Thursday, May 18, 2023

Man The Lifeboats, Part 3

We continue our search for hope that the Mets can turn their season around with a look at the bullpen.

The New York Mets have just won their series against the Rays by taking the rubber game this afternoon. It was difficult to see that coming after the team had struggled so mightily for weeks. It would have been so easy for them to let down this afternoon after winning an improbable victory last night that was easily the signature game of the season up to this point. But Tylor Megill had his best performance of 2023, and the team did just enough to take it to the finish line. Although I hesitate to place too much importance on very small sample sizes, it's fair to say the success of the last two days gives the Mets something on which to build and work themselves back into the playoff chase.

Over the past couple of posts, we took a deep dive into the Mets' starting pitching and position players. I hoped the kids would help pull the club out of the doldrums. That was the case last night, and that's a great sign. One note of worry, however. Are the Mets really considering sending Francisco Álvarez back down in order to promote Gary Sánchez? I know the kid isn't setting things on fire currently, but the offense he has provided, slashing .218/.274/.423 through last night's win, is probably about what you could expect from Sánchez. Since 2018, his batting line is .202/.295/.427. That's a significant track record. Álvarez is still adjusting to the majors but is already providing what Sánchez's history tells us to expect. Francisco has upside. I know I don't have a vote here but, if I did, it would be to bid a fond farewell to Gary Sánchez. The Mets could defer this decision until Tomás Nido completes a rehab assignment, but that doesn't kick the can very far down the road.

Speaking of Nido, I thought the whole dry eye deal with Tomás was a phantom IL issue to take the struggling catcher out of the spotlight for a while. But, as reported yesterday, Nido's problems with his eyesight are real. I'm still skeptical of Tomás Nido ever being a productive hitter, even for a catcher, based on his track record. But that certainly won't happen if he can't see the ball. I hope this works out for him, as I do like the guy.

Anyway, today we'll move on to the bullpen. I doubt if it will require as many words as the starters and position players did. The bullpen hasn't been perfect. As my friend Mack Ade at Mack's Mets notes, the middle relief has been a weakness of the team so far, mostly because they have been overexposed due to the failure of the starters. Although the back-end crew of David RobertsonAdam Ottavino, and Drew Smith hasn't been perfect (including last night), they've been perfectly adequate. Brooks Raley has had some hiccups, but they mostly seem to be due to elbow inflammation, which landed the lefty on the IL for a time.

Unfortunately, what looked like a deep group before Edwin Díaz went down for the season is much less so without the closer. Robertson, Ottavino, and Smith have all been moved up to higher-leverage situations, necessitating the elevation of others by necessity rather than merit. And that's where things have been less than ideal.

The Mets gambled on John Curtiss by signing him to a contract last year when they knew he would miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. For a while this spring, it looked like the now-healthy Curtiss would step up and provide the Mets with some important innings. But Curtiss struggled with his command and was hit pretty hard. He is now in Syracuse trying to figure things out. He could really help the Mets if he can. John was an effective reliever in 2020 and 2021. Curtiss could provide the Mets with some important depth if he could return to form. Unfortunately, John is struggling in Triple-A currently, so any return is certainly not imminent.

Jeff Brigham has been a pleasant surprise for the Mets this season. Obtained from the Marlins in a trade, Brigham has been one of the better middle-relief options for Buck Showalter. The 31-year-old righty has no track record of success in the majors and did not even break camp with the Mets at the start of the season. If he could sustain this early success he would be a victory for the coaching staff and a positive sign that the Mets could, at least in a small way, emulate the success of clubs like the Rays, Dodgers, and Astros in creating bullpen pieces from other team's castoffs. This would bode well for them in the future as I believe this skill is a key thing that separates good organizations from the rest. On the other hand, Brigham might turn back into a pumpkin. In that case, never mind.

A pitcher who I believed might be part of the solution is Stephen Nogosek, who gave the Mets some quality innings last season. This year, he's been part of the problem Mack identified. Nogosek has allowed runs in his last 4 outings and 6 of his 8 relief stints this season. Frankly, I'm surprised the Mets haven't sent him back down yet. If Stephen Nogosek could return to being the effective pitcher he was last year, he could really help this club and justify the faith they are apparently placing in the young right-hander by keeping him in New York.

Veteran Tommy Hunter has also been more of a "pouring gas on the fire" type this season. He's allowed runs in 4 of his 9 outings this year. More troubling, when Hunter has given up runs, he's been quite generous to opposing lineups. He allowed 5 runs in 2 innings to the Brewers, 3 runs (2 earned) to the Nats in 1.1 innings, 3 to Colorado in 2.2 innings, and 4 to the Nats again in 3 innings. Hopes that Tommy Hunter could help out with some late-inning work have faded fast. Now I wonder how much longer he will be here.

Jimmy Yacabonis, currently on the IL, has looked good in an occasional outing, only to get torched the next time out. If he winds up back with the Mets this season, Yacabonis simply has to find some consistency to earn any sort of role with the club.

I'm not going to go through everyone who has thrown relief innings for the Mets this year unless I think they could help. Lefty Josh Walker, just called up, impressed folks who watched him in the minors. He's had one scoreless appearance against the Rays but did walk 2 batters. We'll see if Walker can settle in and contribute.

The Mets have hopes for righty Stephen Ridings, taken on waivers from the Yankees last winter. Ridings is currently on the 60-day IL, eligible to return on May 29, but unlikely to pitch for the Mets that soon. He's reportedly got a great arm. Personally, I can't get too excited about him unless he's back pitching in minor league games and getting batters out.

Sam Coonrod had a nice spring for the Mets. The veteran pitcher was part of a nice "finally healthy" story until he wasn't. He's also on the 60-day IL with a "high-grade lat strain." As with Ridings, unless Conrood makes it back to pitching in minor league games and looks effective, I can't get too excited about the guy.

At least Ridings and Coonrod have a chance to help the Mets in 2023. Bryce Montes de Oca, the "Wild Thing" righty with a high-90s sinker that moves like a whiffle ball will miss the whole year after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. It will be a surprise if Montes de Oca can return from that and be effective at some point in the future.

My belief is that the Mets' best hope for deepening the bullpen from what they currently have is for Jeff Brigham to keep pitching effectively and for Stephen Nogosek and John Curtiss to right their respective ships. As I've said, I'm avoiding placing hope in guys currently on the IL. Tommy Hunter simply doesn't look like he's ready to turn things around, he looks more like he may be at the end of the line. Maybe Josh Walker can show us something, but that certainly remains to be seen.

A couple of guys in Syracuse to keep an eye on are righty Grant Hartwig and southpaw Nathan Lavender, neither of who is currently on the 40-man roster, but both have enjoyed some success and created some buzz in the minors. Hartwig, who pitched himself into the prospect picture across multiple levels last season, is struggling in Syracuse thus far. Lavender has been good in a small sample size, earning a quick promotion from Binghamton to Syracuse.

Most likely the Mets will be in the market for at least one more reliever at the deadline, provided they are still in contention. Meanwhile, the club has to cross its fingers that their top relievers stay healthy all season. Unless someone else pitches their way into the picture, they really can't afford to lose anyone else.

We'll finish this piece next time with a look at the front office and an overall summation. Do I believe the Mets can turn this thing around? I do, but it wouldn't hurt for the team to enjoy some good luck after all of the bad luck that began with the loss of Edwin Díaz in the WBC. Sometimes luck evens out over the course of the season, sometimes not. You never know how a season is going to turn out, but I do believe some folks have been a bit quick in writing this club off.

Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

Part 3 of Man the Lifeboats, the Bullpen (This Post)

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