In Need of Bullpen Fortification, Mets Take a Chance with Betances

Despite best-laid plans, seemingly nothing went right for the Mets’ bullpen in 2019, and the same can be said for Dellin Betances. The team is hoping both can change their luck in 2020, and earlier this week signed the 31-year-old righty to a one-year, $10.5 million deal that includes both a player option for 2021 and a vesting option for ’22. Though the move is hardly inexpensive or risk-free, it’s a worthwhile gamble on a reliever who prior to missing nearly all of the past season due to injuries spent five years as one of the AL’s best and most dominant with the crosstown Yankees.

After throwing more innings out of the bullpen than any other pitcher from 2014-18 (373.1), Betances didn’t complete a single frame at the major league level in 2019. First, his arrival in camp was delayed by the birth of his son, and after he showed diminished velocity in a March 17 Grapefruit League appearance, he was diagnosed with shoulder impingement. He began the regular season on the injured list, and worked towards a return, but following a rough showing during an April 11 simulated game, he received a cortisone shot for shoulder inflammation, a problem that was soon linked to a bone spur that the Yankees — but not the pitcher — had known about since 2006, the year they drafted him in the eighth round out of a Brooklyn high school. Moved to the 60-day injured list, Betances ramped up towards a return, but renewed soreness led to a June 11 MRI, which revealed that he’d suffered a low-grade lat strain. He finally began a rehab assignment with the Trenton Thunder on September 6, during the Eastern League playoffs, and made three postseason appearances for them before being activated by the Yankees, who hoped that he would augment their bullpen for the postseason.

Betances made his lone major league appearance for the season on September 15, striking out both Blue Jays he faced (Reese McGuire and Brandon Drury) and topping out at 95 mph. After the second strikeout, he did the slightest of celebratory hops and landed awkwardly on his left foot. Watch here around the 15-second mark:

What you just saw was the 6-foot-8, 265-pound righty suffer a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon, a freak injury that knocked Betances out for the remainder of the season, though it apparently wasn’t severe enough to require surgery. By comparison, Yankees teammate Zack Britton, who suffered a rupture (full tear) of his right Achilles in December 2017 while he was still an Oriole, underwent surgery on December 21 of that year, made his first rehab outing just over five months later (May 30, 2018), and his major league season debut on June 12 of that year, inside of six months. All of which is to say that it’s reasonable to hope that Betances will be ready to start the season. He’s been working with Dr. Martin O’Malley, an orthopedic surgeon who’s accustomed to working with the feet of big athletes; he serves as the foot and ankle specialist for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, and has operated on Kevin Durant twice, first for a broken foot in 2015 and then for his torn Achilles in June.

Beyond the health of Betances’ landing foot is the question of his mileage. From 2014-18, he made at least 66 appearances in every season, and totaled more appearances (349) than any reliever besides Bryan Shaw (369), Tony Watson (368), Cody Allen and Tyler Clippard (both 352). His performance was elite by most measures. Among relievers with at least 200 innings thrown in that span, his 2.22 ERA ranks fifth, his 2.26 FIP fourth behind only Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Kenley Jansen, his 40.3% strikeout rate third behind only Chapman (42.2%) and Craig Kimbrel (40.5%), and his 11.2 WAR second behind Chapman (11.3). Due to the comings and goings of David Robertson, Miller, and Chapman in the Yankees’ bullpen, Betances has only intermittently served as a closer, notching 36 saves in that span, and far more often serving as a multi-inning setup man; his 84 appearances of at least 1.1 innings trailed only Yusmeiro Petit (127), Dan Otero (96), and Adam Warren (92) during that 2014-18 stretch, though the Yankees began dialing that down in recent years, using him in that capacity just six times in 2017 and four in ’18.

Velocity-wise, according to Pitch Info, Betances’ average four-seam fastball has ranged from a low of 97.6 (2014) to a high of 98.4 (2016 and ’17); he was at 97.9 in ’18. Via Baseball Savant, he topped 100 mph 105 times from 2015-18, the majors’ 11th-highest total, but hit triple digits only seven times in 2018.

