How can the Mets fix their bullpen over the final 44 games?
Originally, the Mets were banking on Jenrry Mejia and Jerry Blevins to provide quality options on both the right and left side of the bullpen down the stretch of the season, with Bobby Parnell serving in a role that would allow him to continue to build his strength and stamina while refining his mechanics to become a late-game weapon.
Unfortunately, the Mets will be without both Mejia and Blevins for the remainder of the season. That has forced Parnell to work his own issues out in the high-leverage situations originally meant for those other relievers, and for the club to take a gamble on Eric O’Flaherty, a roll of the dice they have not found many fortunes with so far this month.
So where does that leave the Mets? They need to figure out how to get a game to the likes of Tyler Clippard, Hansel Robles and Jeurys Familia right now, and the options are really rather thin.
Remember, once upon a time, a Mets bullpen contributed to the club blowing a very similar lead in the division with even fewer games to play. So it would behoove the Mets to mitigate this problem right now.
Here’s a look at some of the choices for the Mets…
Fixing the right side of the bullpen
Optioning Bobby Parnell to the minors.
Time is probably the cure for Parnell’s problems. But time is not on his or the Mets side right now as they’re in the middle of a pennant race with 44 games remaining.
The manager simply cannot afford to test Parnell in high leverage situations for the moment. He has a lot of work to do to straighten out his mechanics, and he has several walls to break through during this recovery from Tommy John Surgery before he even begins to resemble the pitcher he was from two years ago.
The problem is, the Mets consistently find themselves in high leverage situations late, thanks to an offense which is scuffling at the moment.
Parnell does have two options remaining, so the Mets could ask him to go down to Las Vegas, work with Frank Viola on his mechanics and arm strength and get himself ready for a September call-up.
The problem with that from the player’s perspective is certainly understandable. Because of his tenure, Parnell has to approve an optional minor league assignment. It’s hard to believe he would accept such a demotion with really no guarantee of being recalled, just two months away from free agency.
So, the Mets might be stuck burying Parnell in the bullpen in lieu of more reliable options. He would of course continue to work with Dan Warthen and Ricky Bones, two masters of fixing pitchers, and pray he can contribute over the final month of the season.
The alternatives to Parnell.
Erik Goeddel seems to be closing in on a return, potentially as soon as this week. He was very effective earlier this season thanks to a newly found split-fingered fastball and deciding to do away with his change-up which, as he put it earlier this season, “just wasn’t changing.”
He could slot in nicely as a seventh inning reliever, but if history is any indication, Terry Collins will give him time and essentially make him earn his job back as that handy man he was before going on the disabled list.
There’s also the curious case of Rafael Montero. He’s progressing on his rehab assignment with Single-A St. Lucie, having thrown three innings on Sunday as their starter, his second start on normal rest and third start since rebooting his rehab after a timely visit by Terry Collins in Port St. Lucie.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Mets decide to use Montero when he’s activated. Again, he’s working as a starter right now, but the Mets have a dire need for bullpen help in the immediate term. Since he’s now worked three innings in a start, perhaps the Mets will soon move him up to Binghamton or Las Vegas, transition him into the bullpen role, and see how he does pitching in back-to-back days.
On the other hand, he has dealt with a strained rotator cuff for most of the year, and the unpredictability of a bullpen role could conceivably do him more harm than good. He showed late last year he can pitch in this role – it could be more of a matter of how they feel his shoulder might respond in that situation.
There’s also Vic Black, who has had a trying season thanks to a pinched nerve in his neck caused by a herniated disc. But he has pitched well lately at Triple-A Las Vegas. His fastball velocity is back, and while he’s walking a few too many batters, he’s missing bats, and the Mets could use another weapon like that in the seventh and eighth innings right now.
Remember, when the Mets recalled Black last year from the minors, he was struggling with walks then, and he came up and had an excellent season with the big club.
Lastly, the Mets have Logan Verrett working as a starting pitcher right now. It seems likely either he or Montero will serve as a spot starter in the next turn or two through the rotation. They may only need to use that spot starter once, as Steven Matz is projected to return in early September, meaning both Verrett and Montero could be used in the bullpen when rosters expand in two weeks anyway.
Fixing the left side of the bullpen
What to do with Eric O’Flaherty?
O’Flaherty has been underwhelming since joining the Mets, but they seemed inclined to ride O’Flaherty out for the time being.
It’s unfair to rate O’Flaherty’s performance and effectiveness if Terry Collins is not going to use him to face one left-handed hitter at a time. That’s what he’s good at – getting left-handed hitters out. Sure, he did not do that on Sunday, and it’s fair to say he’s been inconsistent in doing that since being acquired. But his track record is too good to ignore, and the Mets are only minimally invested in him right now as well, meaning there’s no harm in fairly examining him going forward.
Besides, the Mets have absolutely no other left-handed reliever who can get lefties out consistently right now. Sean Gilmartin seems to have found a niche for himself as a cross-over long reliever, and he has been very effective in that role over the last month. There’s no reason to fix a part of this bullpen which is not broken, and Gilmartin is not broken in long relief.
Shop for another reliever?
The Mets could conceivably browse the waiver wire for another left-handed reliever on the trade market. But as was the case with O’Flaherty, the choices mainly come down to guys who have struggled and have significant salary tied to them. Like O’Flaherty, they can be had, but the Mets need a sure thing from the left-side at this point. and that’s hard to find this time of year.
Anyone they might acquire would come with uncertainty, and while there’s no question the Mets need to explore this avenue, they may come up empty in finding a solution.
Is there anyone in the minors who can help?
One pitcher who has garnered a lot of attention in their system this year is LHP Josh Smoker.
He’s a left-handed fireballer who has absolutely torn up the Eastern League since being promoted from Single-A St. Lucie to Double-A Binghamton. He has notched 22 strikeouts with only four walks in 15 2/3 innings for the B-Mets.
There are a couple of problems with Smoker. For one, he’s raw, as he only got to Double-A in early July. The other problem is, he has reverse splits – he’s held right-handed hitters to a .193 average, and left-handed hitters to a .255 average.
While he may come up here and miss some bats, the Mets need a guy for the bullpen who can get come in, pitch to one left-handed hitter, and call it a day. Smoker may not be the guy for that role, although its conceivable he could earn a promotion when rosters expand anyway.
The Mets could take another look at Scott Rice, who on the surface has had a nice year for Las Vegas. But like Smoker, Rice has reverse splits, making him more of a cross-over reliever who relies heavily on a well spotted sinker ball for success.
There’s also Dario Alvarez, who got a brief cup of coffee with the Mets late last year and auditioned for a left-handed relief role during spring training.
He started his season with Double-A Binghamton, impressed and was transferred to Triple-A Las Vegas, where he has been absolutely fabulous, allowing only one run while striking out 14 batters in only eight innings.
What’s more, Alvarez has held left-handed hitters to a .119 average this season, suggesting he is at least capable of getting it done at the big league level.
It’s worth noting among these options, only Alvarez is on the 40-man roster, a roster which lacks a lot of flexibility at the moment.
It’s safe to say the Mets middle relief problems will have to be solved internally, both with some roster tweaking and general improvement from those who are on the roster.
Fortunately, the Mets do have some experience they can turn to, they’re getting healthier, and therefore can be deeper in short order with a few roster moves. They all come with their share of uncertainty, but given how the bullpen is functioning at the moment, those are gambles the Mets may simply be forced to take.