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Finding left-handed relief pitching for the Mets, Part 1

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Let’s consider the Mets’ options for left-handed relief pitchers in 2021 and beyond.

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins
Will Brad have a Hand in the Mets’ bullpen next year?
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

With the Mets having made their signing of familiar left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins to a minor league deal official yesterday, it’s as good a time as any to check in on their overall left-handed relief pitching situation. While the Mets have bigger needs at other positions—center field and starting pitcher, specifically—they could still use more help in the bullpen.

Right now, the team has just two left-handed relief pitchers with major league experience under their belts: Blevins and Daniel Zamora. The list of minor league signings that the team announced yesterday also included Tom Windle, a 28-year-old lefty who has pitched exclusively in relief in the minors since 2016, having spent the majority of that career in the Phillies’ system. Aside from those three, the only left-handed pitchers of any kind who are at or near the major league level for the Mets are Steven Matz, David Peterson, and Thomas Szapucki.

Of the internal lefties, Blevins seems to be as reasonable a bet as anyone else on the roster to be a useful major league reliever next year. While he did not play in 2020, he threw 32.1 innings for the Braves in 2019 with a 3.90 ERA and a 4.61 FIP. Those numbers were more similar to his work in 2018 for the Mets, which was a step down from his very good performance for the team from 2015 through 2017. It’s worth noting that Blevins’s fastball averaged 89.0 miles per hour in 2019, per Brooks Baseball, though he’s never been a flamethrower and had been sitting in the 89-and-change range for the three seasons that preceded that one.

The rest of the internal options might end up being capable members of the bullpen if you squint a little, but there’s very little certainty with any of them. Matz has made a handful of relief appearances and has seemed resistant to the role, though he could be put into a position where he’s either in the bullpen or not on the Opening Day roster if the Mets further bolster their starting rotation this winter—as they should. Szapucki has made a handful of relief appearances in his minor league career but has started the vast majority of the time and has yet to appear above Double-A, where he made just one start in 2019 after pitching at lower levels in the organization for most of that season. And Peterson was reliable for the Mets as a starter in 2020 and figures not to be put in the major league bullpen, even if he doesn’t make the rotation.

And that brings us to the free agent market for lefty relievers. It’s not an incredibly deep list, but it’s also not barren. The Mets should at the very least be considering bringing in one left-handed pitcher who’s closer to a sure thing.

When it comes to relievers, ERA can be a very volatile thing, but as a quick way of sorting through the list of free agents who are currently available, there were a few left-handed relievers who threw at least ten innings in 2020 with an ERA under 3.00: Oliver Perez, Brad Hand, Tony Watson, Aaron Loup, and Jake McGee. We’ll touch on that group today.

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

The 39-year-old Perez has maintained a major league career exclusively as a reliever since 2012, when he joined the Mariners after not playing at the major league level at all in 2011 following his release by the Mets. There have been some great years and some so-so years in the mix, but over the past three seasons in Cleveland, he had a 2.67 ERA in 91.0 innings of work.

Cleveland Indians v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Hand should absolutely not be a free agent, but Cleveland decided to decline his $10 million option for the 2021 season—and no team in baseball claimed him when he hit waivers before the option was declined. The former Marlins starter blossomed as a reliever after joining the Padres in 2016. In 320.0 innings of work since the beginning of that season, he has a 2.70 ERA, and still just 30 years old, he is pretty clearly the best option out there.

Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Watson has been a reliable reliever for his entire major league career, which started with Pittsburgh back in 2011. The Pirates traded him to the Dodgers during the 2017 season, but he signed with the Giants ahead of the 2018 season and spent the last three seasons there. In total, he has a 2.80 ERA and 3.61 FIP for his career, and at the age of 35, he’s coming off a short season in which he had a 2.50 ERA and 4.36 FIP. He’s never been a high-strikeout pitcher, and he’s only had one season with an ERA over 4.00—though that season happened to be 2019.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The sidearm-throwing Loup had a nice short season in 2020 with a 2.52 ERA and 3.83 FIP for the Rays. He only threw 3.1 innings for the Padres in 2019, and in 2018 he had a 4.54 ERA and 3.61 FIP for the Blue Jays and Phillies. On a season-by-season basis, the 33-year-old has been more up and down than the other relievers in this group.

2020 World Series Game 2: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

And last but not least for now, McGee feels like he’s been around forever, having made his debut for the Rays in 2010 and his first really great season in 2012. After spending years with the Rays, he was traded the the Rockies between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and when he hit free agency following the 2017 season, he signed a three-year contract to remain in Colorado.

In total, however, his time in Colorado did not go well, as he racked up a 4.78 ERA in 195.2 innings of work before the Rockies released him in July—shortly before the 2020 season began. The Dodgers picked him up, and he excelled in the short season. His strikeout, which had been high before he got to Colorado, skyrocketed with the Dodgers, and he finished the season with a 2.66 ERA and 1.67 FIP in 20.1 innings, and his fastball averaged just shy of 95 miles per hour, per Brooks, which was a bit of an uptick compared to his previous couple of seasons. That’s not the 97 miles per hour that he averaged in 2013 and 2014, but it was a step in the right direction.