Monday, January 18, 2021

Building a Better Bullpen

In more civilized times,
relievers used to enter in style
Last Friday morning Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic tweeted out that the Mets were "close to agreement with free-agent reliever Brad Hand." I saw another tweet from SNY's Andy Martino confirming that his own source verified Rosenthal's tweet. As I'm sure you know, as of Monday afternoon there has been no deal reached. Other sources have pushed back against the idea that an agreement is close, but by most accounts talks are ongoing. Should the Mets and Brad Hand eventually come to terms, the Mets are — barring injuries, of course — heading into 2021 with possibly their finest bullpen in team history.

As it stands now, the likely 2021 Mets bullpen includes closer Edwin Diaz, Trevor May, Dellin Betances, Brad Brach, Miguel Castro, and Jeurys Familia. Some of those names are obviously greater than others. If Seth Lugo is sent back to the bullpen that would obviously make him a key member. Other possibilities are Jacob Barnes, Robert Gsellman, Franklyn Kilome, Steven Matz, Sam McWilliams (the big upside signing from early in the offseason), Corey Oswalt, Drew Smith, Thomas Szapucki, Stephen Tarpley, Daniel Zamora, and Jerry Blevins (attempting a comeback on a minor league deal). There are a lot of question marks in that group, but it's also large enough to give the Mets a chance for a bullpen that has some real depth.

Having a strong bullpen has become a big prerequisite for success in modern baseball, and questions about the workload starters might be able to handle this season after last year's oddball sprint only increases the importance of a good, deep bullpen. Even without adding another top-end reliever like Hand, the Mets are pretty solid. They can be really good if they get some contributions out of the wild cards in their group. In no particular order:

  • Seth Lugo: He might wind up in the rotation, but I always thought that Lugo was too good of a weapon in the bullpen to squander, unless the club evaluates him as a potential above-average starter. That multi-inning reliever that can be used to put out fires in key spots may be more valuable in the long run than a fourth or fifth starter. As it stands right now, there doesn't seem to be any other reliever likely to fill that particular role.

  • Jeurys Familia: I liked the move when the Mets signed their former closer to a 3-year contract to be a setup guy. He was heading into his age 29 season and had looked good setting up for the A's after being traded to them. I figured he already understood how to pitch in New York after being our closer. However, when Edwin Diaz imploded in Familia's first year back, Jeurys did nothing to pick up the slack, posting by far his worst season in the majors. In last year's 60-game season he was good at times and awful at others. He allowed under 7 H/9, which was great. He allowed 0.7 HR/9 which, while worse than in his best seasons, was a pretty big improvement on 2019. What killed him was a high BB/9 (6.4) and his lowest K/9 rate since becoming a full-time major leaguer (7.8). There is no chance Jeurys lives up to the contract he was given, but fewer walks and a better defense behind him could make him a useful middle reliever in the final year of his deal.

  • Dellin Betances: One thing that was obvious from the get-go with Betances last year was that he had zero confidence in his fastball. The velocity was way down, and he often used his slider exclusively in big situations. The results weren't good, with him giving up both hits and walks at a rate of more than one per inning, and he also missed time with injuries. He had an opt-out that he declined, keeping him here for one more season. Maybe his fastball velocity comes back up this season, he regains confidence in his heater, and his numbers rebound closer to his career norms. Even if Betances returns to being 90% of what he was before 2019 he could be a key contributor to a deep bullpen this season. He could also be damaged badly enough to never get close to that level again. He might be less likely than Familia to be a useful reliever for the Mets, but he's probably more likely to be really good if he can get and stay healthy.

  • Brad Bach: Another guy who could have opted out, but elected to stay. COVID-19 cost him a lot of his 2020 season. When he pitched he wasn't effective. He was great for the Mets in 16 games at the end of 2019 after being released by the Cubs. Depending on what small sample size you want to look at, he has a chance to contribute to the Mets in 2021. As with Familia and Betances, no one is looking for Bach to be a key setup man, just contribute to the mix of middle relievers so that the Mets don't have to fall back on their team tradition of overusing certain relievers. Plus, if they do sign Hand, they'd have a pair of Brads in the 'pen. As you know, two Brads are always better than one.

  • Robert Gsellman: When Gsellman made it to the majors as a 22-year-old in 2016, he looked so good in 7 starts that we hoped we may have found a mini-deGrom — a pitching prospect who comes up and exceeds expectations. Now a grizzled veteran who will turn 28 in July, the bloom has come of the rose for Gsellman. I think he's actually looked viable as a reliever over the years. As a sinkerballer who has averaged 7.4 K/9 in his career, Gsellman would likely benefit from a better defense behind him. He could still contribute valuable middle relief innings to the 2021 Mets if he can only pitch to his potential. He doesn't need to be the 2016 Robert Gsellman to be a valuable member of this team.

  • Jacob Barnes: Barnes was a depth signing who is as likely to begin the year in the minors as in the major league bullpen. Still, he throws pretty hard and had some success with the Brewers in 2017 and 2018. He's the kind of guy who a team can occasionally strike some gold with, given the volatility of relievers. At the least he's a solid depth piece for the Mets.

