Mariners' Top 5 relievers: Johns' take

June 8th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only. If you don't agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Greg Johns' ranking of the Top 5 relievers in Mariners history.

Mariners' all-time best: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP | LHP

1) Edwin Díaz, 2016-18
Key fact: Tied for second-most saves in MLB history with 57 in ‘18

Díaz’s time in Seattle was relatively brief, just three years after a midseason promotion as a 22-year-old rookie in 2016. But nobody was more dominant than the right-handed fireballer from Puerto Rico in that span, as he posted a 2.64 ERA with a 38.8% strikeout rate and 109 saves in 188 outings.

Díaz’s 2018 season was one of the best by any reliever in MLB history, as he saved 57 games with a 1.96 ERA, 124 strikeouts and 17 walks in 73 1/3 innings. His 57 saves tied Bobby Thigpen of the White Sox in 1990 for the second most in MLB history, trailing only the 62 by the Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez in '08. Díaz shattered the Mariners’ single-season record of 48 by Fernando Rodney in '14, and he was named the AL Reliever of the Year.

The man called “Sugar” wasn’t a one-season wonder, either. He dominated from the time he arrived in Seattle two months into the 2016 season, posting a 2.79 ERA and striking out 88 batters in 51 2/3 innings as a rookie. His numbers slipped a little in ’17, when he got bit by the long ball, but he still posted a 3.27 ERA with 34 saves.

But it was the 2018 season that Díaz established himself as an All-Star close. He finished eighth in AL Cy Young Award voting and 18th in AL MVP Award voting that year -- rare air for a reliever. His 44.3% strikeout rate was the seventh highest by a reliever in MLB history, and he joined former Dodgers standout Eric Gagne as the only pitchers to ever put up 50-plus saves and 100-plus strikeouts in a season. Gagne did it twice, including 2003, when he was the National League Cy Young Award winner.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto traded Díaz to the Mets in a blockbuster the following winter as part of Seattle’s rebuild, packaging him with Robinson Canó to get several prize prospects in return, including outfielder Jarred Kelenic and starter Justin Dunn, while unloading the final five years of Canó’s onerous contract.

While Díaz struggled in his first season with the Mets, the fact remains that in his time in Seattle, no reliever did it better than him, particularly in that amazing 2018.

“Phenomenal,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “When you look back at the season, you don’t realize how good he was going until you step away from it. It was really special.”

2) Kazuhiro Sasaki, 2000-03
Key fact: Holds Mariners' record with 129 career saves

Sasaki was a two-time All-Star in his four seasons with Seattle after signing as a free agent out of Japan at age 32. With a nasty splitter and mid-90s fastball, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-hander won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2000 after saving 37 games and posting a 3.16 ERA in 58 appearances.

He racked up 45 saves and a 3.24 ERA during the Mariners’ 116-win team in 2001, then earned his second straight All-Star selection in ’02 while saving 37 more games with a 2.52 ERA.

Sasaki also pitched in eight playoff games in 2000 and ’01, earning four saves and not allowing a run until his final appearance in the '01 AL Championship Series against the Yankees when he took the loss in Game 4 in New York. And he earned the save for the AL during the '01 All-Star Game, which happened to be played in Seattle.

After running into injury issues in 2003, Sasaki returned to Japan in '04 despite having one year and $8.5 million remaining on his contract with Seattle. His final numbers with the Mariners were a 3.14 ERA in 228 appearances with a club-record 129 saves and 26.2% strikeout rate. His 37 saves his initial season stood as an MLB record for a rookie until the Rangers’ Neftalí Feliz saved 40 in 2010.

3) Jeff Nelson, 1992-95, 2001-03, '05
Key fact: His 432 relief appearances are the most in franchise history

The Mariners liked Nelson so much that he’s one of just four players to have three different stints with the club, along with Raul Ibanez, Norm Charlton and Mike Blowers. Nelson used his 6-foot-8 frame and a nasty slider to become one of the Majors' top right-handed setup men, and while that role didn’t typically draw as much focus as closers, he was named an AL All-Star in 2001.

Nelson was at his best in the Mariners’ best seasons. He posted a 2.17 ERA -- the lowest of his 15-year MLB career -- in 62 appearances in Seattle’s first playoff year in 1995, with 96 strikeouts and a 1.081 WHIP in 78 2/3 innings.

Then, after a five-year run with the Yankees that included four World Series titles, Nelson returned to Seattle and put up a 2.76 ERA in 69 outings in the Mariners’ 116-win season in 2001, with 88 strikeouts and a 1.133 WHIP in 65 1/3 frames.

Nelson had three strong seasons for Seattle in that stint before being traded for a second time to the Yankees in August 2003 in time to play in another World Series. He re-signed with the Mariners in ’05 and put up a 3.93 ERA in 49 appearances at age 38 before retiring the following season after a brief stint with the White Sox.

He owns Mariners records for most appearances (432) and innings (447 1/3) for a reliever, with a 3.26 ERA, 23 saves, a 24.5% strikeout rate and 8.3 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference.

4) J.J. Putz, 2003-08
Key fact: His 8.4 career bWAR is the highest of any Mariners reliever

Putz evolved into a premier closer during his six seasons in Seattle after breaking into the Majors at age 26 in 2003. He became the Mariners’ closer in '06 and saved 36 games with a 2.30 ERA, then earned an AL All-Star nod in ’07, when he saved 40 games with a 1.38 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder appeared in 308 games with Seattle, with a 3.07 ERA, 101 saves and a 25.4% strikeout rate. As Putz entered his final season before free agency, the Mariners traded him to the Mets as part of a three-team, 13-player deal in 2009, and he went on to pitch six more years in MLB, including a 45-save season with the D-backs in ’11.

5) Arthur Rhodes, 2000-03, '08
Key fact: Posted a 1.72 ERA in 71 games in 2001

Rhodes was the left-handed counterpart to Nelson in Seattle’s outstanding bullpen from 2001-03 as an intimidating setup duo in front of Sasaki. The best season of his 20-year career came in ’01, when he went 8-0 with a 1.72 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 68 innings over 71 appearances while helping the Mariners run away with the AL West title.

Rhodes signed with the A’s in in 2004, but he returned to Seattle as a free agent in ’07 at age 37. The Texas native sat out that season following Tommy John surgery, but he came back in ’08 with a 2.86 ERA in 36 outings before being dealt to the Marlins at the Trade Deadline. In his four seasons with Seattle, the southpaw put up a 3.05 ERA with a 28.2% strikeout rate in 283 innings over 312 outings.

Honorable mentions

Mike Schooler ranks fourth in career saves for Seattle, with 98, while putting up a 3.30 ERA in 243 outings from 1988-92.
Michael Jackson is second in relief appearances, with 335, and fourth in bWAR among Mariners relievers, with 5.9, and he posted a 3.38 ERA with 34 saves from 1988-96.
Tom Wilhelmsen owned one of the best personal stories as “The Bartender” resurrected his baseball career at age 27 and wound up with a 3.01 ERA with 68 saves in 296 games from 2011-16.
David Aardsma saved 69 games with a 2.90 ERA from 2009-10.
Norm Charlton’s ERA was only 4.03 in five seasons with Seattle over three different stints, but the “Sherriff” was an integral part of the 1995 and 2001 playoff clubs and had 67 saves in 249 appearances.
Fernando Rodney saved 48 games and put up a 2.85 ERA in an All-Star season in 2014.
Bill “Cuffs” Caudill finished seventh in the AL Cy Young Award voting in ’82, when he went 12-9 with a 2.35 ERA and 26 saves in 70 appearances in the first of his two seasons in Seattle.