The six-man bullpen
As you know, the six-man bullpen is something we’ve lobbied for repeatedly around here. In a way, a road trip that includes interleague play is perfect timing for it, because playing National League rules significantly increases the importance of your bench for in-game strategy. As terrifying as it sounds, there will be times when “Jack Wilson, pinch-hitter” is a better option than “ordered to keep the bat on my shoulder in spring training” Michael Pineda or “swing with my eyes closed” Felix.
Despite this logic, however, the trend in baseball has overwhelmingly favored carrying seven and sometimes even eight guys in the pen. Even National League teams who bring bats off the bench on a daily basis haven’t really resisted it. I think the overall phenomenon might be ready to move in the other direction, though, and in going to a six-man bullpen, the Mariners could become part of a reversal in this trend.
Ultimately, the real driving force is likely to be the change in the run-scoring environment, more than any difference between the leagues. It’s a product of the psychology of baseball managers as much as anything. If you’re playing 7-6 ballgames and can get offense out of your lineup from top to bottom (even from the likes of Jose Lopez), when looking for that little bit of advantage so you end up with the 7 and not the 6, you end up focusing more on who your relief options are and having enough of them, because it seems like there’s a bigger difference between them. In that setting, it seems to matter a great deal whether you’re bringing in an Arthur Rhodes or a Julio Mateo.
On the other hand, in an environment full of 3-2 scores, it stands to reason that starting pitchers will be able to go deeper into games (including underwhelming Doug Fister types; I’d say Erik Bedard, but that would just be getting greedy) and you’ll have less opportunity and need for all of those relievers. In that context, suddenly a guy like Jamey Wright can get people out in the late innings, and you’re never going to use Tom Wilhelmsen, so why bother keeping him around? As they adjust to this, managers will start focusing more on scratching out that third run with their position players, as opposed to holding the other team off with their bullpen. And it will seem to them, and in turn the front office, that having a versatile bench matters more, relatively speaking, than having lots of relief pitching options.
Now if this kind of transition happens, it will take place gradually, and managers will take time to re-learn how they want to use a fuller bench. Some of the changes may involve the re-emergence of the traditional platoon system, which had seemed to be very much in decline around baseball. Carlos Peguero and Mike Wilson aren’t the greatest left field options, but if that’s all you have they should at least be platooned, so that much the Mariners have figured out. Eventually Eric Wedge may also stop counting on sun-aided base hits from Peguero when he faces a lefthanded relief pitcher.
There are other developments we might anticipate, but will have to wait and see on. For example, having some kind of black hole in your lineup is practically inevitable these days. The Mariners have more than most because of a lousy roster, but you’re almost bound to have at least one Brendan Ryan. If you have somebody on your bench who can hit, maybe you pinch-hit for Ryan more in close games. Also, now that Franklin Gutierrez is back, hopefully Wedge figures out that Michael Saunders has by far the best glove for left field, and really should be out there as a defensive replacement with a lead in the late innings.