It has become an annual tradition here to write about how the Mets must improve their bullpen during the offseason. For what it's worth, this same article is often written about most teams in baseball. It's hardly exclusive for the Mets. Nevertheless, nearly every winter and trade deadline for the past decade we all push our respective teams to add relievers...
The thing is, this cycle is in constant replay because bullpens are notorious for being inconsistent and rarely do what is expected of them when on paper the previous winter.
For instance, while it's easy to forget given how the staff performed for much of the spring and early summer, the Mets were considered to have a pretty good bullpen entering 2018.
MLB.com went so far as to rank them as the fifth-best bullpen in the National League prior to the start of the season. The opposite occurred, though, with the Mets finishing this past season with the second-worst bullpen.
That was then, this is now. And the state of the bullpen is in flux since long-time closer Jeurys Familia was traded to the A's.
In an effort to replace the influence and results that Familia had on the overall staff, the free agent market will provide plenty of options to improve next year's bullpen -- including Familia himself.
Craig Kimbrel will be the elite pitcher in the group, though his value has slightly diminished the past four seasons (his 2017 withstanding). Overall, though, he went from producing 11.0 WAR during his first four seasons with the Braves to producing 8.0 WAR his most recent four seasons, all of which came after turning 26 years old and leaving Atlanta.
Nevertheless, he's going to want a four or five-year deal. And, while it's hard enough to predict what any relief pitcher will be next year, it's especially difficult to project Kimbrel across five.
In the end, regardless of who is or isn't the next GM of the Mets, I can't see him or her using $16-18 million of the team's available budget on one pitcher.
That said, I do think Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Joe Kelly and possibly a reunion with Familia could all be options for the Mets. Each of the above will require a long-term deal that should be more than the two-year contract Anthony Swarzak signed one year ago with the Mets, but not as much as what will be given this winter to Kimbrel or Andrew Miller.
In either case, regardless of whether one of the above free agents is acquired, the league's top bullpens each year often do it with a group of unknown kids that emerge from the farm to catapult the overall staff.
Think about it, how many times during the last decade do we hear about XYZ bullpen being great and then wonder where and how they found the guys helping them be successful?
Invariably, it ends up being players that were drafted or acquired and emerged from their farm system -- rarely the result of a multiple, key free-agent signings. Don't get me wrong, sometimes it is necessary to bring in the proven, high-priced reliever, especially if the rest of the staff is young and needing experience and stability in high-leverage spots. But, as an overall staff, it will live and die on whether the in-house options are legit enough to carry the load.
Thankfully, in the case of the Mets, the next GM will have a variety of arms that did well in 2018 and others that at least demonstrated a hint of potential to have an impact next season.
The team's bullpen was terrible in May and June and most of July. However, it performed quite well during August and September, mostly due to rookies Tylor Bashlor and Drew Smith and veterans Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and free-agent-to-be Jerry Blevins.
In Bashlor, the Mets have a tough-looking, tattooed kid with piercing eyes that looks like he should be a closer, but who is actually more subtle and versatile than people realize. He struggled at first, but pitched well during the season's final two months, tossing 19 innings with a 3.26 ERA while striking out 18 batters and walking just four. He also did not allow an earned run in 11 of his 15 appearances and -- as a right-handed pitcher -- held left-handed batters to a .193 batting average.
Similar to Bashlor, Smith was also outside of most Top 10 prospect lists entering this season. But like Bashlor, he put on quite a show during spring training, which led to coaches and management predicting he would be called on by the big-league team later in the season.
In March, his fastball had too much movement. However, after joining the Mets, his delivery was more calm and he had more command of his two-seamer, both of which helped get him back to being viewed as a potential late-game reliever.
Gsellman entered 2018 with a lot of pressure and expectations on him, mostly due to publicly offending Alderson at the end of the previous season. It was a bizarre season for Gsellman, who at times looked sensational and at times looked totally lost.
Personally, I see Gsellman much like I viewed Bartolo Colon. Like Colon, Gsellman lives and dies on the variable speed of his fastball and the command he has of his cutter and slider. If it's working, like Colon, he has the ability to throw a no-hitter. If it's not working, also like Colon, he's going to get shelled. The thing is, the variation seemingly occurs in batches, so he goes through extended hot and cold runs probably based on how he's feeling based on how often he's been worked.
I don't know the combination, but the proof is in the pudding. He was OK this past April, terrific in May, OK in June, amazing in July, terrible in August and so-so in September.
The most surprising performance this past summer may actually belong to Smith, who is one of multiple, young, hard-throwing relievers acquired by Sandy Alderson during the summer of 2017.
Smith, 24, made his debut for the Mets in late June, after which he pitched in 27 games. Unfortunately, two of those games were so bad, and coming on back-to-back days in late September, that it totally skewed what would otherwise have been a terrific stat line in his debut season.
In those two games, Smith gave up seven runs and nine hits in just 1.1 innings. In the other 25 appearances, which make up 92 percent of his work this past season, he had a 1.70 ERA and gave up 25 hits, while striking out 17 batters in 27 innings.
Basically, he was a good pitcher that had one really, really bad weekend.
I was also intrigued by LHP Daniel Zamora, who looked good in limited work. Zamora, who was acquired from the Pirates for Josh Smoker, has 202 strikeouts in 167 career minor league innings.
In 16 limited appearances for the Mets, he struck out eight of the 15 batters he faced, while ending with a 3.00 ERA. However, it's worth noting that he let up one hit and was not scored upon during his final eight appearances. Again, it's not a lot to go on, but given his minor-league history, it should be enough to get him in the conversation for a role on next year's staff.
Gsellman and Lugo are under contract next season. If Smith and Bashlor can pitch well in Spring Training, I expect they'll be included in the 2019 bullpen. The above four, as well as veteran Anthony Swarzak, have the track record and talent to create a strong, versatile foundation. I'm sure the next GM will add multiple journeymen for potential supporting roles, who will compete with guys on the existing roster, such as Gerson Bautista, Paul Sewald, Jacob Rhame, Jamie Callahan and Franklyn Kilome (who has a legit chance to be a breakout star).
However, while all of the above names have talent and will be helpful, the staff still needs a heavyweight, high-leverage guy that will calm everyone's nerves (in the bullpen and in the stands) because he's "been there, done that," and not fazed by throwing big games in New York. It could be someone acquired in trade, or it could be Kimbrel or Britton. But, it has to be someone other than what they currently have...
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!