The bullpen mess


Watching last night’s game was a reminder that the 2011 Mariners are a very flawed team. While everyone seems to focus on the offense as the problem, I think that’s missing the bigger picture. That is, the M’s aren’t very good in a number of aspects of the game. Case in point: the bullpen. Watching Josh Lueke get shelled yet again last night wasn’t very fun.

What’s confounding in all of this is that bullpen will self-destruct one night, and then go on a consecutive-scoreless-innings streak over the next 2-3 days. Is the ‘pen as good as it seems at times, or as bad as it’s inevitable meltdown?

Well, it’s easy to see what’s really going on just by looking at the current stats*:

*This does not include last night’s game, and thus the latest Josh Lueke meltdown.

As you can see, there are 4 members of the bullpen who are pitching pretty well, and 3 who’s pitching has been downright awful. I’m a little concerned about those that are currently pitching well, as 3 of the 4 have somewhat questionable talent, so I don’t think that’s it safe to believe that they can keep this up. Still, until they start to show signs of decline, I’ll concern myself with the 3 that are really hurting the team. Wilhelmsen, Lueke and Ray all been pretty bad.

Of the three, Ray has been the worst, and there’s no sign that he’s going to turn it around. his 1.69 K/9 isn’t scaring anyanyone. At least he’s getting ground balls 56% of the time, but still, it’s hard to argue that he deserves to be getting innings. He’s a definite DFA candidate any day now, just as soon as the M’s find someone to replace him.

The two rookies haven’t been much better, but at least with them there’s hope. Both strike out batters at a rate greater than 1 per inning. The problem is that both are walk machines as well, walking about 1 batter per inning.  They’re also getting hit hard as their BABIPs are both over .410.

Lueke has another problem that M’s need to worry about, and not just because he keeps getting shelled. His FB velocity is down quite a bit from last year. His mid-high 90’s fastball is topping out at 91-92 MPH so far this season. If I had to guess, I’d say that this has a lot to do with his struggles, but I don’t have an proof of that; it’s just a suspicion. I’m worried that something is not right with him physically.

Help is on the way, as David Aardsma is less than a week away from returning to the team from the DL. One of the three is will be gone. My guess is that it’ll be Wilhelmsen. Having never pitched above class A before this year, the guy still needs a chance to learn how to pitch. Plus, he still has the potential to become a starter, so sending him to Jackson to start seems like a good plan.

Unfortunately, Aardsma only replaces one of the three pitchers who need to go. There’s been talk of the team going with only 6 guys in the bullpen when Franklin Gutierrez returns from the DL, and with the way Ray and Lueke have been pitching, it’s hard to argue against that doing so would make the M’s better.

The Mariner’s would then need 1-2 other replacement parts if they were to actually fix their bullpen. Here are the candidates currently in Tacoma*:

*note that one of them is Aardsma, currently on his rehab assignment.

Justin Miller and Chris Smith have shiny ERAs, but their high walk rates mean they wont be an upgrade over Ray or Lueke.

Looking at the stats, both lefties would seem to be candidates to be given a chance. Ring’s 9 k’s in just over 3 inning’s pitched is impressive. The problem with Ring is why he didn’t make the team our of spring training. He’s a situational lefty, and not able to go full innings, let alone multiple innings. This makes him a liabilty unless the starters are routinely pitching 7 innings, especially if the M’s drop to a 6 man bullpen. Jimenez has 12 K’s and just 3 walks in 11 innings. Jimenez just doesn’t inspire confidence. I can’t say i’d be excited for him to get called up, though I do think he’d be an upgrade, even if only a small one.

Delcarmen and Bautista both appear to be candiates as well. Good strikeout rates. Especially Bautista, though he walks a few too many as well. He also tends to get hard on occasion. Delcarmen is reportedly still a work in progress in terms of returning from an injury. Still he can’t be worse than Ray has been, so I wouldn’t be against giving him a shot.

The last candidate is Dan Cortes. He’s an interesting case. It’s hard to find someone who throws harder, but he has very little idea where it’s going when he lets go of the ball. His 9 K’s in 8 innings is good, though his 4 walks isn’t. He also looked downright dominant in the bigs in 2010 after his September call-up, with a 2.52 FIP. He looked like a lock to make the team when spring training started, but was so wild that he was one of the first players sent down.

Adding to the problem is the roster situation. Of those that seem like candidates to be called up, only Cortes is currently on the 40 man roster. If the M’s decide to send send Lueke down to AAA, Cortes the only player who can fill his spot unless the M’s choose to cut ties with someone like Tui or Carp. If (when) Chris Ray get his DFA notice, that will open a roster spot for someone to be added, so then any of the other options would be available.

Overall, the front office has some difficult choices to make, but it must make them. The team can’t afford to continue to be throwing away game when 43% of it’s bullpen members take the mound.