When the regular season ended last September, the Seattle Mariners made it a priority to seek out fresh arms to give their troubled bullpen a needed boost.
Seattle’s relievers finished last season as the worst bullpen in the American League, posting a collective 6-13 record and 5.92 ERA.
The numbers were even more worrisome than the season before, when the Mariners ended with the fourth-worst bullpen ERA in the league at 4.77.
So, general manager Jerry Dipoto set out to amend the club’s biggest area of concern.
“We feel like we are starting to build some stability into a bullpen that really hasn’t been very stable over the last couple of years,” Dipoto said on a media call as part of the club’s Virtual Baseball Bash.
Dipoto brought back a reliable veteran in Kendall Graveman in October. Then he traded for former Texas Rangers closer Rafael Montero in December, and signed former Los Angeles Angels reliever Keynan Middleton a day later.
The Mariners already know Graveman, who is entering his seventh season in the majors. They signed him as a starter last offseason, and he impressed in spring and summer camps, but landed on the injured list two starts in with neck spasms.
Graveman later said the neck discomfort was caused by a benign bone tumor in his cervical spine. He continued to pitch at the Mariners’ alternate site in Tacoma in shorter stints, and eventually returned as a reliever.
He was electric in nine appearances in his new role to close out the season, and a day after declining his $3.5 million club option, the Mariners signed Graveman to a new one-year, $1.25 million deal with up to $2.5 million more in incentives.
“I’m learning it as I go to be a reliever, but I think I can make an impact on that side of the game,” Graveman said in October.
Seattle added Montero, a closing candidate, and Middelton, another back-end reliever, two months later.
Montero, who has pitched in parts of six big league seasons, opened the 2020 season on the injured list with tendinitis in his pitching elbow, but took on Texas’ closing role after he was activated Aug. 7.
He converted all eight of his save opportunities and finished 0-1 with a 4.08 ERA in 17 relief appearances.
Middleton, entering his fifth season, made 13 relief appearances for the Angels in 2020, and also spent a month at the club’s alternate training site.
He finished 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA, but his fastball also averaged a career-high 97.1 mph.
A Portland native, Middleton has ties to Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, who were with the Angels when Middleton was drafted out of Eugene’s Lane Community College in the third round in 2013.
Both Montero and Middleton also have multiple years of club control remaining, offering Seattle the possibility of some longer term stability.
“The theme with all of those players is that we feel like either we know a lot about them in the case of a Kendall Graveman or even in the case of Keynan Middleton, but also the idea that we are trying not only to focus on getting better in 2021, but finding ways to continue to progress for 2022 and beyond,” Dipoto said.
Roll those three pitchers in with some returning relievers who have showed promise, and up-and-comers looking to build a future in Seattle, and the bullpen appears in better shape heading into 2021.
“On paper, and even emotionally, it’s a better group,” Dipoto said. “There’s more major league experience, there’s more major league performance history with this group than there was a year ago.
“So naturally the expectation is that we’re in better shape than we were to start the 2020 season.”
The Mariners also return several relievers, including Anthony Misiewicz, who Dipoto noted as a standout last season as a rookie, and added another reliever via the Rule 5 Draft in Will Vest in December. Andres Munoz, another exciting up-and-comer who was part of the club’s seven-player trade with the Padres last summer, is projected to join the bullpen midseason after recovering from elbow surgery.
Dipoto also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of continuing to add to the bullpen before the Mariners head to Arizona next month.
“If we have the opportunity to add to that group between now and the start of the season we will,” he said. “I can’t say that that will be a primary focus between now and Feb. 19, but it remains part of our focus.”