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Sorting out the Mets’ Opening Day bullpen

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The Mets only have a few locks in their bullpen and could configure things a variety of ways to begin the season.

MLB: New York Mets at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Having made their first spring training roster cuts and followed up shortly thereafter with another round of them, the Mets have made their Opening Day bullpen picture a bit clearer. A few of the pitchers who were cut—Gerson Bautista, Jamie Callahan, and maybe Kevin McGowan—seemed to have at least a non-zero chance at making the ‘pen to start the season. But with the field thinned just a bit, let’s take a look at what’s left on the team’s 40-man roster right now.

The locks

Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, Jerry Blevins, and Anthony Swarzak will be on the Opening Day roster as relievers—if healthy. Swarzak and Familia have dealt with thus-far minor injuries during this spring training. Ramos and Blevins have made a few appearances apiece. But barring any major issues, these four will make up 57.1 percent of the bullpen—or half of it if the Mets roll with eight relievers and a four-man bench. All but Blevins are right-handed.

Out of the rotation, into the bullpen?

At the moment, the Mets have a bunch of healthy starting pitchers and fewer than five locks for the rotation. Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom will start the first two games of the season, if all goes according to plan, and Jason Vargas will start. That leaves two spots in the rotation for any combination of Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, and Rafael Montero—if we’re going with guys who have traditionally been starting pitchers.

It’s safe to assume Montero isn’t contending for a spot, and even Lugo and Gsellman seem like long shots given the current landscape. But as a quick review, here’s what all of those pitchers did in their major league playing time last year.

2017 Stats

Pitcher IP ERA FIP bWAR
Pitcher IP ERA FIP bWAR
Robert Gsellman 119.2 5.19 4.89 -0.6
Matt Harvey 92.2 6.70 6.37 -0.9
Seth Lugo 101.1 4.71 3.95 0.9
Steven Matz 66.2 6.08 5.05 -0.1
Rafael Montero 119.0 5.52 4.37 0.2
Zack Wheeler 86.1 5.21 5.03 0.3

None of that was pretty, but you have to figure that if everyone’s healthy, the big names will have the best shot at the rotation to start the year. Pencil in Harvey and assume Matz or Wheeler gets the other spot, that leaves one of those two as a potential Opening Day relief pitcher—plus all of the other guys not in the rotation mix.

Any combination or even just one of Gsellman, Lugo, Wheeler, and Matz could end up beginning the season in the starting rotation for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. All four of them have options remaining, with the only caveat on refusing an assignment being that Wheeler could refuse an outright assignment—something that’s not likely to happen with him in the first place.

This is probably the area of the roster where the Mets’ front office has the most leeway. Even if all three pitchers who weren’t in the rotation were kept in the major league bullpen, it wouldn’t be a monumental task to send one down to Vegas—or even get them into long relief outings—in the event that the Mets need to stretch someone out to take a spot in the rotation.

Of the four pitchers, only Lugo has significant relief experience in his professional career, a whopping 20.0 innings in his major league career. He’s put up a 2.70 ERA and a 3.25 FIP in that time, which is obviously extremely limited and shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions.

Traditional relievers

There are three pitchers on the 40-man roster and still in major league camp who have been relief pitchers either exclusively in their professional careers or for a significant amount of time: Jacob Rhame, Hansel Robles, and Paul Sewald. Of the non-roster invitees, lefty Matt Purke seems to be the one with a shot of maybe cracking the forty and making the Opening Day roster.

Rhame joined the Mets as the player to be named later in the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Dodgers late last season. He then made his major league debut with the Mets and went on to throw nine innings over nine appearances with a 9.00 ERA. He’s pitched well in spring training, though, and obviously has plenty of promise.

Robles had a miserable time of it in the big leagues last year, and he finished the year with a 4.92 ERA and 5.13 FIP. As has often the case over the course of his career, he had some great stretches—a 1.42 ERA in 19.0 innings to begin the season and a 2.38 ERA from the time he was brought back from Triple-A in mid-July through his next 22.2 innings—but was done in badly by the bad ones. He gave up 12 earned runs in just 2.2 innings in mid-May and another 12 in 12.2 innings from August 27 through the end of the season. He hasn’t looked great in spring training games, either.

Like Rhame, Sewald pitched in the show for the first time last year. He racked up 65.1 innings with 69 strikeouts, 21 walks, a 4.55 ERA and a 3.74 FIP. He’s fared well in his spring training outings.

As for Purke, his only major league experience came in 18.0 innings with the White Sox in 2016, during which he had a 5.50 ERA and 3.48 FIP. He has fared well in his outings in spring training, and again, he is a lefty.

The group

There are quite a few combinations of all of these pitchers that could turn out to be the reality for Opening Day. Montero is out of options and just might hang on for that reason alone, but it’s hard to find anyone who thinks he belongs on a major league roster to start the season. He’ll be exposed to waivers if the Mets don’t put him on the roster, but that risk seems like one the team must take.

Whatever decisions the Mets make beyond the top four pitchers in the bullpen, they’ll be going with guys who haven’t done much major league relief pitching. There’s a chance things all work out well, but it stands to reason that whichever pitchers make the Opening Day ‘pen will be on a relatively short leash, as there will be other intriguing arms available to swap them out with.

Some of these roster issues will solves themselves, as they always do. With a rotation that includes plenty of recent injury history and poor performance, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the odd man out of the Matz-Wheeler battle, Lugo, or Gsellman are making starts on a regular basis. And that would open things up in the bullpen for a bunch of the guys mentioned here.