Scott Servais sat at the dinner table with Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Jean Segura in the Dominican Republic. New reliever, right-hander Juan Nicasio joined them.
The Seattle Mariners’ manager traded some pleasantries with Nicasio until getting down to business. And Servais was more than pleasantly surprised by the 31-year-old’s response.
“I threw out a, ‘Juan, glad to have you. Excited to get you in the bullpen,’ and this and that,” Servais recalled. “‘Just keep in mind we might need you to get some four- and five-out appearances.’ “
Nicasio, according to Servais: “No problem. I pitch every day.”
“I was like, ‘Thank you!’” he said. “‘Sounds great to me.’”
Nicasio will fit right in.
And his addition, bringing his 96 mph fastball and hard slider that made him an admirable reliever for the Pirates, Phillies and Cardinals last season — leading the National League with 76 relief appearances — makes this projected 2018 Mariners’ bullpen maybe one of the deepest they’ve had in years.
Nicasio gives them four power arms at their disposal in the final innings — alongside right-handers David Phelps and Nick Vincent and closer Edwin Diaz.
They return six of their top seven most-used relievers from last season, and that doesn’t include Phelps. He pitched 8 2/3 innings for the Mariners after a July 20 trade from Miami because he spent two stints on the disabled list, including undergoing season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur on Sept. 13.
“Once we acquired David Phelps last year I loved our bullpen,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “Unfortunately when Phelpsy went down, it changed things. We put a little bit more workload on the other guys and we came up a little bit short at the end because we weren’t quite deep enough to get there. So it’s one of the things we’re trying to address this offseason.”
And they expect Diaz to improve.
Just look at what the soon-to-be 24-year-old flamethrower did at home compared to on the road:
Road games: 35 appearances, converted 25 of 27 save opportunities (92.6 percent), 1.24 ERA, 54 strikeouts, .106 opponent batting average. His 25 saves on the road led the major leagues — and that came after he allowed three runs in 2/3 of an inning in his first road appearance.
Home games: 31 appearances, 5.76 ERA, nine saves, 35 strikeouts, .265 opponent batting average. Teams were slugging .504 against him at home … and .171 on the road.
The Mariners chalk that up to it being his first full big-league season, and not as much pressure on the road.
The Mariners’ bullpen ranked 13th in the major leagues in earned-run average (4.08) in 2017 despite the team’s revolving door of starting pitchers.
They used 40 total pitchers last season — tied for most in major-league history — and Mariners relievers had to pitch 569 2/3 innings — second most by a bullpen in club history, trailing only the inaugural season of 1977.
The team says that is why Vincent tailed off late in the season. He set career-highs in games (69), innings (64 2/3) and holds (29), which was the second-most in the major leagues behind the Minnesota Twins’ Taylor Rogers’ 30.
He simply fizzled out from fatigue. Vincent had a 1.87 ERA (12 ER in 57 2/3 innings) with 26 holds and 44 strikeouts in his first 60 games. He was 0-2 with a 14.14 ERA (11 ER in seven innings) over his final nine outings.
“No one seems to notice Nick Vincent,” Dipoto said. “And Eddy Diaz will only get better. We like our group.”
Which is why he sought a bullpen upgrade over a starting pitcher this offseason, picking up Nicasio on a two-year, $17 million deal as the headliner.
But Dipoto looks at the baseball landscape and the former reliever said he sees the trend surging — that teams are looking to upgrade their bullpens over the starting rotation.
He’s said the Mariners could use a six-man rotation for portions of the season, based on the circumstances, and they are leaning toward a 25-man roster that includes 13 pitchers.
Dipoto also added relievers Shawn Armstrong, Chasen Bradford, Sam Moll and Nick Rumbelow, to go with Diaz, Vincent, Phelps, Marc Rzepcynski and Tony Zych.
“We went into the offseason with a laundry list of things we wanted to address and we addressed those things,” Dipoto said. “I’ve heard from a number of different people who think we should tear down and rebuild. There are a number of teams in baseball, let’s call it 10 or 12, who are tearing down and rebuilding. You could argue that you are going to compete with more clubs to try to get the first pick in the draft than to try to win the World Series. There’s an element to that. There are a number of teams not interested in signing players who can help them win. They’d like to go the other way.
“You have a number of teams built up to what we now reference as super-team status. They might need to fill holes. Which leaves a team in the middle, 8-12 teams, of which we are one, who are surfing through the markets.
“We’re very comfortable with the offseason we had in putting the roster together. I know there are flaws. And I know there are things we could do to make it better. But you have to separate the wants and needs and realities. Some of what we need is for young players to step up. Some is good health.”
And that’s the trend around what has been the Cold Stove of an offseason season for starting pitchers. Only a handful of the top free-agent starters have signed — with Yu Darvish just this week signing with the Cubs — while relievers have jumped off the market. Look at the Rockies as an example, bulking their bullpen with Jake McGee, Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw.
Dipoto looked back at his own pitching experience. He said the first pitching staff he pitched on (the Cleveland Indians in 1993) had 10 pitchers — compared to the 13 the Mariners used most of last year.
“I never started a game in the big leagues, but I knew fundamentally going through the minor leagues that the reason I went to the bullpen was I couldn’t figure out the third pitch — and the five guys that were going to start were probably better than I was,” he said. “That’s no longer the case. A majority of the time the best stuff on your staff is sitting in your bullpen. What we’ve done is increased the size of bullpens.
“The number of 200-inning pitchers is dilapidating quickly. That’s why we were interested in acquiring a player like Mike Leake. He takes his 30-plus starts, his 185 innings and he generally keeps you in the game and gives you a chance to win. In today’s game, that’s an effective starting pitcher because after that you can run out Nick Vincent, Juan Nicasio and David Phelps and Edwin Diaz and James Pazos. Now you get into the stuff that’s really hard to hit.
“More and more you are seeing that. Especially in the postseason. More teams want to get to that overpowering stuff and that’s how we’re doing it.”