BY John Hickey 04:59PM 01/18/2011

Arbitration signings underscore thin M’s bullpen

Mariners avoided arbitration by signing trio, but relief pitching still looks suspect

The Mariners re-signed setup man Brandon League. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mariners joined much of baseball Tuesday by getting the troublesome salary arbitration process out of the way.

Seattle agreed to terms on contracts with relievers David Aardsma and Brandon League and left-handed starter Jason Vargas on the deadline day for players and teams to exchange salary figures.

The Mariners are now close to knowing their opening day roster payroll. It’s unlikely the club will make anymore moves. The only players on the roster without firm contract figures are non-arbitration eligible players which will cost the Mariners around the major league minimum salary.

What it doesn’t mean is that the Mariners bullpen is set. Aardsma, nominally the team’s closer, is at home in Arizona rehabilitating his right hip. Aardsma had surgery on the torn labrum in his hip two weeks ago. He’s scheduled to start throwing a baseball again about Feb. 1 and will not be ready for the start of spring training. He’s also not going to be ready to start the season in the Seattle bullpen.

For the moment, he’s still on crutches, and that is a good image to bear in mind when thinking of the Seattle bullpen.

League (9-7, 3.42 in mostly setup work last year) is likely to be the closer for the time being, but his history there isn’t great – he had as many saves last year (six) as he had blown saves (six).

The group backing him up is unproven in many ways because Aardsma is not the only pitcher who won’t start the season healthy. Right-handed setup man Shawn Kelley is coming back from elbow surgery on Sept. 1 and isn’t going to be ready to start the season either.

That means the Mariners’ 40-man roster includes just four bullpen candidates who are healthy enough to begin the season and who have big league experience – League, Garrett Olson, Dan Cortes and Cesar Jimenez. Cortes threw briefly in September for Seattle and the left-handed Jimenez last threw for Seattle in 2008. One of the six candidates for the starting rotation is going to wind up in the bullpen, likely either Luke French or David Pauley. Both have bullpen experience.

The Seattle bullpen as currently constituted is shaky, all the more so with the Rangers and Angels having more depth than Seattle in their pens. The A’s beefed up their relief corps this week with four-time All-Star closer Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to back up closer Andrew Bailey.

Things will shake out in spring training, because about six Class-A and Double-A pitchers currently on the 40-man roster can be taken off in March. That allows room to add some of the veteran non-roster invitees, should they prove worthy.

Whether or not they will is going to be a major focus of spring training when Seattle convenes on Feb. 13 with the first workout on the 14th.

The starting rotation is going to need plenty of protection by the bullpen, particularly if lefty Erik Bedard is finally healthy and pitching again. He will not go deep into games.

On the list of free agent invitees are Denny Bautista (2-0, 3.74 last year with San Francisco), Fabio Castro (a lefty who last pitched in the big leagues in 2007), Charlie Haeger (a knuckleball-throwing starter who was 0-4 and 8.40 with the Dodgers), Justin Miller (0-0, 4.44 with the Dodgers), Yusmerio Petit (last pitched in the big leagues in 2009 but 4-2, 4.85 for Tacoma in 2010), Royce Ring (a lefty with five games in the bigs since 2008), Chris Seddon (a 5.64 ERA for Seattle last year) and Chris Smith (just three games last year with the Brewers but led the Pacific Coast League with 26 saves).

No Mariner has gone to salary arbitration since 2003, when Freddy Garcia won a $6.875 million deal from Seattle.


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