Can Diaz, May, and Lugo lock down the late innings?

Edwin DiazIt’s been a busy off-season for the Mets and the front office has done an admirable job filling out the 40-man roster with talent, versatility, and depth. The offense, defense, bench, and rotation should all be significantly improved over last year and primed for a playoff run. But as history tells us, a weak bullpen can torpedo a promising season. After all, ever the best starting pitchers rarely throw complete games anymore, so it’s very often left to the relievers to hold the lead or keep the game close.

As for closing, Edwin Diaz figures to hold that role again. Will we see the strikeout machine we saw in 2020 or the homerun derby pitcher we saw in 2019? This is a very big and scary question to consider. What was the main cause of Diaz’s brutal 2019 – the slick ball, the change of scenery, or the pressure of playing in New York? Maybe the raised seems last season helped him find his slider and maybe he got used to his teammates and the big city. Or, as some have suggested, maybe he thrived under the reduced pressure of not having to pitch in front of a packed ballpark. The fans may return at some point this season and the baseballs will be changing again so we can’t rest too easy on our expectations here. One positive is that new catcher James McCann is regarded as a better receiver, pitch framer, and overall defensive catcher than his predecessor and that can certainly help Diaz.

The good news is that there are alternatives if Diaz falters. Newly signed Trevor May is another hard-throwing strikeout pitcher who can be a lockdown setup man and step in to close if needed.  Over the past season and a half in Minnesota, May struck out a whopping 117 batters in just 87.2 innings. Seth Lugo, though expected to begin the season on the IL recovering from surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, also has some closing experience, as well as the ability to pitch multiple innings. It would be reassuring if the Mets could add one more bullpen piece before the season starts to at least hold the line until Lugo returns, likely in mid May.

The Mets’ 2021 bullpen also features two former All-Star closers in Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances. Due to injuries or ineffectiveness, neither has been dominant for several years now. However, the hope is that both are healthy with something to prove and at least one of them will prove effective as a useful setup man. The lefty Aaron Loup seemed to transform from an average reliever to a very effective one last year with Tampa Bay and he cranked it up a notch in the playoffs. In nine 2020 post-season appearances, Loup was effective in eight and allowed no home runs. He will certainly be in the late inning mix.

The rest of the bullpen may be something of a revolving door as pitchers shuttle back and forth to Syracuse depending on injuries, needs, effectiveness, and options. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Righties Robert Gsellman and Miguel Castro are likely to be on the opening day roster. The latter can strike batters out, but also gives up way too many walks. Gsellman can go multiple innings and start in a pinch, but it’s been a few seasons now since he’s been really effective.

Jacob Barnes, Franklyn Kilome, Sam McWilliams, Sean Reid-Foley, Drew Smith, Stephen Tarpley, Daniel Zamora Yennsy Diaz figure to battle for the last spot, along with a number of spring training invites, like Jerry Blevins, Tommy Hunter, Mike Montgomery, Arodys Vizcaino, Ryley Gilliam, and others. There’s something to be said for the old adage of “strength in numbers,” but by mid-season, the Mets will certainly have had an opportunity to get a sense of who, if any, of these cast-offs, journeyman, and upstarts is worthy of sticking around in Queens.

Our bullpen is deep in terms of live arms worth a look, but it’s remarkably shallow in terms of arms that Manager Luis Rojas and Mets fans can truly rely on. It would be great if Betances, Familia or Gsellman can make a comeback or if one of these other relievers could emerge, but at the moment it looks like we have four go-to arms and one is injured. This won’t be enough to get us through the long season. Hopefully, Sandy Alderson and Zack Scott can find one more bullpen addition over the next few weeks. Otherwise, this will be our biggest area of concern and may be worth revisiting at the mid-season trade deadline.