Most volatile position starts with Wilhelmsen in charge

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comFebruary 12, 2013 

Few baseball teams end a season with the bullpen that started opening day.

Relievers come and go, affected by injuries, inconsistency and other natural attrition. Managers adjust and move on.

Same with the Seattle Mariners.

Their 2012 opening day bullpen included Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez. Brandon League was the closer, a job he won in 2011. Tom Wilhelmsen was the setup man, and Lucas Luetge was in the mix, though no one knew exactly how to pronounce his name.

By September, Iwakuma and Ramirez were in the starting rotation, League was closing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Wihelmsen was Seattle’s closer and Luetge was becoming a household name – at least around here.

Sure, Mariners manager Eric Wedge goes into this spring with a good idea of who will be part of his seven-man bullpen. But the nature of relief pitching is that it is volatile. Even if the expected seven pitchers make the opening day roster, they are unlikely to be the seven who finish the season.

THE PAST

Even while the bullpen changed last season, it still produced a 3.39 ERA – fifth best in the American League. The unit’s 23.5 percent strikeout rate was third in the AL. The bullpen had the best fastball velocity in the AL at 94.6 mph, according to data from Pitch F/X, which tracks pitching throughout the majors.

But there were plenty of rocky moments, starting with League pitching himself out of the closing job.

After 37 saves in 2011, the Mariners were counting on his hard-sinking fastball and nasty splitfinger.

But League struggled with his command, then his confidence. After picking up five saves in seven appearances, he blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning on April 19. From there, he has four saves and three blown saves his next 13 appearances. Worse, in 122/3 innings over that span, he gave up 15 hits and walked nine.

Wedge had seen enough.

The hard-throwing Wilhelmsen, an unassuming one-time bartender, took control. He notched his first save on June 2, then racked up 29 in 48 subsequent appearances.

Despite four blown saves in that span, he heads into spring training as the Mariners’ proven closer.

The 2012 bullpen also featured a series of surprise performances, starting with Rule 5 selection Luetge.

Luetge (pronounced LIT-key) made 26 appearances before allowing an earned run, limited left-handers to a .193 batting average (16-for-83) and went 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA with two saves in 63 appearances.

Three solid contributors – veteran Oliver Perez and flame-throwing rookies Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps – weren’t even on the roster at the start of 2012, but they are back this spring.

Perez, a one-time starter, reinvented himself as a reliever. After starting with Triple A Tacoma, he was called up and posted a 1-3 record and 2.12 ERA in 33 games with 24 strikeouts in 292/3 innings.

Both Pryor and Capps advanced in stages after starting the season in Double A Jackson. Pryor, called up June 1, went 3-1 with a 3.91 ERA in 26 outings, with 27 strikeouts in 23 innings. Capps, called up Aug. 31, struck out 28 in 25 innings. Pryor’s fastball averaged 96.2 mph, while Capps’ fastball averaged 97.8 mph.

THE PRESENT

With Shawn Kelley designated for assignment, the bullpen seems easier to project. Wilhelmsen, whose laid-back veneer hides his competitive fire, has the command to succeed where League failed.

Pryor and Capps will likely be the right-handed setup men, while Perez, Charlie Furbush and Luetge will give the Mariners left-handed options.

Furbush could be the long reliever, with right-handers Josh Kinney or Chance Ruffin in middle relief. Or, they could find long-relief options.

Hector Noesi has big league stuff, but seems to lose focus at times. Also, there are a handful of non-roster invitees who could vie for a spot, including veteran starter Jeremy Bonderman from Pasco.

Wedge likes competition.

THE FUTURE

The future is now for Capps and Pryor. Beyond that, there is talent in the minors. Ruffin, acquired in the 2011 Doug Fister trade, has talent, big league experience and youth (he’s 24) if he can harness his command.

Left-hander Bobby LaFromboise was the Rainiers’ pitcher of the year after going 5-2 with four saves and a 1.59 ERA in 27 relief appearances.

Don’t overlook Carson Smith, a right-hander drafted in the eighth round in 2011. His three-quarter delivery features the best slider in Seattle’s minor league system. He’s likely to start this season in Double-A Jackson but could climb.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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