Like all MLB teams, the Mets must decide by 7:00pm EST tomorrow whether to tender contracts to their arbitration eligible players. Due to claims of lost revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic, non-tenders are expected to rise across baseball this year, as teams look to save on costs. With Steve Cohen at the helm, it’s hard to know whether the Mets will be a part of that trend, but what is clear is that the Mets have tougher decisions to make on the arbitration front this year than last year, when they tendered contracts to all of their eligible players. Of the 13 arbitration-eligible players heading into the 2021 season, there are a small handful for whom an argument could be made to not tender the player a contract. Robert Gsellman is one such player.
Gsellman made $1.225 million in his first year of arbitration last season and the decision to tender him that contract one year ago was somewhat of a no-brainer. Although Gsellman’s performance had been somewhat uneven and sprinkled with injuries since his breakout campaign in the second half of 2016 during the Mets’ stretch run, his starting pitcher’s arsenal and ability to pitch multiple innings of relief made him a useful piece for the Mets out of the bullpen. He is projected by MLB Trade Rumors for a very modest raise in 2021—between $1.2 million and $1.4 million, depending on the projection method—but this time around, the decision to tender him a contract is far less straightforward.
Although $1.4 million may seem like small potatoes for a solid middle reliever, Gsellman was anything but that in 2020. Unfortunately, even for a pandemic-shortened season, we don’t have much of a sample size to go on when evaluating Gsellman’s 2020. He began the season on the injured list with a triceps injury and made his first appearance on August 8. Soon after that, with the Mets desperately looking for answers for their injured and ineffective rotation, the team made the decision to try Gsellman out as a starter—a decision that proved disastrous. He was moved back to the bullpen and made his final appearance of the season on September 8, during which he gave up six runs in 3 2⁄3 innings against the Orioles. We later found out that he was suffering from a fractured rib, which ended his disappointing 2020 season. All told, he pitched just 14 innings between work as a starter and work as a relief pitcher and posted an ugly 9.64 ERA and -0.3 fWAR. He struck out just nine batters and allowed four home runs and eight walks over that span.
To be fair to Gsellman, being jostled back and forth between the starting rotation and the bullpen isn’t exactly the best way to set a pitcher up for success, especially during a season that already saw a huge disruption in players’ routines. That said, there is another factor working against Gsellman this offseason: the Mets’ crowded bullpen. The Mets’ current corps of relief pitchers is stacked with players who cannot be optioned, which allows for very little flexibility or room to make improvements. So even though Gsellman’s rather modest arbitration salary may seem like a small risk to take—in hopes that he can improve with better injury luck and more consistent relief work—the roster spot is arguably the more valuable commodity here.
Gsellman is still just 27 years old and not too far removed from being a relatively heralded prospect when he broke through in the majors four-and-a-half years ago. He has built a solid, if somewhat inconsistent, career with the Mets. And it is certainly possible that, given his relatively low price, the Mets may take a “wait and see what he looks like in spring training” approach with Gsellman. But injuries, poor performance, and a locked up roster may mean the end of the road for the righty; it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise if he finds himself a free agent come tomorrow evening.