Mariners intend to make Cishek their closer

Dipoto says newly acquired righty 'one year removed' from being one of baseball's best at role

Mariners intend to make Cishek their closer

SEATTLE -- Steve Cishek grew up in Massachusetts and played most of his Major League career in Miami, about as far from the Pacific Northwest as you can get in MLB circles. But the former Marlins closer says Seattle quickly rose to the top of his wish list once he talked to new general manager Jerry Dipoto this offseason.

With the Mariners offering the opportunity to return to the coveted ninth-inning role after Cishek lost that job in Miami and then got traded to St. Louis last July, he jumped at the chance to sign a two-year deal with the Mariners after becoming a free agent when the Cardinals didn't tender him a contract earlier this month.

Dipoto told Cishek the same thing he told reporters on Monday after the contract was finalized. The Mariners intend to make the 29-year-old their closer, allowing veteran right-hander Joaquin Benoit to pitch in his normal setup role, along with returning lefty Charlie Furbush.

"This is a tremendous opportunity," Cishek said from his home in Jupiter, Fla. "Obviously last year, losing the closing job was a huge disappointment to me. I knew I didn't pitch up to my expectations, so just to have this opportunity again to close games out and help this team win ballgames is mind-blowing to me."

Cishek was successful in 73 of 79 save opportunities in 2013-14 with the Marlins, but he had four blown saves in his first seven chances last year, wound up losing the closing job and was eventually dealt to the Cards. He pitched well in the final months, but the slow start hurt his numbers and his closing opportunity.

After posting a 6.98 ERA with an opponents' OPS of .910 in his first 19 outings, Cishek had a 1.75 ERA and OPS of .603 over his final 40 appearances with Miami and St. Louis. But it all added up to the lanky right-hander being available this offseason, with the Cardinals unwilling to proceed through an arbitration process that was projected to earn him about $7 million.

Dipoto has no qualms about Cishek returning to closing form. Seattle's deal pays Cishek a base salary of $4 million in 2016, $6 million in '17 and up to an additional $3.5 million each year in incentives based on the number of games he finishes.

"We're one year removed from Steve Cishek being one of the top closers in baseball," Dipoto said. "That wasn't an accident. As we sit here, six seasons into his career, his level of consistency has been remarkable. While it's reasonable to say 2015 wasn't up to Steve's standards, he found ways to contribute and fix himself.

"You don't get many opportunities to bring on a closer of Steve's magnitude this way. This isn't a project of any sort. He's healthy and ready to go, and there's no reason he won't revert to what he's always done. … The bullpen can be a volatile place. If not for the fact he had an early struggle last year, we wouldn't have had this [opportunity]."

Cishek says he's been using his sidearm delivery since college, but he had some trouble locking into the proper arm slot last year and got a little sideways in his attempt to fix his mechanics.

"What's ironic is I came into Spring Training, and my arm slot was quite a bit lower than in the past, and as a result, I was losing velocity and my slider didn't have as much bite," Cishek said. "But I had the best Spring Training I've had in my career, throwing everything where I wanted. But for whatever reason, I was obsessed with my velocity.

"It's easier for me to raise my arm than drop it back down. Once the season started, I wasn't happy with where I was mechanically. Maybe I overdid it a little trying to get myself back. I had a tough time figuring it out. Now I realize a lot of relief pitchers -- we don't have the consistency of innings as starters -- so they'll go through this. I'm ready to turn the page."

Dipoto has quickly turned over the Mariners' roster as well, with nine trades and now five Major League free-agent signings since he replaced Jack Zduriencik. The bullpen has seen considerable turnover, with Tom Wilhelmsen, Carson Smith and Danny Farquhar traded in recent weeks. Dipoto has signed free agents Cishek and Justin De Fratus and traded for Benoit, Anthony Bass and Evan Scribner. Along with returnees Furbush, Tony Zych and Vidal Nuno, that figures to be the primary relief group next season.

"With Steve's addition, that probably does it for the heavy lifting," Dipoto said. "While we're likely to make further additions, with Steve and Benoit and Furbush, you're looking at what we anticipate is the back end of our bullpen."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.