By Ernie Palladino
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Sandy Alderson should have found a way to send off Jay Bruce for some bullpen help during last week’s Winter Meetings.
But he might just come out of that mistake OK, now that Zack Wheeler has agreed to help out as a reliever.
With an almost sure suspension hanging over closer Jeurys Familia’s head, Alderson might have attempted a move like the Cubs’ trade for Kansas City closer Wade Davis. He now replaces Aroldis Chapman, who famously wound up signing a closer-record five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees.
And Davis will only cost Chicago $10 million in his final season before free agency.
Alderson wouldn’t go the free agent route, either, claiming the Yoenis Cespedes signing has hamstrung him until he can wipe one of the bigger salaries off the books. That presumably means Bruce and his $13 million price tag. But that refusal to add payroll now and worry about clearing later cost him a chance at a couple of veteran free agents in Koji Uehara and Joaquin Benoit, both of whom have closing experience.
Uehara went to the Cubs for $4.5 million and Benoit went to the Phillies for $7.5 million, both on one-year deals.
Instead, the Mets came away empty-handed from the meetings.
That’s not particularly tragic in and of itself. The Winter Meetings are only one component of the offseason, and plenty of teams have helped themselves afterward when free agent markets become clearer and general managers’ trade demands get more realistic. So Alderson’s reluctance to force a below-value Bruce trade last week may turn out a wise move, anyway.
If the trade market has indeed dried up permanently for Bruce’s potential 30-homer bat because of the continued presence of power hitters Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista and Mike Napoli on the open market, getting stuck with him won’t break the roster or the bullpen.
That’s because the right-handed Wheeler can add innings in relief, at least to start the season.
Coming off two idle years because of Tommy John surgery and some subsequent setbacks, Wheeler will likely start 2017 in the bullpen. Not as a closer, mind you. Starters don’t really do that during the regular season. But he will make for an extra body out there, whether the Mets do get that mid-level guy or not.
Wheeler is only a temporary solution, of course. He’s a starter. His real future comes as a starter. But with a rotation that will eagerly welcome back from injuries Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz, to go along with healthy Noah Syndergaard, the Mets won’t need Wheeler to start until a five-man rotation becomes more appropriate after April.
The plan will allow Terry Collins to manage Wheeler’s innings while at the same time provide a hard thrower for middle relief.
That still leaves the closer issue, but Addison Reed might be the answer there. Especially if Wheeler works his earlier innings effectively.
Plucking a reasonable late-inning arm off the free agent market, like the Red Sox’ Brad Ziegler or the Cubs’ Joe Smith would ease a lot of minds in the executive suite. Alderson won’t commit to doing that until he clears salary, though.
That means getting rid of Bruce.
Given how slowly the heavy bats of this year’s free agent class are moving, it could be a while before somebody shows legitimate interest in the ex-Red.
Still, with Wheeler in the bullpen, the Mets may come out of that mess all right.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino