The New York Mets need to adjust their philosophy on how to build a major league bullpen, and that starts with transitioning some of their starting pitching depth into relievers.
Mets fans have been conditioned to despise this philosophy because of its failure with Jenrry Mejia, as well as from witnessing how the New York Yankees mishandled the briefly promising Joba Chamberlain. However, the track record of starting pitchers beginning their careers as relievers is relatively successful.
The St. Louis Cardinals are perennial World Series contenders and usually have among the best bullpens in baseball because of this philosophy.
Adam Wainwright is currently among the best starters in baseball, but he began his big league career as the Cardinals' closer, and as most Mets fans likely remember, ended the Mets' 2006 playoff run.
This season, their bullpen includes top starting pitching prospect Carlos Martinez, as well as the dominant Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal was an elite starting pitching prospect, but he has found a home in the Cardinals' bullpen as a star.
Lance Lynn is their No. 3 starter, yet in his rookie season in 2011, he started just two games in the majors while coming out of the bullpen in 16.
The Cardinals are able to do this because they have a consistent supply of power starting pitching prospects, giving the organization depth that most teams would love to have. Under general manager Sandy Alderson, the Mets have accrued some of the best starting pitching depth in baseball, yet they still have one of the worst bullpens.
Mets fans dream of a future rotation led by Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, but that leaves only two spots for Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese, Mejia, Rafael Montero and any of the other promising young starters in the system.
Gee doesn’t become a free agent until 2017, and Niese is one of the best bargains in baseball with his team-friendly contract running through 2018. Both have proven they can be effective starters for entire seasons and also don’t have the type of pitching arsenals that project to greater bullpen success. As long as they are healthy and on the roster, they will be in the rotation, but if pitchers like Montero and Syndergaard pan out as stars, both could be valuable trade chips.
Mejia is a wild card, as he is a rare case of a pitcher who has consistently succeeded when healthy as a starter but has struggled every time he’s been used as a reliever. He has also never thrown over 100 innings in a season, so there are major questions as to whether or not he could hold up physically under a starter’s workload. As long as he is healthy, the Mets should use him in the rotation, but because of his size and injury history, his future could still be in the bullpen.
While Mets fans have been spoiled in recent years with the success of pitching prospects, specifically Harvey, it is also possible that Syndergaard, Montero and maybe even Wheeler do not pan out as starters. Pitcher health is also very fickle, as arm injuries can ruin careers quickly.
The Mets' depth has them prepared for injuries and busts, but that doesn’t mean that they should keep their most talented pitchers in the minors as starters. The Cardinals have proven that transitioning young pitchers between the rotation and bullpen doesn’t ruin arms, and at some point the Mets will need to make decisions about whom they try to move to the bullpen.
Right now, both Syndergaard and Montero need to remain starters. The Mets are strict with their innings limits, increasing them every year with the hopes that the starters will eventually build up the strength to handle 200-inning seasons in the majors.
Montero pitched 155.1 innings last season, so he should pitch around 180 innings this year. Syndergaard only pitched 117.1 innings, so the Mets likely won't let him throw more than 150.
If the Mets move either to the bullpen too soon, they won't come close to their innings limits, which will impact their futures as starters. However, as both approach their limits, and if the Mets are contending in the summer, the team shouldn’t hesitate to move them to the major league bullpen.
Pitchers such as Jacob deGrom should start getting time in the bullpen as soon as possible or should be added to the Mets' bullpen later this month if they pitch well to begin the season.
The group of prospects below Montero and Syndergaard still project as starters in the long term, but they lack the same ceilings and are much more likely to be relievers throughout their careers.
DeGrom is the most promising of the group, as he could be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter in the future. However, he has the type of pitching arsenal that could make him a well-above-average reliever soon.
When pitchers are moved from the rotation to the bullpen, their stuff often ticks up because they can exert more energy per pitch rather than saving their stamina over the course of a start. DeGrom currently has a mid-90s sinking fastball, but this already very good pitch could conceivably become devastating if he is moved to the pen.
Verrett’s stuff could also tick up if moved into a bullpen role, although less so than deGrom’s. He currently averages around 90 miles per hour with his fastball and complements it with a tight slider.
If Verrett added some velocity to his fastball by working out of the bullpen and combined it with his slider and pitchability, he could be a better option than many of the Mets’ current relievers.
Cory Mazzoni is currently out with a minor injury, but he should be used in the bullpen when he returns, as he could be major league ready very soon.
Darin Gorski is a left-handed starter currently in Double-A Binghamton, but there is no reason he shouldn’t be working as a reliever. He is 26 years old and has dominated Double-A, but he struggled mightily in Triple-A last season.
With all of the starters ahead of Gorski on the Mets’ depth chart, he will likely never start in New York. The Mets need to capitalize on all their talent, and seeing if Gorski can have a career as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen is a logical move.
Fans often cite pitchers such as Vic Black and Jack Leathersich as part of the future bullpen. While they very well could be, there is a great misconception among fans about reliever prospects: Most of the best relievers in the majors came up as starters.
When a pitcher is working out of the bullpen in the minor leagues, it is usually because he is not good enough to start or he has a major hole in his game (poor command, lack of a third pitch, small frame). Starting pitching prospects are much more valuable than relieving prospects, so teams keep pitchers in the rotation as long as they can.
Leathersich and Black were both starters in college, but because of command issues and awkward mechanics, they were quickly moved into the bullpen upon entering the minors. Pitchers like deGrom and Verrett are still starting games in the minors because they are deemed good enough by the Mets as starters, yet their long- and short-term value to the Mets could be greater as relievers.
Future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera was exclusively a starting pitching prospect upon entering the big leagues, as was former Met Billy Wagner. While I’m not saying that any of the Mets prospects will be as good as Rivera or Wagner, some starters find a home in the bullpen once transitioned.
The Mets haven’t had a good bullpen since 2006 when they last made the playoffs, so clearly they’ve been doing it the wrong way.
Dedicating a significant amount of money to building a bullpen is risky and often ineffective. Relievers are often overvalued on the open market, as their performance varies on a year-to-year basis. For example, Ramon Ramirez and Frank Francisco were both stud relievers prior to joining the Mets, but became relatively useless upon arriving in New York.
The best bullpens in baseball come from the teams with the greatest organizational pitching depth. The Mets are now one of those teams, but their weak bullpen is still holding back their success.
It might be a little early to expect the Mets to call up pitchers like Verrett and Gorski, but deGrom should be a member of the bullpen by the end of April.
Sometimes pitching prospects flame out or develop injuries when moved back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, but those things could happen to any pitching prospect. The Cardinals have proven that bringing up starters as relievers doesn’t ruin them or prevent them from becoming starters in the long run.
The Mets’ starting pitching depth is great, but it needs to be utilized in the near future to help fill out the major league bullpen if the Mets want to have any hope of relevancy this season.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.