Mets still in search of a playbill for bullpen
The scene was Yankee Stadium, opening night of the Subway Series, and Jenrry Mejia was spending his first game of the 2014 season waiting in the bullpen. Bumped from the rotation hours earlier, Mejia's job title was now middle reliever, the most amorphous role on a major-league roster.
By the seventh inning, however, it began to shape. Mejia entered with the Mets ahead 9-7, struck out Alfonso Soriano and followed with a scoreless eighth. Knowing the back end of the Mets' bullpen was in shambles, conventional wisdom suggested that Terry Collins stick with Mejia, who had thrown 22 pitches to that point.
But Collins called on Kyle Farnsworth, his closer du jour. And if not for some nifty glovework by Lucas Duda, that decision might have ended in disaster. Afterward, Collins explained that he didn't want to push his luck with Mejia coming off Friday's 101-pitch outing.
But the idea of using a converted starter in a multi-inning save situation -- on a regular basis -- didn't seem like such a bad concept, especially for a team like the Mets, who have been trying to survive without a designated closer since Bobby Parnell was lost on Opening Day.
That thought seemed to gain some traction when the Mets also announced that Jacob deGrom, a top starter at Triple-A Las Vegas, would be joining the team to provide bullpen help. As it turned out, deGrom was needed to replace the injured Dillon Gee in the rotation. But what about someday having two stretched-out pitchers like Mejia and deGrom -- or perhaps more -- available for multi-inning work at the back end of the bullpen rather than the more traditional roles of middle, eighth and closer?
"You can say that now," Collins said during the Subway Series. "But in a little while, you've got to find your guy. And that's because you've got to set up the other guys. The one thing that happens here -- and we talk about it all the time -- is the confidence. When you come to the ballpark, you can't have doubt in your mind about what you're doing that night. You have to come in with a comfort zone."
Collins was alluding to the so-called "closer-by-committee" approach, where the job rotates between a handful of relievers, depending on situations, matchups and recent workload. In the current state of the game, it's done only out of necessity, and usually is not very effective.
After Mejia's first career save Saturday, the Mets have five pitchers with at least one save: Farnsworth, released Wednesday, was the leader with three. But they also ranked second in the majors with eight blown saves -- tied with four other teams -- behind the Pirates, who had 10. In Pittsburgh, Mark Melancon has subbed for Jason Grilli, who was on the 15-day DL, but the Pirates remain on pace to break the single-season mark of 34 blown saves, set by the 2004 Rockies.
As the baseball adage goes, when a team must rely on multiple closers, it means they don't have any. And managers, who are dissected on their every decision, prefer simple over complicated. If forced to think outside the box of the traditional closer's role, that multiplies the factors involved and increases the level of difficulty. Better to just make the phone call for the same name in the ninth inning, and if it doesn't work out, just say, "Hey, he's our closer."
The Mets aren't the only ones facing the dilemma this season. The A's traded for Jim Johnson over the winter, but demoted him after the first week, and have used two others -- righthander Luke Gregerson and lefthander Sean Doolittle -- in the closer's spot. Gregerson leads the majors with five blown saves, and the A's have eight overall. In the past week, the Indians also demoted John Axford with manager Terry Francona saying he would go to a closer-by-committee, choosing from four relievers.
Can such a strategy succeed? In 2011, the Cardinals won a World Series after continually reworking their bullpen, with eight different pitchers recording saves -- four relievers had four or more. Fernando Salas led with 24 saves, but it was Jason Motte, who had nine during the regular season, who took over that role in the Fall Classic.
Last season, the Red Sox had three relievers with four or more saves of their 33 overall. But after Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan were lost to injuries, Koji Uehara unexpectedly thrived in that role, and Boston rode him to a world title. For the Red Sox, settling on Uehara was the benefit of assembling a deep relief corps from the start, which is why the multiple-closer thing eventually worked out.
"I think it really depends on the quality of the arms that you have in the bullpen," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "[Uehara] wasn't their first choice. He wasn't their second choice. He ended up being their third choice and did a really good job. So I think it can be done. But it depends on how the guys adapt to it."
Girardi hasn't really had to worry about such things. The one time it did come up was 2012, when Mariano Rivera was lost to season-ending knee surgery, and the Yankees were lucky to have Rafael Soriano on board, an expensive free-agent signing that seemed redundant before then. Girardi faced uncertainty again this season when David Robertson wound up on the disabled list, but Shawn Kelley went 4-for-5 in his save chances. Now Kelley is on the DL and Robertson has converted all seven of his opportunities.
The Mets are still looking for their Robertson. At the moment, they're hoping Mejia can be that guy.
"My expectation is we'll see a lot of bullpen by committee, but I don't know you'll see a specific closer going forward," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "I'm excited about our possibilities."