Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Bullpen Is Still a Work in Progress

There's been much discussion in the local media about some of the Mets' relievers this spring. This isn't surprising, as the bullpen is probably the biggest question mark for the club in the early going. The questions run from closer Edwin Díaz on down, but one of the biggest questions is certainly who will be the most frequently used late-inning setup men. Only Trevor May and Aaron Loup look like locks for those jobs currently, while many other candidates jockey for the other slots.

I always do my best not to read too much into spring appearances. For instance, trying to gauge Dellin Betances based on where his velocity is in early March seems to me to be a bit of a fool's game. We're more likely to judge his performance based on our own expectations for the guy than anything else. Those who expect little from the man will point to the runs he allowed. Those who still have hope will note that his early spring velocity is ahead of where he was last spring. I'm in the middle on Betances' chances. Shoulder injuries are tough for power pitchers to recover from, but the work he's been doing with the sophisticated analysis tools available today shows promise.

I wouldn't bet my life savings on Betances regaining the form he displayed in his heyday with the Yankees, but the tall righty becoming a useful piece in the bullpen seems at least a possibility right now. That didn't even seem within reach at the end of last season.

Jeurys Familia, Delin's even more highly-paid partner in bullpen infamy, might be another story. Throwing strikes has always been a challenge for the man. There's no denying his stuff, which is still nasty at age 31, but his inability to consistently throw strikes has become a huge problem. He's averaged more than 6BB/9IP over the last couple of years, and a repeat of that in 2021 is likely to punch a ticket out of town for Jeurys.

Pitching coach Jeremy Hefner is basically on a one-year probation this season. If he can somehow get through to Familia and figure out something to get the former effective closer in the strike zone more consistently, that would be a huge achievement in favor of his job security. I know that I'd be impressed. If he could somehow help both Familia and Betances to become viable late-inning relievers again, they should probably hand him a contract extension on the spot.

What worries me most about Familia is that he reminds me an awful lot of Doug Sisk, a right-handed reliever for the Mets in the 80s. Like Familia, Sisk had a sinker that had ridiculous movement when it was right. Also, like Familia, Sisk could be breezing along one moment, you'd blink once, and he's lost the strike zone and walked the bases loaded. The fans turned on Sisk in a manner much like they're turning on Familia now. As more fans come to the park this season, there will be little patience if Jeurys continues to issue free passes.

While admittedly, it's hard for me to picture this ending well. I can't help rooting for Familia. I have a soft spot for relief pitchers who compete even when they don't have their best stuff, and things aren't going their way. It's a holdover from watching the extremely-talented Armando Benítez lose a big game in his eyes before he lost it on the field. Familia has always competed hard but, unless he and Hefner can find some magic, I don't see Jeurys surviving in the Mets' bullpen for a full season.

Whether you root for Familia or want to buy him that ticket out of town and drive him to the airport yourself, one thing I think we can all agree on with both Familia and Betances is that we don't want to see them given endless opportunities if their performance doesn't warrant it.

As the Mets continue to evolve as an organization under Steve Cohen, it is heartening to see overdue and welcome changes such as infrastructure upgrades, attention to the entire roster and the depth right below it, and emphasizing scouting and development. As important as all of these things are, one more change that I'm eager to see is the club abandoning its long tradition of stubbornly sticking too long with players who are costing the team wins, particularly if they receive a large paycheck.

Organizations that are serious about competing year in and year out — as the Mets purport to be — have to be willing to cut bait on their mistakes. I'm rooting for Familia and Betances to compete for Comeback Player of the Year with their shockingly good performances. But if either or both look like last year's version, please send them packing and bring on the next man in line.

Speaking of the other candidates, Sam McWilliams has looked interesting in the two times that I've had the opportunity to watch him pitch but he is decidedly not ready for prime time. In his last outing against the Cardinals, McWilliams walked the bases loaded with no outs but then got himself out of the jam by sandwiching a couple of popouts around a strikeout. He went to 3-ball counts on his first two outs of the inning, so the flirting-with-disaster vibe was there even as he was digging himself out of trouble.

I don't know if the kid is trying too hard, or perhaps he still has some work to do on his delivery. Either way, if McWilliams continues to struggle to throw strikes, I hope that he doesn't break camp with the big club. There's no need to "justify" giving him a Major League contract by keeping him on the 26-man roster. If you remember McWilliams' story, he made some big changes to his game at the Rays' alternate site. He does look promising beyond the control problems but perhaps needs some minor league game experience with his new approach to fine-tune things. It might even benefit him to start some games in Triple-A for maximum reps, even if the Mets still view him as a reliever in the majors.

Edwin Díaz continues to impress in camp. Barring something disastrous, he seems like a pretty sure thing to at least begin the season in the closer role. Did I mention previously that I never trust a Mets closer completely? I'm on familiar ground with Mr. Díaz. I'll continue to pinch myself five minutes after every game that he successfully saves to make sure that I'm not dreaming.

However, I will add that I would rather sweat out saves with a closer who possesses great stuff rather than one with more pedestrian offerings. I'd be quite anxious right now if Díaz was struggling like Familia this spring. Still, me actually feeling good about my team's closer? It's just not in the DNA.

When I saw the list of players the Mets reassigned to the Minor League camp, I was somewhat surprised to see Trevor Hildenberger on the list. He's looked good so far and has enjoyed positive results in the games he's pitched. I didn't by any means see Hildenberger as a lock for the Opening Day 'pen, but I thought he should certainly be in the mix.  The big thing with Hildenberger is that he'd need to be added to the 40-man roster to bring him up, which means someone already there would have to go.

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that it was silly to view the Opening Day bullpen as some sort of finished product. Any reliever such as Hildenberger who shows promise in getting outs will have an opportunity to pitch for the Mets this season. Hildenberger could be assigned to Triple-A without passing him through waivers. This gives the team a bit more time to decide if they want to keep Jacob Barnes, who would have to be waived if he doesn't remain on the active roster.
Barnes was a solid reliever with the Brewers from 2016-2018. He hasn't been good the last couple of seasons, but I guess the thinking is that he's only 31 and might have something left. While I understand spring training results should be taken with a grain of salt, Barnes hasn't pitched well. The one time I saw him, I didn't see anything special.

On the other hand, Miguel Castro looked pretty good. He's a guy who throws really hard and looks like he has a clue. As for so many other relievers with great arms, the question for him is can he throw strikes? He could easily fit into the late-inning mix if he can hold the walks down.

If the Mets start the season with an 8-man bullpen, Edwin Díaz, Trevor May, and Aaron Loup would be the absolute locks. I'm going to assume that Betances and Familia are also part of the mix unless one gets hurt or really looks terrible. For the three remaining spots, I think Miguel Castro, Barnes, and either Stephen Tarpley or Daniel Zamora are the most likely to take them. If they go nine deep in the 'pen for a while, it wouldn't surprise me if Robert Gsellman made it. He could pitch multiple innings and has minor league options left, leaving the Mets with some flexibility.

There's a reasonable amount of depth behind these players. Some, like Gsellman, have minor league options and will allow the Mets to shuttle fresh arms back and forth off the active roster. Others, like Hildenberger, Tommy Hunter, Mike Montgomery, Jerry Blevins, and Arodys Vizcaíno, will require a 40-man roster spot to come up. It's going to be a bit tricky to manage all of this. After watching Brody Van Wagenen struggle with this in the short 60-game season last year, I look forward to seeing much more competence in handling the roster in 2021.

Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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