To improve a bad bullpen, Mets are counting on a lot of 'ifs'
As Brodie Van Wagenen departed the winter meetings last week, his confidence and mission-accomplished vibes existed in direct conflict with his roster’s reality: The bullpen, collectively terrible in 2019, hasn’t changed.
That status quo is the strongest hint that the Mets aren’t done adding to their 2020 roster — maybe not even close to done, regardless of the public front presented by team officials.
“We have the ability to do ‘wants’ now that many of our needs are filled,” the Mets’ general manager said. “[Adding starting pitchers Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello] gives us a lot of flexibility in other ways to look at the roster, gives us flexibility to bolster the bullpen without adding any other potential pieces if all of our players are healthy in spring training.”
Put another way: The Mets say, publicly at least, that the bullpen is good to go.
Van Wagenen’s viewpoint seems to hinge on Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, both of whom the Mets want to leave in one role the entire season. If the starters are healthy at the end of spring training, Lugo and Gsellman will be relievers.
He pointed to that pair of righthanders — starters by trade, relievers the past two seasons — as key depth options that help give the Mets “probably the deepest starting pitching rotation in baseball.” But he also referred to Lugo and Gsellman as going “back” to the bullpen, even though they never really left.
That is the sort of spin that can make even Lugo’s curveball jealous.
It’s easy to understand the Mets’ hesitance about adding relievers, especially after getting burned by their primary additions last offseason, Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia.
The top free-agent bullpen arms available during the winter meetings, for example, probably were Blake Treinen and Dellin Betances. Treinen, who agreed to a one-year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers, had a 4.91 ERA last season (after his 0.78 ERA the year before). Betances, who missed most of the 2019 season with shoulder and lat injuries, pitched in only one game and suffered an Achilles tendon injury while celebrating a strikeout. He remains unsigned after posting a 2.22 ERA the previous half-decade.
They could be All-Stars in 2020. They could be disasters. It’s often a crapshoot, highlighting the difficulty of constructing a quality bullpen.
The Mets’ bullpen, as it stands now, has enough talent to be good — but that is based on a lot of ifs. If Diaz and Familia bounce back. If Lugo and Justin Wilson don’t regress. If Brad Brach looks more like his 2012-18 self. If Gsellman pitches better than his 4.45 ERA the past two seasons. If any of the Mets’ less experienced relievers establish themselves as legitimate major-leaguers.
For a team that talked last offseason about eliminating the ifs, the Mets are banking on a bunch of them right now.
How can the Mets add good relievers? Restructuring Yoenis Cespedes’ contract — lowering his salary from $29.5 million to about $10 million (plus incentives) — might help on the financial front. Or they could trade from a major-league area of depth, which Van Wagenen hinted at last month: first baseman/leftfielder Dominic Smith, most notably, or perhaps corner infielder/outfielder J.D. Davis.
Many teams recently have asked the Mets about Jeff McNeil, sources said, and while they have indulged that interest with what-if scenarios, they have resisted including him in any serious trade talks. It would take an overwhelming deal for the Mets to actually part with a multi-position All-Star who competed for a batting title, showed major second-half pop and is under team control for five more seasons.
The bottom line there is the Mets have options. Having failed last offseason is not a reason to make no moves this offseason. Van Wagenen patched up the rotation, but the bullpen remains an area of need.
“It’s a good position to be in,” he said of the Mets’ rotation. “And we will sort of adjust on the fly in terms of what other opportunities come in.”