On Friday, the Mets added lefty Justin Wilson to their bullpen on a two-year, $10 million deal. After adding lefties Luis Avilan and Hector Santaigo on minor league deals, Wilson provides a much more reliable southpaw for the Mets’ bullpen at a seemingly reasonable cost.
Wilson is a decent reliever with a long track record. He’s served as a late-inning option for the Pirates, Yankees, Tigers, and Cubs since 2010, and he’s maintained a 3.33 ERA with a 3.30 FIP over 370 career innings. Over the last two years, however, he’s been a different pitcher. After posting solid strikeout and walk numbers for the first five years of his career, Wilson started both striking out and walking a lot more batters in 2017, then continued the trend into 2018. He now strikes out roughly 30% of the batters he faces, 34th among relievers last season, while also walking 14.0% of batter, the 8th-highest last year.
The strikeouts are certainly great, but the walks are a real problem. Wilson’s 3.46 ERA was good, which translates to an 86 ERA- (14% above league average). But ERA estimators like cFIP and DRA- have him pegged as slightly below average, indicating he was somewhat lucky last season. Since those metrics have more predictive power, it’s fair to project Wilson more as an average-but-high-strikeout reliever rather than judge him by his ERA alone.
There’s utility to that profile, and the Mets are signing him to fill an appropriate role: a seventh inning option and someone to handle challenging left-handed hitters, who had just a .283 wOBA against him in 2018. Moreover, it’s encouraging to see the Mets add anything to the bullpen after comments in multiple press conferences seemed to indicate that the team was probably done making additions. The bullpen and the 2019 Mets as a whole are better with Wilson on board.
It feels as if there were better options for the same money, though. Joakim Soria has been an elite reliever for the past two seasons, and he got only $5 million more than Wilson earlier this offseason. Oliver Perez was a much better lefty reliever last season, but signed for half as much essentially at the same time as Wilson. In terms of relievers that are still on the market, options like Tony Sipp, Sergio Romo, and several others seem like better bets, with the disclaimer that predicting the year-to-year success of mid-tier relievers is an exercise in futility.
This last point makes this signing feel very much like the Jeurys Familia signing earlier this offseason. Adding Wilson in a vacuum is good, but looks questionable within the context of the market. If a better reliever or even multiple options from the group cited above signs for the same or less money, this move should be penalized. For this reason, we can’t yet assign a final grade, as we’ll have to see how the rest of the market plays out.
The Wilpons have the money to keep adding regardless of the cost of adding Wilson, but that’s a separate discussion. Here, we’re trying to grade the move within the context of the budget restrictions they’ve set. For now, this move gets a B. Wilson is a fine reliever and makes the bullpen stronger, but he has obvious flaws, and there seem to be better options available.