When the Mets signed John Lannan to a minor-league deal, it was likely to bring him in to compete for the fifth starter role in spring training.
The signing is exciting because it represents something more than just another option for fifth starter: It represents the move forward for the organization.
In the first three offseasons under General Manager Sandy Alderson, the back end of the rotation was filled with proverbial John Lannans – Chris Young, Chris Capuano and Shaun Marcum – who were signed with the expectation that they would be on the opening day roster, because of the need for them.
The Lannan deal is encouraging because this time around, the Mets don’t really need another player to compete for a starting rotation spot. Owing to the the pipeline of young pitching that has moved through the ranks of the minor league system, the Mets enter spring training in the rare situation of not needing to fill out a rotation.
The signing is also great because if he doesn’t make the starting rotation out of spring, Lannan could still serve a purpose on the big league club in 2014.
If Lannan performs well enough in spring to merit an opening day roster spot, but Jenrry Mejia (or some other dark-horse option) beats him out for a spot in the starting five, he may find a role as that ever-elusive second lefty out of the bullpen that Mets Manager Terry Collins loves so much.
With Scott Rice’s surprisingly stellar performance last year placing him as the number one lefty in the Met bullpen, Lannan’s only real competition for a roster spot will be Josh Edgin, who seemingly fell out of favor last year.
Unlike Edgin, Lannan has added benefit of being able to pitch multiple innings and make a spot start in case of an emergency. In short, Lannan is a perfect candidate to fill the long reliever role that the Mets haven’t really had since Darren Oliver in 2006, save for a few months of Hisanori Takahashi in 2010.
Sure, Lannan has never made a relief appearance in his seven-year career, and his 1.4 K:BB ratio is nothing to write home about, but Oliver’s career number was exactly the same going into 2006 (1.43).
The similarities don’t end there. They both fall into the category of a “crafty” lefty – meaning that they have a lack of velocity and need to rely on location and movement to get outs.
When the Mets put Oliver in the bullpen, his strikeouts ticked up and his walks decreased, resulting in a 2.86 K:BB ratio, the highest of his career to that point. He would produce 1.1 bWAR for the Mets that year. There’s reason to believe that Lannan may experience similar success if moved to the bullpen.
The reason is simple: pitchers perform better as relievers than they do as starters. Because relief outings are shorter (even a long reliever would rarely go more than three or four innings), they can throw harder, which research has shown has a relationship to run prevention (albeit a small one).
Also, and more importantly, it allows pitchers to take advantage of situational matchups more.
This is not likely to have a large effect on Lannan’s results, because his performance against lefties and righties has been nearly identical over the course of his career: lefties have a .333 wOBA, righties have a .334 wOBA.
The biggest obstacle to Lannan earning this role would be Carlos Torres. He seemingly would be a the front-runner for this type of a position in the bullpen, and I’ll grant you that he probably is. But given Lannan’s handedness, it’s easy to see why the team might prefer to carry him as well.
Also I’ll ask you this: What exactly is the harm in carrying multiple bullpen arms who can pitch multiple innings?
I’d argue there is no harm, and there may actually be a benefit to it, because it becomes easier to save your better arms for when you really need them, and giving a pitcher a day off doesn’t leave you as short handed.
It would be a great advantage in an extra inning game, and if a starter gets knocked out early, you could realistically make it to the sixth or seventh without burning more than two guys.
Of course there’s no guarantee that Lannan would even be open to a move to the bullpen should he fail to earn the fifth starter role out of spring training.
But he should, because it could be his last chance at salvaging a few more years out of his career.
Joe Vasile is the voice of the Fayetteville (NC) SwampDogs. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.