Tommy Hunter, a 36-year-old reliever with a history of major back problems and a veteran of 15 major-league seasons, wants to keep pitching — hopefully with the Mets, if they’ll have him.
“Yearning to be the first official player/coach for the Metropolitans,” Hunter said this month.
He continued: “Self-proclaimed” quality-control player? Mascot/player? Any role the Mets want him in?
“I love the game. I loved it here,” said Hunter, a pending free agent who was with the Mets for a sliver of 2021 and most of 2022. “I’ve been here for . . . a few months. You can’t say a year. You can’t say two years.
“We’ll see what happens. I think I’m still decently good at the game. And there’s an argument to keep going. My kids love it. As long as they say I can play, then I’m going to keep playing.”
This season, Hunter was a serviceable bullpen arm after the Mets called him up in June, posting a 2.42 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 18 games (22 1/3 innings). He held down opposing hitters, struck out about a batter per inning and was able to pitch multiple innings at a time, a skill the Mets value.
Hunter also provided a degree of, let’s say, roster flexibility. His back was just balky enough that the Mets were able to put him on the injured list on two occasions when they needed to make room for another reliever.
That sometimes relegated Hunter to a comic relief role, which he excelled at in a veteran-heavy clubhouse. From openly discussing his pending purchase of bull semen to ensuring Max Scherzer said hi to him every day to trying to extract niceties from a gruff Jacob deGrom (who seemed to take a liking to him), Hunter brought the laughs.
Altogether, it was a fine outcome after an unexpected return to the majors.
Hunter in 2021 appeared in four games with the Mets, went on the IL because of back pain and wound up needing surgeries to address six herniations, which had left him unable to complete basic day-to-day tasks. He thought he’d never pitch again until realizing in February — throwing batting practice to his 6-year-old, the oldest of his three sons — that he felt OK.
The Mets signed him to a minor-league deal in April and promoted him to the majors two months later, reuniting Hunter with Buck Showalter, whom he described as his favorite manager ever. Hunter was a stalwart in Showalter’s Baltimore bullpen in 2011-16.
It would be more than OK with Hunter if something like that came together for 2023. The Mets will have to rebuild their bullpen, with Edwin Diaz, Adam Ottavino, Seth Lugo, Trevor May, Joely Rodriguez and Trevor Williams joining Hunter in free agency.
“It’s a good spot. And I like the manager. That kind of helps too,” Hunter said. “My wife likes it here, she likes everything that comes with it. I think we have a good rapport with (general manager) Billy (Eppler). So we’ll see what happens, see where things take us. But I like it here.”