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The Mets’ Low-Risk Bullpen Rebuild

Last offseason, Mets GM Sandy Alderson spent just $17.8 million on Major League free agents. Most of that when to Frank Francisco ($12 million) and Jon Rauch ($3.5 million), and the club also absorbed Ramon Ramirez‘s salary ($2.75 million) in the ill-fated Angel Pagan trade. Those three were supposed to join incumbents Bobby Parnell and Tim Byrdak to give the Amazin’s a solid relief unit, but instead the new additions combined to post an underwhelming 4.34 ERA (3.89 FIP) and 0.3 WAR in 163.2 innings.

Francisco, 33, signed a two-year contract last winter and will remain with the Mets this year. He had offseason elbow surgery and the team is openly concerned about whether he will be ready in time for Opening Day. Both Rauch and Ramirez have been allowed to walk as free agents though, plus Byrdak is expect to miss most (if not all) of 2013 following shoulder surgery. For most of the winter it appeared Parnell and rookie left-hander Josh Edgin were the only locks for the team’s Opening Day bullpen, but Alderson has gone to work in the last two weeks by signing low-risk and relatively high-reward relief options.

The first addition was an old friend, former Met Pedro Feliciano. He threw zero innings for the Yankees over the last two years due to shoulder surgery, but his rehab is complete and the 36-year-old was pitching in winter ball back home in Puerto Rico. It’s worth noting that the Yankees likely would have activated Feliciano for September had he not rolled his ankle covering first base in a minor league rehab game. As a low-arm slot soft-tosser, any velocity loss stemming from the shoulder injury shouldn’t be the kiss of death. Since it’s a minor league deal, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it was.

The second addition could easily turn out to be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason. Alderson signed former Red Sox right-hander Scott Atchison to a minor league contract after he managed a 1.58 ERA and 2.72 FIP in 51.1 innings for Boston last summer. He’s more of a high-ground ball (55.3%) and low-walk (1.58 BB/9 and 4.5 BB%) guy than a pure bat-misser (6.31 K/9 and 18.0 K%), but it’s been working for him since returning from Japan three seasons ago. Teams were obviously concerned about the 36-year-old’s elbow after he successfully rehabbed a ligament sprain and avoided Tommy John surgery in the second half last year, but he did return to make five effective appearances in September. Atchison is absolutely worth a roll of the dice on a non-guaranteed pact.

The third minor league contract was given to 40-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, who is coming off a 3.64 ERA (4.48 FIP) performance in 42 innings with the Angels a year ago. He’s another high-ground ball (56.8%), low-walk (2.79 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%), low-strikeout (4.93 K/9 and 12.9 K%) reliever like Atchison, just without as much 2012 success. He was an 0.8 WAR reliever as recently as 2011, though I highly doubt he’ll see another 0.19 HR/9 (2.8% HR/FB) against anytime soon. That happened in Miller Park as well, so wow. ZiPS projects about 40 replacement-level innings out of Hawkins in 2013, but again, it’s a minor league contract and the Mets are obligated to pay him nothing until they deem him worthy of a 25-man roster spot.

Reports over the weekend indicate the Mets are also nearing a deal with Brandon Lyon, who is likely to receive a guaranteed big league contract. The 32-year-old rebounded from 2011 shoulder injury to post a career-best strikeout rate (9.30 K/9 and 24.4 K%) in 61 innings split between the Astros and Blue Jays last summer. Lyon reinvented himself as a fastball machine in 2012 despite sitting in the upper-80s, employing more two-seamers (10.8%) and cutters (36.7%) while almost completely eliminating his slider (1.2%). The result was a lot of Citi Field-friendly fly balls (just 37.5% grounders) and a negligible platoon split. The terms of the potential contract are unknown at this point, but I’m comfortable saying the price will not be exorbitant given the club’s other recent moves. ZiPS likes Lyon for half-a-win in about 50 innings.

I don’t want to go overboard and make it sound like Alderson built the king of all bullpens in two weeks, but after dropping nearly $12 million (in 2012 salary) on three relievers who combined for a borderline replacement level performance, his new approach is much more fitting for the team’s current situation. Lyon alone is projected to outperform both Rauch (0.1 WAR) and Ramirez (0.3 WAR) this season, and (I assume) he’s the only new guy guaranteed anything. Atchison, Hawkins, and Feliciano are all no-risk minor league signings who, if they perform well, could turn into trade chips at the deadline. The recently-released Mets ZiPS projections had the club with a replacement level bullpen, but they were posted just before this low-risk shopping spree. Alderson has added about one win’s worth of relievers despite minimal commitment in the last two weeks.