By Bob Dutton
The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — It is a sign of the Mariners’ improving bullpen that right-hander Dan Altavilla is no lock to make the opening day roster.
Altavilla, 24, is a power pitcher with closer potential who created a stir after he gave up just one run over 121/3 innings in 15 appearances last season following a late August jump from Double-A Jackson to the big leagues.
“I love what I saw from Altavilla,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “I think he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”
He’s also got a lot of competition as Mariners prepare to hold their first official spring workout Wednesday for pitchers and catchers at the Peoria Sports Complex. The first full-squad workout is Sunday.
The Mariners have 14 relievers on their 40-man roster and another seven in camp as non-roster invites. That group must funnel to a seven-man bullpen — likely five right-handers and two lefties — prior to the April 3 opener at Houston.
It’s a striking contrast to last year when the Mariners spent the spring scrambling to find enough healthy arms to stock the relief corps. Their search continued throughout the season as they used 25 different relievers.
“Obviously, there’s a bunch of guys (in camp),” Altavilla said. “On paper, it looks really good. But going into spring, I don’t try to look at that too much. Every year, I’m coming in and I’m going to try to throw strikes and get outs.”
The challenge is this: The Mariners, barring injuries, have four right-handed relievers who appear to be locks: closer Edwin Diaz, former closer (now set-up man) Steve Cishek, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner.
This assumes Cishek is sufficiently recovered from off-season hip surgery by the time the season starts. That’s not a slam dunk, but Cishek, at the outside, is expected to be ready by mid-April.
Vincent and Scribner are out of options, which means the Mariners can’t send them to the minors, even if they wanted to do so, unless they clear waivers — which requires that every club decline the opportunity to claim their contract.
Since Diaz is the only power pitcher among the four, the Mariners are likely to want another one for their final right-handed slot. That shapes up as a battle between Altavilla, newcomer Shae Simmons and, if healthy, Tony Zych.
“There’s a lot of high-profile big arms out there,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “A year ago, Tony Zych was probably sitting shotgun in the bullpen (throughout spring training). Now he might be trying to hail a cab.”
The Mariners got Simmons, 26, from Atlanta in a Jan. 11 trade. He missed the 2015 season after undergoing elbow surgery but again flashed upper-90s velocity last season in working his way back to the big leagues.
“He’s also got a wipeout slider,” Dipoto said. “He has a strong history of striking them out. We’re really excited to plug him in. He joins a bullpen that we feel has a chance to be a pretty good group.”
This is Altavilla’s first time in big-league camp. A year ago, being here was a dream on the horizon. A fifth-round pick in 2014, he was in the process of shifting to bullpen duty after an inconsistent year as a starter at Hi-A Bakersfield.
While Altavilla had led the California League with 28 starts and ranked second in permitting a .246 opposing batting average, he was also 6-12 with a 4.07 ERA. The Mariners’ then-new player-development group proposed a move to the bullpen.
“I was very open-minded about it in spring training,” Altavilla said. “I closed in college, so I was very familiar with it, but it was definitely a little different at first, getting comfortable at coming out of the pen in big situations with guys on base.”
The Mariners sent Altavilla to Jackson, where they made him the closer even as they contemplated a similar move for another power right-hander on the same club named… Edwin Diaz.
It took about a month for Altavilla to find a groove. He then put together a string of 13 straight appearances without allowing an earned run. The Mariners kept him as Jackson’s closer even after they fast-tracked Diaz to the bullpen in early May.
“His stuff is amazing,” said Diaz, who jumped to the big leagues in early June after 10 set-up outings at Jackson without allowing an earned run. “They made him a reliever before me, and he’s gotten better and better.”
By late August, Altavilla had a 1.91 ERA in 43 appearances at Jackson, including a 1.04 ERA in his last 34 outings. He reached the big leagues on Aug. 27 and pitched a one-two-three inning that night against the White Sox in Chicago.
Diaz offered up I-told-you-sos and, after a few more outings, Dipoto wryly noted that Altavilla was “kind of a dude.” Looking back, Altavilla regards that month-plus of big-league time as a key indoctrination in his bid this spring to win a job.
“It just makes me more comfortable,” he said. “I’ve been out there. It gets the jitters out of the way. Getting comfortable with the guys in the clubhouse. Getting to know everybody. It makes it a whole lot better going into spring training.”
No guarantees, though. That’s one reason — probably the main reason — that Altavilla opted to bypass the opportunity to pitch for Italy next month in the World Baseball Classic.
Altavilla has three options remaining and, come April, could be the closer at Triple-A Tacoma. But Simmons and Zych also have options remaining, which means spring performance should weigh heavily in the decision.
“The back of the bullpen,” Servais said, “really, the competition lies there. I don’t think anybody has those spots locked down, and those will be filled by the younger guys.”