It’s not so crazy to say that if the New York Mets had a better bullpen in 2019, they would have been a postseason team, and potentially a World Series contender. Late-game meltdowns became a commonplace occurrence last season and led to a number of the team’s most demoralizing defeats, especially in the first half of the year. While things improved slightly in the second half, the bullpen overall remained their weakest link.
The good news is that no problem is unsolvable, and the offseason presents the perfect opportunity to fix the beleaguered bullpen. The Mets had a similar problem heading into last year’s offseason and worked aggressively to fix a bullpen that posted a 4.96 ERA, a 4.61 FIP, and a 1.41 WHIP in 2018. Unfortunately, a big trade for closer Edwin Diaz was largely a bust in 2019, and the three-year deal they dished out to Jeurys Familia looked worse and worse with every disappointing appearance he made. The only best move they made was inking left-hander Justin Wilson to a two-year deal, as he proved to be one of the team’s most effective relievers in 2019 with a 2.54 ERA, a 3.91 FIP, a 1.33 WHIP, and a 1.7 bWAR in limited action after missing some time due to injuries. The end result was the Mets’ relief core putting up a collective 4.99 ERA, 4.71 FIP, and 1.43 WHIP in 2019.
Before looking at who the Mets can target, let’s take stock of what they already have. Diaz was just unsurprisingly tendered a contract for 2020 and will return following a disastrous first season in Queens. Despite his well-documented struggles, the 25-year-old is only one year removed from posting a 1.96 ERA, a 1.61 FIP, a 0.79 WHIP, and a 3.2 bWAR for the Seattle Mariners in 2018. The best chance for the bullpen to see significant improvement in 2020 is for Diaz to return to his All Star form, preferably as fast as possible.
Along with Familia and Wilson, expect to see Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman back in the bullpen unless the team decides to stick one of them in the rotation, which is a long shot. Lugo particularly proved to be the team’s best reliever for most of the season, although Mickey Callaway had to carefully monitor his usage in order to maximize his appearances and not risk further damaging his partially torn UCL, an injury which originally surfaced back in 2017. Lugo finished with a sub-2.75 ERA for the second straight season as a reliever while posting a career-best 2.70 FIP, 0.90 WHIP, 1.8 BB/9, and 11.7 K/9.
With a 26th roster spot available starting in 2020, and with five potential locks—barring any unforeseen trades—the team has two or three bullpen spots to fill, depending on how Brodie Van Wagenen wants to construct Carlos Beltran’s 2020 roster. Much like they did last offseason with guys like Luis Avilan and Hector Santiago, you can be reliably certain that the team will seek out players on minor league deals with Spring Training invitations to compete for those spots. The team has already gotten a head start, inking left-hander Chasen Shreve to a minor league deal back in November.
The Mets have already been linked to trade rumors surrounding Milwaukee Brewers closer Josh Hader, so there is always the chance that the team to address their bullpen via trade like they did with Diaz last winter. For the purposes of this piece, however, we will focus strictly on some of the best available free agent relief pitchers out there, who the Mets can sign without having to part with any prospects or young players. Will Smith (2.2 bWAR) and Chris Martin (1.5 bWAR) would have made part one of this series, but the Atlanta Braves swooped in and signed both in the early stages of the winter, wasting no time improving their roster after winning the National League East title in 2019. Drew Pomeranz (San Diego Padres) and Jake Diekman (Oakland Athletics) are also off the board after signing multi-year deals.
With Smith heading to Atlanta, the team can look at another Will: Will Harris of the Houston Astros. The 35-year-old right-hander has the best bWAR (2.1) among the remaining free agent relievers, although his career-best numbers might make his price tag a bit too exorbitant for the Mets’ liking. He posted a 1.50 ERA, a 3.15 FIP, and a 0.93 WHIP in 60.0 innings for the American League champion Astros in 2019. The 60.0 innings were the third-most he threw in a single season, and his 1.50 ERA was the best among qualified relievers in the American League and the lowest mark of his career.
He was heavily relied upon in the postseason and started off great before faltering in his final two outings in of the World Series. He tossed nine scoreless frames in his first 10 playoff appearances last year before giving up a solo home run in Game 6 and a solo home run in the decisive Game 7. Depending on the asking price, the former ninth round pick would be a wise investment for the club and would immediately fortify their bullpen, likely slotting in to a set-up or high-leverage late inning role. MLB Trade Rumors predicted Harris would land a two-year contract worth $18 million, which is a more-than-fair ask but something that is likely outside of the team’s “limited budget”.
Beyond Harris, Daniel Hudson would be an intriguing name that is likely to interest the Mets. The team already spoke with Hudson’s representatives at the Winter Meetings and the team was interested in landing him last offseason before he ended up with the Los Angeles Angels on a minor league deal. After his release in Spring Training, he found himself with the Toronto Blue Jays and, eventually, the world champion Washington Nationals. Hudson began as a starting pitcher but transitioned full time to the bullpen following his second Tommy John Surgery in 2013. He was mostly an average reliever until last year, when he posted a career-best 2.47 ERA with his two clubs and a cumulative 2.0 bWAR. With Washington, he tossed 25 innings with a 1.44 ERA, a 3.53 FIP, a 0.88 WHIP, and a 0.9 bWAR. After accepting a minor league contract last offseason, he is likely to command two guaranteed years—MLB Trade Rumors predicted he would receive $12 million over two years—this time around. It will be up to the Mets to decide whether 2019 was a mirage for the soon-to-be 33-year-old, or a sign of things to come next season and beyond.
Brandon Kintzler had a bounce-back season for the Chicago Cubs after posting a 7.00 ERA in 18 innings for the club in 2018 following a mid-season trade from the Nationals. The former Minnesota Twins closer and 2017 All Star bounced back in a big way and finished the year with a career-best 2.68 ERA to go along with a 3.56 FIP and a 1.02 WHIP with a 7.6 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 1.7 bWAR in 57.0 innings. At 35, his age could scare teams away from handing him a multi-year deal, and a one-year contract could be a worthwhile risk for the veteran right-hander.
Closing out the group is Sergio Romo, who is also in his mid-30s but has not slowed down with age. He kicked off the season as the closer for the Miami Marlins and tossed 37.2 innings with 17 saves, a 3.58 ERA, a 3.88 FIP, a 1.22 WHIP, a 3.1 BB/9, a 7.9 K/9, and a 0.3 bWAR. In an effort to revamp their bullpen ahead of the postseason, the Twins picked up Romo from the Marlins for the stretch run. In 22.2 innings with Minnesota, he pitched to the tune of a 3.18 ERA, a 3.35 FIP, a 0.93 WHIP, a 1.6 BB/9, a 10.7 K/9, and a 0.3 bWAR. Over the course of his 12-year career, he’s posted a terrific 2.92 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, 10.0 K/9, and 10.7 bWAR. With the 36-year-old right-hander, you know what you’re getting a reliable reliever at the very least, and somebody who could add some consistency to the pen.
The above names are the best of the available relievers, but there’s plenty of other options out there for the team, especially after Monday’s non-tender deadline. In future installments, we’ll take a look at some other available relievers, many of whom should fall be more cost-effective for a team that is unlikely to spend big this offseason, given their close proximity to MLB’s luxury tax threshold.