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Grading the Mets’ signing of Dellin Betances

Betances is a high-risk but very rational addition to the Mets’ bullpen.

Divisional Series - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees - Game Two Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

After a couple weeks of rumors connecting the two, the Mets made a Christmas Eve splash by signing Dellin Betances. The former Yankee has a long track record as an elite late-inning arm, but also a couple of worrying injuries that kept him off the field for almost all of 2019. It’s a scary deal on its surface - one that merits plenty of self-deprecating humor about the Mets and various players playing through injury - but a deeper dive shows just how much sense this addition makes.

When healthy, Betances is arguably one of the best relief pitchers of all time. The only three relievers with a higher career strikeout rate are Josh Hader, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman, and only five pitchers have a higher career K-BB% - those same three elite names as well as Kenley Jansen and Edwin Diaz. He’ll walk some guys, but doesn’t give up home runs or hard contact as he simply blows people away most of the time.

The “when healthy” clause is doing a lot of heavy lifting there however. Betances missed the first half of the season with a shoulder injury that turned into a lat issue, then came back and partially tore his Achilles tendon after striking out the only two batters he faced last season. Shoulder injuries are always a concern due to how finicky the joint is in general (there’s a reason it gets inverted during shoulder replacement surgeries), while Achilles injuries are one of the most challenging lower-body injuries to recover from. Short of being diagnose with thoracic outlet syndrome or spinal stenosis, I’m not sure there’s a more worrying recent injury history than the double-whammy Betances was dealt in 2019.

Given those concerns, Betances is a total wild card. If he rebounds all the way, he’s an elite option at the back of the bullpen. On the other hand, his shoulder might be shot, or he could fully tear his Achilles, giving the Mets nothing. He might also get back on the mound as a lesser version of his former self, something his diminished fastball velocity (down 4 MPH during rehab and his extremely brief major league time) could foreshadow. Putting relative probabilities on any of these outcomes is nothing more than a blind guess.

This realty led to one of the more interesting contract structures we’ve seen in recent years, and it’s worth unpacking. Betances will make $7.5 million in 2020, and he has a $6 million player option for 2021 with a $3 million buyout. The value of that option can increase up to $9.8 million based on games played (maxing out at 70). Additionally, if Betances takes the option, he’ll get a second player option for 2022 that ranges between $1 and $3 million based on games in 2021. That’s a lot to digest, so here’s a more discretized set of outcomes:

  • Scenario 1: Betances recovers fully and opts out seeking more money. If he really is all the way back, the Mets can risk offering him a QO and try to get a draft pick. The Mets pay $10.5 million for a year of elite relief and a possible comp pick.
  • Scenario 2: Betances bounces back enough to merit opting out, but not enough for the Mets to risk the QO. The Mets pay $10.5 million for a year of good-to-great relief.
  • Scenario 3: Betances mostly gets on the field but struggles, then foregoes free agency and takes the 2021 option. The Mets pay somewhere between $13.5 and $18.3 million for two years of so-so relief.
  • Scenario 4: Betances is cooked, taking both of his options but never coming close to the incentives. The Mets pay $14.5 million for three years of a hurt reliever.

The above are simplified scenarios (particularly 3, given that Betances might be better in 2021 a year further from injury), but they paint a rough picture of what the Mets could get and what’s at stake. In essence, the Mets are paying $10 million to see if they’ll either get an elite reliever or if they’ll have to burn an additional $5 million - a relative pittance in terms of free agency money.

What’s also important to consider is the larger context this deal occurred in. This year’s relief market is quite weak, headlined by Will Smith and Drew Pomeranz. Both of those lefties are good, but neither has a particularly long track record and both signed lucrative, multi-year deals worth more than $30 million. Second tier options like Chris Martin or Will Harris are in their mid-30s, with the former lacking a track record and the latter seeing his peripherals slip last year. The most comparable player is probably Blake Treinen, who signed a one year deal for $10 million with the Dodgers after a down 2019. Treinen doesn’t have the same upside as Betances, but also has less worrisome injury issues.

All of this is to say that there isn’t a clear way the Mets could’ve better used this money to address the bullpen. Relievers are nothing if not mercurial, and a one-year bet on a historically great pitcher doesn’t carry much more risk than investing tens of million of dollars over multiple years (see: Jeurys Familia). The Mets now have two potentially elite wild cards in the back of the bullpen to go with Seth Lugo, and the group could be truly special with a little bit of luck. I think another addition is still needed to fully reinforce the bullpen, but this signing on its own makes a lot of sense, earning a solid A.