SAN DIEGO — A word evaluators kept using Wednesday when asked what the Mets were getting in veteran starter José Quintana: professional.
“The way he prepares his body and mind,” Pirates bullpen coach Justin Meccage said, “is as good as anybody I’ve seen.”
Reliability also often came up in conversations about Quintana. And for the Mets, that’s a big one.
Once they landed Justin Verlander at the start of the Winter Meetings, they always wanted one of their next moves to be acquiring help for the middle of their rotation. In signing the lefty Quintana, 33, to a two-year deal for $26 million, according to sources, they did just that. In eight of his 11 seasons (including 2022), Quintana has made at least 29 starts and thrown at least 165 innings.
For as good as the top of the Mets’ rotation is with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, there are some questions. Notably, there are the ages of the group — Verlander will be 40 in February, Scherzer is 38 and this will be Carlos Carrasco’s age-36 season — plus the potential need to use mostly unproven or inexperienced internal options for the fifth starter. So, plugging Quintana behind Scherzer and Verlander is just what the Mets needed. That’s especially true since Chris Bassitt remains a free agent, will likely command a hefty multi-year deal and was New York’s most reliable regular-season starter.
Free-agent left-hander José Quintana in agreement with Mets on a two-year, $26M contract, pending physical, sources tell me and @WillSammon.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 7, 2022
Even with Quintana, the Mets could look to add more rotation help in the form of someone like Japanese star Kodai Senga or others remaining on the free-agent market. Regardless, adding the trustworthiness and consistency of Quintana was a smart and necessary move.
Those who know Quintana well say the durability should continue based on how well he understands himself as a pitcher, his ability to avoid getting out of whack mechanically and the way he keeps himself in great shape.
“He must have less than 10 percent body fat. He is all over (staying in shape) like a 22-year-old,” Meccage said. “He’s a physical beast.”
To be clear, Quintana isn’t just known for his availability — he’s a good pitcher.
That was the tricky thing about the mid-tier group of free-agent starting pitchers. There were some who could provide steady innings while others attached risk to the upside. When discussing the options generally on Tuesday, Mets general manager Billy Eppler said players pushed value into two main verticals for New York: one was productivity, meaning, how good they are when they pitch, and the other was availability, in how often they could pitch. Ideally, they wanted both to be as high as possible. While some pitchers may not have, Quintana checks both boxes on at least a solid level.
The Mets pursued Jameson Taillon (he agreed to a four-year, $68 million deal with the Cubs) and offered Andrew Heaney (he agreed to a two-year, $25 million deal with the Rangers). Either would have been fine additions, and the Mets probably checked on others, too, but some industry voices pointed to New York’s deal with Quintana as one of the better outcomes for a club at the meetings, given what other experienced pitchers were going for. In comparison to Heaney, the Mets are paying a bit more to get it, but Quintana is the safer play, a description that carries extra importance for a rotation that also lost Taijuan Walker and his 157 1/3 innings last season to the Phillies, the National League pennant winner that just won’t let up.
In 32 starts and 165 2/3 innings split between the Pirates and Cardinals, Quintana had 137 strikeouts with a 1.21 WHIP and 2.93 ERA/2.99 FIP. It was the first time since 2017 that his ERA over a full season was below 4.00. Still, he has a career 3.75 ERA/3.62 FIP and 1.27 WHIP, which are good numbers. In 2022, his 137 ERA+ was a career-best.
Quintana’s fastball and how he is able to locate it have always been important to him. At times, though, he has needed more, and that’s why 2022 was critical. In spring training with the Pirates, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff helped Quintana change the grip of his changeup, which, in turn, led to better movement and more running, sinking action. He threw the pitch in 2022 more than he ever had, 19.5 percent of the time. While with the Cardinals, he started to make another change and started throwing his curveball — considered to be a strong pitch behind his fastball —more often and with strong results; he held batters to just a .228 expected batting average against it.
While those were changes, much of Quintana’s foundation has remained the same. He’s still unafraid to pitch in the zone and challenge hitters. Only 24 starting pitchers generated more swings on pitches in the zone than Quintana (69 percent) and only nine induced more contact on pitches in the zone (88.5 percent) yet it was all about limiting how hard he was hit and making his pitches outside of the zone look appealing enough to chase — he finished in the top 11 percent for average exit velocity and top 17 percent for chase rate.
One hitting coach said that players often talk about how deceptive Quintana is and how, since he pitches in all quadrants, a batter can’t sit in one lane. The scouting report says Quintana has a heavy fastball and sequences well with how he uses his four-seamer up and slow breaking balls for a big speed differential. When the changeup is on, it plays well off the fastball.
