Are the Seattle Mariners in trouble with the 9th inning? It’s complicated

The ninth inning is different. At least that’s what the decision makers in baseball decided a few decades ago when the “closer” was born. That last exit has always been hard to come by, and once you build up a stat (saves) to go with it, players know there’s some extra money on the line in addition to the normal pressure. Over the years, the saving becomes significant and the closer it is paid. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the final exits seem increasingly difficult.

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I like what the Seattle Mariners have done the last few years.

They assembled a group of high-quality weapons and understood what each one does best. They then scouted their opponents and determined which reliever would be ideal for each “pocket” of the opposing lineup. Communication became key as they helped each reliever prepare for the various times during the game they might be called upon to pitch.

This year, however, they settled into a rhythm where Paul Sewald got most of the opportunities in the ninth inning. Maybe it was a way to simplify things. Maybe they were pitching him for the final deadline deal. Or maybe they didn’t feel as confident with any of the other high-leverage relievers closing games. Regardless, it was Sewald’s job this year as he made 21 saves with only Andrés Muñoz (six) collecting more than two.

Now Sewald is gone. And suddenly, the ninth inning is different once again. In fact, the Seattle Mariners went on four straight games in which the ninth (or tenth) became an issue. Three of those issues turned into losses. It’s hard not to think it might have gone differently with Sewald.

So do they miss it? Undoubtedly yes. I think they knew they would when they made the trade. Do they now have a problem with the ninth? Was the trade a mistake? These answers get a lot more complicated.

After the last week, it would be hard to argue that the ninth inning isn’t a problem. At least right now. If one is an accident, two is a coincidence, and three is a pattern, four can be a complete disaster. But here’s the thing: all four games came in a row.

In a sport where streaks are important and players are up and down, how things work out in a short sample size may not be indicative of long-term expectation. Matt Brash has had a great year, but he had a miserable night on Monday. Andrés Muñoz has dirty stuff, but has seen a recent drop in velocity and his slider hasn’t been as sharp. It shouldn’t be surprising if both bounce back and perform much better in their next outings. Of course, it may not. Ah, the beauty of baseball.

But the last week came with an extra variable. The team is missing JP Crawford for all four of those games. He is their best defensive player. In at least one of those games, the infield defense was an issue (resulting in three unearned runs). No, he wasn’t in the spotlight, but we often talk about the calming presence a player like JP can have on his teammates.

In fact, we go beyond that! JP has often received high praise for the way he leads on the field and the calming effect he has on the field staff. Two young pitchers thrown into a new situation without their leader is not ideal. And while it may have had zero effect, it’s plausible enough that I’m willing to pass judgment for now.

I don’t know for sure if they have a problem with the ninth inning, but I know now that the inning will be uncomfortable for a while. It is certainly very possible that they do have a problem. And that leads to the next question: If you could go back in time, would you still trade Sewald?

My answer is yes. I will. I would think long and hard about it. And I think there’s a good argument against it. Sure, it would have been nice to have Sewald in the final week! But I think the principles that made the deal work still apply.

The Mariners needed offense. They were trading from a position of strength to help someone with weakness. They also have a significant mid-term need at second base. Dylan Moore and Jose Caballero look more valuable as part-time players (plus they’re both right-handed). Cole Young is probably two years away and next year’s free agent class at second base will be led by… Kolten Wong and Adam Frazier! The acquisition of Josh Rojas was important. Incidentally, he can fill the role of veteran leader that has been missing since Carlos Santana signed elsewhere.

But they also need him in the short term. And that’s before you get to Dominic Canzone, an athletic outfielder who will have a chance to develop over the next six years and is playing a role on the team right now.

I think the Mariners are a better team right now with Canzone and Rojas over Sewald. But I certainly understand if you disagree, and I really understand if the ninth inning now makes you really nervous. I’m in the same boat.

Fortunately, the Mariners have a secret weapon. Bryan Woo should be back in another week, offering a chance for a six-man rotation that Jerry Dipoto said they would use “for a while.” If the rotation is in good shape and the bullpen needs help, the M’s could certainly move any of the three flame-throwing rookies in the pen. Bryce Miller and Woo seem to have the personality for it.

I also think the Mariners have another option. If I were in charge, I’d like to see them revert to one of their two previous strategies. They could go back to “closer by committee,” where they pick the right pockets for each leveraged reliever and downplay the importance of the almighty ninth.

This could be effective. Heck, they used Drew Steckenrider (currently not in the major leagues) to close for a season and he did just fine!

But I’d rather let Brash, Muñoz and others return to the roles they’ve been most successful in and hand the ninth over to Justin Topa. He’s a bit older and more mature than the other two, he’s having a great season and actually reminds me of Sewald.

The Seattle Mariners have options. They have talented relievers and a solid history of putting those players in the best position to succeed. I will try to be patient and trust the process. But in the meantime, I’ll be just as nervous as you.

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