As Betances, Familia go, so does Mets' 'pen

March 4th, 2021

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- At this point in spring, the Mets are concerned enough with ’s control that they have instructed James McCann and other catchers to have Familia aim for the middle of the plate. They hope that in that fashion, the natural movement on Familia’s pitches -- particularly his sinker -- will matter more than the precise location of them.

At this point in spring, the Mets are relatively pleased with 93 mph from , a former standout reliever who -- not so long ago -- once regularly lit up the radar gun with triple-digit readings. This time last year, Betances was sitting three ticks lower, so perhaps there is more velocity to come.

Such workarounds have become the new normal for Familia and Betances, two previously dynamic relievers who could be keys to the 2021 season. Over the winter, the Mets signed Trevor May and Aaron Loup to fill out their bullpen, traded for several other relief arms, claimed still more off waivers and signed others to Minor League deals. Of the 75 players in big league camp, about a third are relievers.

And yet, if the Mets want to have even a league-average bullpen for the first time since 2016 (not coincidentally, the last time they made the playoffs), the onus may be less on those pitchers and more on two holdovers from last year’s staff: Familia and Betances.

“They bring so much -- their experience, their demeanor in the clubhouse, their demeanor out there,” manager Luis Rojas said. “They’re both working on new things.”

Early results have been mixed. Combined, Familia and Betances threw 54 pitches on Thursday in their Grapefruit League debuts at Clover Park. Familia delivered 31 of them, managing a scoreless inning despite two walks and a fly ball to the warning track. (The inning went so long that team president Sandy Alderson, during an interview with the ESPN booth, quipped: “You guys are killing me, and so is Jeurys.”) Betances threw 23, allowing a Ryan Zimmerman three-run homer and recording only two outs before the Mets used this year’s flexible game rules to prematurely end the inning.

It was not the outing that either wanted, though both could draw positives. In Familia’s case, the right-hander said he “felt excellent,” noting that he plans to incorporate a four-seamer more regularly into his repertoire to prevent hitters from hunting his sinker, slider and splitter down in the zone. The four-seamer allows Familia to change batters’ eye levels more easily.

“It’s not a new pitch,” Familia said through an interpreter. “But this season, and this Spring Training as well, I’ve been trying to incorporate that more.”

For Betances, who spent his winter training at a biomechanics facility in New Jersey, velocity is everything. Known for throwing as hot as 102 mph with the Yankees, he topped out at 96.7 mph last summer and averaged 93.6. That he is already reaching 93 this spring is a positive sign, even if it’s far from his previous heights.

“I feel tremendously better now than I did last year,” Betances said recently, referencing the Achilles tear that he spent last spring rehabbing. “I feel like I finally had a full offseason to get ready for coming to camp.”

And so the Mets will wait and see if this is all just March talk, or if Familia and Betances can improve in meaningful ways. The former has struggled for two seasons running, producing a 5.09 ERA and walking 6.3 batters per nine innings since the Mets re-signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal two winters ago. With free agency looming after this season, Familia said, “I have no other option but to be good.”

Betances can also become a free agent in November, though he has a 2022 player option that he can trigger if he appears in at least 50 games this season. To do so, he’ll need to not only avoid the types of injuries that limited him to 15 appearances last summer, but drastically improve his 7.71 ERA.

If both pitchers can accomplish those goals, the Mets’ years-long dream of having a top-flight bullpen will become far more realistic. If not, then even the additions of May and Loup may not be enough to keep this unit productive.

“Those two, they worked really hard in the offseason, and they came in unbelievable shape,” Rojas said of Familia and Betances. “Those two guys are guys that have been successful in their careers.”