PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Mets reliever Jim Henderson arrived at camp as one of 18 nonroster invitees. Robbed of his fastball, thanks to the second shoulder surgery of his career, the former Brewer came with only modest hopes.
“My expectations were . . . I didn’t really have any, to be honest,” Henderson said. “I just wanted to be healthy. That’s all I wanted. So far, so good.”
Not only has Henderson showed signs that he finally is healthy, but he has done nothing but improve his chances to break camp with the Mets.
“We’re very excited about the way he’s throwing the baseball,” pitching coach Dan Warthen said. “He’s healthy and the ball is coming out of his hand. He’s throwing low strikes. He’s got three pitches he’s throwing for strikes and they’re all quality.”
Indeed, the Mets could have a bargain in the 33-year-old Henderson, whose re-emerging fastball, swing-and-miss slider and changeup have impressed scouts.
Though his fastball velocity has consistently been around 93 mph, he topped out at 95 in his last appearance on Tuesday, closer to the high 90s he once averaged when he was saving games for the Brewers.
“He’s going to be tough if he can consistently be that guy,” one talent evaluator said.
In five innings over five Grapefruit League games, Henderson has allowed one run with seven strikeouts and no walks. But more important, his fastball has featured late movement and increasing velocity.
Another evaluator noted that as spring training has progressed, the 6-5, 220-pound Henderson has only gotten stronger.
With little more than two weeks to go until Opening Day, velocity remains the biggest question looming over Henderson. But Warthen believes that by the end of camp, Henderson’s fastball could be sitting in the mid-90s.
“We’re all going to find out together — myself, the coaching staff, everybody,” Henderson said. “We’re all going to find out what’s going to happen with the velocity and how it bounces back.”
It’s clearly an improvement from a season ago, which Henderson spent in the minors, where he tried to shake off the effects of surgery in 2014. For much of the season, his fastball velocity ebbed and flowed.
“I’ve talked about last year and how I didn’t know what to expect each day I went out there,” Henderson said. “So far, I know what to expect now. I can start letting it go, I can start being aggressive with it. Any kind of doubts in my head are starting to go away. So those are big keys for me. I can just go out there and just compete.”
Henderson’s breakout season came in 2013 with the Brewers, when he made the most out of taking over closer duties. With a fastball that averaged 95 mph and a nasty slider, he recorded 28 of his 31 career saves with a 2.70 ERA. He appeared destined to become a fixture of the Brewers’ bullpen.
But 2014 brought struggles and eventually the second shoulder surgery of his career. Only now has the native of Calgary, Alberta, shown signs that his fastball could be back for good.
“His velocity has been very good,” manager Terry Collins said after Henderson’s outing on Tuesday. “That was the biggest concern coming off his shoulder [surgery]. Is he going to get some of his velocity back? And he has been. It’s 94, 95, the slider’s good, so he’s been pretty impressive.”
Henderson’s path to the big leagues also might be helped by the Mets’ plans for filling out their last two bullpen openings. According to a source, they might start the season without a long reliever.
So instead of choosing between Henderson and fellow righty Erik Goeddel, the Mets are open to carrying both. But for now, Henderson’s focus remains on something more immediate.
“It’s just getting to the end of spring healthy,” he said. “Whatever happens happens. I’m proud of myself for getting through the last couple of years and get to the point where I can compete for a job.”