Baseball’s hiatus stunk, but if you are looking for silver linings the Mets could have one: Their bullpen, a major weakness last year, might have gotten better in recent months.
When spring training ended abruptly in March, they had one new reliever on a major-league contract: Dellin Betances. He was coming off a series of injuries that limited him to one appearance in 2019, and in exhibition action he was struggling to hit 90 mph with his fastball — far from his usual upper-90s heat.
Flash forward three-plus months (or live through it in excruciatingly slow motion) to Wednesday, as the Mets reported to Citi Field for the official restart of camp, and this section of the roster might be better off. Betances has had extra time to build arm strength, and on Tuesday the Mets added veteran righthander Jared Hughes on a big-league deal.
Betances especially is poised to be a difference-maker if he returns to his perennial All-Star form. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen said the Mets have been encouraged by his work lately, which already has included multiple live batting practice sessions against major-league hitters.
“He’s encouraged,” Van Wagenen said Tuesday. “Our performance staff evaluated him over the last couple of days and we’re ready to see what he looks like when we start going here.”
It has been 21 months since Betances, who has a career 2.36 ERA, all with the Yankees, has pitched regularly. He started last season with a shoulder issue, which then became a lat injury. He returned in September and, in his first game, partially tore his left Achilles, ending his season at two-thirds of an inning and eight pitches.
During spring training, the Mets treated Betances carefully, holding him out of Grapefruit League action until March 7. His velocity wasn’t close to his normal, but he said he wasn’t concerned and that a lesser fastball wasn’t unusual for him at that time of year.
With the benefit of the extra down time, Betances seems to be in better shape. He joins Michael Conforto (oblique strain) and Yoenis Cespedes (broken ankle, heel surgeries) as Mets who rehabbed injuries during the season’s coronavirus delay and are better positioned now than they were in mid-March.
“We are extremely excited about where he is physically,” Van Wagenen said of Betances.
And then there is Hughes, a nine-year journeyman who was born in Stamford, Connecticut (and grew up in California). He had a 4.04 ERA and 1.18 WHIP with the Reds and Phillies last year and has a 2.88 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in his career.
Hughes’ greatest assets: a sinker that is excellent at inducing ground balls, plus his durabily.
In the past five seasons, Hughes has a grounder rate of 61.8%. That ranks fifth among 107 relievers with at least 200 innings in that span.
In that same span, Hughes is fourth among relievers in innings (336) and second in appearances (354). Nobody ahead of him had a better ERA.
Of course, reliability pre-Mets doesn’t guarantee reliability with the Mets. One of the reasons they signed Justin Wilson before the 2019 season was his durability, and then he missed about half the year with a left elbow problem. Todd Frazier went on the injured list zero times in his first seven seasons, then joined the Mets and made three trips within a year. So it goes.
Van Wagenen said the Mets don’t have any new pitcher injuries — aside from Noah Syndergaard’s Tommy John surgery in March — heading into the team’s first workout Friday.
“We are fortunate,” he said. “Coming into camp right now, as far as we know, everybody is for the most part healthy and conditioned, so we’re ready to get people back on the mound.”
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