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The Mets Bullpen As A Strength

If you spent all winter reading headlines, you might think that the Mets are in a bad position now. The stories that defined the team’s off-season — Johan Santana missing at least the first half, two injury-prone pitchers inhabiting the back of the rotation, ownership’s financial situation — don’t paint a pretty picture. But quietly the Mets’ new front office has assembled a team that might surprise those who haven’t dug deeply enough. Particularly impressive is the bullpen. It contains a number of underrated pitchers who together could form one of the stronger units in the NL.

Despite the turmoil surrounding him, Francisco Rodriguez remains one of the game’s elite relievers. He had something of a rough transition to New York, producing a 3.71 ERA and 4.01 FIP (4.23 xFIP) during his first season. But last year he returned to normal levels, and even displayed more control has he had a 2.20 ERA and 2.63 FIP in 57.1 innings. If he remains healthy he’ll again anchor the bullpen. This year he figures to have a strong supporting cast.

The names Bobby Parnell, Taylor Buchholz, D.J. Carrasco, Tim Byrdak, Blaine Boyer, and Pedro Beato might not seem impressive at first glance. Yet they all bring skills to the table that can be invaluable in creating a quality bullpen. Among them you’ll find strikeouts, control, ground balls, upside, and left-handedness. But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the projections. We’ll use ZiPS for this exercise.

If we were to plug these numbers into last year’s rankings, that would have placed the Mets 14th in ERA and 10th in FIP. The 2009 team finished a bit better in ERA and at the same level in FIP, but that’s kind of the point. The general perception is that the Mets got worse, but the reality doesn’t match up. The guys slated to break camp with the team represent a quality cadre of relievers by any standard. There are reinforcements, too. Jason Isringhausen looms as a possibility once he recovers from injury. Beato, too, could beat his projections — at least, that’s the idea behind keeping him on the 25-man roster.

One testament to the strength of the Mets bullpen came today, when the team designated Manny Acosta for assignment this morning. Acosta is no great shakes. In his 153.2 MLB innings he has produced a 3.40 ERA and 4.47 FIP. Last year, though, he was one of the Mets best relievers, with a 2.95 ERA and 3.63 FIP. Relievers with those types of results who can strike out more than a batter per inning are normally valuable; it would be surprising to see a second division team claim Acosta on waivers. But the Mets have enough confidence in their other guys that they felt the right move was removing another one of its top relievers from 2010.

The real surprise from the Mets bullpen comes from its complete makeover. Of the seven relievers, only two, Rodriguez and Parnell, pitched with the team last season. During the off-season they lost Pedro Feliciano and Hisanori Takahashi, both of whom provided more value last season than any Mets reliever not named Francisco. Yet they’re coming back with a unit that projects to be only slightly worse. If they catch a lucky break with Beato and Parnell pitches like he did during his time in the majors last year, the bullpen could be even stronger.

The 2011 Mets have plenty of weaknesses. Yet one area where they figure to excel is the bullpen. It took a near-complete off-season makeover, but the new administration has apparently assembled a group of fine, underrated pitchers to handle relief duty. They might not represent the best group of relievers in the NL, but they’ll finish in the top half. That might not seem like high expectations, but given the general perception of the Mets in 2011, it certainly will surprise some people.