SEATTLE — Signing right-hander Steve Cishek, which the Mariners confirmed Monday, fills their identified need for a proven closer.
And make no mistake: General manager Jerry Dipoto wanted a proven closer as a cornerstone in what has been a near-complete overhaul of a bullpen that faltered repeatedly last season in compiling a 4.15 ERA.
"It’s valuable," Dipoto said. "Having been at this long enough (as a GM), and having been asked to (close games) on a part-time basis in my long-ago past, the experience of doing it matters."
The Mariners believe Cishek, 29, is poised to regain the form that enabled him to secure 88 saves in 95 opportunities from 2012-14 at Miami before hitting a rough patch last season that cost him his job and led to a trade.
"Actually, quite confident," Dipoto said. "We’re one year removed from Steve Cishek being one of top closers in baseball. That wasn’t an accident. He did that in 2014, and he did that in 2013."
While Cishek sought an opportunity to close again in order to clean away the sour taste of last season’s disappointment, he figured he might have to settle initially for a setup role.
"Going into free agency for my first time," Cishek said, "I was just looking to pitch in the back end of the bullpen. I know when you have a year when you struggled, teams may be hesitant (to make you their closer).
"When Jerry offered the closing job, I just wanted to jump all over it. That’s exactly what I was hoping to do again."
News of the Mariners’ two-year deal with Cishek, a 6-foot-6 side-armer, broke Saturday; it totals $10 million in guaranteed salary with performance bonuses capable of adding another $3.5 million per year.
"Last year," he said, "losing that closing job (in Miami) was a huge disappointment to me. I was disappointed in myself, not the organization. I knew I didn’t pitch up to my expectations.
"Just to have this opportunity again to be able to close games out…is just mind-blowing to me. I’m beyond excited to get this thing started."
The Mariners cleared space for Cishek on their 40-man roster by designating lefty reliever Rob Rasmussen for assignment. The next likely step is to send him through waivers.
Rasmussen, 26, struggled after joining the Mariners in the July 31 trade that sent reliever Mark Lowe to Toronto. Rasmussen was 2-1 with a 9.98 ERA in 20 games; he allowed 18 runs and 26 hits in 15 1/3 innings.
While Cishek is an experienced closer, the Mariners can hedge their bet, if need be, by turning to veteran Joaquin Benoit, whom they acquired from San Diego in a Nov. 12 trade for two minor-league players.
Benoit is currently ticketed to be the eighth-inning setup man, but he had 24 saves in 26 chances for Detroit in 2013. He was also 10-for-11 in save opportunities for the Padres over the final two-plus months in 2014.
"We know Benoit can handle the ninth inning," Dipoto said. "He’s also dynamic in the eighth inning. To have that flexibility is a good thing. If it happens that we find a ninth-inning option that suits us, we’ll go that route."
Cishek is that option.
Dipoto wanted a proven closer because, while a strong advocate for the value of analytics, he holds to the traditional view that the ninth inning is different.
"Oh, no doubt," he said. "I have lived it. There is a different feel in the ballpark. When you’re on the mound, you need to really be able to focus and shut it out.
"It’s not for everybody. Some guys do a better job of shutting it out and keeping their cool. For a lot of guys, the strike zone generally feels smaller in the ninth inning. Real or perceived, it feels smaller."
Cishek excelled as a closer for two-plus years before losing his job last season at Miami when he blew four of his first seven save opportunities while compiling a 6.98 ERA through his first 19 games.
"I came into spring training," he recalled, "and my arm slot was quite a bit lower than where it had been in the past. As a result, I was losing velocity, and my slider didn’t have as much bite."
Cishek’s struggles also resulted in a brief June demotion to Double-A Jacksonville. When he returned, he allowed just one earned run in 12 2/3 innings over 13 games in a set-up role.
After a July 24 trade sent him to St. Louis, Cishek compiled a 2.31 ERA in 27 appearances. He had 1.75 ERA overall in 40 games after returning from the minors, which lowered his season mark to 3.58.
"While it’s reasonable to say that 2015 was not up to Steve’s standards," Dipoto said, "we’re not talking about a guy who struggled all year long. He found a nice way of fixing himself."
Cishek became a free agent Dec. 2 when the Cardinals chose not to tender him a contract prior to the deadline.
That wasn’t unexpected. He made $6.65 million last season and was likely headed for a modest increase through arbitration. The Mariners began targeting Cishek once he became a free agent.
Cishek will make $4 million next season and $6 million in 2017. He gets an additional $250,000 each year if he finishes 25 games and another $250,000 if he finishes 30 games.
The bonuses increase to $500,000 once he reaches each of the following milestones: 35 games finished, 40 games finished, 45 games finished, 50 games finished, 55 games finished and 60 games finished.
As a point of reference, Fernando Rodney finished 64 games in 2014 when he set the franchise record with 48 saves. While at Miami, Cishek finished 62 games in 2013 and 55 games in 2014.
Dipoto said the Mariners might continue to add pieces to their bullpen, "but I think with Steve’s addition, that probably does it for the heavy lifting."
In addition to Cishek and Benoit, the Mariners added right-handers Justin De Fratus, Evan Scribner and Anthony Bass since the season ended. Departures include Carson Smith, Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar.
The top holdover candidates for next year’s bullpen are Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych and Vidal Nuno.
Furbush and Nuno are the only lefties among the top-tier candidates, which is key because Dipoto has a "strong preference" for a seven-man bullpen that ideally has five right-handers and two lefties.
First baseman Andy Wilkins is heading to Texas on a waiver claim. He was designated for assignment on Dec. 9 to clear roster space after the Mariners acquired first baseman Adam Lind in a trade from Milwaukee. The Mariners got Wilkins in a Dec. 2 waiver claim from Baltimore…Steve Cishek will wear No. 31. Assigned numbers for some other recent additions: Lind (26), lefty Wade Miley (20), reliever Evan Scribner (58), reliver Anthony Bass (45), right-hander Nathan Karns (13), catcher Chris Iannetta (33), catcher Steve Clevenger (32), outfielder Leonys Martin (12) and outfielder Nori Aoki (8)....Right-hander Taijuan Walker is switching from No. 32 to No. 44.