To me, by far the biggest need for the Mets in the offseason is to address the bullpen. Unfortunately, relievers may provide less bang for the buck than any position out there. Among Jeurys Familia, AJ Ramos, Anthony Swarzak and Jerry Blevins, the Mets spent nearly $40 million dollars on bullpen arms last year. Let’s just say they didn’t come close to that amount of production.
Perhaps the problem is that none of those players would be considered near the top of the heap among relievers. And this year one of the game’s best closers – Craig Kimbrel – is a free agent. Should he be atop the Mets’ offseason shopping list? And if he’s worth pursuing, how much is he worth paying?
Neither of those questions are easy to answer. Since the second one is a conditional one, we need to start with the first query. And this is something on which reasonable people can disagree. And as I find out now, you don’t even need two people to disagree. My internal conversation has switched opinions so many times that I’m labeling myself a flip-flopper.
It’s important to know how many innings you need your pen to provide and then draw a roadmap as to how you will get there. In 2018, the Mets’ bullpen logged 546.1 IP. While the games were being played, especially earlier in the season, it felt like Mickey Callaway was babying the starters, looking for any reason to pull them. But the Mets’ relievers had the fourth-fewest total of IP among NL squads. In perhaps a bit of a surprise, the Rockies had the fewest relief innings in the league with 520.1 while the Padres had the most, with 635.
The NL average was 571.1 IP last year. Let’s forecast the Mets to once again be below average in reliever IP. And since we like round numbers – let’s say they’ll need 550 innings from the pen. How do you get there?
The Mets only had three relievers tally at least 50 IP last year – Robert Gsellman (80), Seth Lugo (78.1) and Paul Sewald (56.1). And since Sewald posted a 6.07 ERA, it’s hard to count him as a guy to repeat last year’s innings total. Lugo was terrific and Gsellman was mostly good, although with two really bad stretches.
My opinion is that the first priority is to establish how you want to use Lugo.
Early in the year, Lugo was used for multiple innings at a time on a regular basis. But the final two months of the season, 11 of his 19 appearances were for just one inning. Where is Lugo most valuable? Is he your shutdown guy in the eighth inning or is he the guy you turn to when one of the starters needs to be pulled before the end of the sixth, a guy to give you length? Either one is defensible.
My hope is that there are fewer times when the starter needs to be replaced that early. My plan would be to use Lugo and Swarzak as the primary setup man and keep Gsellman in a long man role, looking to utilize him two and three innings at a time for a majority of his appearances.
Ideally there’s another multi-inning guy to team with Gsellman. However, it’s an open question if that guy is currently in the organization. Maybe it’s Corey Oswalt, even if his numbers as a reliever last year were terrible.
If the Mets get 150 IP from Gsellman and the other multi-inning reliever and 130 IP from Lugo and Swarzak and 70 IP from their closer – that leaves 200 IP for the rest of the pen. And who those innings are going to come from is anyone’s guess. We’re going to see more churn, giving multiple guys opportunities to claim a job. Maybe it’s Drew Smith and Tyler Bashlor. Perhaps it’s Eric Hanhold and Bobby Wahl. Or – don’t laugh – Gerson Bautista and Jacob Rhame. Those guys, and others, will get a shot.
My operating assumption is to get the main 350 innings right and accept that there’s going to be a lot of terrible in those final 200. The Mets only got 138.2 IP from relievers with an ERA 3.00 and under last year and if we up that to 4.00, the total only goes up to 166.2 IP. Can Gsellman and Swarzak join the sub-4 .00 or even the sub-3.00 ERA club next year? Well, they need to for the Mets to be successful.
So, my view is the Mets need a closer and one other reliever. That other bullpen guy can either be a multi-inning guy or a set-up guy who pushes Lugo back to the other role.
And after much hemming and hawing, Kimbrel should be a target. Even if that means having to cheer for that beard and that ridiculous flying monkey imitation he does before throwing each pitch.
That’s a tough position to take after we saw a poor outing from him in last night’s ALDS-clinching game. But it wasn’t a Yu Darvish type playoff implosion and there’s just too much good in Kimbrel’s history to let one high-profile stinker change that.
His one-two punch of fastball and curve was very effective in 2018, even if not up to the crazy standards he set in 2017. But he averaged 97.1 with his fastball, right in line with what he did from 2014-2016. The K% is still an amazing 13.86 and he allowed just 31 hits in 62.1 IP. The big problem is with walks, as he allowed 31 free passes last year. That’s still a WHIP just below 1.000 and he is still one of the game’s top closers.
But he’ll also turn 31 next May. And the question becomes: How well will he age?
We can look to his similarity scores for a possible answer to that question. His top comp is Kenley Jansen, who has been an outstanding reliever but who is the same age as Kimbrel. So no insight there. Next up is Aroldis Chapman, who is the same age, too. Doh!
His third comp is Jonathan Papelbon, which might make you a little queasy. Personality issues aside, in his age 31-34 seasons, Papelbon put up a 2.38 ERA and a 1.029 WHIP over 261.1 IP. His age 35 season was poor and then he was out of the league.
Fourth comp is Tom Henke, who in his age 31-34 seasons had a combined 2.14 ERA and a 1.016 WHIP over 269.2 IP. He dropped off in his age 35 season but still posted a 2.91 ERA and a 1.103 WHIP. And Henke pitched well his final two seasons in the league, too.
Next up is Huston Street, who was solid in his age 31 season – 3.18 ERA and a 1.155 WHIP – but who was dogged by injury problems after that. And the last guy we’ll look at is Joakim Soria, who in his age 31-34 seasons put up a 3.33 ERA and 1.231 WHIP in 251 IP.
No one thinks Similarity Scores is the end-all determination of how a player will age. And we have the further issue that only three guys are truly similar, with a score of 900 or above, and two of those are the same age and can provide no insight whatsoever. But what little we do have is encouraging, with only Street not providing value on a multi-year deal.
So, what contract terms would be good? My preference would be a three-year deal with a willingness to go to four years at a lower AAV. Let’s say 3/$55 or 4/$64. Since the Red Sox picked up his option this year, Kimbrel’s last deal was 5/$54, which covered three arbitration years and two years of free agency.
There will be no argument from me if you say this is too much money for a reliever. The vast majority of times that would be my line, too. It just seems that for the 2019 Mets, this is the exception to the rule.