The battle to start leads to the road to relief (and Vegas)

The battle to start leads to the road to relief (and Vegas)

The New York Mets have a real competition on their hands for the spot as the fifth starter. Zack Wheeler once again tries to return from Tommy John surgery after missing two consecutive years while Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo prepare to compete for the jobs they filled as the duo helped lead the team toward its Wild Card berth.

But there’s another aspect to the competition than just who would serve as the best starter.

The current assumption is that of Wheeler, Gsellman and Lugo, one will start for the Mets and one will be moved to the bullpen with the third heading to Las Vegas to stay ready in case an additional starter is needed. The question that then needs to be answered then is: Which pitcher would best serve as a reliever?

Wheeler has the most major league experience of the three, but he is  the biggest question mark. His spring routine was pushed back one day because of elbow tenderness caused by scar tissue that remains from his surgery. To his credit, he has pitched nearly 300 innings as a starter. Both Lugo and Gsellman are just shy of 50 innings pitched.

Lugo has the most bullpen experience with 17 innings last season with the Mets while Gsellman pitched 3.2 innings of relief. Wheeler has never come out of the bullpen in his career. Lugo pitched in relief seven times with the Las Vegas 51s last year and 23 times in 2014, to go along with his nine relief appearances last year once again showing that he has the most experience in that role. Gsellman had not pitched in relief since 2012 before last season and Wheeler has not since 2010.

Coming out of the bullpen for at least part of the season could help limit Wheeler’s innings but would not guarantee that he is not shut down towards the end. Something else to consider with Wheeler is that he has been known to tire. His career ERA at the end of the season in September and October is 4.01. He also struggles late in games. When he goes through a batting order for the third time, his ERA is 4.92. The fourth time through it balloons to nearly 14. Coming out of the bullpen could keep him at his most effective, the first two times through an order his ERA is under three.

Gsellman has similar late game struggles in a small sample size. His third time through a batting order his ERA is 8.31, compared to 0.52 the second time through. He has never attempted to get through a batting order for a fourth time.

Lugo does not have the same kind of issues later in games. His ERA the third time through a batting order is 2.19, which is lower than his marks for the first two times through. A reason for that could be that Lugo is less of a strikeout pitcher than the other two. He averages just six strikeouts per nine innings while Wheeler and Gsellman are good for about two more strikeouts per game.

These numbers would seem to indicate that Lugo may be the best candidate for the starting job.

However, the Mets probably would like Wheeler to win the starting job out of camp. When he is at his best he probably has the best pure “stuff” of the group. In 2014 he was worth almost three wins above replacement and increased his ground ball percentage and strikeout rate from his 2013 numbers.

If that does happen Lugo may be the best candidate for the bullpen job. Lugo has struggled with the long ball as he allows home runs on his fastball ten percent of the time. Coming out of the bullpen could allow him to rely more on his filthy curveball, which measured the highest spin rate ever recorded. Pitching just one or two innings at a time would make him more able to throw more of his secondary pitches and potentially minimize the damage that can be done to his fastball.

Of course Wheeler’s health is the major wild card and if he isn’t able to stay on the mound, both Gsellman and Lugo may find themselves of even greater importance to the Mets.

Photo credit: Michael G. Baron