By all accounts, new Mets owner Steve Cohen wants to win. He said so in his introductory presser, with the words being echoed by team president Sandy Alderson. That is, unequivocally, a good thing, and something we as Mets fans have not had in what feels like forever.
The team is moderately well positioned to do that. The offense should be good, even with the unfortunate suspension of Robinson Canó and his 141 wRC+ from a year ago. They have the depth to cover it and the money to play with. The rotation is a work in progress, even with Marcus Stroman back in the mix, though they can be good if, again, Cohen is serious about spending.
That leaves the bullpen.
The bullpen is mostly bad. They sat at 13th in ERA, no doubt aided by Edwin Díaz’s career best 1.75, and 22nd in fWAR. The unit, as a whole, had a whopping -1.31 win probability added, 21st best in the league. It was a poor group, no question about it.
It is also, unfortunately, mostly under contract in 2020:
Edwin Díaz, the closer and arguably the best pitcher in the pen, is pre-arbitration and not a free agent until 2022. He’s staying. Jeurys Familia is in the final year of a three-year, $30 million deal: regardless of effectiveness, I cannot imagine they’d be traded in the immediate future, due to Díaz’s potential and tiny price tag, and Familia’s general ineffectiveness since coming back to Queens coupled with his way-too-expensive salary.
Seth Lugo is actually good as well, the other side of the arguable best pitcher in the pen, and not going anywhere, though it is currently a question mark if he’ll be a starter or reliever. For the purposes of this, I will keep him in the bullpen, where he is simply a better pitcher. He is a free agent in 2023. If he is converted to starter, they better have a reliever coming in to replace him.
That’s already three players who are locks for significant innings in the bullpen (assuming Lugo stays there), though Familia is going to stick around because trading prospects to shed $10 million is simply not worth it, not because he is a good pitcher in 2020/21.
Now, here come the interesting players.
Dellin Betances opted into his player option for six million reasons, and he does so following a poor 2020. He was hurt a lot, his fastball velocity was down, and he got rocked to the tune of a 7.71 ERA when he did play. He had a higher walk rate (20.3%) than strikeout rate (18.6%). It was, in a word, bad. He has a chance to get a year tacked on to his deal after this one if he pitches in at least 50 games next year. It is unclear if his health will allow him to do so. It is possible that he returns to some form of his old self, but it is tough to bet on as I type this today.
Brad Brach inexplicably was given a player option in his last deal that he obviously exercised. It is for $1.25 million. He earned that after a legitimately solid 2019 in Queens, posting a 3.68 ERA after coming over from the Cubs. He did not follow it up in 2020, posting a 5.84 ERA, walking, and striking out hitters at the same clip (24.1%). Even if he does return to form, the ceiling is awfully low here.
Surprisingly effective Chasen Shreve is not a free agent until 2022. While it is reasonable to expect he will not be as good next year, keeping him around to see if he can be a long reliever makes sense.
Miguel Castro was traded for last deadline, is not a free agent until 2023. Robert Gsellman is also under team control until 2023. Both of these players are similar in that they flash sometimes, but it is too often mired by poor play.
That is eight (8) relievers under contract beyond this season. That is basically a full bullpen. And chances are, it will be a bad bullpen.
So, the whole reason for this article is that the bullpen could be a barometer for how Cohen and Alderson will operate as owner and as a front office, respectively. Under the Wilpon regime, this would be the bullpen. They would not eat any money to release Brach or Betances if better options become available, let alone Familia’s $10 million. It was simply not in the Wilpons’ DNA. They would say that these guys are under contract and it will be fine, hyping up their past successes or what have you, and it will proceed to be not fine. It was a problem that capped the Mets ability to contend year in and year out – the front office’s margin for error was effectively zero.
The Mets absolutely cannot do anything this season if they go into 2021 with this bullpen, but they also do not have free spots to upgrade it. They will have to make tough decisions in order to do so, and it will be curious to see how willing Cohen is to eat money for the sake of winning. Cohen and Alderson have talked a big game about money not being an obstacle, and the bullpen is an easy way to show how serious they are, and also could be an interesting look into the future to see what happens when their acquisitions inevitably go poorly.
Not every signing will be a hit, but their willingness (or unwillingness) to eat money to improve the team will perhaps be even more important.