For a couple outings at the start of the 2019 season, things didn’t look great for Thomas Sazpucki. His velocity was down, his control was poor, the curveball was no longer a plus-plus offering, and the specter of another failed Tommy John recovery for a Mets pitching prospect loomed large. A few months later, the narrative is totally different: Szapucki’s fastball climbed to the low-mid 90s, his curveball improved, and the strikeouts began to pile up. In other words, Szapucki was a real prospect again.
This is not to say he’s come all the way back. The curveball isn’t as good as it one was, he still has no third pitch, and he threw only 62 innings across three levels in 2019. It’s possible he never makes it all the way back, that he stalls as this diminished version of his former self. More than that, Szapucki is now 24 and has all of one start in the upper minors, making any future projection as a starter extremely dicey. Pitching prospects are lottery cards by nature, and Szapucki is a particularly volatile one at this point.
All this risk merits an interesting discussion about how Szapucki should be developed in 2020. He’s pitched exclusively as a starter to date, but given his age, injury history, limited innings, and lack of a third pitch, a transition to the bullpen seems logical. Ten years ago, that might’ve sunk his value entirely, but in the age of the high-leverage, multi-inning reliever, it might make him even more interesting. Szapucki’s stuff would profile well out of the bullpen, and his history as a starter should allow him to string multiple innings together. Most importantly, transitioning to this sort of role would accelerate Szapucki’s path to the majors, something that’s critical given both his place on the 40-man roster and the ticking clock on the number of prime-health innings he has left in his arm.
It’s worth noting that the Mets had recent success with a similar transition for Blake Taylor. A lefty arm who missed considerable time due to injury, Taylor was moved to the bullpen in 2019 after his development as a starter stalled. He excelled in that role, averaging more than two innings per outing and dominating Double-A hitters, and looked like a potential asset to the 2020 bullpen before the Mets traded him to the Astros for Jake Marisnick.
There’s risk and opportunity cost to such a decision of course. Pitching out of the bullpen might involve fewer total innings, but tossing back-to-back days or warming up multiple times in the same game—the infamous “dry-humping”—is taxing on an arm as well. Sacrificing a potential starter is also sub-optimal, particularly given the Mets’ lack of upper-minors pitching depth, though this risk seems mitigated by the bullpening practice that has gained popularity in recent years.
Whatever the Mets ultimately decide to do, Szapucki should start the year with Double-A Binghamton. The most important thing for him is to stay healthy and build up his innings load, and he’s on track for a 2021 debut as an interesting-but-not great arm if he keeps chugging along. If things go particularly well—his curveball returns to pre-injury levels, or he takes to a new role in the bullpen with aplomb—there’s a chance he could accelerate that time table and force himself on to the major league roster later this season. Don’t get too excited just yet because pitching prospects will break your heart, but keep a watchful eye on Szapucki this year—he could still be something very special.