In a week, the New York Mets solidified their bullpen with three additions — Adam Ottavino, Jake Diekman and Shintaro Fujinami — for around $12 million. Instead of paying someone like, say, Aroldis Chapman what the Pittsburgh Pirates gave him ($10.5 million), the Mets opted for quantity and more diversity. Building bullpens, even with anonymous names, profiles as a calling card for president of baseball operations David Stearns. For the Mets, their bullpen, which features a returning Edwin Díaz, might turn into a strength, which perhaps would be a mild surprise given the turnover and slow, deliberate process of finding the preferred players. The deals have seemed logical. Now the pitchers just have to perform.
Multiple rival evaluators identified Fujinami, the latest newcomer, as a low-risk, high-upside play. The Mets agreed to a one-year deal with the right-hander on Friday for $3.35 million, plus $850,000 in incentives in range with normal reliever bonus numbers (based on games pitched), league sources confirmed. The New York Post first reported the deal. Of note, Fujinami, 29, can be optioned to the minor leagues if the Mets desire, per a league source. He will be battling for a spot in a bullpen that doesn’t lack depth in terms of quantity.
In his first year in MLB, Fujinami had a 7.18 ERA. As a reliever, he had a 5.14 ERA in 57 appearances. Following a trade to the Baltimore Orioles last season, Fujinami, a client of Scott Boras, had a stretch where he posted a 2.92 ERA, 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 24 2/3 innings.
Teams remembered those outings over the offseason and seemed intrigued. Rival scouts said the velocity is undeniable — Fujinami can hit 100 mph. The Mets bullpen sorely lacked velocity last year, and they’ve since addressed that issue. But the scouts also labeled command as a red flag for Fujinami; he racked up eight wild pitches, the same number Mets starter Tylor Megill had in 50 more innings.
One day after The Athletic reported a deal looked imminent, the Mets and Diekman, a lefty, finalized their agreement Friday, though the union is still pending a physical, league sources said. Diekman’s one-year deal is for $4 million, plus there is a vesting option at 58 games for another $4 million. So, it could end up being two years for $8 million if he reaches the requisite number of games.
Diekman appears to be a good bet to do just that; he’s surpassed 58 appearances in each of the last five full seasons (not counting the shortened 2020 season).
And he’d especially be on track if he pitches the way he did in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform last season.
Diekman’s numbers last season with the Rays compared to his performance with the Chicago White Sox look bizarre enough to make someone living a double life feel envious:
• Diekman in 13 appearances with the White Sox: 7.94 ERA, one home run, 13 walks, 11 strikeouts.
• Diekman in 50 appearances following a trade to the Rays: 2.18 ERA, two home runs, 25 walks, 53 strikeouts.
How does something like that happen?
People familiar with the drastic turnaround listed a few reasons.
Primarily, Diekman bought into the Rays’ way of doing things. For a 37-year-old like Diekman, that’s no given. So he deserves credit for carrying an open mind. Through their messaging, the Rays wanted Diekman to trust his fastball in the strike zone — early and often. Their biggest battle was getting Diekman to believe his stuff was great even when the metrics weren’t what he personally wanted to see from them. In turn, Diekman’s zone rate after his trade to the Rays jumped up to 55.4 percent, a high number and a figure that would represent a career-best for a full season. Better results followed. That’s buy-in.
Thus, it’s little surprise that Diekman was willing to pitch as much as anyone Tampa Bay carried last year.
With the Rays, Diekman lowered his arm slot a bit, which led to higher velocity, and utilized his changeup far more than he had in the past.
Rival evaluators say the results are repeatable because the backstory involves a different approach in addition to regular mechanical or usage changes.
“I definitely think that he is as good now as he ever has been,” one rival evaluator said.
As Adam Ottavino explained in November, New York underwent serious leadership changes, including a new president of baseball operations in Stearns, and a new manager, Carlos Mendoza, at the time of his opt-out decision. So he wanted to gain a better understanding of the direction of the club.
Over the next couple of months, he liked what he saw. From Ottavino’s perspective, the Mets improved the pitching depth and solidified the bullpen with an ability to mix and match. So last weekend the native New Yorker re-signed for $4.5 million.
“I love playing in New York,” Ottavino said Friday on SNY’s Baseball Night in New York. “It’s my favorite place to play. I think it’s the best city in the world and has the best fans, for sure. But for me, it really wasn’t on my radar after I had opted out this year. I was willing to play anywhere. This just ended up being the best opportunity for me, and I’m definitely glad I’m back with the Mets.”
Adam Ottavino talks with @sal_licata, @WillSammon, @AlbaneseLaura and @AnthonyMcCarron about re-signing with the Mets, how he adapts his routine at this point in his career, and what he’s working on this spring:https://t.co/KOvrLHqsi6
— SNY (@SNYtv) February 2, 2024
Ottavino is always someone who tinkers with his pitches, and this offseason seemed to be no different.
“I’ve been working on my pitches in a number of ways,” Ottavino said. “I do think, if I can get a little bit of my velocity back, that will make the rest of my arsenal play up the way I really want it to. So that’s kind of the main indicator. I’m just looking to trend in a little better direction, velocity-wise, when I get there.
“But I have been altering a little bit with my cutter-slider pitch — looking to make it more of a chase pitch, something that I can get swing and miss below the zone — and I’m looking to get down to Florida and kind of see the trial-and-error process with actual hitters.”
(Photo of Shintaro Fujinami: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)