Seattle inks Reitsma as setup man

Seattle inks Reitsma as setup man

SEATTLE -- The pitcher who will be entrusted to get the ball and the lead to Mariners closer J.J. Putz in 2007 said he never feared that his career might be over, even when numbness in his right hand rendered him ineffective.

But Chris Reitsma, who on Friday signed a one-year contract with a club option for the 2008 season to be Seattle's eighth-inning specialist, said he was frustrated and generally miffed by not knowing exactly what was wrong with him last season.

"If I had pain shooting down my arm, then I would have said something a little earlier," said Reitsma, who began the 2006 season as the Braves' closer, but ended it stuck on the disabled list. "But not being able to do what you can do, to know you're better than you are showing was frustrating."

The final straw -- and, as it turned out, the final pitch he would throw -- came on July 1, when the 29-year-old right-hander attempted to fire a fastball past Baltimore's Miguel Tejada with a numb hand.

"The last pitch I threw in a Braves uniform, I hit Miguel Tejada in the head," Reitsma said. "I was hurting my team, hurting myself. There was no use in doing it. So I shut it down."

A visit to elbow specialist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., revealed that Reitsma had what he termed a "freaky injury" -- a rare muscle that was wrapped around his ulner nerve in his elbow that was causing random numbness that affected everything from velocity to his command.

"They found a muscle that only five percent of people have that was wrapped around my nerve ... they cut the muscle and moved the nerve," Reitsma said. "It was a big relief when they came back and said they found what they found."

So just how rare was Reitsma's injury? Andrews, one of the nation's preeminent elbow specialists who has operated on dozens of pitchers, said the only other similar operation he had performed was on country-music singer Kenny Rogers.

The Mariners are surely hoping that signing Reitsma, who had an 8.68 ERA last season with the Braves, isn't a gamble that backfires.

Reitsma will get $1.35 million this season and can earn additional bonuses based on appearances and games finished. Seattle holds a $2.7 million option for 2008 with a $700,000 buyout, though Reitsma said he expects to be here for at least two seasons.

"I'm good to go," he said, when asked about the health of his elbow. "I am planning on getting on a mound Monday. I've been throwing long toss on and off pretty much since the end of September through the beginning of November. I won't miss a day of Spring Training."

The Mariners certainly can't afford him to.

Seattle has been looking for a pitcher to fill the spot of Rafael Soriano, who a year ago was arguably the top setup man in the American League, since it shipped the hard-throwing right-hander to -- oddly enough -- the Braves to fill a similar role.

"Chris' name came up right away," Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi said. "We thought this was the perfect fit. This is a big move for us. When we moved Soriano, we did take a bite out of the back part of our game. This, we think, fills it and maybe even a little beyond that."

Reitsma, who is 32-44 with a 4.58 ERA in six Major League seasons, has been a starter, a middle reliever, a setup man and a closer during his career with Cincinnati and Atlanta.

"Chris is a kid who wants to pitch every day," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said. "In the bullpen, one of the most valuable qualities a pitcher can have is consistency, both in terms of being available and in the results he provides. Chris gives us the consistency we need as we bridge the gap from our starters to J.J."

Before last season, when two stints on the disabled list limited him to 28 innings in 27 games, Reitsma had appeared in 76, 84 and 57 games over the previous three seasons. While Reitsma will be the bridge to getting Putz the lead in the ninth inning, Bavasi said he is comfortable with letting Reitsma close in the event Putz needs a rest.

"Comparing the two, on the right night, Rafael might have had more power, but [Reitsma] is more consistent in what he's bringing, whether it's velocity, command, breaking stuff," Bavasi said. "He's probably a little more consistent. Rafael's a great talent. But he is the right guy. His makeup is off the charts."

According to sources, Reitsma took less money to sign with the Mariners than he could have earned with the Rockies. Playing closer to home -- Reitsma hails from Calgary -- played a role in his decision to sign with Seattle.

"Being from Western Canada, it's a great opportunity to come west," Reitsma said. "I've always been a fan of the Mariners growing up, watching Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson. I've always wanted to come here. This is one of those opportunities that doesn't come along very often to pitch in a city close to my home."

Not done yet?

While the addition of Reitsma might signal the end of the team's search for bullpen help, the Mariners might not be done tinkering with their starting rotation.

Bavasi said that acquisition could come from a trade or free agency, though he put the odds at 60-40 that it would come -- if it comes at all -- by signing a free agent. Bavasi was quick to add that Seattle won't add a fifth starter just for the sake of adding another arm to the mix.

Currently, Seattle's Jake Woods and Cha Seung Baek are considered the frontrunners for the fifth spot in the rotation, with some consideration going to Ryan Feierabend and Sean White.

"With the rotation, we'll be careful with that," he said. "Whatever we do, we have to be certain that it's better than Woods and Baek and Feierabend. And that's not going to be easy to do. ... These are good-looking kids."

Corey Brock is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.