One year ago, David Aardsma was a middle reliever for the Boston Red Sox who was most notable for being the first name in the alphabetical listing of Major League Baseball players.
A 6’4″, hard-throwing righthander, Aardsma had never recorded a save, nor been asked to assume the role of late-inning relief specialist.
A year later, Aardsma has become one of baseball’s better closers as a Seattle Mariner, posting 13 saves in 14 opportunities while maintaining a 1.74 ERA in the process. In 32.1 IP, the 27-year-old has struck out 39 batters, relying heavily on a mid-90’s fastball to overpower opposing batters.
Perhaps most importantly, Aardsma was obtained by the Mariners at little expense.
In exchange for their closer, the M’s relinquished a lightly touted prospect by the name of Fabian Williamson. A 20-year-old left-handed pitcher, Williamson — a former 22nd round draft pick in 2006 by Seattle — is currently pitching in relief for Boston’s single-A farm club, the Greenville Drive.
Not unlike David Aardsma, Jason Vargas was another player who joined the Mariners in the offseason to virtually no fanfare.
Considered a throw-in to the three-team, 12-player deal between the M’s, Cleveland Indians, and New York Mets, Vargas’ name was hidden among the likes of Franklin Gutierrez, Aaron Heilman (since traded), Endy Chavez, and Mike Carp when he was sent to the Pacific Northwest.
After starting the season at Triple-A Tacoma, Vargas has emerged as one of the Mariners’ most reliable starting pitchers over the past two months.
In ten games this season (including eight starts), Vargas has put together a 3-2 record along with a 3.24 ERA. Save for one bad start in Colorado in which he only lasted 4 2/3 innings, the lefthander has gone five or more innings in each of his starts.
A former second-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2004, Vargas is currently making the major league minimum salary.
And finally there’s Russell Branyan.
Outside of right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, Branyan might be the closest thing the Mariners have to an All-Star. A 33-year-old, left-handed hitting power bat, the Bunyanesque Branyan is batting .305 with 16 home runs (a team high) and 31 RBI. His OPS stands at an impressive 1.003.
An ex-top prospect of the Cleveland Indians in the late ’90s, Branyan has shed the journeyman label after a decade of being relegated to backup duty.
On December 3, 2008, Seattle inked Branyan to a one-year, $1.6 million contract to be their starting first baseman, and so far the slugger has been one of the best signings of the ’09 offseason.
Combined, Aardsma, Vargas, and Branyan are earning $2,419,000 in 2009. Compare that to the $12.25 million ineffective (and currently injured) starting pitcher Carlos Silva will earn in ’09, and you have to appreciate three of the biggest — and least heralded — offseason acquisitions made by the Mariners’ front office.