The Seattle Mariners bullpen, which has been an ongoing experiment early on this season, changed again Tuesday.
Right-hander Chasen Bradford (shoulder inflammation) was reinstated from the 10-day injured list after being placed there on April 9.
The 29-year-old, in his second season pitching for Seattle, appeared in five games early this season, posting a 4.26 ERA before his brief stint on the IL.
To make room for him, the Mariners optioned rookie right-hander Ruben Alaniz back to Triple-A Tacoma following four relief appearances.
Alaniz, 27, made his MLB debut on April 12 against Houston, becoming the most recent Mariners reliever to make his first appearance with the club this season.
More than half of the 14 relievers who have pitched for Seattle this season weren’t with the club in 2018.
Three of them — Alaniz, Brandon Brennan and newly appointed starter Erik Swanson — made their MLB debuts in relief for the Mariners in March and April, perpetuating the organization’s strategy this season to give younger, inexperienced pitchers opportunities to adapt at the big-league level.
“We’ve seen some good results,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said recently. “We’ll continue to work with guys and (develop), certainly this year, because we don’t have just a veteran stable full of relievers that are ready to go down there.
“We’re giving guys opportunity, and along the way we’re looking for them to get better.”
Though the Mariners have the ninth-oldest pitching staff (including starters) by average in the majors this season at 29.7 years — far higher than the league average of 28.8 — many of the pitchers in the bullpen haven’t had significant experience at this level.
The average age of the eight relievers on the active roster is 29.6 years, but only two of them — Anthony Swarzak (324 games) and Cory Gearrin (282) — had pitched in more than 100 games in their careers entering Tuesday night’s series opener in San Diego.
At times during the first month, that lack of experience has showed.
The Mariners rank 23rd in the majors for runs allowed per game from the bullpen (5.12), a few ticks worse than the league average (4.65).
Three of the other four other bullpen groups in the American League West have fared better than Seattle early on. Houston’s relievers allow 3.95 runs per game, Oakland’s 4.68 and Los Angeles’ 4.83.
Through the growing pains, the Mariners have made positive discoveries.
“When you acquire players, the reason they’re available to acquire is maybe they haven’t performed at the greatest level,” Servais said.
“And you see something that … maybe we can tweak with a certain mechanic in their delivery or sometimes it’s simply pitch usage. Can you throw this pitch a little bit more? Sometimes it’s a combination of a bunch of different things.”
The Mariners have found consistent success there with Brennan, a right-hander who was acquired in the Rule 5 Draft in December.
Brennan made his MLB debut with the Mariners in Japan, and said the only change the Mariners asked him to make was to implement his change-up more in each at-bat. He’s appeared in 11 games this season, posted a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings, and allowed just two runs on seven hits, while striking out 15 and walking four.
Right-hander Connor Sadzeck, another example, has the lowest ERA of any of the Mariners’ relievers at 1.13. He has appeared in six games since being traded from Texas earlier this month, and has allowed just one run on two hits in eight innings, and struck out nine while walking three.
The Mariners have worked with him on controlling the strike zone after he allowed 11 walks in 13 games with Texas last season.
“Simplifying as much as possible to keep me over the plate,” Sadzeck said. “So far what we’re doing has been good, and I’ve been receiving it well and just have to keep working at it.”
The 27-year-old, in his second season in the majors, said being at the same juncture in his career as some of his peers in the bullpen has helped with development.
“I think everyone is kind of on the same page, and it’s a little easier when we’re all in the same boat,” Sadzeck said. “We’re kind of all at that same point in our career.
“You tie that in with the veteran guys between (Swarzack) and Cory and (Zac Rosscup), I think it gels really well. Enough young guys, then enough veterans to help us out, too.”
Servais said it’s not easy to make tweaks with pitchers day-to-day at the big-league level.
“You don’t want to change or get too involved mechanically with hitters or pitchers, because they’re out there to compete,” he said. “And, when you’re competing at the highest level, it’s tough to do that. But, I also understand where we’re at as an organization.”
Servais said the Mariners are committed to developing relievers at the major-league level.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, but I think these guys would rather work on things and continue to develop at the big-league level instead of being in Triple-A or Double-A,” he said.