Scott Servais sat at the dinner table with Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Jean Segura in the Dominican Republic. Mariners new reliever, right-hander Juan Nicasio joined them.
The 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 the 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 when 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 that 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 Nick 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 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.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
WHO’S IN CAMP? (15 on 40-man roster)
RHP, 6-3, 165
The 23-year-old native of Puerto Rico was fourth in the American League in saves last year (34). But his 97.8 mph-average fastball was far more effective on the road than at Safeco Field last season. Finished with a 3.27 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 66 innings, but had a 1.24 ERA on the road and a 5.76 ERA at home. Chalk the home struggles to his first full big-league season?
RHP, 5-11, 200
The 25-year-old split time between Seattle and Tacoma last year. He’ll be competing for one of those final bullpen spots, but the has minor-league options, which could slot him for a closer role for the Rainiers to open the season. He had a 4.24 ERA (22 ER in 46 2/3 innings) with 52 strikeouts in 41 relief appearances last season.
RHP, 6-2, 225
What Jerry Dipoto saw in Armstrong to acquire him from the Indians? Strikeouts. He had 36 Ks in 29 1/3 innings for Triple-A Columbus and it was going to be tough for him to break into the Indians’ vaunted bullpen. He’s out of minor-league options, though.
RHP, 6-1, 229
Had a tough July for the Mets last season, which led to his demotion to Triple-A, but then the sinker-ball pitcher went on a 12-appearance stretch where he allowed just one run in 16 2/3 innings. He was designated for assignment and the Mariners promptly picked him up.
LHP 5-10, 170
Claimed off waivers in November from the Pirates, though he didn’t actually pitch for them. He pitched 11 games for Oakland in September, with a 10.80 ERA in 6 2/3 innings in his first stint in the majors. And before that he was pitching for Triple-A Albuquerque (Rockies).
RHP 6-4, 220
Looking for a bounce-back season after struggling with the Angels and Royals last year (6.91 ERA in 10 appearances with the Angels before a 7.94 ERA in six outings with the Royals).
RHP, 6-4, 252
He led the National League with 76 appearances last season, posting a 2.61 ERA. Reports indicated the Cardinals wanted him back as their closer, but the Mariners instead will get a power-arm as their setup man. He began his career as a starter for the Rockies but he gives the Mariners three upper-90s arms who can pitch multiple innings.
LHP, 6-2, 235
Seemed destined for Tacoma last year and instead was one of the Mariners’ most heavily used arms, pitching 53 2/3 innings in 59 appearances (4-5, 3.86 ERA). Left-handed hitters batted .218 (17-for-78) against him.
RHP, 6-2, 200
Was 4-5 with 21 holds and a 3.40 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 54 combined relief appearances with Miami and Seattle. But he appeared in just 10 games with the Mariners because of two stints on the disabled list, including season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. He’s been in a throwing program as the Mariners approach spring training.
RHP 6-8, 185
Very tall with a low-to-mid 90s fastball. Struggled in his big-league promotion from Double-A Arkansas, allowing three runs and nine hits in 3 2/3 innings of relief after starting eight games in Double-A. He spent the final month of the season in Tacoma working out of the bullpen. The Mariners’ No. 6 prospect according to MLB Pipeline.
RHP 6-0, 190
Another power arm that Dipoto so covets. He missed 2016 with Tommy John Surgery and spent all of last season in the Yankees’ farm system between double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Came to the Mariners in a November trade for a pair of minor league pitchers.
LHP, 6-2, 220
“Scrabble” was one of the best in the bigs at getting out of hairy situations. In 2017 he stranded 85 percent (44 of 52) inherited base runners, which was the best mark in the major leagues (minimum of 50 inherited runners. Overall had 4.02 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 64 relief appearances – with his signature game coming when he struck out Chris Davis with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth inning to protect a 7-6 win on Aug. 16 for his second career save.
RHP, 6-0, 185
His 29 holds were second-most in the major leagues behind the Twins’ Taylor Rogers (30). Finished with a 3.20 ERA in 64 2/3 innings as the Mariners’ primary set-up man, but they want to use him less if they can help it this year. He had a 1.87 ERA in his first 57 2/3 innings pitched, but then had a 14.14 ERA (11 E in seven innings) over his final nine outings.
RHP 6-3, 190
Opened last season on the DL (recovering from offseason surgery) and ended it there, too (right elbow flexor bundle strain). But he figures to slot into the Mariners bullpen if he can return to form, after holding right-handed hitters to a .194 average (19-for-98) and posting a 2.66 ERA in 45 outings.
NON-ROSTER INVITES (5)
Ryan Cook (RHP, 6-2, 215): The former MLB All-Star (2012) missed all of 2017 after Tommy John Surgery on his right elbow at the end of the 2016 season. He hasn’t appeared in a game since 2015.
Matthew Festa (RHP, 6-2, 195): 24-year-old spent last season with Advanced-A Modesto, with a fastball that touches 96 mph.
Ryan Garton (RHP, 5-10, 190): Acquired in early August from the Rays along with catcher Mike Marjama. Reported to Tacoma, but eventually pitched 11 2/3 innings with the Mariners, allowing just two runs.
Johendi Jiminian (RHP, 6-3, 170): 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic split time between Triple-A and Double-A last season before the Mariners signed him to a minor league deal in January.
Art Warren (RHP, 6-3, 230): 24-year-old began his career as a starter, but went to the bullpen, were his fastball has played at 94-98 mph. The Mariners’ No. 15 prospect by MLB Pipeline.
SPRING TRAINING PREVIEW
Wednesday: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
Feb. 20: Position players report.
Feb. 23: First spring training game.
March 29: Season opener (vs. Cleveland at Safeco Field).