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Grading the Mets’ Sean Manaea signing

There might be a number two starter in here.

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Having bolstered their rotation with Luis Severino and Adrian Houser and subsequently missed on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Mets remained in the market for another starter. They filled that last spot in the rotation with Sean Manaea, signing the lefty to a two-year, $28M deal. The deal contains an opt-out after the first season, essentially making this another one-year dice roll in an offseason full of them.

Originally drafted by the Royals in 2013, Manaea has officially earned the title of “journeyman” at this point. He was traded to Oakland for Ben Zobrist, settling in as a solid-but-unspectacular starter (outside of his no-hitter in 2018) for the first six years of his career. He’s spent the last two seasons on one-year deals, first with the Padres and most recently with the Giants, pitching to an ERA in the 4s at both stops. Despite an early-career reputation for being injury prone, Manaea has been fairly durable by today’s definitions outside of a shoulder injury suffered in 2019. He’s definitionally a solid 4th starter if you’re just looking at his FanGraphs page.

Oddly enough, the Giants were the first team to really use Manaea heavily out of the bullpen; 27 of his 37 appearance last season came in relief. The move wasn’t totally unjustified, as Manaea had a 7.96 ERA through his first 8 appearances (6 GS) with horrific peripherals. Two interesting things were happening in the background, though. Aided by offseason work at Driveline, Manaea was throwing harder than he ever had before. sitting 93-94 with his fastball instead of 91-92. He didn’t quite hold the entirety of those gains through the whole season, but even his late season fastball was a tick or two faster than in previous years.

That’s a nice boon, but not as important as Manaea’s other adjustment; while in the bullpen, Manaea started throwing one of the better sweepers in baseball. Largely used in place of his old slider, the pitch induced a 36.3% rate and limited batters to only a 18.5% hard hit rate. It was a top-30 sweeper on a rate basis and helped Manaea right his season, giving him a functional breaking ball to complement his always effective changeup. Between June 1st and September 6th, he tossed 57 innings with a 3.27 FIP while working mostly in bulk relief. An abnormally low 64.2% LOB% elevated his ERA, but this was a new pitcher that looked a lot more like a #3 or even a #2 starter rather than a struggling back end guy.

It took the Giants a while to pick up on this change, but they finally moved Manaea back into the rotation at the end of the season. He finished the year with a 2.25 ERA over 4 starts, with three of the six runs he allowed coming in Coors. Puzzlingly, Manaea did this without his sweeper, which he abruptly stopped throwing at the end of August in lieu of his old slider according to Statcast. It’s possible this is a classification error - perhaps the two pitches blended into each other a bit when he began taking on a starter’s workload again - but even that would provide a clear tweak for the Mets to implement.

The vision here is therefore pretty clear; roll the dice on Manaea’s bullpen performance being real and sustainable, stick him in the rotation, and tell him to keep throwing the sweeper. This is the lowest hanging fruit of the pitch design era, just telling a guy to throw his best pitches more, and a good team shouldn’t have any problem implementing it. If that sticks, Manaea could be a legitimate #2 starter behind Kodai Senga, with the added benefit of potentially netting the Mets a draft pick next season (if he were to opt out and decline the QO). If things go less well, it’ a fine contract for a back-end starter. If things go horribly, it’s only a two year commitment.

In short, Manaea fits in seamlessly with the Mets offseason plan to add complementary pieces with upside without making long term salary commitments. This move gets an A-.