Less than 24 hours before the Seattle Mariners traded him to the Cincinnati Reds, Eddie Guardado stood in the clubhouse at Safeco Field and talked about his latest challenge.
Resigned to the fact that J.J. Putz had firmly established himself as the Mariners’ closer, Guardado admitted the adjustment to pitching in the seventh and eighth innings had been difficult.
Guardado made no secret of the fact that he’d lost not only his job, but to a great degree his identity, when the closer role was pulled.
“I know my role is different, and I’ve got to find a way to get that fire, that enthusiasm, for the seventh and eighth innings like I had for the ninth,” Guardado said Wednesday, unaware that trade talks between the Mariners and Reds were taking place. “I can’t lie, it’s been a challenge.”
Thursday morning, Guardado’s identity changed again.
The Mariners finalized a trade with the Reds, who have needed a closer, in exchange for 21-year-old minor league pitcher Travis Chick.
Guardado will report today to the Reds, who begin a three-game weekend series at Atlanta. More important for Guardado, he will slide into the closer role for the Reds.
Chick, a right-hander, had a 4-5 record and a 4.61 ERA in 16 starts for the Reds’ Class AA team in Chattanooga. The Reds acquired him last July in a trade with the Padres.
The Mariners will make a roster move today to fill Guardado’s place on the roster, likely calling up left-hander Cesar Jimenez from Class AAA Tacoma or Mark Lowe from Class AA San Antonio.
Jimenez has long been considered a quality major league prospect, and he’s been pitching some of his best baseball this year at Tacoma. He’s 5-5 with a 3.55 ERA in 13 starts, including one shutout, for the Rainiers.
Lowe is 0-2 with a 2.16 ERA at Class AA San Antonio, where he has played just over a month after starting the season for the Class A Inland Empire 66ers. He was 1-0 with a 1.84 ERA for the 66ers.
Guardado is owed more than $3 million on his $6.25 million salary this season, and it’s believed the Mariners will pay a considerable amount of what remains.
Guardado saved 36 games for the Mariners last year after he shunned a doctor’s suggestion that he have surgery for a tear in his rotator cuff. This season, however, was a struggle almost from the beginning.
Having to rely on pinpoint control because he has never been a high-velocity pitcher, Guardado blew two of his first four save opportunities in April.
Then, on May 3, he gave up a tying home run to Pablo Ozuna of the White Sox, who went on to beat the Mariners in extra innings.
Manager Mike Hargrove handed the closing opportunities to Putz after that game but refused at the time to say that the job had been yanked from Guardado full-time.
Putz converted 13 straight save opportunities and, with a 98 mph fastball and a deceptive splitter, quickly became one of the most dominant closers in the league. Putz has 15 saves and a 2.23 ERA.
“J.J. took the job and ran with it,” assistant general manager Lee Pelekoudas said. “It was tough for Eddie but he handled it well.”
Guardado, in fact, has long been one of Putz’s biggest cheerleaders.
The two formed a close relationship the past two years, to the point that Putz became not only Guardado’s apprentice on the mound, but in practical jokes as well.
As he spoke about his uncertain future Wednesday, Guardado praised Putz for what he had accomplished.
“J.J. has done great and I’m happy for him,” Guardado said.
Putz, while disappointed at losing his mate in the bullpen, was pleased to hear that Guardado will get an opportunity to close again.
“It’s good for him,” Putz said. “But it’s going to be weird here without him.”
After making the change in closers, manager Mike Hargrove tried to find a role that suited Guardado. He used him as a seventh-inning bridge to setup specialists Rafael Soriano and George Sherrill; he used him in late specialty situations against left-handed hitters; and he used him to close once, which he did successfully.
“His stuff lately has been the same kind of stuff when he was closing last year,” general manager Bill Bavasi said. “I think he’s back to that level. A lot of what he does is back to the Eddie of old.”
As for the Mariners’ bullpen, it will get younger again with the addition of Jimenez or Lowe.
“We’ve got a bullpen group that is turning over to young, power arms,” Bavasi said. “When you’re making those changes, time doesn’t stand still for anyone.”