NEW YORK -- As recently as September, general manager Sandy Alderson said the Mets would look to acquire starting pitching help this winter, needing more depth behind Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. But as the realities of a limited budget have begun to creep in, the Mets are looking at other ways to improve their staff.
The easiest may be maximizing the effectiveness of their existing starters. To that end, Alderson on Monday outlined a pitching system that revolves around an improved bullpen.
"The general trend in baseball is for starters to go fewer and fewer innings," Alderson said at the General Managers Meetings. "Any way you cut it, the bullpen is becoming more important over the course of a season, and obviously, too, in the postseason."
The idea is simple, extrapolated from what teams like the Dodgers and Cubs have already done successfully in October. Rather than have pitchers throw six to seven innings, the Mets may not ask the majority of their starters to go more than five most nights. In particular, the Mets hope to avoid exposing their pitchers to lineups three times in the same game.
Opposing hitters posted an .842 OPS against Mets pitching the third time through the order last season, compared to .786 in their first plate appearances.
But taking starters out of games early only works if the team employs enough effective relievers to make up for it. The Mets feel they have a strong core in closer Jeurys Familia, setup man AJ Ramos and lefty specialist Jerry Blevins, but not enough depth behind those three.
And so they will shop. In addition to adding at least one reliever on a guaranteed deal this winter, the Mets aim to bring in a host of others on cheaper contracts, hoping to hit on enough successful arms to give their rotation a break. It is a process that began in July, when the Mets traded some of their veteran players for relievers Drew Smith, Jacob Rhame, Jamie Callahan and others.
If the Mets' plan works, it will not only keep their starting pitchers effective, but healthy.
"I think that's all a function of ability and performance," Alderson said. "If the numbers are telling you that guys can't get through the third time of the lineup, then they shouldn't be out there. But there are other pitchers -- and I think we've got two or three -- that can go deeper."
Alderson was referring to deGrom and Syndergaard, who will be mostly immune from the team's third-time-through-the-order plan.
The Mets also know that without better health, they will struggle to compete in 2018. To that end, they plan to continue revamping their medical staff this winter, after dismissing head trainer Ray Ramirez in October.
"The strategy to compete is really predicated on the pitching," Alderson said. "That's the strength of our team. If we end up with the same problems with the pitching this year that we had last year, it ain't going to happen. We're not going to be competitive. So that's something we have to focus on, and it's not a matter of crossing your fingers. It's, 'OK, what can we do in the offseason, early in Spring Training, to give ourselves the best possible shot at quality pitching through the entire season?'"
The Mets plan to hire Tom Slater as their assistant hitting coach, according to a source. The team will finalize its entire staff in the coming days. Slater most recently worked as the Yankees' Double-A hitting coach.