MIKE SALK

Salk: Do the Mariners have a 9th-inning problem? It’s complicated

Aug 16, 2023, 8:40 PM

Seattle Mariners...

Andres Munoz of the Seattle Mariners reacts on June 26, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The ninth inning is different. At least that’s what the decision-makers in baseball decided a few decades ago when the “closer” was born. That last out has always been hard to get and once you create a stat (saves) to go with it, players know there is some additional money on the line in addition to the regular pressure. Over the years, the save becomes important and the closer gets paid. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the final outs seem to be harder and harder to get.

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I love what the Seattle Mariners have done over the past few years.

They assembled a group of high-quality arms and figured out what each does best. Then they scouted their opponents and determined which reliever would be ideal for each “pocket” of the opposing lineup. Communication became key as they helped each reliever prepare for the various times during the game they might be called upon to perform.

This year, however, they settled into a rhythm where Paul Sewald took most of the ninth-inning opportunities. Maybe it was a way of simplifying things. Maybe they were showcasing him for the eventual deadline deal. Or maybe they didn’t feel as confident with any of their other high leverage relievers closing games. Regardless, it became Sewald’s job this year as he racked up 21 saves with only Andrés Muñoz (six) picking up more than two.

Now Sewald is gone. And all of a sudden, the ninth inning is different once again. In fact, the Seattle Mariners went four straight games in which the ninth (or tenth) became an issue. Three of those issues turned into losses. It’s hard not to think it might have gone differently with Sewald around.

So do they miss him? Undoubtedly yes. I think they knew they would when they made the trade. Do they now have a ninth-inning problem? Was the trade a mistake? Those answers get a lot more complicated.

After the last week, it would be difficult to argue that the ninth inning isn’t a problem. At least right now. If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three is a pattern, four might be a full-blown disaster. But here’s the thing: all four games came in a row.

In a sport where streaks are important and players go up and down, how things work in a short sample size might not be indicative of the long-term expectation. Matt Brash has had a great year but had a lousy night on Monday. Andrés Muñoz has filthy stuff but has seen a recent velocity drop and his slider hasn’t been as sharp. It shouldn’t be surprising if both bounce back and perform much better in their next outings. Of course, they might not. Ah, the beauty of baseball.

But the last week has come with an additional variable. The team has been missing J.P. Crawford for all four of those games. He is their best defensive infielder. In at least one of those games, infield defense was an issue (leading to three unearned runs). No, it wasn’t at shortstop, but we often talk about the calming presence a player like J.P. can have on his teammates.

In fact, we go beyond that! J.P. has often received high praise for the way he leads on the field and the calming effect that has on the pitching staff. Two young pitchers thrown into a new situation without their leader isn’t ideal. And while it may have had zero effect, it is plausible enough that I’m willing to hold judgement for now.

I don’t know for sure if they have a ninth-inning problem, but I do now that inning is going to be uncomfortable for a while. It’s certainly very possible that they do indeed have a problem. And that leads to the next question: If you could go back in time, would you still make the Sewald trade?

My answer is yes. I would. I’d think long and hard about it. And I think there is a good argument to be made against it. Certainly, it would have been nice to have had Sewald in the last week! But I believe the principles that made the deal work are still true.

The Mariners needed offense. They traded from a position of strength to help one of weakness. They also have a significant medium-term need at second base. Dylan Moore and Jose Caballero seem more valuable as part-time players (plus both are right-handed). Cole Young is probably two years away and next year’s free-agent class at second base is led by…Kolten Wong and Adam Frazier! Getting Josh Rojas was important. Oh by the way, he may fill the role of the veteran leader that has been missing since Carlos Santana signed elsewhere.

But they also need him short-term. And that’s before you get to Dominic Canzone, an athletic outfielder that will have the opportunity to grow over the next six years and is playing a role on the team right now.

I think the Mariners are a better team right now with Canzone and Rojas over Sewald. But I sure understand if you disagree and I really understand if the ninth inning now makes you real nervous. I’m in the same boat.

Fortunately, the Mariners have a secret weapon. Bryan Woo should return in another week, offering a chance for a six-man rotation that Jerry Dipoto has said they would employ “for a little while.” If the rotation is in good shape and the bullpen needs help, the M’s could certainly move any of their three flame-throwing rookies to the pen. Bryce Miller and Woo both seem to have the personality for it.

I also think the Mariners have another option. If I was in charge, I’d like to see them return to one of their two earlier strategies. They could go back to “closer by committee,” where they choose the right pockets for each leverage reliever and devalue the importance of the almighty ninth.

That could be effective. Heck, they used Drew Steckenrider (currently not in the big leagues) to close for a season and it worked out just fine!

But my preference would be to let Brash, Muñoz and others return to the roles in which they’ve been most successful and turn the ninth over to Justin Topa. He is a little older and more mature than the other two, is having a great season, and actually reminds me of Sewald.

The Seattle Mariners have options. They have talented relievers and a solid history of putting those players in the best position to succeed. I’ll try to be patient and trust the process. But in the meantime, I’ll be just as nervous as you are.

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