DETROIT — An eight-man bullpen, the Seattle Mariners decided, is worth holding onto — even as they prepare for three games without a designated hitter.
The Mariners optioned outfielder James Jones to Triple-A Tacoma after Sunday’s 8-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers to clear space for the return of left-hander Roenis Elias, who will start Monday night in Philadelphia.
Jones, 25, appeared in just four games, all as a late-inning replacement, following his Aug. 11 recall from Tacoma. He spent much of the season as the Mariners’ center fielder and batted .256 with 20 steals in 83 games.
It’s not surprising the Mariners chose to keep their bullpen intact. The unit leads the American League with a 2.39 ERA.
“One of the strengths of our team is our bullpen,” McClendon said. “It only makes sense to protect it. We haven’t overused any of those guys, and I want to keep it that way.”
Elias, 26, was 9-9 with a 4.14 ERA in 1342/3 innings over 23 starts when optioned to Tacoma after his Aug. 7 outing against the White Sox. The move was made, primarily, to slow his rising innings count.
Club officials previously indicated they wanted to limit Elias to 170-180 innings this season because he logged just 1422/3 innings last season in the minors and winter ball.
Elias pitched five hitless innings for Tacoma in his only minor-league start.
Outfielder Michael Saunders might want to settle in for a longer stay at Tacoma as he works through his rehab assignment for a strained left oblique.
McClendon contends it requires “at least 20 at-bats where you’re putting good at-bats together” before an injured player is ready to return to active duty.
Further, McClendon believes Saunders’ three-day absence last week for paternity leave effectively reset that minimum 20 at-bat cycle.
“You’ve got to start over,” McClendon said. “We’re in a race. There’s 40 games left. There are no projects at this time of year. We’ve got to be mark on. We’ve got to be right with everything we do.
“When he gets back here, he’s got to contribute. There can’t be a period of, ‘I need to get my timing down.’ That just doesn’t work.”
Rehab assignments are limited to 20 days for non-pitchers, and Saunders’ clock started Aug. 7 — although he has an option remaining and could be kept at Tacoma until rosters expand in September.
Saunders was 8-for-26 through Saturday in seven rehab games after batting .276 for the Mariners in 65 games with six homers and 28 RBI.
Even if Saunders is judged healthy, his role is hard to assess because the outfield, with the additions of Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia, is more crowded than when he suffered the injury on a July 10 swing.
With Jackson and Dustin Ackley entrenched as starters in center and left, Saunders’ best chance for playing time would be to supplant veteran Endy Chavez as the lefty portion of the right-field platoon with Denorfia.
Except Chavez has a .314/.340/.425 slash against right-handed pitchers.
“That’s a great question,” McClendon said, “but I just don’t know. We’re 11 games over, and guys are playing well. Do you upset your applecart? I don’t know.”
Cuban free-agent outfielder Rusney Castillo, who attracted the Mariners’ interest, could command a six-year deal for $50 million after a series of individual workouts, according to FoxSports.com. The Tigers, Phillies, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox are viewed as the top contenders to sign him. … Second baseman Robinson Cano has struck out one time in 66 plate appearances over the last 16 games. … Cano also scored three runs for the first time this season. He had 20 career games of scoring three runs or more while playing the previous nine years for the Yankees. … Designated hitter Kendrys Morales went 2-for-3 with a walk and is batting .323 (10-for-31) in his last eight games. … All three weekend games at Comerica Park were sellouts. … Third baseman Kyle Seager had his ninth three-RBI (or more) game of the season but his first since July 1.
The Mariners activated outfielder Jabari Blash from the suspended list and transferred him to Double-A Jackson from Tacoma.
Blash, 25, served a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a second time for a “drug of abuse.” He opened the season with 25 games at Jackson before getting promoted to Tacoma.
Overall, Blash batted .228 with 17 homers and 57 RBI in 70 games.
It was 13 years ago Monday— Aug. 18, 2001— that Kazuhiro Sasaki broke his own Mariners record by getting his 38th save in a 7-6 victory over the Yankees in New York.
Sasaki finished with 45 saves, which remains the club record. Fernando Rodney currently has 35, which ranks ninth in franchise history and puts him on pace to finish with 46 .
The Mariners head to Philadelphia for the first time in 11 years Monday when the open a three-game series at 4:05 p.m. Pacific time at Citizens Bank Park.
Elias (9-9 with a 4.14 ERA) will be recalled prior to the game from Triple-A Tacoma and oppose Phillies right-hander Jerome Williams (0-0, 3.38).
Root Sports will televise the game.
This is the Mariners’ first visit to CBP. They swept a three-game series in 2003 at Veterans Stadium.
The games in Philadelphia also conclude the road portion— i.e., the non-designated hitter portion— of the Mariners’ interleague schedule. They are 2-5 to date in National League parks and 7-7 overall in interleague games.