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Justin Wilson can be a key part of the Mets bullpen with a fully healthy 2020

The lefty missed some time with an injury last season but was very effective when healthy.

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at New York Mets Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Though Brodie Van Wagenen has understandably faced a fair bit of criticism for the moves he made in his first offseason as general manager, signing Justin Wilson is on the short list of the good moves that he has made, even if Wilson’s first season as a Met didn’t go entirely as planned. Wilson enters 2020 in the second year of a two-year, $10 million contract, and it’s fair to say that he is probably a more important factor in the Mets’ success in 2020 than many realize. Wilson missed nearly two months in the middle of the 2019 season with elbow problems. But when he was healthy, he was effective. Very effective.

Pitching coach Jeremy Hefner working with Wilson this spring on something that may make him even more effective in 2020: the ability to really mix in his curveball. It was a pitch he had thrown in the past, but never consistently or effectively. Hefner and Wilson are working on a new grip to make the pitch more like a knuckle curve and early returns look good.

Spring training statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but Wilson has looked downright nasty this spring so far in a small sample. He has faced six batters this spring and none of them have reached base. Four of them were retired via the strikeout. On Sunday against the Nationals, Wilson struck out the side on 12 pitches and looked pretty darn good doing it.

It’s good to see his wipeout stuff carrying over from the second half of last season, which saw his strikeout rate rise from 21.4% before his time on the injured list to 28.2% after his return. Overall, he posted a 2.54 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 39 innings of work in 2019. That is something the Mets could certainly use out of their bullpen for a full season. PECOTA’s 50th percentile outcome projection for Wilson pegs him for a 3.80 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 4.20 FIP, 4.49 DRA, and 0.5 WARP in 48 innings, which would be a decline from his career averages and certainly from the second half of 2019. His 70th percentile PECOTA outcome is much closer to his career norms—a 3.36 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 3.98 FIP, and 4.25 DRA, worth 0.6 WARP over 48 innings.

Both ZiPS and Steamer seem to fall somewhere in between PECOTA’s 50th and 70th percentile outcomes for Wilson. ZiPS projects better numbers—a 3.50 ERA and 3.69 FIP to Steamer’s 3.63 ERA and 3.76 FIP. But Steamer projects he will be more valuable—0.5 fWAR rather than 0.4—because Steamer believes he will pitch 60 innings, whereas ZiPS projects he will pitch only 46 13 innings. Expecting Wilson to pitch 21 more innings than he threw in his injury-shortened 2019 may be a tad optimistic, but even ten more innings of healthy production from Wilson, as PECOTA and ZiPS project, would be a huge boost to the Mets’ bullpen.

Given the results from last year’s bullpen as a whole, it’s easy to be pessimistic. But that also means it’s easy to forget that the Mets have not just one or two, but five relief pitchers who have been closers at some point in their careers on their roster. And one of them is Justin Wilson, who it is easy to imagine fulfilling a crucial late-inning role this year if he is healthy, especially if other members of the bullpen falter.

“Those seven guys [Diaz, Betances, Familia, Brach, Lugo, Gsellman, and Wilson], legitimately any one of them, I would feel comfortable with them closing at any point,” Jeremy Hefner said this spring.

Of course, Edwin Diaz’s and Jeurys Familia’s struggles in particular last season cannot be understated when it comes to the source of the Mets’ 2019 bullpen woes. But the absence of a healthy Wilson also played a role; it is no coincidence that the bullpen posted a 4.24 ERA as a unit after Wilson’s return from the injured list in early July, compared to a 5.64 ERA prior. If Wilson can stay healthy for the entirety of the 2020 season, he will almost undoubtedly be an option Luis Rojas can count on in the bullpen, which could mean the difference between missing the playoffs by a few games a la 2019 and seizing a playoff berth.