I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable fan, but I avoid demanding that the club make every move I'd like to see happen, such as signing Wilson. I thought the Mets did a decent job over the weekend bringing in Mike Montgomery and Tommy Hunter on minor league contracts. Both of these moves have a chance to work, but there's a reason that both pitchers were willing to sign minor league deals. Montgomery offers the Mets the options of either starting or relieving but has pitched to an ERA of close to 5 the last two seasons. Hunter has a better record as a reliever but has only been able to pitch a combined 30 innings over the past two seasons. His last employer was the Phillies, and it's telling that despite all of their bullpen woes, they didn't seem to try very hard to retain the veteran righty. These were great depth signings, but they have as much chance of not working out as they do of being successful.
If I was going to make an argument for why the Mets didn't sign Wilson and haven't pursued some of the more prominent names that were out there for bullpen help, I would say that the Mets are trying to get away from building an expensive bullpen out of veterans with a track record. Instead, they are following the trend of teams like the Rays, who seek to create value from grooming less expensive candidates. I would certainly favor that approach, but I'm a bit leery about them doing it this year, given their non-existent track record of doing this in the past. This is probably a bit unfair on my part. If it's going to happen, it's got to start somewhere. Still, if they attempt to build a 'pen from cheaper parts and are unsuccessful, it's likely to harm their chances of competing and possibly derail the season.
Now, I have to add that I am not privy to the Mets front office's inner workings. I have no knowledge of exactly why they're not pursuing Wilson harder or why some of the bigger names were signed by other clubs. I could only infer based on common sense and the facts at hand what the Mets are doing. If the Wilpons were still in charge, I would strongly suspect the Mets were just being cheap. Some fans reflect their disappointment in losing out on Brad Hand, George Springer, and Trevor Bauer by hurling this accusation at Steve Cohen, but I don't see it that way. He's certainly spent some money this offseason, even if we didn't get everything we could hope for.
On the other hand, I'm not an apologist for Cohen, Alderson, or anyone else connected with the Mets. I'll judge them on their results. If the failure to sign Wilson, Trevor Rosenthal, or any of the other "name" relievers out there is reflective of a pre-planned, thought-out strategy, then I'm willing to give it a chance to play out. It would be silly not to, as I myself have expressed a desire for the Mets to change their ways in constructing bullpens. The obvious caveat here would be that it had better work. Building an ineffective bullpen out of cheaper parts is no more laudable than failing at it with higher-profile busts. If the primary goal is building and sustaining a winner, constructing an effective bullpen is a must, no matter how they do it.
We'll be able to start watching this all play out for real in a couple of days when pitchers report to camp. While trades or signings are still possible, here's how things stand right now:
- Edwin Díaz certainly gets the first crack at being a closer. He certainly has the stuff for the job, but the questions won't go away until he proves he can do it with pressure on and fans in the stands.
- Trevor May still ranks as the Mets most significant bullpen addition and the likeliest option to be the primary setup man. In today's game, however, no team can get by without multiple setup relievers.
- Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances may very well be traded in the next few days. However, if they stick around, they're both young enough and have the track record of previous success to legitimately dream on them bouncing back and shoring up the late-inning relief. Familia, when he's right, has a ball that moves like a freaking whiffle ball. He needs to throw it over the plate more often. Betances, if he rediscovers some velocity, can still dominate. Both guys are iffy, but both are pitching for contracts again. Maybe at least one of them can earn some of the big bucks they're making.
- Righty Miguel Castro and lefty Aaron Loup are the two veterans with a track record of some success. Castro has great stuff but has walked almost 5 batters per nine innings in his career. He's only 25. Turning a pitcher like that into a more effective reliever is how good teams make good bullpens without breaking the bank. Loup is a reliable lefty who can at least hold his own against right-handed hitters.
- Sam McWilliams is an intriguing addition to the bullpen. I've written about him previously. He is projected to be a multi-inning reliever. With Seth Lugo out for at least the beginning of the season, McWilliams being able to pitch successfully in that role would be huge for the Mets. Going forward, guys who can give their club more than an inning at a time are going to become at least as valuable as decent closers. Back when starting pitchers would go 6 or 7 innings, those 1-and-done relievers made a lot more sense than now, when teams are often looking for 4 or even more innings from their bullpen.
As I'm writing this, the Mets are still rumored to be in pursuit of Trevor Rosenthal. We'll see how that goes. Also, the above list makes no attempt to be comprehensive. There are other candidates for bullpen spots, including some of the Mets' current minor leaguers. If they sign Rosenthal or any other free agent relievers with a track record, you'll hear no complaints from me. But I'm also interested in watching the results of their strategy during camp and into the regular season. What absolutely can't happen is Mets fans being subjected to a bullpen that struggles to hold leads. Whatever approach the Mets employ, they simply must make it work.
I think I'm with most Mets fans out there who would like to see nothing more than a dominating bullpen that rarely coughs up a lead. But that really is just a fantasy. Most bullpens, even good ones, are a work in progress that incorporates a well-thought-out process that includes acquiring players, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, effective coaching, and deploying them correctly. I don't know how all of that will come together for the 2021 Mets, but I'm looking forward to seeing it play out.
Please stay safe, be well, and take care.
Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos