If the 2019 season seems like it happens a decade ago, that’s pretty normal these days, but it’s doubtful that any Mets fans have forgotten how poorly the bullpen performed in it. Last year, Mets relievers combined for a 4.99 ERA, the fifth-worst mark in all of baseball, as the collective group of relievers very well might have cost the Mets a playoff spot over the course of the full season.
With Major League Baseball having forced a 60-game season that’s scheduled to begin in late July this year, one big rule change is that teams will start the season with a 30-man active roster instead of the originally-planned 26-man roster, which was a change from the longstanding practice of 25-man active rosters. The active roster will reduce gradually as the 60-game season progresses, eventually getting down to 26. Given the nature of the shortened season and the implementation of a universal designated hitter in MLB for this COVID-shortened season, it would be surprising if teams didn’t use all of their extra roster spots for relievers.
Assuming the Mets go that route, their bullpen will still be made up almost entirely of pitchers who were part of the 2019 bullpen, with Dellin Betances being the only reliever the team added over the offseason. Roster Resource over at FanGraphs projects a ‘pen of Edwin Diaz, Betances, Seth Lugo, Justin Wilson, Jeurys Familia, Brad Brach, Robert Gsellman, Daniel Zamora, Paul Sewald, Corey Oswalt, and Walker Lockett. That might not be exactly how things shake out at the end of the July version of spring training, but even if you mix things up a bit toward the bottom of that list, you’d likely be looking at Tyler Bashlor, Drew Smith, or similar pitchers in those slots.
Of all those pitchers, only Seth Lugo was very good and healthy throughout the 2019 season, posting a 2.70 ERA over the course of 80 innings with excellent strikeout and walk rates. If anything, the shortened season seems like it might benefit him since he’s coming off that relatively heavy workload. Justin Wilson was very good, too, albeit over the course of 39.0 innings, and Brad Brach put together a respectable 3.68 ERA in 14.2 innings after joining the Mets last summer and was brought back on a very inexpensive contract over the winter.
It’s the rest of the bullpen that’s cause for concern. Edwin Diaz racked up strikeouts but served up home runs at a staggering rate of 2.33 per nine innings, resulting in a 5.59 ERA and 4.51 FIP last year for a guy who had been one of the very best relievers in baseball before getting traded to the Mets. Jeurys Familia was slightly worse, with a 5.70 ERA and 4.88 FIP, in his return to the Mets after he had been traded away at the deadline in 2018. Whether or not one or both of these two bounce back this year will probably go a long way toward determining just how good or bad the bullpen is.
Robert Gsellman wasn’t on the level of those two, but he had a 4.66 ERA and 4.13 FIP, both of which were only a bit worse than his 2018 numbers. Relief pitchers are volatile in normal times, but as much as any one reliever can establish a norm, he’s done that over the past couple of seasons.
As for Betances, he’s never had a bad season since becoming a regular major league pitcher in 2014 and has typically been among the game’s best relievers, though he pitched just two-thirds of an inning in 2019 because of injuries. The extra time he’s had to rest over the past few months seems likely to be beneficial.
That makes for three arms that look like they should be pretty solid, two major question marks, one that should be decent, and one that could be great if he’s his healthy self. The other three slots in a ten-man bullpen would be question marks, with Sewald, who was decent, and Bashlor, who got rocked, having pitched the most in the big leagues last year and Zamora having struggled in his brief overall time with the Mets. Smith could be an intriguing option after a relatively promising major league debut back in 2018 and missing the 2019 season after having Tommy John surgery.
Something that’s always true about baseball is that strange things can happen over a short span of time, and the 2020 season is by definition strange. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Mets’ bullpen, anchored by Lugo and returns to form from Diaz and Familia, is one of the very best in baseball over the course of 60 games. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if all of its pitchers more or less replicated their 2019 performances, making it one of the very worst again.