The case for Steven Matz in the bullpen


Following a split-squad victory over the Cardinals on Thursday, Terry Collins expressed concern over the team’s ailing relievers. “We’ve been bragging about the back end of our bullpen and right now it’s down to two,” Collins said. Following injuries to Vic Black and Josh Edgin, the Mets bullpen outside of Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia has become a crapshoot.

The most glaring concern is the lack of a reliable lefty. Critics have knocked Sandy Alderson’s inability to secure viable lefty relief options aside from Edgin. The lefties remaining in camp have been wildly disappointing.

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Clearly, this list doesn’t include Steven Matz, who has allowed only three hits and one earned run in six spring innings. So why was he left off? When asked if Matz could potentially be used in middle relief, Sandy Alderson replied, “I think that’s extraordinarily unlikely…highly improbable.”

But this isn’t surprising to hear. Under the Alderson regime, the Mets have been very patient with their prospects. Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler were both given over 100 innings of experience in AAA Las Vegas. Noah Syndergaard has gone well beyond this mark. But Matz has thrown only 71.1 innings above A+ ball, with no experience in AAA.

Alderson’s reluctance to “rush” his prized top prospects stems from his admirable vision. Alderson aspires to build a perennial winner that churns out quality young talent while supplementing the roster with cost-effective free agents. As fan attendance increases, payroll will presumably increase with it, allowing for more spending. We’ve all heard this before. Avoiding quick-fixes at the expense of the organization’s future is key. But using Matz in the bullpen would hardly be unprecedented.

Baseball’s model organization, the St. Louis Cardinals, has shown a willingness to promote top pitching prospects to the majors quickly and use them in the bullpen. Most notably, Adam Wainwright‘s 2006 promotion helped a meager 83-win Cardinals team win a championship (sorry). Wainwright was reverted to a starting pitcher in 2007 and has been amongst the best pitchers in baseball ever since. Cardinals starters Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez also pitched out of the bullpen to begin their major league careers. Lynn went on to post an excellent 3.7 rWAR as a starter in 2014, while Steamer projects Martinez to sport a respectable 3.83 ERA over 119 innings this season as a starter.

The Cardinals aren’t the only organization to adopt this strategy. White Sox aces Jeff Samardzija and Chris Sale both spent significant time in Chicago bullpens. Needless to say, their transitions into the rotation have been very successful. Worries about harming a prospect’s development by pitching him out of the bullpen seem overblown.

Most arguments against putting top prospects in the bullpen center around injury risk. If the past decade has taught us anything regarding pitchers’ injuries, it is this: we have no idea what causes pitchers’ injuries. In the era of pitch counts and innings limits, the incidence of elbow ligament tears and Tommy John surgeries is at an all-time high. Yes, promoting Jenrry Mejia in 2010 was a disaster and he ended up having countless injury problems afterward. But there is no proof that going from the bullpen to the rotation is what causes injury.

When a pitcher is used in a non-traditional fashion, and he then gets hurt, it’s easy to point at his usage as the cause. But far too many starters have been babied early in their careers, only to go under the knife after a season or two. The only pattern we’ve seen in pitchers’ injuries is an obvious one: pitchers that throw hard breaking pitches are more likely to suffer elbow ligament damage. But this damage is just as likely to occur in the rotation. Fortunately, Steven Matz has already undergone Tommy John surgery and will hopefully not need another.

Now, our favorite topic of discussion in Queens: financial implications. Promoting Matz early and using him in the bullpen would start his “clock” toward free agency. If Matz begins the 2015 season in the bullpen, he will be eligible for arbitration following the 2016 season and eligible for free agency following the 2020 season, assuming he is not demoted at some point in between. By simply waiting until the third week of April to promote him, the Mets can delay his free agency status until after the 2021 season. This is the right move. A team that just surrendered its first-round draft pick for a 35-year old outfielder should not be overly concerned about the 2020s just yet.

Another con to using Matz is decreasing the organization’s starting pitching depth. As David Lennon points out, the Mets may need to use Matz as a starter as early as this season. But the Mets currently have seven starting pitchers, with Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings in case one of the current starting five get injured. But worrying about losing three more starters in addition to Zack Wheeler may be overly paranoid. In such a scenario, the Mets likely won’t be in any sort of playoff hunt regardless. The organization would have plenty of time to stretch Matz out in AAA and bring him back up to start.

Earlier in the spring, the Mets were sorrounded by more optimism than they’ve experienced in six seasons. While injuries to Wheeler, Edgin and Black have certainly stung, the team still sports a very strong starting rotation and a solid lineup. Promoting Matz may help mend the ailing bullpen without mortgaging the future.