Mets Hope for Manaea Happy Returns

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

For the last two offseasons, the Mets have operated with shock and awe, signing every free agent that wasn’t nailed down en route to building a team that could trade blows with the Braves atop the NL East. As you may have heard, that didn’t exactly pan out. So this offseason, they’re taking a new tack with a string of interesting signings that play below the top of the market. That trend continued over the weekend, when the Mets signed Sean Manaea to a two-year, $28 million deal, as Jon Heyman first reported.

As Kyle Kishimoto noted in our free agent preview, Manaea spent 2023 swinging wildly between roles for a Giants team that needed pitching help all over the place. He was a starter, long reliever, setup guy, whatever the situation demanded. He performed adequately in that tough job, but when he opted out of his contract after the season, it seemed likely that he’d look for a full-time starting spot. That’s where he’ll slot in on the Mets, who have spent the offseason remaking a rotation that had a lot of holes to fill after 2023’s trade spree.

Manaea is a tricky pitcher to pin down. He’s a sinker-dominant lefty – only maybe it’s a four-seamer, or at least it behaves a lot like one if it’s not. Increasingly, he uses that pitch, which has more arm-side movement than ride, to miss bats and complement his slider and changeup. He’s a soft-tosser – only he added a few ticks of velocity in 2023. That wasn’t a fluke of his usage, either; he averaged 93.4 mph as a starter and 93.6 mph as a reliever after sitting 89-91 for the last half decade.

It gets weirder than that. His slider and changeup don’t really look like good out pitches. Stuff+ and PitchingBot metrics agree that both are slightly below-average in stuff, though they both agree that he commands them well. So he’s a command-first guy – except he issues walks and records strikeouts at higher-than-league-average rates. His changeup has historically been his best pitch – only it looked much worse in 2023, with a 9% swinging strike rate, even as his overall results improved. His slider is a strange one, too; it’s a slow gyro offering that ties batters in knots when they swing, but doesn’t induce a ton of chases.

Put another way: Sean Manaea is an enigma. I’m almost certain that he’s a good pitcher, but I’d struggle to explain exactly why. He’s consistently delivered innings-eater type results, but the way he does it has changed over time. His changeup is his best pitch in terms of results – but he’s been far worse against righties than lefties. And last year’s data is confused by that hybrid role. Projection systems think he’s somewhere around league average, but they’re not at all sure of what his role will be, which makes that projection much more tenuous.

In some ways, that uncertainty suits the Mets. If you take them at face value, and I think you should in this case, they’re trying to build a long-term juggernaut, the kind of team that annually tries to win 95-100 games. It’s really hard to inhabit that space without a pitching staff that’s long on above-average arms. The Braves managed it last year, but that was with an historic offense, and they’ve spent the offseason trying to ensure that they have a more robust rotation going forward. So, too, have the Dodgers. It’s a lot easier to win a bundle of games if you have at least three very good starters and a big group of acceptable pitchers behind them.

What I like about Manaea on the Mets is that he might fit into either of those two groups. I think that a mid-3.00s ERA season is completely in range for him; he has a lot of tools that could add up to a really solid pitcher. But because that outcome is far from certain, he comes at a relative bargain rate; $14 million is more or less Lance Lynn money, but I think the high end of Manaea’s range of outcomes is comfortably better than that. If he’s great, plug him into the top half of your rotation. If he’s more of a fifth starter type or gets beaten out by five other starters, those are both roles he’s familiar with. Sign three guys like Manaea, and you might end up with one plus starter and two solid swingmen. I think it’s a wise strategy to take risks like that when you’re trying to build a robust pitching group.

Only, maybe not to take risks like this? The contract isn’t a straight two-year pact; it comes with an opt-out after the 2024 season. And that flips the risk around meaningfully. If Manaea has a strong season as a starter, he’ll certainly opt out; again, one year and $14 million is back-end starter money these days, and he’d get more than that coming off of a good season. If he lands in the bottom part of his range of outcomes, he’ll stay, but not as a difference-maker.

That makes this contract a weird fit in my eyes. It amounts to sacrificing some value in 2025 – either Manaea will be gone when you wanted him, or there when his 2024 season was disappointing – in exchange for a good rate in 2024. That doesn’t really fit with how I expect the Mets to operate; I’d expect them to be buying optionality via team options rather than selling it via opt-outs. Put another way, I think that Manaea’s volatile profile suits their needs, but his contract means that the volatility will almost never play out in their favor in 2025.

To some extent, this is probably much ado about nothing. If Manaea is awesome in 2024 and wants to opt out, the Mets can always work out an extension; if he’s great, he’ll presumably be predisposed to stay with the team. Maybe that ends up costing them a little more, but you can think of this year as an audition. I’m pretty confident that the Mets will need plenty of pitching help in free agency in coming years; their rebuilt farm system is heavy on position players and light on impact arms.

Put another way, the Mets really need to try out a lot of guys like Manaea. If this deal is what it took to get him in the door, so be it. This contract isn’t going to limit their payroll flexibility or make them unable to compete for future talent, but not having enough playable starting pitching might be the difference between a repeat of 2023 and a playoff berth. The team has plenty of talent – we think they have a top-10 position player group and average pitching – but depth is definitely a concern.

Maybe that, then, is the lesson of this deal. Pitchers with Manaea’s general profile are in demand, because teams both need to fill a lot of starting innings in the regular season and want to collect a group of three or four interesting starters and hope one of them turns into a playoff-caliber starter. I’d bet on at least one of Manaea, Luis Severino, or Adrian Houser delivering a great 2024, one that would give the Mets at least three decent options in a playoff series. I like that bet a lot more with three pitchers to choose from than two; in other words, the Severino and Houser acquisitions would feel incomplete without more pitchers of that general tier.

If those pitchers are in demand, teams have to compete for their services. And Manaea’s wide range of outcomes is a two-way street; he himself is surely aware of it. Put two and two together – a lot of teams want his services, and he knows that 2024 will do a lot to affect his future earnings potential – and it makes a lot of sense that he’d ask for an opt-out to separate the team that most wants his services from the rest of the pack. It’s all well and good to say that it’s strange team behavior to give high-risk, high-reward pitchers the chance to opt out of their deals, but it’s entirely likely that without that opt out, the Mets wouldn’t have been able to sign Manaea in the first place.

Let’s leave it at that: This feels like a deal that both sides get something out of. The Mets look like contenders in 2024, and this signing helps cement that. Manaea gets the starting role he surely coveted, and also gets a chance to re-engage with free agency next winter if he’s as good as he hopes. This feels like a fair deal to me, in the most positive sense of the term.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Bernie Sanders
3 months ago

Thank you Ben, very cool!