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The Uncertain Mariners Bullpen

Seattle unexpectedly traded away their best reliever this offseason in Carson Smith, in addition to losing former closers Tom Wilhemsen and Danny Farquhar, leaving them with lots of new faces and lots of uncertainty going into 2016.

Steve Cishek will start the year as the Mariners closer. How long will he last? What are the alternatives?
Steve Cishek will start the year as the Mariners closer. How long will he last? What are the alternatives?
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In what is still a head scratching trade, Seattle traded away their best relief pitcher, Carson Smith, to Boston along with their 5th/6th starter Roenis Elias for Wade Miley, a competent, but not great, low-end starter. This was especially curious considering they lost two of their former closers, Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar, as well. This left the cupboard very bare in Seattle as far as potential closers.

To their credit, they went out and gathered potential replacements this offseason. Steve Cishek, formerly a solid closer for the Marlins until his 2015 implosion and move to St. Louis and the always-reliable Joaquin Benoit have come to town. To end any early season bullpen-by-committee issues, general manager Jerry Dipoto has already said Cishek will start as closer. However, Cishek struggled with a big velocity drop in Miami in early 2015 and was eventually traded to St. Louis for a bag of baseballs (ok, so it was actually relief-prospect Kyle Barraclough) in late July.

After losing his job in Miami thanks to a 5.14 ERA in the first half, he seemed to improve in St. Louis, posting a sparking 1.98 ERA in the second half. However, that doesn't tell the full story. His xFIP in the first half was 4.14, but it was 4.5 in the second half. His K%-BB% actually got worse as well, going from 9.2% to 8%. The biggest factor in his huge ERA drop? Dumb luck.

In the first half, he had a 0.363 BABIP and only stranded a meager 64% of baserunners. Keep in mind that 0.296 is league average for BABIP and league average is about 73% for strand rate. In the second half, those numbers completely flipped, with a 0.250 BABIP and an 87% strand rate. It is very unusual to see one player's luck completely pull a 180 like that between the first and second half of the season. His skills didn't change much at all, but the results couldn't have been more different. I just can't get over how big a luck swing he had within one season. Wow.

I say all the above as the owner of Cishek in the Fake Teams Dynasty League. He has been a very good closer in the recent past, but 2015 was a disaster, and not just the first half. He had the most success when his average fastball was over 92 mph. If he can get back to that velocity, I don't see why he couldn't keep his ERA in the 3.4 range. However, that's a big IF for a 29-year-old coming off a bad year. Take a look at his velocity chart courtesy of Fangraphs for the last three seasons. It doesn't look like his old velocity is coming back, but it can be unpredictable.

cishek velocity

With good velocity, he could keep this job all season. He posted four consecutive seasons with a K/9 of 9 and ERAs in the mid-2s to low 3s before last year. Those of us with Cishek on our rosters are banking on the 2014 version returning this year. One more bit of hope, the swinging strike rate on his secondary offering, the slider, has stayed constant, hovering around 12-13% for five years now, even in 2015. He even had a decent 7.4% whiff rate on his sinker last year, up from 6.4% the year before, so there is hope that the same pitcher lurks in there somewhere.

If Cishek falters early, which is certainly possible given his 2015 early struggles with velocity, Benoit will be there to step in. Benoit has significant closing experience, having collected saves in Detroit and San Diego, though he has never entered the season as the primary closer, I believe. He is 38 years old and is dealing with back pain this spring and just started throwing this week. His strikeout rate, FIP, and xFIP were all the worst they have been since 2008 last year.

The good news is that he has pitched at least 50 innings every year since 2010, still strikes out about a batter an inning, keeps walks to at least an average amount, and had a solid 3.35 SIERA last year. He's not as dominant as he used to be, but his consistency is still valuable and makes him a good backup option to replace Cishek. Despite his age, he still throws 94 mph and his fastball, changeup, and slider all get swinging strikes significantly more than average.

Those are by far the two most likely candidates to spend most of the season closing for the Mariners, but there is one more guy I want to discuss that is far more exciting than either of those two. Tony Zych (Zike? Zitch?, how do I pronounce this?) is the young kid with a blazing 96-mph fastball. In a very small sample of MLB innings last year (18.1 innings to be exact), he posted a 15% swinging strike rate, 11.78 K/9, 1.47 BB/9, 50% ground ball rate, and a 2.45 / 2.04 / 2.70 ERA / FIP / xFIP. Those numbers look very similar to what former Mariners closer and fellow young fireballer Carson Smith put up in 2015. Smith did it over an entire season and had a much better ground ball rate, but the rest of the numbers are very close. Because of that tantalizing small sample, I've got my eye on this guy for 2016.

My rule with closer battles and uncertain bullpens is "bet on the skills". That means the guy with the best "stuff", regardless of position in the pecking order will eventually be worth the wait and will climb his way to the top. It happened with Shawn Tolleson, Carson Smith, and Evan Scribner last season. All three clearly emerged as their teams' best relievers early in the season and were rewarded with closer jobs. Scribner lost his job eventually, but the point is that things like swinging strike rate, K%-BB%, xFIP, and ground ball rate can help us predict who will emerge out of crowded bullpens to take the job. If you take "closing experience" out of the equation, the best relief pitcher you have should be the closer. Some managers don't operate that way, but it's a strategy I use in fantasy leagues. In the case of the 2016 Mariners, that means Zych needs to be on your radar. I wouldn't draft him, but if he starts looking good in April, I might stash him in case Cishek loses the job and Benoit gets hurt.

To summarize this bullpen, Cishek is the guy to draft because he will have the job to start the year. Cishek has enough uncertainty that deep leagues should certainly own Benoit once the known closers are taken. In leagues that are even deeper or if you like to gamble on upside (or if you have punted saves), Tony Zych is an exciting option to consider. To be clear, I still rank this bullpen Cishek, Benoit, Zych, but would not be surprised at all if Zych is closing in September. Tschus!