Sherrill Returns to Seattle

After throwing 231 innings and compiling a 3.31 ERA in the independent league ranks between 1999 and 2003, the Seattle Mariners took a chance on left-hander George Sherrill and signed him to a minor-league deal. He promptly broke into the big leagues a year later and served as a core piece of the Mariners’ bullpen for four years before being shipped to Baltimore prior to the 2008 season in the blockbuster deal that brought Erik Bedard to the Pacific Northwest.

The career of George Sherrill now comes full circle, as he reportedly will return to Seattle on a one-year contract worth $1.1M plus incentives.

The Mariners have earnestly sought to upgrade the left-handed contingent of their bullpen, first drafting southpaw Lucas Luetge from the Milwaukee Brewers in the Rule 5 Draft and now signing Sherrill. Both lefties will seek to improve upon the forgettable production from Cesar Jimenez and Charlie Furbush, who were the two lefties in the ‘pen at the end of the season.

Jimenez is intriguing due to his 2.95 FIP in Triple-A and 2.28 FIP in the big leagues last season, but he did allow lefties to hit .283 against him in 71 Triple-A innings and has displayed command problems throughout his professional career. The 27-year-old has also dealt with significant arm issues in 2009 and 2010 that held him to only 28.2 innings during that stretch, so durability is also a concern.

Furbush was acquired in the trade that sent Doug Fister to Detroit. Upon arrival in Seattle, he struggled in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. The 25-year-old posted a 5.16 FIP on the season and continued to struggle with the long ball. Lefties also hit .284 against him in 2011, which cautions against employing him as a true lefty specialist out of the bullpen.

The question marks surrounding those two led to the relatively low-risk signing of George Sherrill. The addition should augment the Mariners’ bullpen, despite the fact that Seattle already enjoyed great success against left-handed hitters in 2011. The team’s 3.64 FIP against lefties was the sixth best in the league. Their strikeout percentage against lefties, however, was tied for the fifth-worst in the league at 17.2% and needed improvement.

Sherrill has a career 33.9% strikeout percentage against lefties. Furthermore, he displayed good command of the baseball in those matchups. His strikeout-to-walk ratio against left-handed hitters was an impressive 32-to-1 last season. That is exactly the skill set that will equip manager Eric Wedge with a valuable tool in 2012 that was largely unavailable to him a season ago — a reliever with strikeout stuff against tough left-handed batters.

Of course, the 34-year-old native of Tennessee signed with the Mariners at a modest price for a reason. His usefulness on the mound is extremely limited. Against left-handers, his career FIP is 2.20. Against right-handers, however, his career FIP is 5.17.

Eric Wedge should be exceedingly cautious when summoning Sherrill next season. The Braves utilized him against righties, but survived without suffering too much damage due to a .229 BABIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was still horrendous with six strikeouts and 11 walks, which suggests his relative success against right-handed batters was a mirage that will likely come crashing to earth in 2012.

Luckily, the Seattle Mariners will not need George Sherrill to be anything other than a left-handed specialist in their bullpen next season. Brandon League will return as the closer, and Tom Wilhelmsen is the leading candidate to pitch in the eighth inning. That should enable manager Eric Wedge to utilize Sherrill exactly how he should be, which is almost exclusively against lefties and never against a righty in a high-leverage situation.

If called upon to pitch in only those situations, George Sherrill should have a very successful year with the Mariners, and beyond that — even as his velocity continues to drop — he should be able to carve out a nice little niche as an aging LOOGY over the next few years.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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I would think any 32 to one ratio merits a stronger adjective than impressive,small sample size notwithstanding.Excellent analysis.