“Just a tough guy to square up consistently,” the coach said.
In addition to checking the Mets’ boxes of productivity and availability, Quintana has a positive reputation around the game as a teammate. In Pittsburgh, for instance, he was a mentor to young pitchers. When he pitched at PNC Park for the Cardinals last season for the first time after the trade, all of the Pirates’ starters in the series switched to his warmup song as a tribute. It’s no wonder in conversations that people say the word professional applies.
With Quintana, the Mets continued to make a big statement at the Winter Meetings. They were set to leave on Wednesday with way fewer questions regarding their pitching staff. For New York, that was a huge win. And they still may not yet be done with significant additions.
A money update
FanGraphs has projected the Mets’ 2023 payroll at $293 million. The team’s CBT number may already be closer to $300 million. The final luxury tax threshold is $293 million. That has been dubbed “the Steve Cohen tax.”As ESPN’s Jeff Passan pointed out on Twitter, each dollar they spend gets taxed at 90 percent. Aside from that money — and it can escalate quite a bit — there are no other penalties once the final threshold is passed. So one theory is once you go over it, you might as well just blow by it and pay whatever the rising fine becomes. How much is Steve Cohen willing to spend?
When asked after Verlander’s deal became official Wednesday whether there would be room to still sign someone else — like Brandon Nimmo, for example — Eppler said, “I think the biggest takeaway here is that Steve is committed to winning.”
It’s possible that given their roster window, competition and ambitions, the Mets will keep spending in their attempt to use free agency in the short term while staying mindful of prospect capital for sustainable winning. Regardless if they add another starter or not, the Mets still need a solution for center field and capable bullpen help. But if they add another starter and like their other internal options, it’s plausible they could be motivated to move Carrasco and his $14 million AAV for help elsewhere. In that scenario, he could be one of a couple of trade candidates, along with catcher James McCann ($10.1 million AAV) if the Mets look to shed or exchange salary.
At last, a lefty reliever
The Mets on Wednesday also fortified their bullpen — without the help of big dollars in free agency.
New York acquired lefty reliever Brooks Raley from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for minor-league left-handed pitcher Keyshawn Askew.
Raley, 34, in 53 2/3 innings last season, had a 2.68 ERA/2.74 FIP and 0.96 WHIP with 61 strikeouts. He has always been able to get lefties out and last year was no different; in 76 plate appearances, he held left-handed batters to just a .482 OPS. Last year, he limited them to just a .483 OPS in 85 plate appearances. The big difference was how effective he was against right-handed hitters in 2022 versus 2021 — and that’s something Eppler and the Mets like when adding a lefty; the ability to get outs against batters from either side. After RHBs had a .796 OPS (120 plate appearances) against him in 2021, Raley lowered that in 2022 to a .573 OPS (143 plate appearances). From Eppler’s view, better slider optimization helped Raley make the improvement.
“Especially the way some oppositions construct lineups. If they don’t have a lot of left-handers in their lineup, a lot of times they’ll want to stick two righties in between so we want to have that balance,” Eppler said. “He’s got a well-above-average slider, knows what he’s doing and he can pitch in some big spots. That was a big add for us in the back end.”
Raley in Tampa had a reputation for being reliable. He doesn’t throw hard but uses a slider-sinker combination to suppress hard contact. He was in the top 1 percent in avoiding barrels, top 2 percent in hard-hit rate and top 8 percent in chase rate.
The Mets operated last season without an experienced and reliable left-handed reliever. In the eyes of some rival evaluators, the Mets’ farm system prevented them somewhat from making such a move. Askew, 22, was the Mets’ 10th-round selection in the 2021 draft. In 22 appearances (nine starts) over two minor-league seasons with New York (75 1/3 innings), he had a 2.27 ERA. It’s a good sign for the Mets’ farm and development that he became someone the Rays liked even as Tampa was operating from a surplus of lefty relievers to trade from. It’s a gain for the Mets, who still have work to do in acquiring more help ahead of closer Edwin Díaz.
Rule 5 results
The Mets added more potential bullpen help Wednesday when they selected right-handed pitcher Zach Greene from the Yankees in the major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft.
In 68 1/3 innings over 48 appearances in Triple A last season, Greene, 26, had a 3.42 ERA with 96 strikeouts. Eppler said he liked the characteristic of his fastball and slider. Clearly, the Mets liked him enough to place him on their 40-man roster. In spring training, he will compete for a bullpen job.
Also, the Mets didn’t lose outfielder Jake Mangum to the Rule 5 draft. With his ability to play all three outfield positions, it’s reasonable to think that he will have a chance to compete in spring training for a final bench spot.
(Photo: Jeff Curry / USA Today)