Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Mariners can survive with 11 pitchers and without Cliff Lee

After news of Cliff Lee's strained abdomen raised the distinct possibility that he would be out the first couple weeks of the regular season, suddenly the Seattle Mariners' goal of breaking camp out of Spring Training with a six man bullpen instead of seven seems in jeopardy. This wouldn't matter that much except it cuts off a valuable bench spot, on a bench that's already limited due to the presence of Ken Griffey Jr as a pinch hit bench bat that can't really play any position well due to his balky knees. This limits the versatility of the bench, and may force the team to DFA a pitcher or two when Lee returns.

There's no need for this. This mindset assumes that you're going to burn your bullpen arms as specialists who only face two or three batters... a needlessly inefficient usage of the bullpen in the first place.

If you're facing life with six relievers that are going to get extra work due to the temporary loss of a star SP, the key is to stretch out your relievers and use them to face anywhere from six to nine batters at a time, regardless of how good or bad the outing goes. Instead of using three to five relievers a night, you only need to use two or three. While the outings will be longer and require more rest... your pitchers will get more time between outings since you'll be using fewer pitchers each game. At most, keep two short guys to work the end of a game. Aardsma can be your closer, and you can use the other short guy (Brandon League? Mark Lowe? If one's going to be a short man the other's got to be able to face 6-9 batters at a time) on alternate nights, to either set him up or close if Aardsma's been overworked. The other guys should be able to give you two innings or so if needed.

If someone outside of the short men can't be counted on to get you through 6-9 batters without damage, you send them away. If someone really struggles, you send them down and call up someone fresh, preferably a hot hand in Tacoma or West Tenn.

As for the starters, who likely will struggle to some extent, just make sure they face at least 27 batters regardless of the quality of their outing. That's a full three times through the lineup, and most pitchers can work 27 batters in about 95-105 pitches regardless of how they're doing... and 27 batters on average is about 6 innings of work. Sometimes it's 5. Sometimes it goes well and it's about 7 or 8.

Getting off to a good start as a team is important and doing your best to set yourself up to win is important, sure, so I can see concern about leaving a guy out there if things aren't going well. Look at it this way: If your starter gets shelled for six runs in the first two frames and you fall behind by 4-6 runs, your chances of coming back aren't that great whether he stays in and faces his 27 batters, or if you bring in a bullpen relay of relievers to mop up. You may as well minimize the eventual load your pen will have to work and leave him in until he's faced a full 27, unless he's absolutely getting annihilated, taking 6-8 pitches to face every batter, walking the world or of course (and heaven forbid), he's hurt. If he's tiring early, you as an organization have screwed up because your starters should be in condition to throw 100 pitches under the usual pressure.

And when those relievers come in with the end of the game a ways away, may as well have each one face the whole 9-man lineup a single time and get as much mileage from them as you can. You might even finish the game using only two relievers, though it's likely in such a situation you'll need three. Just don't take a disposable approach to your bullpen. Bring guys in not with the intention of getting the next 1-2 guys out, but of facing the whole lineup once.

In tight games where matchups may be important and you're 1-3 innings from the closer... suck it up and trust the guy you bring in. Usually he'll get the job done, or at least not do any worse than if you played the matchups or brought in a fireman if he gets in trouble.

The Mariners can still get away with a six man bullpen, but it's going to take a bit of open mindedness on manager Don Wakamatsu's part and GM Jack Zduriencik's part, and possibly a concerted effort to stretch a couple people out. The guys who break camp in the Mariners bullpen (outside of League/Lowe and Aardsma) should be able to power through multiple innings. Many of the potential guys they still have in camp can do so. Shawn Kelley intends to stretch out and will at least be used in longer situations. Kanekoa Texeira did pitch a bit as a swingman in AA and would work well if the M's stretch him out. If Sean White stays healthy and gets stretched back out, he can pitch multiple innings. Jury's out on Luke French's abilities as a starter, but if he can get people out as a reliever then he's a good middle or long man.

Speaking of French, you can rotate the last two rotation spots between Doug Fister, Jason Vargas and French in case any of those three struggle. And when Lee returns, if you want to bring in someone from Tacoma to give you a better situational bullpen then you should be able to option any of the potential starters (Dave Cameron found documentation that indicates Vargas and Olson should have option years this season).

Ultimately, if it turns out these guys can't hold the fort as a six man bullpen, you can cave in, send off a bench player (and with some of the season gone you can flesh out who best fits your positional needs off the bench) and add a pitcher. But it's certainly in the realm of possibility that the Mariners can do fine with a six man bullpen, even if they have to live without Cliff Lee for a couple weeks.

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