Expanded format or not, the Mariners stuck around the periphery of the playoff picture longer than most onlookers expected. Seattle finished the 2020 season within striking distance of a .500 record (27-33) and saw key young players like Kyle Lewis and Justus Sheffield take important steps forward.
The Mariners’ 2020 relief corps, however, was disastrous by virtually any measure. Mariners relievers ranked 28th in ERA (5.92) and even worse in the estimation of fielding-independent metrics. The bullpen posted the game’s 29th-ranked SIERA (4.99) and was dead last in both FIP (5.81) and xFIP (5.69).
Only the Rockies and Marlins bullpens struck out a fewer percentage of batters faced, and only the Mets bullpen walked a higher percentage of opponents. The Phillies were the lone team whose relievers averaged more homers allowed per nine innings. The Mariners were also a bottom-three bullpen in terms of swinging-strike rate, first-pitch strike rate and opponents’ chase rate. In short, Seattle relievers couldn’t miss bats, control the strike zone or avoid loud contact. They weren’t baseball’s worst bullpen thanks to some historically bad showings in Philadelphia and Denver, but that’s not exactly a technicality in which a team should take much pride.
It should surprise no one, then, that general manager Jerry Dipoto made the bullpen his clear focus in chatting with reporters at season’s end (links via Corey Brock of The Athletic and Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times). But while many GMs speak in generalities with regard to their offseason needs, Dipoto was more specific, suggesting that the Mariners could add “three or four” new relievers — likely via free agency. (Of course, as we know by now, we should also never rule out the trade market as an avenue for Dipoto.)
While the GM cautioned that he might not pursue the market’s “marquee names” — Liam Hendriks, Kirby Yates, old friend Alex Colome and the resurgent Trevor Rosenthal are among the top available arms — it was a rather straightforward declaration of his intent to be more active than most of his peers on the bullpen market. As Brock rightly points out, spending top dollar to build a bullpen via free agency is precisely what led to the aforementioned catastrophe in the Rockies’ bullpen, but Dipoto sounds as though he plans a more measured approach to making bulk additions.
If the Mariners do wish to spend big, they’d certainly be able to do so. Seattle just over $50MM committed to next year’s payroll, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, and their arbitration class is rather light. Mitch Haniger, Tom Murphy and J.P. Crawford are the only locks to be tendered contracts among Seattle’s arbitration-eligible players. Mallex Smith was already outrighted and will be able to become a free agent by virtue of his service time. Carl Edwards Jr. is also arb-eligible but pitched just 4 2/3 innings due to injury.
Other additions will likely be made beyond the bullpen, though it doesn’t sound like they’ll be the primary area of focus. Divish suggests that a free-agent rotation piece will likely be in the cards, particularly given Dipoto’s indication that the Mariners will continue to utilize a six-man rotation. Speculatively, a veteran outfielder who could serve both as an early-season bridge to uber-prospect Jarred Kelenic and a safety net for long-injured Haniger could be prudent.
Speaking of Haniger, one of the more encouraging takeaways from Dipoto’s comments was his assertion that the 29-year-old is at long last believed to be healthy. Haniger’s recovery “has really picked up steam in the past 30 or 40 days,” Dipoto said, expressing confidence that he’ll be the team’s Opening Day right fielder in 2021.
That would be a welcome sight for Mariners fans, who saw Haniger break out with a All-Star 2018 season –. 285/.366/.493, 26 homers, 38 doubles, four triples, eight steals, solid defense — before a freak series of injuries torpedoed his 2019-20 seasons. Haniger fouled a ball into his groin in June 2019, resulting in a ruptured testicle. While rehabbing that already gruesome injury, Haniger suffered an adductor tear that snowballed into a herniated disc in his back. He ultimately underwent a microdiscectomy procedure that wiped out his entire 2020 season.
An improved bullpen, Haniger’s return, Kelenic’s expected debut and some additional growth from young talents like Evan White, Shed Long Jr. and/or Crawford could lead to another major step forward for the Mariners. That’s a lot of things still needing to break in their direction, but Dipoto no longer sounds like a GM in the midst of an all-out rebuild. The Mariners’ goal next season, per the GM, is to contend for a postseason berth. “I don’t think that’s unrealistic,” said Dipoto.