 games between 2019 and 2021 with Detroit and San Diego.

Weigel, meanwhile, is right-handed and is 27 years old. He’s appeared in 16 games and has a 3.00 ERA and 1.43 WHIP for Tacoma in 21 innings.

None of those guys will really move the needle in terms of pushing the Mariners forward, but they could potentially help in the short-term.

So what?

With things going sideways for the Mariners over the last month or so, the management of the bullpen has became an easy punching bag for fans of the team. What I’d say about that is while no manager is going to be perfect at handling a bullpen, Servais can only work in the confines of what he has.

Would it be nice to run Sewald out all the time? Sure. But that’s not in the cards.

The issue isn’t so much Servais’ handling of the bullpen but that too many guys are underperforming and the overall talent level doesn’t appear to be good enough at the moment.

Again, I’d point to Misiewicz’s role. Do you need to have a lefty come in to face lefty hitters? No. Righties – including guys in this ‘pen – can get lefties out and have to at times. But if you’re going to play matchup ball by bringing in lefties to get lefties out, you’ve got to do better than Misiewicz and the aforementioned .292/.346/.500 lefty slash line off of him.

Bullpens are finicky and volatile, but if you’re a team looking to compete, you can’t have more than half of your relievers with major question marks on a day-to-day basis, especially as your lineup is working to click.

Jeff Passan on M’s : Too much can go right to dwell on what’s gone wrong

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