Billy Eppler has taken some criticism for how he’s handled both initial deployment and promotions for the four talented rookies on the Mets. Without a doubt, he deserves some flack here. Yet, we’re not even at the end of May and three of those four rookies are in the majors. It hasn’t been perfect – far from it – but Eppler and the Mets have been able to chart a better course on the fly and that’s important to remember. Not many GMs coming off a 101-win season would be eager to have multiple rookies on the Opening Day roster.
From the comfort of my home office, Francisco Alvarez would have opened the year in the majors if my title was Mets GM. Brett Baty would have been up about the same time that he was in real life. Mark Vientos would have been up sooner and Ronnie Mauricio would already have MLB playing time under his belt with me in charge. Here on May 20, if Eppler were to be graded on how he’s handled instituting the four promising hitters into a veteran team coming off a 101-win season, he’d probably get a B- or C+ from me. Not great but not awful, either.
Where Eppler really deserves to get more criticism is with how he assembled his bullpen.
The bullpen plan – one not born of necessity, but rather from the idea that this was the best approach – was to have five “locks” and then to have three positions comprised mostly from guys with options, meaning the club could move them up and down as needed to ensure that reasonably fresh arms were always available.
It absolutely made sense to have depth relievers available. What was negligent was to forego proven cheap options to focus on guys with options. If money was no obstacle, why would you prefer to have a bunch of fungible relievers instead of MLB-caliber guys at the back of your bullpen? Is it really preferable to cycle thru a bunch of pitchers with a 5.00 ERA and greater than to have veterans with a 3.00 ERA or under?
There are times you need to swap out your relievers because you need a fresh arm or two. And there’s times you need someone who doesn’t stink. And there have been too many relievers for the Mets this year who aren’t getting the job done, yet are pressed into action because there’s no one better. And it’s been made worse because of losing Edwin Diaz to injury. So, instead of five “locks,” the team’s bullpen has four locks and four prayers.
The situation is even worse because of the injury issues of the rotation. The starters’ inability to go deep in games has compounded the issue, not created it out of thin air. So, while we can say things wouldn’t be this dire if the SP were going 6 IP or more on a regular basis, it’s not like it would be all sunshine and lollipops if that were the case.
There have been seven depth relievers to throw at least seven innings for the Mets and the best of the lot has been Jeff Brigham, who has tossed 15 IP with a 3.00 ERA and a 0.800 WHIP. Those are fine numbers. But for this “fresh arm” approach to work, there has to be multiple guys who’ve appeared and done well. Besides Brigham, here are the other back-end relievers:
Tommy Hunter – 18.1 IP, 6.87 ERA, 1.364 WHIP
Stephen Nogosek – 17.2 IP, 4.58 ERA, 1.528 WHIP
John Curtiss – 13 IP, 4.85 ERA, 1.231 WHIP
Jimmy Yacabonis – 9 IP, 9.00 ERA, 1.778 WHIP
Dennis Santana – 8.2 IP, 6.23 ERA, 1.500 WHIP
Dominic Leone – 7.2 IP, 7.04 ERA, 1.826 WHIP
This sextet has combined for 74.1 IP and 51 ER, which is a 6.17 ERA. The average MLB reliever this year has a 4.07 ERA and a 1.312 WHIP. There have been some depth relievers who’ve pitched well in relief for the Mets but the team opted not to use them more. Denyi Reyes had 6.1 scoreless innings and they decided to make him a starter, which was a disaster. Edwin Uceta had 3.0 scoreless innings and then got sent down and is now hurt. Zach Muckenhirn has allowed 1 ER in 3.2 IP for a 2.45 ERA. But most of the six relievers – not you, Santana – with the bad stats also had good appearances early but got lit up with more exposure.
The four healthy remaining “locks” have pretty much performed as good or better than the Mets hoped. Brooks Raley’s overall line isn’t all that hot but in his third game of the season, he allowed 2 HR and 4 ER. In 11 appearances since then, Raley has a 1.64 ERA and a 1.091 WHIP. But even his overall numbers, skewed as they are by that one appearance, show a 4.05 ERA and a 1.200 WHIP – a slightly better-than-average reliever. It appears Eppler and the Mets did a good job of picking their front-end relievers.
But what if they emphasized more front-end relievers and looked to create a bullpen with more certainty?
If there’s one thing we know for sure about relievers, it’s that they’re fickle. Because of their relatively few innings pitched each year, it’s hard to claim a guy as “good” based on the results of one season. Shoot, the six guys listed above could all be really good in their next 20 appearances and flip the narrative. You wouldn’t want to wager on that outcome – but it’s a possibility.
The answer then is to look at a greater sample than just one season.
Let’s look at three free agent relievers the Mets could have signed, who inked one-year deals relatively late in the offseason. Let’s start with a reliever that many fans wanted the Mets to sign prior to the 2022 season and also one they coveted at the trade deadline last year – Andrew Chafin.
On 2/15, Chafin signed a one-year deal (with a club option) for $7.25 million. This might have been more than the Mets wanted to sink into the pen but it’s essentially what they’re paying Tommy Pham to be their fourth outfielder. Anyway, Chafin had a 2.83 ERA and a 1.169 WHIP last year. Lifetime he has a 3.26 ERA and a 1.227 WHIP in 417 IP. This season, Chafin has a 3.78 ERA with a 1.200 WHIP and six saves.
If Chafin was too rich for your blood, how about Brad Hand? On 3/4, he signed a one-year deal (with team option) for $1.5 million. Last year Hand had a 2.80 ERA and a 1.333 WHIP and lifetime he has a 3.61 ERA and a 1.243 WHIP in 734.2 IP. This season, Hand has a 3.31 ERA and a 1.163 WHIP, even while pitching his home games in Colorado.
On the same day that Hand signed, Will Smith also inked a $1.5 million deal, although without a team option. Last year, Smith had a 3.97 ERA and a 1.407 WHIP, although he was significantly better after joining the Astros. Lifetime, he has a 3.57 ERA and a 1.234 WHIP in 569 IP. This year, Smith has a 2.93 ERA and a 0.978 WHIP.
You can say this is cherry picking the relievers. But if you went into the process looking for relievers who were good both last year and in their careers – they would have been on the list. Instead, Eppler and the Mets went into the process looking for relievers with options.
Employing a “fresh arm” back of the pen is not necessarily a lousy option. But it’s safe to say that it’s a small-budget philosophy and one that the Steve Cohen Mets absolutely did not need to chase. For a little over $3 million – assuming they would have had to pay more to get them – the Mets could have had two more additional front-end type relievers with a history of success.
Hand and Smith have combined for a 3.13 ERA in 31.2 IP so far this year.
Assuming the Mets are in the hunt for a playoff spot, it’s almost a sure thing that they’ll be looking to add a reliever at the trade deadline. How much will they have to give up to get guys better than Hand and Smith, who were available for a song this offseason? This was an extremely easy thing to forecast, given who they opened up this season as relievers 5-8 in the pen.
Because they had so many free agents, so many moving parts to consider this past offseason, we can almost forgive them for their bullpen negligence. But hopefully without so many fish to fry in this upcoming offseason, they can have a better plan in assembling their pen. The Mets should absolutely spend some ashtray money to bring in quality relievers, rather than hoping to win at Reliever Roulette, which has failed them the past two offseasons.