As of the Japan series, the Mariners had narrowed their bullpen, projected to be a seven-arm stable, to nine men. This is good for this post, since I like doing guesswork more than projections.
So far in the 2012 regular season (read: Japan games), five of the nine relievers have pitched. Some impressed, guaranteeing a spot on the 25-man roster, and a few disappointed, leaving a cloud of doubt over their heads. Generally though, appearing in one of the two games in Japan meant that Eric Wedge trusted these five relievers, and plans to use them in the future. I'll pick the seven I see making the 25-man squad, and then project the kind of season I expect them to have.
9. Lucas Luetge: I just don't see it from this rule-5 selection. He has had great spring, allowing just two runs in four hits in nearly seven innings of work, but the bullpen is just too crowded for an unproven new guy to step in. The names he's competing with, Sherrill, Delabar, Wilhelmsen, Furbush; all of these guys are known entities within the organization with experience with the M's in 2011. I can't see Luetge taking the spot of one of these guys. He will be released, and go back to the Brewers.
8. Erasmo Ramirez: In two starts this spring, Ramirez has shined, allowing just one run in seven innings. But looking big picture, why start this guy's clock now just to shove him into a rarely used long relief spot? Erasmo is 21 and will turn 22 next month. It's fair to say his best baseball is still ahead of him. So for now, breeding him to start in Tacoma makes more sense than potentially derailing his career by shelving him in the 'pen. If one of the Mariners' starters struggles, Ramirez could replace them in the rotation if he gets more practice with the Rainiers.
The Long Relievers: You're a starter, but you suck too much to start.
7. Charlie Furbush: Many thought that one of the centerpieces of the Doug Fister trade had a chance to echo his role from the end of 2011 and grab the fifth starter spot for the M's this spring. Didn't quite pan out that way, as the additions of Hector Noesi and Kevin Millwood quashed any chance for Furbush to sneak into the rotation. Combine that with the fact that Furbush didn't make a start this spring, and he has long relief written all over him. Which is fine, since the M's need quality innings-eaters out of the bullpen. Furbush probably will consistently appear in the fifth or sixth innings when a Mariner starter struggles and he's needed to chew up some time and minimize damage.
Best-case Scenario: Furbush shines in multiple appearances in April and is upgraded to a consistent seventh or eighth inning role. He holds down that spot for a while, and then when Hector Noesi needs some more time in AAA by June, Furbush moves into the rotation where he records a .500 record with an ERA a tick under 4.00.
Worst-case Scenario: Furbush sucks in three straight performances in April and repeatedly gets tagged for extra-base hits. The Mariners bury him deep in the bullpen, and designate him for assignment in mid-May, admitting that Detroit may have won the Fister deal.
More Likely: Best-case Scenario
6. Hisashi Iwakuma: I'm really disappointed to be writing this. Iwakuma has had a terrible spring. If I had to pick a letdown in Peoria from an M's perspective, I would pick the I-man. To make matters worse, he got rocked in front of his home country in the exhibition against the Hanshin Tigers. This guy won the Japanese Cy Young in 2008, was named all-tournament at the World Baseball Classic in 2009, and now sucks in 2012. TMS. Typical Mariner Shit.
Best-case Scenario: Iwakuma pitches more than Furbush in long relief, and impresses, finally starting to miss some bats. He fixes his weird issues with his mechanics and gets promoted to the rotation in May, replacing Noesi. He then becomes the solid number three starter before Jason Vargas gets traded at the deadline for hitters, promoting Iwakuma to the number two role, which he holds down adequately.
Worst-case scenario: Iwakuma continues to struggle. The Mariners place him on the DL with "shoulder stiffness" in the hopes that he just needs a little more time to get acclimated to the MLB. Iwakuma comes back in June and doesn't improve. He makes a few spot starts for the rest of the year, and Jack Z questions why he even signed Iwakuma in the first place.
More Likely: Worst-case scenario
The Middle Relievers: You're relievers, just untrustworthy ones
5. George Sherrill: Suck it Erik Bedard! We have Sherrill back, so now we're only four players away from reversing the worst trade in Seattle sports history. Adam Jones, anyone? Since Sherrill actually pitched in Japan, I can stop using spring stats (thank God!). He has the flattest hat on the team and consequently had the flattest outing of any pitcher on the team against the A's. Three batters, three hits, one big fly. That sucks. He also has been addled by shoulder problems since he left us in the-trade-that-must-not-be-named (Harry Potter, anyone?) in 2008. Sherrill brings a veteran presence, but also a lot of injury question.
Best-case Scenario: Shoulder problems behind him, Sherrill shakes off his rocky first appearance and returns to 2009 all-star form. He quickly sweeps up the wide-open eighth inning role and performs at a high level night in and night out, clearing the path to Brandon League from the seventh inning. Sherrill gets looks for the all-star game and provides a rock-solid foundation as well as a veteran clubhouse presence.
