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March 10, 2012 at 9:03 AM

So, who works late in Mariners bullpen?

Wrote this story for the paper today, but sometimes the nuances of a story aren’t captured in a headline or even the body of a story of limited length, so let’s delve further. Do I think we’ll see Shawn Kelley out there in the ninth inning? No way.
But the Mariners do need some reassurance from some of their veterans, or else we could be seeing Kelley out there in the eighth inning at some point. We will be seeing Tom Wilhelmsen (photo above) late in games because if this team trades Brandon League at the July 31 deadline, Wilhelmsen automatically becomes one of the leading candidates to succeed him.
First, though, a look at some of the veterans brought in by the club. In particular, the two lefties — George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo. I’d forgotten about this until Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing wrote about it, but Sherrill used to be downright awful pitching in Arizona during spring training back when he was with the Mariners his first go-around.
You’ll have to forgive me because it’s been five years since I last saw him in spring training, but, put into that context, his outing yesterday was actually pretty good. He gave up the leadoff home run, but when I asked Eric Wedge about Sherrill’s outing, he was very complimentary about the breaking balls he was throwing. Now, thanks to Sullivan, my memory has been jarred enough to remember that breaking balls were something Sherrill used to struggle immensely with in the Arizona air.
So, that’s encouraging. I’m not really worried about him being “ready” for the season as much as I’m cautious going forward with his elbow at his age. We know that Sherrill can work to more than a batter or two if needed. The thing is, if he’s used as more than a situational left-hander, it will put more strain on that elbow. And maybe he gets away with it. But if you’re the Mariners, you probably don’t want to be playing with that kind of fire, especially not early on in the season.
And that’s one of the reasons they went out and got right-hander Shawn Camp and Kuo. Camp is a bit of Wilhelmsen insurance in case the latter’s final two months of 2011 prove somewhat of a fluke, or he suddenly develops a sophomore jinx or something. Somebody has to bridge the eighth inning to get to League and if not Wilhelmsen, you’ve got Camp to fall back on.

But Camp is right-handed, like Wilhelmsen, and not particularly effective against lefties. OK, let’s be honest: he was terrible versus southpaw hitters in 2011, getting tagged for a .913 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
So, if a team is about to begin the eighth inning with a bunch of lefties due up, you do not want Camp in there pitching.
That’s why the team went out and got Kuo. When he’s on, he can handle both righties and lefties with precision.
When he’s off, he misses high, misses low, misses outside, misses inside. We saw a bit of that yesterday.
And unlike Sherrill, that’s a reason for some real concern. Because Kuo has had severe control issues in two of the past three seasons and almost retired because of it this past winter.
So, it’s not enough to suggest that Kuo has also, like Sherrill, struggled in spring training before.
Because unlike Sherrill, Kuo has had enormous struggles when it counts as well. His All-Star season was two years ago. Last year, much more recent, was anything but all-star material. And so, the Mariners are paying close attention to what he does command-wise. He can’t come into a close game in the eighth inning and serve up a meatball special like he did to Ryan Ryal yesterday on his very first pitch. Can’t nearly send the ball to the backstop on another pitch when things get tight.
Kuo is somebody many in the game are rooting for and he very well could figure things out these next few weeks. That’s what spring training is for.
But if he doesn’t, the Mariners need to have a plan.
And that’s why I mentioned Kelley possibly having to work late in games as well.
Because you don’t want Camp out there against a lefty-stacked order in the eighth. And you don’t want to use Sherrill out of his situational role all that often if you can avoid it. Sure, you can do the mix-and-match thing with Sherrill facing lefties in the eighth and one of the righties handling the rest.
But again, that involves constantly getting Sherrill up in the bullpen. One of the reasons his elbow broke down last year was that the Braves had him up in the pen roughly 150 times by late August.
With Kelley, you have a right-hander who can work an inning and often more to both righties and lefties. And when he’s on, his slider can neutralize left-handed hitters.
So, that gives you an alternative on nights you don’t want to get Sherrill up in the bullpen. You can’t use Wilhelmsen every single game, so there will come a time — probably in April — where a team will be about to start an eighth inning with a slew of lefties due up and under no circumstances will you want Camp anywhere near the mound.
So, if not Kuo and not Sherrill or Wilhelmsen, somebody will need to answer the bell.
There you go. It’ll be interesting to see how the seventh and eighth innings shake down for this team. It’s far from being decided.



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