The Mets made so many pitching moves before the 2019 season that some pundits and projections, including some as big as Fangraphs, ranked their bullpen as the fifth-best in MLB.
Of course, we all know how that turned out: not well, with an underwhelming failure to live up to projection led by Edwin Diaz's unthinkable implosion. Diaz, after a stellar 2018 season of 57 saves and 1.96 ERA in Seattle, finished 2019 with 5.59 ERA and hemorrhaged 15 home runs in the ninth inning, the most in MLB history. Despite pitching 15 1/3 fewer innings in 2019, Diaz gave up 10 more homers, 20 more earned runs, five more walks, and 17 more hits, and recorded only 26 saves to boot. Not surprisingly, the Mets blew a major-league-worst 20 saves by June 27 last year.
In a shorter-than-usual season, every team has a chance, but every team also needs to get off to a fast start – a 19-31 start through 50 games, like the one the Nationals got off to last season, is going to be a lot harder to recover from; in fact, this year, 31 losses guarantees a sub-.500 year.
And so, as the Mets prepare to open Summer Camp, it’s imperative – and even more so with Noah Syndergaard out for the year – for the Mets’ bullpen to be their strength this year.
Granted, the Nationals just won the World Series with an incredibly shaky bullpen, but that’s an incredibly rare feat. Some teams, like those Nats, get on an inexplicable roll and become impervious to their problems. A Bleacher Report study published on April 16 ranked every bullpen in baseball, and nine of the Top 10 bullpens this season are the relief corps of teams that made the playoffs last year.
To that end, the Mets signed former Yankees reliever Dellin Betances, who didn't pitch one full inning last year but has closer's stuff if he stays healthy enough and has been a workhorse when he is, and re-upped Brad Brach, who had fallen off from previous form but showed glimpses of a return late last season.
Those two will be huge, because it can't just be Seth Lugo saving the day for another season, without his arm falling off (he appeared in 61 games last year, which is more than will be played this year). Last year, beyond Diaz, 2018 revelation Robert Gsellman had a 4.66 ERA and Jeurys Familia was brutal in year one of his Big Apple sequel - 62 hits and 42 walks in 60 innings, with a dreadful 1.733 WHIP – leaving Justin Wilson as the team’s only other reliable reliever.
It helps to start the season with the best starter in baseball, Jacob deGrom, who should keep his crown for a third straight year after two Cy Young seasons. And, even without Syndergaard, the Mets do have a capable No. 2 in Marcus Stroman – but from there, it’s not quite “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” but the Mets’ back end is going to need some bullpen help, even with their two new additions.
Michael Wacha, who was a rotation question turned fifth starter with Syndergaard’s injury, is just 32-25 since he was a 17-7 All-Star in 2015, and last year was one of his worst: 6-7 with a .476 ERA, a demotion to the bullpen, and a single-season high 26 homers in 28 appearances.
Porcello, meanwhile, is only 31, but he's been pitching in the majors for 11 years, and like Wacha, last year was one of Porcello's worst. Since going 22-4 in 2016 and bagging the Cy Young Award with Boston, the New Jersey native has gone 32-36, and last season pitched to a career-worst 5.52 ERA. He also allowed 107 earned runs, the most of his career, to go with 45 walks and 198 hits in 174 1/3 innings.
And then there’s Steven Matz, the only southpaw in the rotation who has ace pedigree but hasn’t lived up to that as of yet. Despite the flashes of fabulous talent, the 29-year-old hasn't come close to a breakout season, and he enters 2020 with a 4.05 career ERA. He, too, struggled last year, posting a 4.21 ERA and allowing 27 homers in 2019, the same number yielded by the Mesozoic CC Sabathia in his final MLB season.
Somehow, despite their balky bullpen and mostly-faulty rotation, the Mets managed to win 86 games last year, even after starting 28-32 over 60 games. This year, the equivalent of that is maybe, say, a 10-12 record after 22 games leading to a 33-win season – and while anything is possible in a short season with expanded playoffs, that still might not be good enough.
Pitching has long been the Mets’ hallmark, or so it seems given the names in their rotation over the last half-decade. But for that to bear fruit this year, they actually have to pitch well. They simply can't vomit late-inning leads, so Betances must pitch to the back of his baseball card, Diaz better find his Mariners mojo, and the back end of that rotation has to look more like steals than stashes.
When it was a 162-game marathon starting in late-March, this season was to be sold to Mets fans as the follow-up to a sublime rookie season for Pete Alonso and the further blossoming of Jeff McNeil. Add in a healthy-ish Yoenis Cespedes here, another strong year from Michael Conforto there, and a return to form for the Nimmos and Canos of the lineup everywhere, and the Mets could have that formidable lineup every team fears.
But, no matter how they hit, the Mets need to pitch well – and pitch well early in the season – to have a real shot at a playoff spot on Sept 27. That group will be the one that tells us whether the 2020 Mets are the team that started 2019 40-50, or finished it 46-26.
And that’s huge, because even in this shortest and strangest of years, only the latter will likely get them invited to the playoff dance.