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The Mets are building...something(?) in the bullpen

Suspension, injuries, and regression tanked the performance of the Mets bullpen. What are they doing to avoid a similar mess next season?

MLB: Game One-New York Mets at Washington Nationals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What happens to your baseball team when it begins a season lacking quality pitching depth in the minor leagues? Well, it probably looks a lot like the 2017 New York Mets. Back in the spring, the idea that the Mets may have lacked in pitching depth was mostly scoffed at. They had seven starting pitchers, after all! But 5 months and over 700 runs allowed later, it might be worth revisiting this issue: the Mets pitching depth was not as good as many assumed.

While all of the injuries and struggles to the starting pitchers has taken on an almost tragic feel, the bullpen has just been plain bad for most of the year. That wasn’t the case last season when, by every measure, the Mets’ relief corps was a strength. As a unit, they finished 6th in the majors with a 3.53 ERA and fared similarly by FIP at 3.54. The pen was a big reason why the Mets hung around the fringes of the playoff race and eventually made a push into a Wild Card spot and they even received a nice shot in the arm with the August acquisition of Fernando Salas from the Angels. So how did it go from major strength to major weakness in the span of a season?

To start, much of the Mets’ best relief work last season came from the foursome of Jeurys Familia, Addison Reed, Jerry Blevins, and Hansel Robles, who combined to appear in 299 games and totaled 275 innings with a 2.68 ERA. All Mets relievers last season appeared in 538 games and threw 525 innings, meaning that that quartet accounted for more than half of the Mets bullpen’s appearances and innings. This phenomenon isn’t uncommon (a quick look around the league shows similar patterns of usage) but it becomes a big issue when those pitchers suddenly aren’t available or regress and you have nobody to replace them in quality.

Thanks to Jeurys Familia’s domestic violence suspension followed by a lengthy absence due to a blood clot, and Hansel Robles’s two-month Vegas vacation, the Mets’ foursome devolved into a duo. Blevins and Reed (before he was traded to Boston) more than held their own but the combined results for the four relievers who were supposed to eat up a huge chunk of quality innings clearly have lacked, leading to those innings having to be thrown by others in the pen.

Mets Four Best Relief Pitchers 2016 vs. 2017

Year Games % of bullpen games Innings Pitched % of bullpen IP ERA FIP Fangraphs WAR BRef WAR
Year Games % of bullpen games Innings Pitched % of bullpen IP ERA FIP Fangraphs WAR BRef WAR
2016 299 56% 275 52% 2.68 2.70 6.6 6.9
2017 163 36% 147 32% 3.43 3.84 1.6 3.4
Sum of innings thrown by Jeurys Familia, Addison Reed, Jerry Blevins, and Hansel Robles in 2016 vs. 2017.

When those innings have to be made up, this means Fernando Salas, owner of a 4.01 ERA from 2012-2016, has to step into the 8th inning (he was disastrous). This means a guy like Josh Edgin, featuring clearly diminished stuff in his return from Tommy John surgery, has to become a key cog in the pen (he was painfully mediocre before getting cut). And this means young pitchers like Paul Sewald (decent rookie year, looks like there’s upside), Josh Smoker (woof), Rafael Montero (nope), and Erik Goeddel (meh) have to grow up fast and step into key roles that they’re likely not equipped for.

The Mets bullpen on Opening Day featured Reed, Blevins, Salas, Robles, Edgin, Smoker, and Montero. The depth behind them at that point in Las Vegas? Basically just Paul Sewald.

That’s it? Okay sure, Goeddel was down in Vegas and he’s had fleeting moments of big league success the past two years interrupted by injuries and home run binges. Chasen Bradford was also there but you wouldn’t have been wrong to question his big league viability given the fact he was beginning his third full season in Triple-A without a promotion to the majors. Kevin McGowan? Another guy with some bullpen upside but who’d thrown all of 1.2 innings at Triple-A in his life prior to Opening Day, so likely not a realistic option early on (the Mets ultimately didn’t promote him until August). Somebody named Ben Rowen was there too and the Mets never called on him despite him being their marquee non-Mets free agent signing last winter.

Given all of the mediocrity inhabiting the bullpen on Opening Day and the lack of depth options in Las Vegas, it’s little surprise they couldn’t overcome Familia’s suspension and subequent injury and Robles’s regression and subsequent demotion. Heck, the Mets were so bereft of bullpen depth they had to run to the scrap heap in May to sign Neil Ramirez, who after getting released by the Giants, tossed 21 awful innings for the Mets before mercifully getting cut in July.

Putting it bluntly, the Mets organization didn’t do their job in the bullpen last winter by just re-signing Blevins and Salas in February and calling it a winter. Underpreparing (cheaping out?) on the roster feels like something of a Mets organization hallmark, one that in this case was only exacerbated by the organization’s lack of major league ready relief arms and penchant for injuries. Preparing for a season acting as if every player is going to stay healthy all year is a fool’s errand and it’s only more negligent when you know all winter that your closer is going to be suspended for some length of time.

With this in mind, enter in the Mets’ return at this year’s trade deadline: they dealt pending free agents Lucas Duda, Addison Reed, Jay Bruce, Neil Walker, and Curtis Granderson for 6 controllable relief pitchers, 1 player to be named later (who likely won’t be named for another month or so), and a mountain of sweet, sweet payroll flexibility (which likely will have little to no effect on payroll next season since baseball team budgets don’t exactly roll over from year to year, but nevertheless).

With full realization that relief prospects often are a toxic combination of risky and unexciting as trade assets to other teams, the Mets appear to have a small wealth of relief options to mix and match with on their roster beginning right now. Over the next month, we should see plenty of new acquisitions Jacob Rhame and Jamie Callahan in the majors. Joining Sewald, Bradford, and McGowan in the majors, Rhame and Callahan appear to be quality, near big league ready arms, an important asset for a contender to have and something the Mets were in dire need of just a few months ago.

Down the chain, Drew Smith has pitched well for Binghamton and could easily start next season in Las Vegas. Gerson Bautista has been lights out in St. Lucie and is a likely 40-man add this winter. Stephen Nogosek and Ryder Ryan are further away but both have big league upside as well (I’ve heard great things about Ryan’s excellent fastball and he’s a converted college infielder still learning how to pitch). These guys join potential relief arms the Mets have developed themselves – Ty Bashlor, Adonis Uceta, and Marcos Molina are all at Double-A, have big league relief upsides, will be on the 40-man roster, and could be ready for the majors at some point in the next year or so. And don’t rule out the likes of Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, and even the new and improved Rafael Montero landing in a bullpen either, if they’re not in the rotation or traded.

With Familia, AJ Ramos, Blevins, and Sewald likely locks for the 2018 roster and all of these relief options hanging around between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors, the Mets have the makings of a deep bullpen. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee a dominant group but it’s a start. This also doesn’t mean they should sit out on adding veteran relievers this winter – on the contrary, they desperately need a quality lefty to complement Blevins and would benefit from adding somebody who can at least throw the 7th inning, pushing Sewald into a middle relief role and allowing the younger guys to acclimate to the majors in lower leverage roles.

But for the first time in a while, the Mets appear to have some interesting young relievers they can call upon. Even if there’s still work to be done this winter to get the relief corps back to greatness, there’s an interesting base of young talented arms to play around with. And if it keeps the Mets off the reliever scrap heap, that’s a big plus.