The Mets have articulated a strong commitment to restructuring the bullpen on several occasions this offseason, and while their unofficial (albeit expected) acquisition of Edwin Diaz and rumored interest in David Robertson and Andrew Miller would surely project well in 2019, depth is a particularly desperate issue that the front office would be wise to approach proactively.
Among the relievers who were acquired and/or promoted either mid-season or invited to spring training via minor league contract (thus discounting expected forces like AJ Ramos, Anthony Swarzak, and Jerry Blevins, who were expected to serve as key pieces rather than depth), the number is an even uglier 5.82. A motley crew featuring (but not limited to) such reinforcements as Tim Peterson, Gerson Bautista, Paul Sewald, Chris Beck, and Jacob Rhame combined for a -1.6 fWAR. Simply put, the team failed to adequately prepare for the instances of injuries and/or ineptitude that necessitated replacements, and it had unsurprisingly brutal consequences.
While minimal output itself should come as no surprise considering we are discussing replacement-level players, such insecurities will still need to be tied down should the Mets expect to contend next year. As a point of reference, a similarly eclectic bottom of the barrel in the Dodgers’ bullpen combined for a much more tolerable -0.1 fWAR. Putting stock in the right pieces may seem a crapshoot, but picking out the right fringe players tends to separate great and average bullpens. Here are a few possible names that, while inconsequential relative to the rest of the free agent pool, could still have an impact in small roles next season:
Potentially the most coveted pitcher in this group (though not saying much), Cedeño was recently non-tendered by the Milwaukee Brewers despite only allowing one run in his eight innings with the team over the last month of 2018. The 32-year old left-hander overcame bouts with forearm tightness in 2017 to deliver a stellar 2.84 ERA in 33 appearances with the Chicago White Sox before being claimed and traded via waivers.
Since 2015, Cedeño has enjoyed marginal success as a situational lefty, though garnering a smidge under $3MM and combining for a 2.1 bWAR and 1.0 fWAR in that time. Lefties have struggled to a .204/.264/.271 line with just two homers in 264 total plate appearances in that time. Cedeño’s 2.50 FIP in that time is the fifth-best mark among lefties. A walk-rate of 4.3 per nine innings last year is a cause for concern on. the surface, but it should be noted that only a quarter of such passes came in high leverage spots last year. As a third-string lefty behind Daniel Zamora and a larger-scale acquisition, it’s hard to make a case against Cedeño’s value.
The oldest arm on this list at the ripe age of 35, Barnette was signed out of Japan for the 2016 season and has spent the last three years in a middle relief role, though a portion of the past two years on the disabled list as well with back and shoulder problems. Having 72 total appearances to his name the last two years, Barnette still grades out well as a groundball pitcher with pinpoint control to complement a deceptive delivery.
Prior to hitting the disabled list with a shoulder malady that didn’t improve, Barnette had allowed just one earned run with 12 strikeouts and two walks in his last 13.1 innings, and his 5.20 K/BB ratio on the year more than doubled his ratio from the 2017 season (2.59). For his career, National League hitters are slashing just .203/.243/.344. Make no mistake, his ceiling in the Mets’ bullpen would rival that of a Carlos Torres or Jim Henderson in recent years, but Barnette could still come in handy – and at an inarguably cheap price, to boot.
Before front offices were trying to pry Edwin Diaz from the hands of the Seattle Mariners, it was Carson Smithwhom teams had an eye on in 2015 – albeit not nearly as keenly as with as elite a closer as Diaz. After all, Smith had only worked one year in Seattle to that point, much of it in a setup role. There was very obvious potential, however, as evidenced by his 2.32 ERA, 11.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.4 bWAR, and 2.1 fWAR in 70 games; and the Boston Red Sox would ultimately pounce, sending back Wade Miley and prospects.
What followed was an underwhelming three years in which Smith rehabbed his way back from mid-2016 Tommy John surgery, tossed just 6.2 innings in 2017, and underwent surgery in July 2018 to repair a labrum he partially tore throwing his glove in frustration. In 18 games this past year, Smith posted a 3.77 ERA and 3.72 FIP while averaging 3.8 BB/9 and 1.3 HR/9. In fairness to the 29-year old, he looked poised for a rebound as he had lowered his ERA by nearly two full runs heading into the fallout, with opposing hitters combining for a .607 OPS over the two-week stretch.
Smith’s dilemma as an oft-injured hurler is, on one hand, a certain deterrent for any team in need of an accomplished, stalwart reliever to whom they can offer a big-league deal. Even so, a 63.9% groundball rate and pronounced, 80.4% strand rate, and 3.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his five fragmented years in the majors are well worth taking a flier on.
At one time a regular in the Colorado Rockies’ rotation, Lyles has struggled to find a permanent home since being released mid-2017. He was left off the Brewers’ postseason roster after being acquired during August waivers from the San Diego Padres, with whom he made just eight starts, and on the surface made little contribution.
What tends to fall by the wayside with the right-hander Lyles is that he held up perfectly fine in a diminished role, specifically working long relief. Upon closer inspection, his 3.32 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 9.7 K/9 through 40.2 innings illuminate the reality of a season in which, after early success, the 28-year old was stretched beyond his limits, confirmed by a .806 opponent OPS and 4.79 ERA in games started.
Lyles’ makeup has changed quite a bit since the start of the 2017 season, but it’s come with a steady increase in strikeouts (5.8 per nine as a Rockie to 8.0 since 2017) against a precipitous decline in walks (3.6 per nine to 2.8). As he became more comfortable with a new curveball and further refined his sinker, Lyles’ average fastball velocity of 94.6 mph (per Pitch Info) made for a new career high. Giving Lyles a minor-league deal and testing his niche out of the bullpen is a realistic, low-risk, high-reward move more teams should consider, particularly the Mets, who know the benefits firsthand from Lugo and Gsellman.
Like Cedeño, Parker is a newcomer to this year’s free agent class after the Los Angeles Angels declined to tender him a contract for the 2019 season. Despite have seven years of experience in a big-league clubhouse, Parker only enjoyed a regular role in a bullpen with the Angels, and only has two years closing to show for it.
In many ways, 2018 marked a marginal step back for the 33-year-old Parker, whose groundball rate fell from 47% in 2017 to just 33.7% in 2018 as he allowed 12 homers in his 66.1 innings of work, bringing his FIP (4.40) over a full run above his ERA (3.26). One thing that remained constant between both years was Parker’s proficiency with the splitter, which has combined for 8.3 runs above average since he arrived in Anaheim – the third-best figure in the majors among relievers. His walk-rate also remained in the vicinity of 2.3 per nine innings.
With the Mets spread across the map searching for potential setup men behind Edwin Diaz, Parker doesn’t exactly stack up with the more glamorous names, nor should he. As a benign depth experiment, however, signing Parker to a minor league contract would be painless. His 84.9% strand rate and .598 opponent OPS in high leverage spots across the past two years could prove to be an asset, even in a small role akin to that of Drew Smith or Tyler Bashlor last season.