General manager Jerry Dipoto made it clear he would add relievers via trade or free agency to bolster a Seattle Mariners bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball in 2020.
In a 48-hour span, he added two hard-throwing arms with MLB experience using both avenues.
After acquiring Texas Rangers right-hander Rafael Montero via trade Tuesday, Dipoto reached an agreement with right-handed reliever Keynan Middleton on a major-league contract Wednesday.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Middleton, outfielder Philip Ervin was designated for assignment. The Mariners have 10 days to outright, trade or release Ervin.
Middleton was born and raised in the Portland area, and is resident there in the offseason. He was thrilled joining a team in the Pacific Northwest, to be near family and his daughters, who live year-round in the area.
“Since I heard the Mariners were interested, it was just a no-brainer for me almost,” he said. ” My family is so close, my daughters live down in Portland, so this is everything I want. This is an organization that’s trending in the right direction. So I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
Not quite as happy as his family in the Portland area.
“I was a basketball fan first and I watched a lot of basketball,” Middleton said of his youth. “I didn’t watch too much baseball, but all my family is a baseball family. And all they do is watch Mariners games. When we’re at our family reunions, we listen to Mariners games. They’re so hyped, like my phone’s lighting up right now. My whole family is so excited on our group chat. I’m just so excited. That was the only team I really even saw on TV growing up. So it’s huge to me.”
Middleton, 27, appeared in 13 games with the Los Angeles Angels in 2020, posting an 0-1 record with a 5.40 ERA. He struck out 11 and walked six in 12.1 innings. Middleton, who was eligible for salary arbitration, was not tendered a guaranteed contract by the Angels for 2021, making him a free agent.
The Angels’ decision wasn’t a surprise to Middleton.
“Honestly, no it wasn’t,” he said. “Seven years is a long time. A lot of stuff happened. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.”
Admittedly, his results weren’t outstanding, and he’s still working toward getting back to being the pitcher he was before undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in May 2018. His first MLB appearance following the surgery was on Aug. 28, 2019. He made 11 appearances in 2019 and pitched 7.2 innings.
“I honestly just had a bad (2020 season), had a rough season,” he said. “It was my first rough one I’ve had, so I’m just I’m looking to move past it. I know that I’m going to learn from my mistakes and I’m going to be better.”
Middleton’s velocity was better than before the surgery. His four-seam fastball averaged 97.1 mph in 2020 and topped out at 99 mph. It was the highest average fastball velocity of his career. But that velocity also changed his mindset and not for the good.
“For me honestly, when I came back and I finished the season in 2019, I felt really good, and I felt really crisp, but the velo (velocity) wasn’t there,” he said. “And last year, the velo was there and at times I was just trying to overthrow, or I was trying to throw fastballs by guys because I felt so good. I’ve learned from my mistakes from last year and I’m gonna move forward.
“I feel like the command was an issue because at times I was getting in love with my fastball. Last year, I threw the hardest I’ve ever thrown in my career. So I was just trying to get used to that and I was trying to use my fastball too much. But I think if I mix my pitches, this year is going to be a whole different story.”
Besides the geography, Middleton was also drawn to the opportunity to compete for a closer’s spot, and reunite with Dipoto.
“I’m a really competitive person,” he said. “So the harder the situation, or the tougher the situation, I like being in that and I think that’s when I shine the best. And I’m going prove that to them, hopefully.”
Dipoto was general manager of the Angels when Middleton in the third round of the 2013 MLB draft out of Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.
“Back when Jerry drafted me, I honestly didn’t see what he saw,” Middleton said. “So I trust Jerry 100% because it ended up working out for me.”
Middleton was a raw talent coming out of Milwaukie (Ore.) High School and played basketball and baseball at LCC. Basketball was his preferred sport. He averaged 11 points and 4.6 rebounds as a freshman shooting guard.
“They drafted me out of Lane Community College when I was a freshman.” Middleton said. “I was playing basketball, and basketball was honestly my number one sport. I came out late for the (baseball) season. So I already had a late jump to the season. And when they ended up drafting me, it was honestly a shock to me, because I was not ready to play pro ball. I just really wasn’t.
“So I just had to take my lumps. I had to learn how to pitch and learn how to play the game. And I never was discouraged, and when Jerry was in the organization, he never let me get discouraged. It ended up working out.”