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Evaluating the Mets’ bullpen options after injury returns

Edwin Díaz and Adam Ottavino have been the two consistent high-leverage relief options for the Mets. Who else will step up?

New York Mets v. New York Yankees Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Mets front office has received some much-deserved scrutiny this year for their handling of the bullpen—first for entering the season without further shoring up potential holes amongst the relief options, and then for not doing enough to fill said holes at the trading deadline. It’s hard to call the production they’ve received from the bullpen an outright liability—entering the series final against the Brewers, their 3.57 ERA ranked tenth amongst all major league teams—but for much of the 2022 season, it has been the most top-heavy component of the team, with the two strongest options in the bullpen—Edwin Díaz and Adam Ottavino—providing excellent, consistent production and the rest of the squad being more hit-and-miss.

They are now getting some reinforcements, though—Tylor Megill, after spending the beginning of the year in the starting rotation, was added to the active roster off the injured list with the intent of him pitching in the bullpen for the rest of the year, and Drew Smith made his return from injury as well. Those additions will go a long way towards increasing the length of the bullpen, lessening the necessity of occasionally relying on the likes of Adonis Medina and Alex Claudio to soak up innings. Still, while that will be helpful, the main thing the Mets need to be asking themselves as they head into the tail-end of the 2022 season is this: which of the relief options, outside of those established top two, deserve to be counted on in high-leverage spots?

It’s an important question heading into the postseason. The Mets have every reason to feel pretty confident about their starting rotation facing off against the best that the rest of the league has to offer them, but they can’t do it all alone. It’s also not terribly likely that the starting pitchers will be able to go 7+ innings and hand the ball directly off to Ottavino and Díaz every game, so the middle of the bullpen will be relied upon to throw up zeroes against some of the best offenses in the game. They may well opt to use Díaz for multiple innings in a number of spots—he’s done it at times this year and has not shown any struggles in doing so—but it may be a hard thing to ask of him every single night, so they’ll need at least some of the other bullpen options to step up. So who, based on both overall track record and recent performance, should they be looking to?

Seth Lugo has probably been number three on the bullpen pecking order the majority of the season—in part simply due to the lack of anybody else outright wowing the Mets with their performance. It’s easy to occasionally be disappointed in the 2022 version of Lugo when comparing him to the type of pitcher he was in his 2018-2019 heyday, when he was capable of shutting down opposing teams for multiple innings at a time. Still, all told, his season has been far from bad, as he’s put up a 3.17 ERA with a 3.71 K/BB rate in 58.2 innings of work. Additionally, he has pitched even better since the beginning of the second half—a 2.22 ERA and an increased strikeout rate (10.7 K/9 and a 4.14 K/BB rate). That more recent success might make him the de facto seventh inning relief option for the Mets in the postseason if nobody else steps up and takes the job from him. And while some of the slight shakiness Lugo showed in the earlier parts of the year and his slight problem with the long ball might make some a bit nervous about relying on him in high-leverage October innings, one could certainly do a lot worse than him.

Trevor May has also been a boost to the bullpen since returning from the injured list in August. After having a brutal stretch of games in the beginning of the season and then missing several months, it was fair to question whether he would be a major contributor for the Mets this year, but since his return he has put up a 2.77 ERA with a 13.8 K/9 and 6.67 K/BB rate in 13 innings of work. That high strikeout rate, which has been a consistent trait of May’s throughout his entire career, makes him a perfectly good option to turn to in the event of a situation where strikeouts are needed, such as in extra innings with the ghost runner on-base. Like Lugo, he has also been somewhat susceptible to the long ball this year, which will be a concern if he’s called upon to face the likes of Austin Riley or Mookie Betts. However, unlike Lugo and a lot of the other arms in the bullpen, the fact that May missed a solid chunk of the season hopefully means that he will be at least a bit fresher heading into October than those who have been pitching consistently since April, something which can’t be altogether dismissed. Wherever he ends up on the pecking order, he’s certainly established himself as at least a good depth option for a bullpen that desperately needed just that.

The Mets added themselves a wild card to their bullpen when Tylor Megill came off the injured list after several months away. His first outing in relief did not fill one with a ton of confidence, however, as he gave surrendered a two-run homer in his one inning of work. He did improve in outing number two, tossing a scoreless inning in the series finale against the Brewers. In general, it’s hard to parse Megill’s 2022 numbers and try to come away with any kind of intel that would tell us what to expect from him in the bullpen; he pitched very well as a starter in the beginning of the year and then had some injury-plagued poor performances which brought down his whole numbers. But what we did see in those limited flashes of promise was a pitcher capable of pouring in fastballs in the high-90s and also limiting free passes, two traits that generally make for a pretty good bullpen arm. Given his history as a starter, the Mets may also dream of him filling that old Lugo-esque role of being able to come in and pitch for multiple innings when needed. Still, we can’t actually know how he will take to the bullpen until we see him pitching there. Above all the other options mentioned here, the Mets will need to see what Megill is capable of doing in the last few weeks of the regular season before determining what sort of role he should have on the postseason pitching staff—or even if he should have any role at all.

