With the New York Mets making the Rick Porcello signing official earlier this week, the team’s pitching staff continues to take shape. As it stands now, the team employs six starting pitchers and six relief pitchers who are all but guaranteed to make the Opening Day roster, barring trade or injury. The team should feel pressure to add at least one, and potentially two, more relievers, but for some inexplicable reason that does not appear to be a priority for Brodie Van Wagenen.
With the addition of two starting pitchers and with rosters expanding to 26 starting next season, the team has some options on how they can deploy their pitchers to give them the best chance to succeed in 2020. Let’s first address the least likely scenario: a six-man rotation. To minimize the juggling, that would involve keeping all six pitchers in the rotation, which would provide extra rest for each pitcher and, theoretically, keep them fresh for the later months.
Nobody has hinted yet at the six-man rotation being a possibility, but Michael Wacha did say in his introductory call last week that he’s here “to be in the rotation”, and here is probably the most likely person to be considered the odd-man out. A six-man rotation would give everybody a chance to contribute and could always be amended if somebody is under-performing, so it doesn’t need to necessarily represent a full-season plan.
But a six-man rotation also undercuts Jacob deGrom and robs him of some extra starts which, in turn, hurts the team’s chances—you don’t want to replace deGrom starts with Wacha or Porcello ones under any circumstances. A six-man rotation is also not sustainable for a full season, as somebody is bound to get hurt.
It is far more likely that the team will need to sort things out during spring training. The Mets will go into the year with a likely rotation of deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Marcus Stroman as locks, with Steven Matz, Rick Porcello, and Michael Wacha fighting it out for the final two rotation spots. In the bullpen, the team will mostly reunite the same crew that finished 2019 with a 4.99 ERA and a 4.71 FIP, barring any additions. That core includes Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Justin Wilson, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, and Brad Brach.
With 26 men on the roster, the Mets would be best served rolling with an eight-man bullpen—utilizing the extra body in their pen rather than on their bench—a five-man rotation, their eight regulars in the lineup, and a five-man bench. The Mets could go one of two ways in structuring their rotation and bullpen under this model: They can stick newcomer Wacha in the pen and have Matz and Porcello as their four/five, or they can send Matz to the bullpen and utilize the newly-signed Wacha and Porcello in the rotation.
Assuming the team doesn’t go with a six-man rotation to start the year and doesn’t trade any one of Syndergaard, Stroman, or Matz, and and doesn’t suffer any injuries in spring training, the person who lands in the bullpen will be a toss-up. Ideally, Wacha would be the one to begin the year in the pen. He had a worse 2019 than Matz, pitched fewer innings, had a higher ERA and FIP, and has less upside than the Long Island lefty. He made five relief appearances in 2019, three of which went for two-plus innings. Wacha would be well-suited to serve as a long-man who can piggyback off Matz and Porcello starts if they don’t pitch deep into the game, coming in to offer anywhere from two to four innings of relief in a pinch. Wacha wasn’t great out of the pen—he posted a 5.66 ERA in 11.2 innings—but it’s something to consider.
The situation is made a bit complicated by Wacha’s contract details. He is set to make $3 million guaranteed, but can see that number increase by $7 million if he makes a combination of 30 starts and relief appearances of three-plus innings. On top of that Wacha made it clear he came to New York to be in the rotation, and it seems the Mets promised him as much. This, of course, was promised before the signing of Porcello was announced, but given the incentives in his contract, Wacha will make every effort to reach that 30-appearance mark. Using a six-man rotation or having him as a reliever would immediately throw a wrench in those plans.
If Wacha earns a spot in a five-man rotation, Matz would likely find himself in the bullpen. Matz pitched in relief twice last season after struggling for much of the first half, and he pitched decently enough in those two opportunities. Sticking Matz in the pen could help preserve his health if that’s something one still worries about after two mostly injury-free seasons of 30+ starts. But on the downside, it leaves the Mets with five right-handed starting pitchers in their rotation. Matz would give the team another solid lefty to work alongside Wilson in the bullpen, though, and like Wacha, he could be used to piggyback off Porcello and Wacha starts, thus preserving the rest of the bullpen from further exhaustion in the case of an ineffective starter not lasting deep into a game.
There is almost no chance of Porcello finding himself in the bullpen to start 2020, but it is an option the Mets could consider. At his price tag of $10 million, the club isn’t likely to think all that long and hard about it, unless he forces their hand by pitching terribly in spring training. Even then, Porcello’s spot as the team’s fifth starter is all but safe.
With the rotation mostly settled, the focus turns to the bullpen. Like it or not—I’m willing to bet many will not like it—Diaz will start 2020 as the closer. Before you grab the pitchforks, it’s worth remembering just how good he was in 2018 for the Seattle Mariners. Giving up on him at this point in his career is premature, and the team will make every effort to resurrect his career next season. Diaz returning to form gives the team their best chance at an improved bullpen next season, given Brodie Van Wagenen’s lack of interest in diving into the deep end of the free agent relief pitcher market.
Lugo should start off as the team’s setup man and the reliever tasked with pitching in the most high-leverage situations outside of the ninth. He proved last year to be the most effective pitcher in the bullpen and one of the team’s most valuable assets, and that will likely continue in 2020. His most measurable career success has come out of the pen, and with Wacha and Porcello it’s highly unlikely he will see any action as a starting pitcher unless things go sideways. This is for the best, given his partially-torn UCL. Carlos Beltran will likely need to monitor his innings and usage in the same way that Mickey Callaway did down the stretch.
Wilson, Gsellman, Familia, and Brach will all slot into general middle relief roles, with the former two getting the brunt of the responsibilities given their track records over the latter two. It’s hard to predict Familia’s results for the upcoming season, but given how catastrophically bad he was in 2019, the hope is that he can only do better this season. That leaves two remaining bullpen openings, one of which will be taken by either Wacha or Matz (or Porcello).
With the remaining spot, history suggests that the Mets will sign a number of relief pitchers to minor league contracts with spring training invitations. The team already got the ball rolling on this front when they brought in Chasen Shreve back in October. The team also has guys like Jacob Rhame, Daniel Zamora, Tyler Bashlor, and Corey Oswalt to look at, if they are so inclined. The best-case scenario would be for the team to bring in one more dependable reliever—Will Harris, Steve Cishek, Daniel Hudson, and Brandon Kintzler are still available, to name a few—which would, at the very least, give them the blueprint for a good bullpen if a number of things go right next year. If reports are to believed, the Mets are “nowhere near done”, so more moves could be coming, and the bullpen is in need of the most help.
The offseason is far from over, and a number of things can happen between now and February 10 when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The outline above is not a finished product, but it should give Mets fans a pretty good idea of what the team’s staff would look like at the start of the 2020 season.