SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For all that changed in general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s first year with the Mets — the front-office circle of trust, the manager, the perceived core players — one of the greatest problems remains: The Mets really, really need to fix their bullpen.
One significant piece of that plan is banking on Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia, who were bad last season, being much better in 2020, Van Wagenen said.
“We’re putting a lot of value and importance on those two players bouncing back,” Van Wagenen said Tuesday at the GM meetings. “There’s no question about it.”
Diaz had a 5.59 ERA and gave up a major-league record 15 home runs in the ninth inning in his first season with the Mets, after they acquired him last offseason alongside Robinson Cano in a trade with the Mariners. Familia, a former All-Star closer who re-joined the organization as a free agent last December, had a 5.70 ERA and 1.73 WHIP and made multiple trips to the injured list with right shoulder problems.
The Mets believe they can fix both.
“[With Diaz] it’s a player development discussion, it’s a nutrition discussion, it's a strength and conditioning discussion, and ultimately it's a support system that we can put around him,” said Van Wagenen, who did not say Diaz would be the Mets’ closer. And for Familia, Van Wagenen said: “We’re confident. Strike one is important [as is] being able to trust his stuff and let his stuff work naturally for itself, because it’s still elite stuff.”
Ineffective relief pitching is not a new problem for the Mets. Consider the worst bullpen ERAs in franchise history:
1. 1962 Mets (5.66)
2. 2019 Mets (4.99)
3. 2018 Mets (4.96)
4. 2017 Mets (4.82)
That is the first-ever Mets team — one of the worst teams in baseball history — followed immediately by their clubs the past three seasons. Whether it was adding Diaz and Familia or AJ Ramos and Anthony Swarzak, the Mets’ attempts in recent years to build a good bullpen have backfired to an extreme degree.
Such issues underscore the tough task the Mets face, again, this winter. How do you assemble a solid group of relievers when relievers’ year-to-year performance is so volatile?
Van Wagenen said he values high strikeout rates.
“Any time a pitcher can take the ball out of play via the strikeout, those guys are valuable because pitching late into games, you're pitching in high level situations,” Van Wagenen said. “That's a valuable piece.”
One of the reasons the Mets believe in Diaz, for example, is even with all his struggles in 2019, he still struck out 39 percent of batters. That was fifth among the 149 relievers who pitched at least 50 innings, and it wasn’t far off from his 44-percent rate in 2018, when he had a 1.96 ERA for Seattle.
Compounding the bullpen issue for the Mets: None of their relievers who have bounced between Triple-A and the majors the past couple of seasons — including the bunch acquired at the 2017 and 2018 trade deadlines — have emerged as legitimate major-league arms.
Van Wagenen blamed this on those pitchers’ irregular roles upon reaching the majors.
“Players were performing in Triple-A and they came up to the big-league level and they were sitting and not throwing on a regular basis,” he said. “So hopefully we can do a better job of that this year, of having clear roles defined and getting them into games that benefit them.”
Among the free-agent relievers with decent track records: Will Smith (who has a qualifying offer attached to him and is more likely than the rest to get a big-money deal), Sergio Romo, Joe Smith, Steve Cishek, Dellin Betances, Luis Avilan.
“We think our bullpen performance can be dramatically better than it was last year,” Van Wagenen said, “with the exact same personnel.”
Notes & quotes: Former Braves and Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez will interview for the Mets’ bench coach opening, a source said. Former Reds and Rangers manager Jerry Narron is also a candidate. Gonzalez interviewed for the job last year, too, when the Mets eventually hired Jim Riggleman. … Van Wagenen and other Mets decision-makers met Tuesday night with Chili Davis, who they are hoping to bring back as hitting coach. ... The Mets are no longer considering moving shortstop Amed Rosario to centerfield — an idea they flirted with last season — Van Wagenen said. … Seth Lugo’s partially torn ulnar collateral ligament was not an issue in 2019, according to Van Wagenen. He added: “We're not concerned about Seth's health at all.” … Van Wagenen says he sees pitching coach as a three-man job. That means in addition to having a pitching coach and bullpen coach, the Mets are likely to have an assistant pitching coach or a pitching strategist (like Jeremy Accardo for most of last season).