The case for Bobby Parnell as closer and a reshuffling of the Mets bullpen
The mob was out for Frank Francisco after he blew a pair of save chances against the Miami Marlins.
But after manager Terry Collins took a night to consider it, perhaps after a reminder from his superiors about the fact that Francisco was signed to a two-year, $12 million contract to close, Collins kept Francisco in the role.
Monday night, Francisco earned the save, though hardly pitched well. He gave up a run on three hits, and hardly fooled even the hitters who he retired. His E.R.A., after 17 appearances, is a ridiculous 8.59.
The Mets bullpen has been awful this season, with relievers posting a 5.00 E.R.A. as a group, 27th in the major leagues, and just a stone's throw from the bottom (Philadelphia, at 5.10). And that ineffectiveness has been compounded by Collins, who repeatedly uses his less effective relievers in more important situations.
Sunday was a great example. Once Francisco had faltered, Collins replaced him with Manny Acosta, the one pitcher on his staff with a higher E.R.A. than Francisco. Naturally, Acosta gave up a game-winning home run to Giancarlo Stanton.
Collins is in a difficult spot, though. Not only are there contractual pressures with Francisco, but he needs to make determinations based on reliever seasons, which involve a microscopic sample size. It is far from obvious that how a pitcher throws in his first 15 innings will be predictive of how he throws in his next fifteen.
If he were at liberty to reorganize his bullpen simply according to what makes sense in baseball terms, my guess is that it would go something like this:
1. CLOSER: Bobby Parnell has been masterful so far. He's walked just three batters, struck out 16 in 16 2/3 innings, and pitched to a 2.16 E.R.A. The new Parnell is no accident. Throughout his Met tenure, he's thrown a very good fastball for strikes. And he's never found a pitch he could command to pair with it, missing consistently with his slider and changeup. This year, he's throwing a knuckle-curve for strikes, and the second pitch, coming in around 12 miles per hour slower than his fastball, makes him an elite relief weapon. Add in that he's just 27, under team control until 2016, and making Parnell the center of the bullpen universe becomes the obvious play.
2. SETUP MAN: Frank Francisco, despite his early struggles, should absolutely be given the chance to pitch out of them. Not only has he been a bit unlucky, pitching to that ludicrous E.R.A. of 8.59 despite an xFIP of roughly half that, his contract dictates some additional patience. Ideally, he'll pitch well enough to get flipped to a contender at the trade deadline, unless the Mets are still in the race, in which case he should be a perfectly solid option to set up Parnell.
3. SEVENTH INNING GUY: D.J. Carrasco is just back from injury, and doesn't engender much love from the Mets or their fans after a lost 2011. But Carrasco deserves this shot for several reasons. Prior to his lost 2011, Carrasco was capable of going multiple innings and pitched with a minimal platoon split in his career, allowing a .712 OPS to righties, .802 to lefties. Compared to both Jon Rauch and Tim Byrdak, that makes Carrasco a far better candidate to get through a clean inning late in ballgames. Carrasco also strikes out many more hitters than Rauch, and has a significantly better strikeout rate against both lefties and righties than Byrdak, whose swings and misses overwhelmingly come against lefties.
4. LEFTY SPECIALIST: Tim Byrdak has been exactly what the Mets have wanted in a lefty specialist both last year and this year. If anything, he's gotten better in 2012, now that he's as healthy as he's been since coming to the Mets. He is utterly unsuited to a role expansion beyond this, with his success against righties to date largely a balls-in-play mirage. But that's fine; he's perfectly suited to assume this role, and the Mets shouldn't move him from it.
5. RIGHTY SPECIALIST: Jon Rauch is the overpriced stock in the Met bullpen. His 2.93 E.R.A. looks shiny, but the underlying factors are essentially a series of warning signs. He's striking out just 4.1 batters per nine innings. All of his success is coming against righties, allowing a .281 OPS to them, .810 to lefties. But he isn't striking out righties at a higher clip than lefties. In short, he isn't fooling anyone. The idea that he should be next in line for saves after Francisco, since he's done it before, is silly for multiple reasons. But probably the best one to keep in mind is, most of those saves came behind a strikeout rate roughly double the one he's put up in 2012.
6. LONG RELIEF: Manny Acosta and, to a lesser extent, Ramon Ramirez have struggled so far in 2012. But both had significant success in 2011, both deserve the chance to pitch out of their current slumps, and both have a career filled with success against both lefties and righties. In fact, the right-handed Acosta has been significantly better against lefties over the past few years than righties. Neither one should be thrown into a high-leverage spot right now, but both have a chance to help the Mets later in the year if they get better. Also, no reason exists to send them to Triple-A, with the best available option to come take over their roster spot, Fernando Cabrera, a far from compelling promotional case.
The group Sandy Alderson put together in the bullpen may turn out to be much more effective than they've been so far this season. But it will be up to Terry Collins to maximize what he has, and that means doing something significantly different than what he's doing now.