Monday, June 27, 2022

Decisions, Decisions: Relief Pitchers

We're looking at some tough decisions the Mets front office will need to make after this season. Today we discuss the bullpen arms.

The New York Mets are in the midst of a special season after years of frustration. I'm very much looking forward to watching my team finally take part in the playoffs come October. But I'm also intrigued by the impending free agency of many important players and what that might mean to the Mets going forward. In part one of this series, we looked at the starting pitchers. Now we'll turn our focus to the bullpen, where the Mets must decide how much they're willing to pay to retain some key contributors.

Relievers are an inherently volatile bunch. It's become an accepted truism in baseball that intelligent, well-run teams don't build their bullpens by paying large salaries to established relievers. All too often, these pitchers get hurt or struggle to justify their contracts. Meanwhile, thriftier clubs often find valuable pieces for their bullpen by taking pitchers discarded by other organizations and making changes to unlock their potential. They also take promising arms in their minor league system and successfully groom them for relief roles.

On the other hand, teams willing to spend a few bucks often prefer to have a more experienced closer and some late-game options. For instance, the Dodgers allowed Kenley Jansen to walk away when his price tag got too high but then traded for Craig Kimbrel before the season started. The 34-year-old Kimbrel has alternated success with some massive struggles in recent years. He's been up and down in 2022, but LA is still keeping him in a closer role.

The Mets know something about having a closer struggle. Edwin Díaz has been quite good for the Mets this season but has gone through some tough times since coming over in the Robinson Canó deal in 2019. Edwin heard some boos from time to time, but the fans are really embracing him in 2022. He's rewarded them with some dominating appearances, such as striking out Bryce HarperNick Castellanos, and J.T. Realmuto to finish the Mets' combined no-hitter against the Phillies. Díaz has endured a couple of rough patches this year as any closer does, but he's been excellent. That makes his impending free agency after the season a focal point once the season concludes.

As we did with our piece on the rotation, let's look at which relievers are free agents at the end of the season and which remain under contract. I'll try to be reasonably comprehensive:

Relief Pitching
Free Agents
Returning
The Mets have a huge decision to make regarding whether they will retain Edwin Díaz, who has firmly established himself as one of the top closers in the game. Díaz will pitch next season at age 29, which makes him fairly young for a free agent. He's making $10.2 million in salary in his last year of club control.

The Braves are paying 34-year-old Kenley Jansen $16 million on a 1-year deal. The Dodgers are paying the same to Craig Kimbrel, also 34, in the last year of his contract. Josh Hader, under club control through next season, is making $11 million this year. I suspect it will take a multi-year contract for more than the $16 million annual value that Jansen and Kimbrel are making. How much more depends on which clubs the Mets wind up bidding against. It wouldn't even shock me if the Dodgers didn't take a shot.

It seems to me that the Mets will probably have to decide which two they wish to retain of the three prime free agents: Jacob deGrom, Díaz, and Brandon Nimmo. Whatever they choose to do with all of their other free agent starting pitchers will also factor into the equation. Unless Edwin Díaz pulls a full Armando Benítez-type flop in the playoffs, I don't see how the Mets can let him go. But it's anyone's guess what it might cost to keep him in years and dollars.

It gets a lot easier with the rest of the free agent relievers. Seth Lugo just isn't the invaluable pitcher he was for the Mets in 2018 and 2019. He'll turn 33 before the next season starts. Lugo made just under $4 million this year, and I don't think I would choose to bring him back next year for that price tag. Conceivably he'll find someone willing to pay more. If so, I respectfully hope the Mets pass.

I genuinely get a kick out of Trevor May as a person, and he did respectable work for the Mets last year. But he pitched like a solid 7th inning guy rather than the lock-down 8th inning pitcher the Mets paid $7.75 million per year for two years. Plus, he'll turn 33 in September. I certainly wouldn't want them to pay Trevor May anything like that for 2023, but I wouldn't be against them paying something like $4 million for one year, provided he returns healthy this season.

Adam Ottavino, despite some bad performances, has been all the Mets could hope for this season for $4 million. But we'll have to see if he can sustain his current numbers throughout the entire season. If he does, he may be worth bringing back, even though he will pitch next year at age 37.

I already wrote about Trevor Williams in my post on the starting pitchers. I think they should only retain him if they can pay him as a long man/occasional starter. He's making $3.9 million this year, and I wouldn't pay him much more than that to keep him. I expect another club to sign Williams as a back-end starter, and the Mets will have to find a new long man next year.

Tommy Hunter turns 36 on July 3. If he pitches well for the Mets this season and escapes injury, maybe the Mets will try to sign Hunter for another year at a bit higher than the $700 K he's making this year. I don't expect that to happen, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Chasen Shreve has been effective for short stretches. However, he has been unable to sustain that effectiveness. I'm not sure that Shreve survives the season with how he's struggling. Even if he does, the $1.5 million the Mets are paying Chasen, while not excessive, seems like cash better spent elsewhere.

The Mets' real hope for the future lies with the names in the "returning" column. Not all of them, of course, but Drew Smith, Colin Holderman, and perhaps even Stephen Nogosek provide the nucleus of a solid home-grown bullpen. Smith might even vie for the closer role if Edwin Díaz departs.

John Curtiss was an astute signing of a solid reliever who will miss this season with Tommy John surgery but can conceivably help the Mets in 2023.

Michel Otañez and Bryce Montes de Oca are a pair of young flame throwers in Triple-A who could help the Mets bullpen next year — if they can find their control at the minors' highest level. Other young arms will likely pitch their way into consideration going forward.

If the Mets do things right, the ideal future bullpen will likely consist of 2 or 3 veterans making more money combined with a sprinkling of home-grown talent filling other roles. Particularly as the payroll costs rise in other areas, the Mets must hold things down a bit in the bullpen, where giving larger contracts to veteran relievers often doesn't pay off in performance, anyway.

We'll finish up looking at the future next time with a post on the position players. Until then, please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

Decisions, Decisions:
Part 2, Relief Pitchers (This Post)


Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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