  • Sam McWilliams: McWilliams is a guy who has never pitched in the major leagues, yet the Mets had to win a bidding war to sign the pitcher to a major league contract. The reason why is a fairly long story that SI covered well here. The short version was that McWilliams took advantage of pitching at the Rays alternate site and pitch tracker data to change his style to one much more effective in the modern game. The tall righty represents a big upside play for the Mets. It might yield a valuable pitcher for the Mets bullpen, or might just be an interesting anecdote one day. Either way, he's one to watch early on.
There are other guys who I could have written about here. The gist of it all is that the Mets have a real shot of having a good bullpen this season, and possibly a really good one if they sign Hand and/or see one of their wildcards pan out. Of course, even without Hand at the moment, there are some significant contracts in the Mets bullpen for 2021*:
  • Trevor May:         $7.75 million
  • Jeurys Familia:    $11.7 million
  • Dellin Betances:       $6 million
  • Edwin Diaz:             $7 million
  • Seth Lugo:         $2.925 million
  • Brad Bach:         $2.075 million
*Salaries from Spotrac

If Hand is signed, his contract is likely to be at or above Trevor May's deal. Add in all of the other potential bullpen guys and the Mets are definitely not cheaping out on their bullpen this year. Nor should they, as we've seen how fast a sub-par bullpen can derail a season. Also, I'm not hanging the decisions of the previous Mets regime to spend so much on Familia and Betances on the current one, but that $17.7 million spent on those two pitchers in 2021 doesn't look like the greatest decision ever made.

I understand the reluctance of the Mets to exceed the Luxury Tax threshold this year. Among other things, the Mets have to decide on extending Lindor, Conforto, and Syndergaard must deal with the return of Robinson Cano's $20 million price tag next year, and have to fill holes left by players they don't extend. Their younger players will be a year more expensive, too. I can't help looking at the $17.7 million for those two setup men, however, and not wish that it could be better allocated this year. But that's the breaks.

The deeper question for me, and one I'm trying to learn more about, is why the Mets fare so poorly in developing more cheap bullpen options from their own system. Say what you want about Familia (in his initial time with the Mets) and Gsellman, but both represented to a degree rare successes for the Mets in getting some bullpen value from within the organization. They might not have felt the need to spend so much on Familia 2.0 and Betances had they some decent internal options.

It's not cheap to build a good MLB bullpen when you have to pay veteran relievers developed by other organizations to pitch for you. And it's a given, at least to some extent, large market clubs like the Mets are always going to be willing to spend to bring in some top-notch relief help. Still, imagine if they can find a way to emulate teams like the Rays and find some value options for middle relief and supplement it with some spending on top-tier talent. The savings realized by that could be used in other areas. One of my hopes for the new regime is that they can make that dream a reality.
Okay, I'm out for today. Please be well, stay safe and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos


  1. Relief pitchers and bullpens are very hard to predict. There seem a lot more lightning flashes that are great for a year or two than there are sustained careers. I mean is Liam Hendriks the next coming of Mariano Rivera or is he today's wonder pitcher that figured out a couple things at age 30 and had a couple good years?

    I keep thinking about the bullpen Colorado built a couple years ago when they brought in Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee. It was a lights out, shut-em-down staff that threw to a 4.13, 5.93, and 6.49 ERA, respectively, all with over 60 games.

    I think the ChiSox will regret that signing of Hendriks, and I hope the Mets do not overspend for Hand.

    Another thought I have about relievers is how they are used. Are they set up for success or set up for failure? I may have stated this before (I think I did a version of it on a post somewhere earlier this offseason), but take Familia for example. It just seems like he is much more inclined to give up a walk if he is brought in in the middle of an inning that already has some issues going on. I think he was most effective when he started an inning and he had a little pressure to protect the lead (save situation). It seems like he didn't have the same concentration when he was brought on with a big (4+ run) lead, or even if they were down a couple runs. Someday I may try to disect or do a deep dive into his stats from his good and poor years.

    The other thing I don't understand is the whole development and promotion of players. It seems that players need to be named Jared Kelenec to be thought worthy to have a major league spot. Why not fill the back end of the bullpen with a Drew Smith or Daniel Zamora and use them in a way that will allow them to succeed? That is probably stating things that are not easy, but how do we fans know that buying a Brad Hand for $10M per year is better than letting Zamora develop for $0.6M per year?

    Tampa is a very interesting case study here. They have a full pen of pitchers I had never heard of. Were they all #1 draft picks? I doubt it. I suspect they gave them a role and allowed them to succeed.

    But yea, having a good bullpen is key to playing deep into October, but it is also a crapshoot to build one. The big name this year (Bryan Shaw?) may be pedestrian next. But maybe not (Josh Hader).
    A lot of guys seem to just show up as great one year rather than be developed (Hendriks).

    Enough for now ..

  2. Well, I think the biggest problem with Colorado's bullpen was pitching in that ballpark. I think a guy having a track record of success in the bullpen matters. It's a hard job, coming into a game with little margin for error. You have to be able to come in and throw QUALITY strikes. I wonder sometimes if a different philosophy of developing relievers isn't called for, at least for the Mets.

    Great comment

  3. Yes, I agree with you that it is a difficult job that not everyone can do effectively and that track record does matter. That is why I am not particularly worried about Diaz. I truly believe he will end up as one of the better ones for his career.

    The issue I have is the predictability. Familia had a pretty good track record through his first years with the Mets and the half year with the A's. While he never had the pinpoint control you might want, that aspect seems to have disappeared. Perhaps the bullpen was affected more by Ramos than even the starters? (Before we get into the season, I'm going to just blame all pitching woes on Ramos :-).

    There is an interesting intersection between your point of a different philosphy of developing pitchers and my thought on how much a catcher affects the pitching. The catcher's focus is on game plan, working with the starters to develop the best strategy for attacking today's game. Maybe that different philosophy involves developing 'relief catchers' that work very closely with the bullpen staff and actually come in as defensive replacements when the pen is called upon??
    Just a little out of the box rambling.


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