By Ernie Palladino
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Mickey Callaway will look like a genius if his “closer-by-committee” theory actually works for the Mets.
More likely, he’ll look like just another victim of ownership’s unwillingness to spend a buck on quality talent.
This is a frugal bunch, remember. Fred and Jeff Wilpon love to yank the strings of general manager Sandy Alderson’s purse. Charged with a mandate to reduce last season’s $155 million payroll, Alderson can’t even think about going after a top-notch closer like Cubs free agent Wade Davis. Nor can he marry a consumate salary with a third year he reluctantly offered Bryan Shaw last month before the Indians’ free agent setup man signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Rockies.
That’s why the rookie manager spent part of the Winter Meetings talking about the merits of “undefined” bullpen roles while super-agent Scott Boras opined that the Mets “have to get to the vault because the ATM has limits.”
That, in Boras’ patented obnoxiousness, is French for cheapskates.
He happens to be right, though. With Jeurys Familia coming off a shaky season interrupted by surgery on a blood clot, the Mets needed to find someone who at least had the ability to command the ninth inning if not a bonafide closer entirely. Instead, the big Winter Meeting signing was Anthony Swarzak, a hard-throwing righty who excelled in middle and later innings for the White Sox and Brewers.
With a combined 6-4 record, 2.32 ERA, and a 9-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the White Sox and Brewers last season, Swarzak is not a horrible pickup, especially at a reasonable two years, $14 million. And if he has indeed figured things out at age 32 after recording 4-plus ERAs in five of his seven previous seasons, he’ll be a nice addition to a bullpen that already features Jerry Blevins, AJ Ramos, and Familia.
The problem is, Callaway’s plans are flawed. Imagine running Familia out there in the fifth inning because the analytics point to a favorable matchup. Imagine throwing Swarzak, with all of two career saves, into the ninth with a one-run lead.
It’s not that they can’t do it. They probably can. But pitchers, and especially closers, tend to be creatures of habit. Familia has been closing games the past three years. Just two years ago, he led the league with 51 saves.
To turn his job fluid now would be to mess with his mental routine. And the way the Mets are now, they don’t need additional surprises to mess with their in-game preparation.
Callaway seems confident, though, certainly bolstered by the success he had in Cleveland with a similar philosophy. It helped that he had Andrew Miller, whose versatility and team-first attitude allowed him to take the ball whenever asked. The vicious left-hander was an ideal fit, especially in the postseason.
But the Mets don’t have a Miller. Few teams do, which is why most go at least with a setup-closer progression. Even in Cleveland, the bulk of the closing duties went to Cody Allen.
He had 30 saves. The rest of the bullpen totaled seven.
Callaway hasn’t yet broached the subject with his pitchers. When he does, he’d best use all the touchy-feely communication methods he talked about in his introductory press conference because those guys are going to need a lot of convincing.
He might even start with Alderson, who doesn’t seem totally convinced of the efficiency of such an arrangement.
“Mickey talks a lot about using relievers where they are best matched and not just in leverage situations,” Alderson told the press Wednesday, “But in how to leverage them instead of letting the situation leverage us. Those are all interesting ideas we continue to talk about.”
But then he concluded, “Whether they come to fruition or will actually be implemented is an entirely different question.”
If Callaway has made up his mind on this, he must tread carefully. Relievers don’t like disruption.
An undefined role is the epitome of disruption.
It could turn into his worst mistake, even before he hits Port St. Lucie for spring training.
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