Mets position analysis: Club hoping for a bullpen bounce-back

During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Mets position by position. We already covered first base, second base, shortstop, third base, catcher, centerfield, leftfield, rightfield and the rotation. To conclude, the bullpen.

The relievers: Tasked with repairing a bullpen that had the second-highest ERA in franchise history, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and the front office decided in the offseason to double down. Figure that Edwin Diaz, a marquee addition in Van Wagenen’s first offseason in charge, would pitch more like his Seattle self. Bet that a slimmed-down Jeurys Familia, who got a three-year contract right after the Diaz trade, would bounce back. And hope that someone else would emerge as reliable.

The Mets added only one major-league reliever — Dellin Betances, a perennial All-Star who pitched in just one game for the Yankees last year because of injuries — and are looking for internal improvement to make up the rest of that ground.

That trio, plus Seth Lugo, the team’s best reliever the past two seasons, constitute the late-innings core. Also on major-league contracts and in line for potentially significant roles: Justin Wilson, Robert Gsellman and Brad Brach.

At the time of baseball’s halting in March, the eighth bullpen spot looked as if it would be filled by a starter squeezed out of the rotation, maybe Steven Matz or Michael Wacha. Now, with the Mets likely to carry more than eight relievers under any expanded-rosters scenario for 2020, the bubble relievers from March have better chances: Chasen Shreve, who was in camp on a minor-league deal; Drew Smith, who was finishing his Tommy John surgery rehab during spring training, and Jacob Rhame, who is out of minor-league options.

But the bottom of that depth chart is irrelevant if the top of it doesn’t perform as expected. Diaz, Familia and Betances have the ability to make or break the Mets’ season.

The other options: Remember all those trades of veteran players in 2017 and 2018 that brought back minor-league relievers? None of them have worked out so far — and a bunch are no longer with the Mets — but there still is hope.

Smith, the Mets’ return for Lucas Duda in 2017, showed promise before missing last season because of injury. Stephen Nogosek (Addison Reed trade) and Ryder Ryan (the first Jay Bruce trade) were in big-league camp. And Rhame (Curtis Granderson trade) still is with the Mets.

Among the other fill-in bullpen candidates who have seen time with the Mets in recent years: Tyler Bashlor, Paul Sewald and Daniel Zamora, plus starters-by-trade Walker Lockett (out of options) and Corey Oswalt. Ryley Gilliam, Stephen Villines and Ryan are among the interesting names who haven’t debuted yet.

The future: If you can predict which relievers will be effective in a year — never mind two or three or more years from now — there are about 30 major-league teams who want to hire you.

But Diaz remains a key piece of the Mets’ bullpen plan. He is not scheduled to be a free agent until after the 2022 season, which is part of the reason the Mets were willing to give up so much — hello, Jarred Kelenic — to get him.

Bullpen prospects are tricky. Very few are drafted and developed as true relievers. Nearly all major-league relievers — including the Mets’ quartet of Diaz, Lugo, Betances and Familia — are converted starters.

Perhaps lefthander Thomas Szapucki, who is one of the Mets’ better pitching prospects but who has dealt with a lot of arm issues in his five years as a pro, will make that change. Same goes for righthander Jordan Humphreys, also a 2015 draft pick. And there is a chance that Franklyn Kilome, whom the Mets got for Asdrubal Cabrera in 2018, will end up in the bullpen.