By Shannon Drayer
ST. LOUIS – Another not pretty one for the Mariners, who are heading to Detroit after a 12-2 loss to the Cardinals Sunday. The story is familiar: little offense, shaky starting pitching and no help from the bullpen.
To be fair, I am not sure how a team is supposed to keep it close with a Triple-A bullpen, which is basically what manager Eric Wedge has to work with more often than not lately. Erasmo Ramirez did not help, lasting just four innings and giving up five runs. Carter Capps, Bobby LaFramboise and Chance Ruffin did the rest of the damage, combining to surrender seven runs in their three inning pitched. Ugly.
"Obviously we have got a lot of uncertainty in our bullpen. They really struggled today," Wedge answered when asked how tough it was to such an unestablished bullpen.
I have talked about the impact of the bullpen quite a bit on the air but have yet to write about it. While the team has had a number of problems this year – hitting with runners in scoring position, not having much after Felix Hernandez and Hiusashi Iwakuma in the rotation, and general youth – one of the biggest and most fixable has been the bullpen.
It is somewhat of a surprise that it has been this much of a problem. The bullpen has been reliable at worst during the Jack Zduriencik years and darn good at its best. After panicking a couple of times at the end of spring training about the bullpen they were taking north, I have learned to chill. Somehow the bullpens came together. The key to this was they always had something that was lacking this year. They always had the next guy. When David Ardsma faltered, Brandon League was in the wings. When League lost it, there was Tom Wilhelmsen.
This year Wilhelmsen stumbled and for too long a time there was no one there to take his place. It wasn't for lack of planning. Stephen Pryor would have been an excellent candidate but he got hurt and hasn't been on the mound since mid-April. Capps has the arm but failed to take a step forward. Danny Farquhar was almost stumbled upon and he has helped and put himself in line to be a top contender for the closing role next year, but the bullpen has still been dangerously thin.
With a young team that struggles to score runs games cannot be given away in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. That, of course, was not the problem Sunday as the team was down three runs before the bullpen got involved, but the offense was setting up to give itself a chance as the Mariners bounced Shelby Miller from the game after just five innings. A longshot, yes, but a shot. There was no shot down seven an inning later.
With all the talk of trading veterans at the deadline, I thought it would be a good idea to try and pick up help for the bullpen. That, of course, did not happen. I was somewhat surprised we didn't see one of the arms from -ouble A in August. Carson Smith and Dominic Leone were both throwing well and the organization has not been shy about jumping relievers from Double-A to the big leagues. Both pitchers are slated to throw in the Arizona Fall League so they will get more seasoning and no doubt be ready to compete in spring training, but I have to wonder if they could have helped in the final two months of the regular season. Neither are on the 40-man roster but the 40-man roster was not full until recently and even so, I can think of a couple candidates I could easily move to make room for these two.
Depending on what statistic you look at, the Mariners have the second-worst bullpen in all of baseball. A good number of relievers have taken steps forward this year and have been reliable for a better part of the season, but others have not been able to carry their first-half performances into the second half. Some very well may be tired. Not because of the number of innings they have thrown but because of the number of times they have had to get up and down in the bullpen with so many close games.
An upgrade in the starting pitching next year – and Ramirez did nothing Sunday to help his bid for a starting spot – will help with the fatigue factor. Young arms from the system could help as well. Perhaps someone will be brought in from the outside. Regardless, the bullpen should be a focus in the offseason.