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Jacob Barnes could be a wild card in the competition for a bullpen spot this spring

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Barnes improved his control in 2020, but he gave up a lot of hard hits, and his overall numbers have suffered.

MLB: SEP 26 Angels at Dodgers Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Mets had a very eventful offseason under new owner Steve Cohen, so you could forgive any fan for forgetting about Jacob Barnes. The club announced that they had claimed the right-hander on the same day that MLB owners officially voted to approve the sale of the team to Cohen, making Barnes one of the first moves of the Cohen Era. The two moments will clearly have very different standings Mets history going forward, for obvious reasons.

Still, the Barnes pick-up could fly under the radar as a solid move by the Mets. While he is far from guaranteed a spot in the bullpen, he can probably work his way up to the top of the depth chart, especially following the injury to Seth Lugo. The right-hander comes to camp sporting a 4.36 ERA, a 3.85 FIP, a 1.39 WHIP, and a 0.1 bWAR over five major league seasons with three different clubs. If nothing else, he could provide solid depth in Triple-A.

Barnes was taken in the 11th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Brewers, and worked his way up the Milwaukee farm system until he reached the majors in 2016. He had a solid start to his career, posting a 2.70 ERA, a 2.36 FIP, a 1.13 WHIP, and 0.5 bWAR in 26.2 innings. That inspired enough confidence in his club that they brought him back in 2017. He kicked off the season with 12 straight scoreless outings, but he stumbled throughout the rest of the year and ended his first full go-around in the majors with a 4.00 ERA, a 3.88 FIP, a 1.25 WHIP, and a 0.5 bWAR in 72.0 innings.

He bounced back and forth between the majors and minors in 2018 after a rough start, but ultimately finished the season with a 3.33 ERA, a 3.71 FIP, a 1.52 WHIP, and a -0.2 bWAR in 48.2 innings. His control issues started to become more of a problem, as he followed up a 10.9% BB% in 2017 with a 10.6% BB% in 2018. He then had a dreadful 2019 season that was split between Milwaukee and Kansas City after the Royals claimed him off waivers in August. Between the two clubs, he posted career-worst marks across the board in ERA (7.44), FIP (6.06), WHIP (1.78), BB% (13.8%), K% (20.0%) and bWAR (-0.8). He was DFAed by Kansas City and released two days later before getting signed by the Angels to a minor league deal.

Barnes’ 2020 was a bit of a mixed bag, and as with all numbers from the pandemic-shortened season, it’s incredibly hard to judge what it means going into 2021. He posted a 5.50 ERA in 18.0 innings with the Angels, but his FIP came in at a much more encouraging 2.25. He was able to keep his walks down, ending the season with a career-best 5.1% BB% and a career-best 30.8% K%, as he struck out 24 batters while issuing just four walks. His HR/9 also came in a 0.50/9, which is his best mark since his 2016 rookie campaign. However, his Hard Hit%, which has been steadily increasing since his debut, jumped from 29.8% in 2017 to 34.0% in 2018 to 37.7% in 2019 to an unsightly 47.9% in 2020, which is a concerning trend.

After claiming him, the Mets and Barnes avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $750,000 contract, with a chance for up to $100,000 in incentives. Barnes entered camp with a spot on the team’s 40-man roster. With spring games set to begin, the bullpen battle will be one of the key areas to watch. Barnes brings with him a four-seam fastball that generally sits in the 95-96 mph range, as well as a slider that is generally in the high 80s or low 90s.

Assuming there are no more injuries, the club is set with Edwin Diaz as their closer and Trevor May as their setup man, with Lugo not set to return until May at the very earliest. Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances, and Aaron Loup figure to be guaranteed spots, and Robert Gsellman also has the inside track despite still having an option and Miguel Castro also standing a good chance of making it.

If the Mets go with an eight-man bullpen in 2021, that means two spots, at most, remain, with Barnes among those fighting for one of those roles. He will face a lot of competition, which will include Sam McWilliams, Stephen Tarpley, Mike Montgomery, Tommy Hunter, Jerry Blevins, and Drew Smith. If he can keep his control issues in check and continue striking batters out at a high clip, and if he can stop giving up so much hard contact, he might just have a leg up on the competition. That is a lot of ifs to consider, but spring training is all about seeing what these players have to offer. If not, Barnes could be destined for Syracuse.