John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
At the Dellin Betances press conference on Thursday, Brodie Van Wagenen said the Mets could have "one of the best bullpens in baseball" next season, and while it may have sounded like more of the Brodie-Bravado for which he has become known, in this case he's not wrong.
He just a long way from being right.
As a long-time scout said on Friday, "The Mets could have a scary-good bullpen if all goes right but that could be asking a lot. I don't think anybody in baseball has as much of a gap between ceiling and floor as they do in the bullpen, coming off their problems last year.
"It's a crucial question for them. Which way it's answered is probably going to determine where they finish in the division."
These days the same can be said for most teams, of course, with bullpens accounting for more and more of a team's total innings than ever.
But in the highly-competitive NL East it looms as especially true in 2020, considering the Braves, Nationals, Mets, and Phillies all had major bullpen issues they either overcame or succumbed to last season.
Three of those teams have made significant moves in that area this off-season, with the Braves striking early to sign Will Smith, the Mets adding Betances, and most recently, the Nationals signing Will Harris.
So how do the NL East bullpens stack up now? With input from scouts and executives I've spoken to recently, here's how I'd rank them:
The Braves acted aggressively at last summer's trade deadline to reinforce a weak bullpen, trading for Marc Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene, and after some stumbles initially the new relievers gave Atlanta the stability it needed to pull away from the rest of the division and win 97 games.
All three are back, with the Braves re-signing Martin as a free agent, and to that trio they moved quickly to add Smith, the top lefthander on the free-agent market, signing him for three years, $40 million.
The Braves have flexibility to close with Smith or Melancon, but either way the former Giant adds lefty dominance that is a perfect complement to the three righthanders. For while Smith was very good overall, he overmatched lefthanded hitters, holding them to a .156 average and just two extra-base hits in 72 plate appearances.
"They'll be able to mix and match with the balance they have," an NL scout said. "And if they keep (Sean) Newcomb in the pen, he has great potential to dominate as a reliever. It's a strong group."
A best-case scenario indeed would make for a monster pen but the risk and uncertainty are hard to ignore as well.
As much as the Mets needed a move like signing Betances, at age 32 he's far from a sure thing as he comes back that late-season tear in his Achilles tendon, as well as the shoulder impingement that sidelined him until September.
"If he's healthy he should still be a difference-maker," one scout said. "What worries me is he's a guy whose mechanics have been fragile at times during his career, causing control problems. If he has to compensate in any way coming back from the Achilles, will he be able to make adjustments?"
It seems like a valid question. As for Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia, Van Wagenen continues to talk about how hard they're working, how much weight Familia has lost, but will a strong work ethic assure bounce-back seasons from them?
The hope for Diaz is that for all of his problems, he still racked up 99 strikeouts in 58 innings, an average of 15.4 per nine innings, which was actually slightly higher than his 15.2 per nine in 2018 for the Mariners, when nobody could touch him.
On the other hand, the 15 home runs and the higher walk rate that added up to disaster may have spoken to his inability to handle the big stage in New York, which could be a lot more difficult to conquer than simply tweaking his mechanics.
And Familia has had control issues for a few years now that spiraled out of control in 2019, making his potential for a bounce-back particularly uncertain.
Even Seth Lugo, coming off a brilliant season, has that partial tear in his elbow ligament hanging over him, limiting his availability as a reliever.
"Like I said, they have a high, high ceiling if it all comes together for them," the scout said. "But that's a big if."
Signing Harris, at age 35, to a three-year, $24 million contract, carries its own risks, but his consistency over the last five years for the Astros should help the Nationals stabilize the bullpen problems that nearly derailed them last season.
Indeed, it's still hard to believe the Nats managed to earn a wild-card spot _ never mind win the World Series _ last season with a major league-worst 6.08 bullpen ERA. Even their second-half ERA of 5.24, which factored in the trade-deadline additions of Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, and Roenis Elias, was still the second-highest in the NL.
They won a championship because they were able to use Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin as relievers in the post-season, but that won't help them over 162 games in 2020.
Harris and Sean Doolittle give them a solid back-end duo, but the Nats apparently aren't going to re-sign Hudson, who emerged as something of a savior late in the season for them. And that leaves a lot of bullpen innings for mostly unproven arms.
The Phillies are the only NL East contender that hasn't made a big bullpen move, largely because they've spent their money this winter on Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius, bumping them up against the $208 million luxury-tax threshold.
So it seems they'll go into 2020 counting on better luck after injuries decimated their pen last season. Newly-signed closer David Robertson was lost to Tommy John surgery, and he's expected to miss most of 2020, while others such as Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Seranthony Dominguez, and Adam Morgan all missed huge chunks of the season as well.
Hector Neris is back after emerging as a solid closer, but otherwise it appears the Phillies will be relying on a return to health from Dominguez and Morgan, in particular, along with other internal options, to patch together a solid bullpen.