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Seattle Mariners

Bullpen could be key to Mariners postseason chances

Unlike the Baltimore Orioles, who won their game against the Arizona Diamondbacks Saturday, the Seattle Mariners just missed a big opportunity to gain ground in the fight for the second American League wild card spot.

With the Tigers loss to the Kansas City Royals, the Mariners could have made their path to the postseason a bit easier by defeating the lowly Minnesota Twins, but a win for the Mariners Saturday was just not in the cards.

All hope is not lost for Seattle, however. They still remain in the postseason race, just 2.5 games out behind the Orioles and a game behind the Tigers.

Like every other team, the Mariners have dealt with injuries over the course of the season but now have their starters finally healthy as well as their big bats. So it may be the performance of the bullpen that will be that extra key needed to propel the team into the postseason for the first time since their historic 116-win season in 2001.

Before the season began, I wrote that while new GM Jerry Dipoto had done well to rebuild the Mariners around the diamond, the bullpen may end up being their downfall. Dipoto had revamped the bullpen completely from the prior season.

The only returning member from the core of the team’s 2015 bullpen was Charlie Furbush, who already had a long history of injuries. Furbush was not even able to make a single appearance for the Mariners in 2016, succumbing to a rotator cuff injury during spring training that required surgery.

The team lost new acquisition Ryan Cook for the season and rookie Tony Zych for a rather large chunk of time. Plus, another offseason acquisition, Evan Scribner, began the season on the disabled list and has only recently returned.

So the Mariners’ bullpen did come under fire before the season even began. The first couple of months did not go well either, with the ‘pen losing late-inning leads and contributing to heartbreaking losses.

While that may have been true at the beginning of the 2016 season, it is not the case now. The bullpen may be the piece that could get the Mariners into the playoffs.

The Mariners bullpen looks quite a bit different than it did in April. Six months ago, Steve Cishek, who had been non-tendered by the St. Louis Cardinals in December, was slated to the the team’s closer. Cishek is a solid pitcher, but not exactly what you would call a lights-out closer.

July 8, 2016: Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Steve Cishek (31) during the MLB American League game between the Seattle Mariners and the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Mariners defeated the Royals 3-2 (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)

The bullpen also included quite a few other newcomers: Joaquin Benoit, Justin De Fratus, Scribner, Cook, Zych, Nick Vincent and Vidal Nuno, most of which were, like Cishek, somewhat questionable choices. With the exceptions of Scribner and Nuno, the rest of the pitchers are already gone or out for the season.

Since April, however, Dipoto has made some trades as well as some call-ups that have improved the bullpen. He brought back Tom Wilhelmsen, who had been traded to the Rangers in November 2015 but was granted free agency in June of 2016 after posting a 10.55 ERA in Texas. He ended up re-signing with Seattle, and has since posted a 3.75 ERA.

Cishek was not terrible as the team’s closer, posting a 3.03 ERA, but he spent some time on the disabled list in early August with a hip injury. He did rack up 25 saves but it was out of 32 save opportunities, and seven blown saves isn’t exactly what a team looks for in a closer.

In June, Dipoto brought up the guy who is likely the most important pitcher currently in the M’s bullpen. Twenty-two-year-old right-hander Edwin Diaz has pitched in 45 games for the Mariners and has pitched so well he’s earned himself the closer role, taking over for Cishek.

Diaz has posted a 2.33 ERA over his 45 appearances, finished 20 games, and has 16 saves in 18 opportunities. He has struck out a whopping 15.5 batters per nine innings.

He brought in Drew Storen in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays as well as switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, also from the Blue Jays, in separate trades.

He also traded for Arquimedes Caminero from the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the exception of Venditte, who has posted a 7.15 ERA over his first 11 innings with the team, those acquisitions have helped to upgrade the Mariners’ pen.

Venditte, however, has the added bonus of being able to pitch with both arms, so despite his current ERA with Seattle, he adds a unique value to the relief corps. He adds versatility that other no other pitcher in the major leagues has, which can confuse hitters and allows for fewer pitching changes based on righty-lefty match-ups.

Besides Diaz, the team has called up right-hander Cody Martin and lefty David Rollins. Both have struggled a bit so far in the majors, but given the extremely small sample size of big league statistics for each pitcher, they’re not necessarily indicative of future performance, meaning that they too could end up being assets that help the Mariners in their push for the postseason.

Being that the starting rotation is doing well and that the team has Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager at the core of their lineup, it could very well end up being the performance of the bullpen that decides the Mariners’ postseason fate.

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