Mets Target A Particular Reliever Type In 2017 Deadline Deals
The 2017 Mets, despite having largely the same personnel, barely resembled the team that rode a young power pitching staff all the way to the 2015 World Series.
Scoring runs wasn't the problem. In the first half of 2017, before they traded four regular position players, the Mets ranked third in the National League with a 102 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) that signified they had a slightly above-average offense.
No, the Mets racked up 92 losses* because their pitching staff recorded 5.01 ERA that ranked third-worst in baseball. Ace Jacob deGrom remained healthy and effective in 2017, but no other starter could say the same. Noah Syndergaard made just seven starts, while Matt Harvey (6.70 ERA), Zack Wheeler (5.21) and Steven Matz (6.08) fell short of 100 innings while also allowing too many runs. Depth starters Robert Gsellman (5.19 ERA), Rafael Montero (5.52), Seth Lugo (4.71) and Chris Flexen (7.88) assumed many of the lost innings but weren't ready for regular rotation work, like the 2015 group had been when they were first- and second-year big league starters.**
As bad as the Mets' rotation fared, they still recorded the fifth-highest average fastball velocity in the majors (94.1 mph), and the group has significant rebound potential in 2018 based on past success.
The same was not true for New York's bullpen in 2017, which received just 24.2 innings from all-star closer Jeurys Familia. Mets relievers averaged 92.9 mph on their fastballs, according to FanGraphs.com data, to rank 29th out of 30 teams and ahead of only the Twins. Mets relievers also ranked next-to-last with a 4.82 ERA, a 1.49 WHIP and a walk rate of 4.25 per nine innings. They ranked 28th by allowing 1.36 home runs per nine innings.
In this context, the Mets' acquisition strategy at the 2017 trade deadline begins to make sense. General manager Sandy Alderson traded five pending free agents in July and August—right fielder Jay Bruce, first baseman Lucas Duda, outfielder Curtis Granderson, closer Addison Reed and second baseman Neil Walker—and brought back seven righthanded minor league relievers in return.
Alderson also traded two low-level prospects to acquire Marlins closer A.J. Ramos, who is under contract through 2018.
None of the seven prospect relievers had any big league experience, however, and none entered the 2017 season ranked particularly high on their organizations' prospect lists. On top of that, reliever prospects are notoriously volatile because while less is asked of them in terms of workload, more is expected precisely because of that smaller workload. A string of bad outings can drop a reliever down the depth chart—and out of favor.
However, the Mets didn't choose their trade targets at random. They had a type in mind. All seven relievers throw riding, high-spin fastballs that can reach the mid- to upper 90s and generate swings and misses above the barrel. Several of them throw sharp breaking pitches as well.
A thumbnail look at the imported relievers, with Opening Day age and primary level this season.
Jamie Callahan (Triple-A) Age: 23. Average velocity: 96 mph. Second pitch: 87-91 mph swing-and-miss slider.
Jacob Rhame (Triple-A) Age: 25. Average velocity: 95 mph. Second pitch: low-80s changeup with good separation.
Drew Smith (Double-A) Age: 24. Average velocity: 96 mph. Second pitch: 78-82 mph high-spin curveball.
Gerson Bautista (high Class A) Age: 22. Average velocity: 99 mph. Second pitch: 90 mph firm changeup.
Eric Hanhold (high Class A) Age: 24. Average velocity: 95 mph. Second pitch: 86-90 mph power slider.
Stephen Nogosek (high Class A) Age: 23. Average velocity: 94 mph. Second pitch: 85-90 mph hard slider.
Ryder Ryan (low Class A) Age: 22. Average velocity: 95 mph. Second pitch: 81-85 mph slider with depth.
Callahan and Rhame made their major league debuts as September callups, and Smith and Bautista could be on deck for 2018.
With their deadline trades, the Mets sought to build depth in their relief corps to navigate the long season—and potential postseason. The club points to trades of pitching prospects like Luis Cessa, John Gant, Matt Koch, Casey Meisner, Akeel Morris, Rob Whalen and Brad Wieck for diminishing their depth of power arms. Keep in mind, New York also parted with Michael Fulmer to acquire Yoenis Cespedes as it leveraged its pitching depth to acquire big league pieces to augment playoff rosters in 2015 and 2016.
In all likelihood, only one or two of the imported relievers will make an impact with the Mets.*** A few others will receive big league looks. One or two won’t reach the majors at all. That’s the nature of minor league relievers—and why teams generally target minor league starters who are candidates to convert to the bullpen.
But the novelty of the Mets’ acquisition strategy is what makes it interesting, and with the line between starter and reliever blurring a little more each season, and with many teams stashing a cadre of power arms with minor league options at Triple-A, perhaps this course of action will bear fruit.
* The Mets will pick sixth overall in the 2018 draft.
** The hiring of former Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway as manager makes a ton of sense in this light.
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*** A number of pitchers signed by the Mets, such as Ty Bashlor, Matt Blackham, P.J. Conlon, Corey Taylor and Adonis Uceta, also will vie for bullpen innings in coming seasons.