PEORIA, Ariz. — Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon watched the tapes from every game last season and took notes. What he saw from the Mariners’ bullpen in late innings was concerning. The unnecessary base runners from costly walks and two-out hits, the late leads lost and the blown saves needed to be mended and repaired.
On Thursday, that fixer arrived at the Mariners’ spring training facility with his cap slightly askew as always.
With the results from Wednesday’s physical finally approved and his two-year, $14 million contract signed that morning, All-Star closer Fernando Rodney took part in the Mariners’ first full workout for pitchers and catchers.
“It feels good to be here,” Rodney said. “I think we have the pieces here to compete in the division. I know my situation is try to close the game in late-game situations.”
The corresponding move to put Rodney on the 40-man roster was sort of surprising, but not really, considering history. The team placed outfielder Franklin Gutierrez on the restricted list to open the spot.
Gutierrez called the Mariners a few days ago, notifying general manager Jack Zduriencik that he would not be playing in 2014. Gutierrez has had a relapse of the gastrointestinal issues (irritable bowel syndrome) that plagued him last offseason and decided it would not be fair to the Mariners if he arrived in camp in his condition. He instead will try to focus on his health this next year. With that declaration, the Mariners were able to place Gutierrez on the restricted list and are not required to pay him the $1 million contract he signed in the offseason.
Rodney, 36, saved 37 games last season for the Tampa Bay Rays, while posting a 5-4 record and a 3.38 ERA in 68 appearances. In 2012, he saved 48 games and allowed just five earned runs in 74 2/3 innings. He set a Rays record for earned-run average at 0.60.
Rodney was one of the top free-agent closers on the offseason market. But that market wasn’t quite as lucrative as in past seasons. It’s why Rodney didn’t agree to a contract until last week and for less money and years than expected.
“I’m not surprised that it’s taken some time,” he said. “I got the right organization and I’m happy to be here.”
The Mariners are equally elated.
“I’m glad he’s signed and I’m extremely happy to have him,” McClendon said. “He solidifies the back end of our bullpen.”
With Rodney in the fold, McClendon can move Danny Farquhar, who was closing games at the end of the season, into a set-up role and continue to build from the back with Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Yoervis Medina and others.
The hope is Rodney will make things easier and keep established roles for the rest of the relievers. That didn’t happen last season as injuries, inconsistency and inexperience plagued the bullpen.
“We blew 23 saves and I believe we had another 18 or 19 games we lost in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings and 15 extra-inning games, so we need to improve in those areas,” McClendon said. “You better have someone in the back end of your bullpen.”
The Mariners thought they had that in Tom Wilhelmsen, but his struggles that started in June threw the rest of the bullpen into disarray. The close losses piled up and the damage from a mental and emotional standpoint took its toll.
“When you talk about wins and losses, the toughest losses for any team are those games you know you should have won in the ninth inning,” McClendon said. “Those are gut-wrenching and define your character. We are all going to get our butts kicked from time to time in blowout games and that’s OK. But when you lose those games that you should have won — those are tough.”
McClendon was Rodney’s bullpen coach in Detroit for the 2006 season before moving to hitting instructor. He watched Rodney save 38 games in the 2008 season.
“He’s a tremendous, frontline pitcher and he has great character,” McClendon said. “I think Mariners fans are going to love him.”
It’s another lost year for Gutierrez, who was hoping to make it back as a part-time outfielder this season. He missed 106 games last season with two stints on the disabled list with hamstring issues and problems related to condition he said was ankylosing spondylitis.
“It’s very unfortunate for him,” McClendon said. “His health just did not cooperate with him. We’ll see where we go as we move down the line with him.”
Gutierrez’s absence doesn’t make things easier for a Mariners outfield group that already has questions surrounding it. McClendon would not bite on the need for Zduriencik to sign another outfielder, perhaps free agent Nelson Cruz.
“It gives other individuals opportunities, ” McClendon said. “They have to take advantage of it.”