Drew Smith was the most recent reinforcement the Mets received from the injured list. Before going down with a right lat strain, it had been a season of highs and lows for Smith in 2022. When he looked good—such as in the beginning of the season, when he went his first twelve outings without giving up a run—he was dominant, racking up the strikeouts and looking well-worthy of serving as a high-leverage, late-inning relief option. Yet he’s also undergone prolonged stretches where his propensity to giving up the long ball (1.96 HR/9 on the year) continuously did him in—and sure enough, the very first batter he faced in his return against Milwaukee was a grand slam in a key spot. It’s hard to rely on a pitcher that with that level of streakiness in the postseason—unless, of course, he happens to be on one of his streaks of dominance. So which version of Drew Smith is the one we can expect to see moving forward? We will see how he performs in the last few weeks of the season, and particularly if he can keep the ball in the ballpark during that time—though again, we’re not off to a good start on that front based on his first outing off the injured list. Right now, we can at least say that he’s got a higher upside than the likes of Yoan López, so he at least has a chance of making an impact in October.

The one bullpen addition the Mets did make at the trade deadline was Mychal Givens (who is currently on the COVID-IL but should return before too long), and he has hardly been the kind of Addison Reed-esque figure that a lot of fans were hoping for. In fairness, his numbers look a lot worse thanks to one or two particularly rough outings—if you remove his very first Mets outing in which he gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning, for instance, his ERA stands at 2.84 with very respectable K/9 (9.47) and BB/9 (2.84) rates. Givens has especially been looking better in recent times—he has yet to give up a run in his past seven outings, and in the month of September he has struck out ten batters in 7.1 innings of work. Still, none of that recent success fully erases the memory of his few bad performances, and it doesn’t change his fact that throughout his career Givens has, save for perhaps a season or two with the Orioles mostly been more of a middle reliever than a clear cut late inning guy. He’s rebounded well enough to justify his continued presence on the Mets roster, but it’s still likely that few fans would be thrilled to see him in the seventh inning of a one-run game in the postseason.

Let us not overlook Trevor Williams, the jack-of-all-trades who has been used both as a spot starter and a swingman in the bullpen this year. When he’s been used as a reliever this year, Trevor Williams has been surprisingly excellent, with a 1.93 ERA and 9.9 K/9 in 42 innings over 17 appearances. He has often (though not exclusively) been used in long-relief when a starter got knocked out early on, and it’s likely Buck Showalter will turn to him in similar situations in the postseason, when managers tend to have quicker hooks with their starters. Still, if things go well and the starting pitchers manage to throw 6+ on a consistent basis, will Showalter also be willing to throw Williams into a high-leverage inning later in games? If none of the other options distinguish themselves, it probably can’t be ruled out.

Perhaps the most frustrating pitcher who has had a consistent spot in the Mets’ bullpen this year has been Joely Rodríguez, who has struggled mightily throughout the season to throw strikes consistently. His 4.63 ERA and 5 BB/9 rate certainly aren’t indicators of a pitcher who deserves to be given any kind of opportunities in a close game, and if it weren’t for the Mets’ lack of other left-handed reliever options he likely would not have survived for as long as he has. However, don’t look now, but Rodríguez has suddenly looked pretty sharp for the Mets over the past few weeks, as he’s put up a 2.16 ERA in the month of September with twelve strikeouts compared to just two walks in 8.1 innings. Still, while that is encouraging to see, it hardly makes up for all the struggles he’s had leading up to this point, and while the Mets will evidently still be turning to him over the last few weeks of the regular season, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a great deal of confidence with him in a high-leverage October moment.

If the Mets decide they don’t trust Rodríguez in those big spots, they may turn to David Peterson, who—like Megill—has joined the bullpen after spending the majority of the season as a starter. He mostly held his own in the latter role, so the Mets are hoping that he can provide them with an additional lefty relief option. Of course, if we’re bemoaning Rodríguez’s ability to throw strikes, we can’t exactly claim that Peterson is a much better bet in that regard, as issuing free passes and falling behind in the count has been a pretty consistent issue for both pitchers this year. And like Megill, it remains to be seen how he will adjust to the challenge of pitching in a new role—he had a few rough relief outings in the month of July when the Mets briefly placed him in the bullpen, and in his first relief appearance since then this past Saturday he pitched 2.1 innings and struck out four batters, but also surrendered a homer. Still, when Peterson is at his best, his slider can be a wicked put-away pitch, and it’s very tempting to picture him using that weapon to shut down a big lefty or two in certain spots. The Mets will hopefully get a sense of the extent to which they can rely on him as a reliever over the final couple weeks.

The thing that stands out when looking at this group of pitchers is that there are few outright bad pitchers. Rather, it’s mostly a bunch of guys who should probably be at best fourth or fifth on the bullpen pecking order in an ideal world. Not having another shutdown option or two has proven to be an issue at times for the Mets and may end up hurting them mightily in the postseason if they struggle to hold onto leads and/or keep games close in the later innings. The good news is that they don’t need every single one of these pitchers to suddenly become dominant forces. If just one or two of these guys can step up and the Díaz/Ottavino combo remains as strong as it’s been, the Mets will have a very strong bridge to the end of the game that will make them an imposing team to face in October. If they don’t, then we will likely be bemoaning Billy Eppler’s failure to adequately shore up his bullpen for years to come.