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May 4, 2011 at 10:49 AM

What to do when David Aardsma, Franklin Gutierrez return to Mariners? A six-man bullpen looks good right now

There has naturally been quite a bit of debate growing in the blogosphere about what the suddenly decent-looking Mariners should do once David Aardsma and Franklin Gutierrez are ready to return to action. The short answer is: there is no one “correct” way for them to go. Especially if the team happens to find itself in first place when those moves come at some point late this month or in June.
This is a good problem to have, but it’s still a numbers game and the 25-man team will have to be trimmed someplace to accomodate both players.
Right now, here’s my suggestion. Go to a six-man bullpen and carry only 11 pitchers on staff.
This has pretty much been a four-man bullpen for a while now anyway, with the M’s seemingly reluctant to allow Chris Ray, Tom Wilhelmsen or Dan Cortes anywhere near the mound once the winning began. So, you take that four-man pen — Brandon League, Jamey Wright, David Pauley and Aaron Laffey — and add Aardsma to it, jettisoning one of the three non-usage guys.
Then, to make 25-man roster room for Gutierrez, you lose one of the two remaining relievers the team refuses to deploy in anything but mop-up games.
There you have it. Problem solved. Well, maybe.

The starting pitchers have been on quite a roll of late, but you just know that the minute the team goes to a six-man pen, that will be the night Erik Bedard doesn’t make it out of the first inning and Michael Pineda gets shelled the next day. It’s the law of baseball. Always happens.
So, this isn’t an automatic decision.
But you know that Wright can go multiple innings, as can Pauley and Laffey. And with Aardsma back — I’d stick with League as closer when that happens, BTW — Wright probably gets bumped back to the seventh inning in any event (you need to keep Aardsma’s trade value up by at least making him the set-up guy) and can be worked longer if needed since his role won’t be as critical.
And what this arrangement gives you is flexibility to not have to resolve the whole Michael Saunders/Milton Bradley dilema right away.
Because if we were going strictly by offense, you send Saunders back down to Class AAA. He had trouble catching up to even straight, down-the-middle fastballs in some at-bats I saw last night and is still working some things out. He has not made the case for himself with the bat that we wrote back in spring training he’d need to in order to stick with the team one Gutierrez was healthy.
But here’s the thing. Bradley hasn’t made that case, either. He had a good opening week or so, but has been floundering at the plate ever since.
And if you bring defense into the equation, Saunders is heads and tails above Bradley as both a left and center fielder. Bradley doesn’t play center, so that part is easy. He does’t play left all that well anymore either.
Until Gutierrez gets at least a month under his belt back in the majors, he will remain an unknown quantity. Nobody, including the Mariners, knows whether his health will hold up under the daily MLB grind. Sure, it looks good now. But he’s in the minors. Ad we’ve heard this “I feel great” routine before.
So, having another center fielder around besides Ryan Langerhans wouldn’t hurt.
This isn’t so much about Saunders’ “development” as it is about making the team better.
If Saunders and Bradley are both going to hit around .200, you look to the glove stuff for the tiebreaker.
And truthfully, the outfield will be better off with Saunders and Langerhans splitting time in left and Bradley relegated to DH time with Jack Cust.
Saunders is one of the team’s better defenders at the moment. Bradley is one of the team’s worst. You’ll probably get more out of Bradley’s bat by keeping him healthy and out of the field as much as possible.
So, with a six-man bulllpen, you get to keep all of those bats and let the situation work itself out. We’re past the point of worrying about Bradley’s trade value. Trading Bradley was always going to be a longshot, based on his off-field issues and recent decline at the plate. So far, the earplugs episode — providing comic fodder around the country — and his latest slow start with the bat aren’t making a July trade all that likely.
What’s needed now is for the team to get some value out of him. And that value diminishes with every ball he doesn’t catch up to in left. I’m not just talking about errors here, either. It’s the balls he doesn’t get to that other fielders do.
M’s manager Eric Wedge was toying with the idea of eventually using a six-man bullpen a couple of weeks ago.
I’m sure that now, since he’s used a four-man pen going on almost two weeks, the idea looks even more palatable.
There’s still time for all of this to change as situations unfold and, if I’m the M’s, I’m waiting until the last possible second to make that call. But if a call needed to be made today, that’s the direction I’m headed in.



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