PEORIA, Ariz. -- In a Mariners camp filled with opportunities for young players, one of the biggest question marks that remains unanswered is the role of late-inning relievers and potential closers.
Remember when Edwin Diaz nailed down a club-record 57 saves two years ago, tied for the second-most in Major League history? Those days are long gone. So are seven of the nine relievers who combined for 34 saves last season, when Roenis Elias led the team with 14.
This year, the Mariners have a large group of relievers in camp with some interesting young arms, but only free-agent addition Yoshihisa Hirano has much closing experience and that came during his 11-year career in Japan.
Making things more uncertain has been a series of minor setbacks for many of the expected late-inning candidates in the first two weeks of camp. Matt Magill, who saved five games at the end of last season and figured as the front-runner coming into camp, has been slowed by a tender right shoulder and is likely a week or more from throwing in a game.
Those three right-handers all are expected to be full go by the start of the season on March 26, but their early absence has provided a quick reminder of the tenuous nature of a bullpen and has led manager Scott Servais to shed any thoughts of applying late-inning labels or roles to his relievers.
“There will be no closer,” Servais said. “It’s just going to depend. Some nights it might be a particular guy matchup-wise or because he has the freshest arm, he hasn’t pitched in a couple days and he will be asked to get the final three outs of the game. Unless somebody jumps up and grabs the position and he looks super comfortable and he’s just shoving it and looks great, then it might grow into that. But right now, we don’t have one.”
Hirano, the oldest player in camp at 35, saved 156 games in Japan, but isn’t your classic hard-throwing closer and is coming off a difficult season with the D-backs after performing very well in a set-up role in 2018.
“He’ll pitch toward the backside I would think,” said Servais. “The seventh, eighth, ninth, kind of where we’re at in the lineup and what the matchup looks like there, based on what he does. There might be certain guys that we want velocity [from]. That probably would not be Hirano at that point. If we want guys that can do certain things with the ball, that might be his pocket.”
The Mariners have some young guns coming up -- like Joey Gerber, Sam Delaplane, Wyatt Mills, Art Warren and others -- who’ll likely open the year in Triple-A and could arrive soon. But for now, here are the primary candidates for late innings and closer situations:
The New Veterans
Yoshihisa Hirano (2019 – 4.75 ERA, 1 save, 61 K/22 BB, 53 IP with D-backs)
Features a 91 mph four-seamer, but relies heavily on an 84-mph splitter to induce ground balls. Posted a 2.44 ERA with three saves in 75 appearances as a rookie with Arizona in ’18, but was granted free agency after his initial two-year contract ended and signed with Seattle for $1.6 million for 2020.
Carl Edwards Jr. (8.47 ERA, 0 saves, 19 K/13 BB, 17 IP with Cubs and Padres)
27-year-old who was a big part of the Cubs’ bullpen in 2017-18 but got out of sync after re-working his delivery last year, was sent to the Minors at one point and eventually traded to San Diego. Command has always been his Achilles’ heel, but could be a bounce-back candidate if he can regain the lively mid-90s four-seam fastball that was his calling card with the Cubs.
Matt Magill (4.09 ERA, 5 saves, 64 K/20 BB, 50 2/3 IP with Twins and Mariners)
30-year-old journeyman looking to find a home with Seattle, where he pitched well in the closer role over the last six weeks of ’19 after being acquired in late July. Averaged 95 mph with his fastball last year and can use his curveball as an effective putaway pitch.
Erik Swanson (5.74 ERA, 2 saves, 52 K/12 BB, 58 IP for Mariners)
Acquired last year from the Yankees in the James Paxton deal, the 26-year-old began the year as a starter, but impressed the Mariners more after moving to the ‘pen and posting a 3.86 ERA while holding hitters to a .191 batting average in 19 appearances. Might be more of a multi-inning option, but has a high-riding fastball that can be a strikeout pitch and scrapped his changeup in favor of a splitter that gives him another weapon to keep hitters off balance.
Dan Altavilla (5.52 ERA, 0 saves, 18 K/12 BB, 14 2/3 IP for Mariners)
Once regarded as a big up-and-coming prospect, the powerfully built 27-year-old has been erratic in four seasons spent bouncing between Triple-A and the Majors and is now out of Minor League options. But the combination of a 96-97 mph fastball and quality 88 mph slider remains intriguing and if he can remain healthy and put it all together, he certainly has the weapons to be a late-inning candidate.
The Flame Throwers
Gerson Bautista (11.00 ERA, 0 saves, 7 K/9 BB, 9 IP with Seattle)
Acquired from the Mets in the Robinson Cano trade, the 24-year-old opened eyes last year in camp before a torn pectoral muscle derailed much of his season. His name won’t pop up much yet due to his tough 2019, but his fastball certainly pops in the upper 90s and if you squint hard enough, the fastball/slider combo look similar to Diaz when he was starting out.
Yohan Ramirez (3.99 ERA, 1 save, 158 K/74 BB, 106 IP with Advanced-A Fayetteville and Double-A Corpus Christi in Astros’ system)
No, he’s not ready to pitch late in big league games. He may not even be ready to make a Major League roster. But the Mariners grabbed the 24-year-old in the Rule 5 Draft because of an excellent upper-90s fastball with a high spin rate, as well as intriguing off-speed offerings. The challenge has been throwing strikes, but he certainly has interesting weapons.