Worst-case Scenario: Sherrill continues to struggle and the Mariners put him on the DL with shoulder problems, which all of a sudden look a lot serious than previously thought. Still injured, Sherrill's return to the M's is cut short when Jack Z releases him in mid-June and brings back Jamey Wright in his place.
More Likely: Tough one, but based on appearance one and injury problems, I'll go with Worst-case Scenario.
4. Steve Delabar: The Mariners' substitute teacher looked pretty solid in his Japan appearance, getting the Mariners out of the disastrous seventh inning in game two and nearly shutting it down in the eighth before getting jacked by Josh Reddick and his douche beard. Delabar first appeared with the M's at the major league level in 2011, when he posted a 1-1 record with a 2.57 ERA in seven innings over six appearances.
Best-case Scenario: Delabar pitches consistently out of the 'pen, giving the Mariners another great option to set up Brandon League. Delabar stays with the big club all season, logging a ton of innings in the seventh and eighth. He platoons with Tom Wilhelmsen as the set-up man and proves his merit at the major-league level.
Worst-case Scenario: He keeps getting lit up in the seventh and eighth innings and the Mariners start to lose games due to his struggles. The M's designate him for assignment in June, and Delabar disappears until the rosters expand in September. He remains impossible to figure out, and Jack Z doesn't bring him back in 2013.
More Likely: Another tough one since we don't know a whole lot about him. I'll go with Best-case by a nose. He'll probably just be average though.
Set-up men: You're solid relievers, so pitch like it
3. Shawn Kelley: More injury questions here. Kelley missed most of 2010 and 2011 after a decent 2009 with Tommy John Surgery, the second of his career. Yikes. TWO Tommy John's? That's brutal. Yet with such an inexperienced bullpen, Kelley is somewhat of an elder statesmen along with Sherrill. He got taken yard by Yoenis Cespedes and took the loss in Japan game two, but he could have finished the inning and kept it close if Wedge had left him in. Kelley will need to provide consistency and stay healthy for the M's pen to be successful.
Best-case Scenario: Kelley quickly locks up the set-up role due to lack of competition and shows the flair and consistency he put forth before his surgery. He flirts with the all-star game and leads a rock-solid Mariners bullpen in 2012.
Worst-case Scenario: Kelley's season is brief. He struggles through April and May before he realizes his elbow just won't support his pitching style. He blows it out again, and instead of enduring a third Tommy John, he retires in his prime, another casualty to the modern pitching style.
More Likely: Best-case Scenario
2. Tom Wilhelmsen: No pressure, but the success of the M's bullpen this season most rides on the Bartender's continued improvement. He was lights out in two innings of work against the A's in Japan game one, and will command the eighth inning role until he gives it up. Six up, six down for a win in relief. That's music to every Mariner fan's ears. If Wilhelmsen keeps it up, he could be an all-star.
Best-case Scenario: Wilhelmsen is the set-up man Jack Z dreamed him up to be when he signed him in 2010. He dominates in the eighth inning and makes the all-star game, becoming known as a poor man's Johnny Venters, minus the injuries. He makes Brandon League expendable, and becomes the closer of the future by 2013.
Worst-case Scenario: The Bartender's work in Japan proves to be a fluke. He struggles while Kelley and Sherrill succeed, and he head back to Tacoma in May. He comes back up in September and occasionally throughout the season, but shows he's still a year away.
More Likely: I like Wilhelmsen. Best-case would be awesome. I'm going with that.
The Closer: Hey now, you're an all-star, get your game on, go play
1. Brandon League: I don't exactly know how to attack this one, since I think the best-case scenario would be for League to be in a different uniform by August. He was an all-star in 2011, but during the 17-game losing streak following the break, he didn't see much action, because the game needs to be close for him to pitch. I think Brandon League will pitch well this season, but I also think the Mariners need to trade him when he does, because he is not a part of the ultimate success plan. A closer is the final piece of the rebuilding puzzle, and League could bring back top prospects if he pitches well in 2012.
Best-case Scenario: League gets noticed on a national level for his lights out closing and ability to keep a struggling franchise afloat by winning one-run games. His splitter continues to miss bats, and he becomes a two-time all-star. Fading come July, the Mariner trad ether top expendable asset in League for a solid hitting prospect from a contender with a crap bullpen like the Red Sox.
Worst-case Scenario: The M's get more of struggling, low-confidence League than they did last year. His week-long funks occur more and more often and last longer and longer. League continues to falter, and loses the closer job to Wilhelmsen in July. With his value down, the M's ship him out for C-level prospects or just let him go at the end of the year.
More Likely: He's too good, so Best-case wins.
This bullpens faces a lot of questions heading into 2012. But one thing that isn't in question is that consistency from these seven will make the difference between 65 and 80 wins this season. Go M's.