Contract-wise, Betances is guaranteed $7.5 million for 2020, with a $6 million player option and $3 million buyout for ’21. That player option will escalate by $800,000 if he reaches 40 appearances, and by an additional $1 million upon hitting the 50, 60, and 70 appearance thresholds; given that it maxes out at $9.8 million, he’s likely to turn that down if he pitches that often and remains healthy, though in that event he can be given a qualifying offer. His vesting option for 2022 is basically a safety net, as it guarantees him only $1 million, $2 million, or $3 million, depending upon him making 50, 60, or 70 appearances in ’21. From a payroll standpoint, the signing was apparently made possible by the restructuring of Yoenis Céspedes‘ deal in the wake of a grievance concerning the right ankle fracture he suffered in 2019 while recovering from surgeries on both heels. Per Roster Resource, the Mets are less than half a million dollars below the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, but arbitration awards, bonuses, benefits, and insurance payments cloud the picture to a greater degree than with most teams.

Even if Betances can’t quite approach the dominance he showed during his Yankees days, the Mets can use his help. With trade acquisition Edwin Díaz and free agent returnee Jeurys Familia both flopping in spectacular fashion in 2019, the unit had the NL’s sixth-highest FIP (4.71), third-highest ERA (4.99), and fourth-lowest WAR (0.7). Díaz (58 IP, 5.59 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 0.0 WAR) missed bats aplenty but was lit for 2.3 homers per nine; he dealt with trapezius tightness in late August, but still notched 26 of the team’s 38 saves. Familia (60 IP, 5.70 ERA, 4.88 FIP, -0.2 WAR), spent a total of 27 days on the injured list due to shoulder soreness and an impingement. He didn’t notch a single save in 2019, that after saving 94 games for the team in 2015-16 but just 23 in the next two seasons before being traded to the A’s in late ’18. Seth Lugo was the team’s only reliable reliever over the course of the full season, amassing 2.2 WAR in 80 innings, which means that the rest of the ‘pen was 1.5 wins below replacement level.

With the signings of free agent starters Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha — one of whom will join the rotation quartet of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz, barring injuries — the Mets will be able to keep Lugo in the pen (understandably, not his preference). Righties Brad Brach (who pitched well after being signed in August following his release by the Cubs) and Robert Gsellman and lefty Justin Wilson (who missed 10 weeks due to elbow soreness) are penciled in for supporting roles, though none has been so perennially consistent and/or healthy to be locks. Regardless, if at least a couple of the big guns can recover their dominant form, the bullpen could be a strength for the Mets, but a 2018 calendar isn’t walking through that door.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

This was a move the Mets had to make, and I could argue they need another pen arm considering the minor league depth has not been able to take the next step at the MLB level and there’s no telling how a Wacha/Matz would respond there full time. While a Kintzler would be a fair option, I can see them re-upping with the likes of an Avilan and a few other minor league invites.

4 years ago
Reply to  MrMet33

Agreed. The lack of upper minor league depth has been a significant issue whenever injuries/general ineffectiveness have struck, both with respect to the pen and, particularly, the rotation. That is precisely why innings-eater types are so important even if their numbers would seem to be mediocre on the surface; at least that way you wouldn’t be giving innings to well-below-replacement-level players, which is something the Mets have allowed to happen far too often, even last year.

Of course, the flip side of the argument is that it’s hard to stock your upper minor league depth with decent arms since, well, them being too decent would mean they’d likely require a major league deal to land. Regardless, stocking up on some Avilan-type minor league deals would be critical in order to weather the inevitable storm. Heck, I’d even look to make some very minor trades in order to bring in some additional depth there. Frankly, I’m just tired of seeing guys like Walker Lockett being given any number of innings with the big club.

4 years ago
Reply to  shadowmoses

Well said. One of the things the Mets desperately needed, and that BVW failed miserably at, was a raft of AAAA caliber players in Syracuse, guys who could come up and be at least replacement level players. Instead the depth was so bad the Mets had to deal a live arm for Wilmer Font as early as May, and troll for other team’s DFAs like Altherr, who was predictably awful.

Iirc the sub-replacement level players on the Mets cost them close to 7 WAR. On contenders it’s often half that. Those 3-4 wins are routinely the difference between making the postseason and not, and thus far it doesn’t look as if BVW is doing anything differently in stocking Syracuse and Binghamton with players who can give the team a 4.50-4.80 ERA in 15-20 pitches a couple of times a week, or a 0.0 WAR backing up CF or C or the MI.