Monday, February 15, 2021

Are the Mets Signaling a New Bullpen Strategy?

Once the news broke about Seth Lugo's elbow surgery, it seemed like bringing LHP Justin Wilson back into the fold would be a no-brainer. Wilson has been an effective pitcher for the Mets, showing an ability to handle a late-inning role. Assuming a contract in the range of the $5 million per year Wilson was paid the previous two seasons, that money shouldn't have been prohibitive for a post-Wilpon Mets club. Yet, from multiple sources, it's the Yankees who are close to a deal with Wilson. While it's undeniably the prerogative of any front office to place a value on any player that they're looking at acquiring, it's a real head-shaker to me that the Mets aren't pursuing Wilson with more vigor.

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 by 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.

Finally, you get to the large group of candidates who constitute "the rest." Montgomery and Hunter fall into that group. Based on his track record, Robert Gsellman deserves mention. He's had occasional success, throws fairly hard, and still has minor league options left. He's always looked like someone who could contribute if he could just figure it out.

Other guys on the 40-man who will compete for spots are Franklyn Kilome, Thomas Szapucki, Jordan Yamamoto, Jacob BarnesYennsy DiazSean Reid-FoleyDrew SmithStephen Tarpley, and Daniel Zamora. Neither Kilome nor Barnes has minor league options remaining, so they'll have to make the opening day roster and pitch well enough to stay there all season. Szapucki and Yamamoto are likely to be minor league starting pitching depth. Diaz and Reid-Foley came over from the Blue Jays, and I'm looking forward to getting my first look at them in camp. Smith came over from the Rays in the Lucas Duda trade and looks like nothing more than deep depth. Tarpley and Zamora will both compete for the second lefty spot that I hoped Wilson might get.

Besides Montgomery and Hunter, some other non-roster invitees who are candidates for the bullpen are Jerry BlevinsJerad EickhoffArodys Vizcaino, and Trevor Hildenberger. Blevens is 37, but he never relied on velocity and enjoyed a successful few years with the Mets. Eickhoff is likely to be starting pitching depth, but the bullpen would also seem to be a possibility for a guy who wasn't able to stay healthy as a starter. Vizcaino is kind of interesting. He was good at times with the Braves and has good stuff but struggles with control. If you're looking for a potential turn-around candidate, that's certainly a possibility. Hildenberger had a solid relief season for the Twins before seemingly regressing the last two years. Don't overlook Hunter; if he can stay healthy, he can contribute.

Update 2/16/21: I had it in my notes, but forgot to mention, that the Mets were able to sign Vizcaino to a minor league deal because of shoulder injuries and shoulder surgery that derailed his career. That was an important omission that factors into his chances of contributing to this team. My apologies.

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


  1. It's kind of hard to differentiate the "wait and see what's left on the scrap heap approach" reminiscent of Sandy Alderson with the "buy what you need but don't overpay just to say you did" which is more of a Cohen trait.

    Of course, between both of these two extremes is the reality. To be fair to both of the aforementioned front office ends of the schism is the unforeseen injury to Seth Lugo and the ill-conceived release of Brad Brach. Now, when they need a reliever most they find themselves short not just one but two. Of the choices you mentioned, I'm more willing to see what Yamamoto and a few others may have without depending on the proven mediocrity of the last two MiLB deals.

    It would make sense for the Mets to explore bullpen possibilities across all fronts, including free agency and trades. It's also not insane for the Mets to pick up a guy with closer experience like Rosenthal and then dangle Diaz in trade to another club since they now are unlikely to be able to get someone else to take the salaries of Betances and Familia off their hands.

  2. I wrote up a small essay related to a new bullpen strategy which I hope to see soon on the Mack's Mets site. I will repost it here:

    Another idea: More Relief for the Bullpen

    We have all been talking about the Mets big requirement for adding another proven relief pitcher. Now, with most of them, including it seems Justin Wilson, off the board, perhaps it is time to take a different path and try something a little more revolutionary.

    There have been a lot of changes to the game in recent years. In one of the more recent ones, Tampa started the 'Opener' craze by throwing a bullpen guy out there to start the game and throw to the first few batters. That is one way.

    Another idea is to create the 'relief catcher'.

    While there have always been backup catchers, they have been just that - backups. Many were defensive specialists, even though that is not the way they were used. Many did not get a ton of playing time, and if they did, the fans cringed.

    My concept is to use a catcher exclusively for the relief pitchers and to come into the game around the same time - the seventh or eighth inning, and earlier if necessary.

    A couple explanations: I am a huge believer in pitcher-catcher relationships and truly believe that is one of the issues of the 2020 Mets downfall. Wilson Ramos got a lot of wrong-side press for his handling of the pitchers.

    In the thought, the starting catcher would be doing the things he has always done - work with the starting pitcher to plan the attack of the day. He would work with the starters to learn their pitches, review the opposing line-ups, etc.

    The Relief Catcher would do the same thing with the bullpen staff - develop those relationships, really understand the pitches they throw and how they like to throw them. While he would still understand the daily opposition, he would not learn the intricacies of the starters, but really get to know the relievers. He would be like an extra bullpen coach with continuity into games. With this, they would be on the same page more often and would most likely make everybody a half WAR better.

    He would then spell the starter as a double switch when the relief pitcher comes in.

    This would cut down on the total innings of the starting catchers - they need days off , but would need less if they played only two thirds of every game.

    The roster would need to look a little different as you would probably need to carry a third catcher or at least an 'emergency' one who may be another bench player. And the relief catcher would need to have at least a passable bat, as he would get an at bat or two in many games.

    Who are those guys? Maybe this is the perfect role for Tomas Nido? At this point in the off-season, the well is pretty dry, but Matt Wieters or Tyler Flowers may be had to fill that role.

    Worth a thought or really dumb idea? Would love to hear comments on this.

    1. It's an interesting idea, but it would force you to have 3 catchers on the roster. I don't think it's a dumb idea at all.

    2. Thanks. I am not sure you would need to carry three 'real' catchers, but one utility bench guy that can serve as a true backup. The need would really only be if your 'relief catcher' got hurt and had to come out in the last couple innings. Use the IL liberally for the catchers if they get banged a little and call a guy up for a week or so. If your relief catcher has to start a game or two, fine.

      Not that I ever want to see it, but I know Dom Smith has messed around a bit with the catcher's gear and there may be others as well. It seems there used to be more of those type players in years past.

    3. Not a dumb idea at all. However, you could be sacrificing the offense of your #1 catcher in the 5th or 6th inning (sometimes even earlier) when you might need his bat later in the game.

    4. Yea, I thought of that, and that assumes the relief catcher is a lesser hitter, which is probably a good assumption.

      Is that any worse than having your backup start and play entire games every 4 or 5 days? In this scheme, your starter would actually be starting more games and limit his innings by shorter games.

      My second thought is if he were replaced in the 5th inning or before, the game is either going very poorly already or going very well. Perhaps those games are the good ones to give him a little longer break. And I wouldn't rule out the starter staying in there for another at-bat or two if a pitching change is made early and his 'ups' are coming in the next inning. There would be a bit of flexibility built in for different game scenarios.

      Just thoughts. . Not a well developed plan to take to Sandy yet . . :-)

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  4. Reese, I'm not at all sure that I would feel more comfortable with Rosenthal as closer than I am with Diaz. As much of a wildcard as he is, he's also got a chance to be good. I'm more comfortable with depth behind him, FWII

    1. Agree. Diaz is my closer until proven otherwise.


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