While they’ve been extremely active with minor league signings and waiver claims, the Mets finally made their first major league addition to the bullpen, signing Jorge Lopez to a one-year, $2 million deal. A former top prospect with the Brewers during the middle of the last decade (yes, you’re old) who made the All-Star Game in 2022, Lopez will be looking to rebound in middle relief for the Mets after a poor 2023.
Lopez’s career before 2022 was a disaster, with an ERA over five (and most of the time over 6) in every major league season in which he received any notable playing time. A full-time move to the bullpen in 2022 saw a first half breakout that led to an All-Star appearance as the Orioles closer. Infamously, Baltimore elected to sell at the deadline and shipped Lopez off to Minnesota. Despite the flack they received, that was probably the right call; Lopez was quite bad as a Twin, a trend that actually had begun back in Baltimore at the start of July. In total, he posted a 4.50 ERA with a 4.64 FIP over the back half of the 2022 season.
Last year was even worse, with Lopez largely regressing back towards his pre-2022 form and posting an ERA of 5.95. His strikeouts fell, he became more homer prone, and batters generally hit his pitches harder at more optimal launch angles. Not an ideal combination. Lopez also spent time on the restricted list for mental health reasons (which, to be clear, is a not something that should be judged adversely in any way) and was eventually traded to Miami, with the speculation being that he wanted to play closer to his sick child (who suffers from a pair of autoimmune conditions). He did eventually make his way back to Baltimore at the very end of the season for a brief cameo, but there were very few redeeming qualities about the on field aspect’s of Lopez’s 2023.
Signing a former All-Star to a major league deal this cheap is essentially a slightly more expensive version of all the other moves (mostly split deals and minor league signings) the Mets have been made on the pitching side this year. Generally, that’s a good way to build a bullpen; build a big heap of cheap options with an interesting trait or two, than keep stirring and optimizing until you have a good set of relievers. Then keep stirring because you’ll need more eventually. This is in large part how the Brewers under David Stearns continually produced strong bullpens to back up their late inning firepower.
That said, I don’t like this particular gamble, and that’s in large part because I don’t think Lopez’s first half success in 2022 was in anyway sustainable. Moved to the bullpen full time, Lopez threw his sinker more and threw it a bit harder than he had previously, resulting in a .331 wOBA against which was a drastic improvement over the .450-.470 mark batters had posted previously. His slider also gained some movement and was more effective than at any other time in his career, and he rode those two pitches all the way to the All Star game.
Since then, Lopez has essentially given all those gains back. His sinker is back below 97 MPH—faster than where he sat in 2021, but a full MPH slower than in 2022—with similar movement. Perhaps because this pitch was less effective, he began throwing it less, instead throwing more of his awful four-seamer (which has never induced a wOBA under .400). He seems to have adjusted his slider for the worse in 2023 as well, throwing a tighter, faster version of the pitch that batters were not fooled by. Perhaps there’s an argument that you can his pitches back closer to their 2022 shape, but that performance really stands out like a short sample size blip from a former top prospect trying to hang on.
Much like the Joey Wendle signing, you can’t really be too harsh on a $2 million major league deal. It’s not the money that is the actual problem though, it’s the MLB roster spot. Guaranteeing a spot in the bullpen to non-optionable arm with this level of performance questions does not feel optimal, and there will likely be better options to fill out the back-end of the bullpen later in the offseason. As such, this move earns a C-.