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Mets must add late-inning relievers who can be a bridge to Edwin Diaz

By signing outfielder Harrison Bader, the Mets have checked one of their biggest remaining offseason needs off the list.

With Bader on board, they can turn to other areas as they try to become the "serious playoff contender" David Stearns says they're attempting to be in 2024.

The Mets need at least one more starting pitcher.

They need a legitimate designated hitter -- something they haven't had since the inception of the DH in the National League ahead of the 2022 season.

And they need two relievers who can pitch in the late innings, helping New York complete a bridge to Edwin Diaz that is currently just a body of water.

It's the need for serious relief help that has seemingly been an afterthought as the Mets fill their other holes, but it's a dire situation that must be addressed.

The Mets have made a plethora of bullpen additions this offseason, but none have been slam dunks.

Jorge Lopez is the boldest name New York has added, and he has tantalizing stuff. But he had a 5.95 ERA in 2023, has a career ERA of 5.51 (with a 1.48 WHIP), and has put together just one big league season out of eight that wasn't below average -- an All-Star campaign for the Orioles in 2022 when he had a 2.54 ERA. 

Sep 5, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Jorge Lopez (73) is relieved against the Los Angeles Angels during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium.

Beyond Lopez are relievers like Michael Tonkin, Austin Adams, and Kyle Crick, who have been signed to minor league deals with spring training invites or non-guaranteed split contracts.

Perhaps the Mets will hit on one or two of the lottery tickets they've bought. It's the best organizations that regularly build part of their bullpen by finding gems that for one reason or another haven't blossomed with other teams.

But the Mets can't count on Lopez having his second good year out of nine. And they can't count on any of their smaller bullpen signings contributing in a meaningful way.

What the Mets have to rely on right now is Diaz, a dominant end-of-game force who should be back at full strength after missing the entire 2023 season after suffering a freak knee injury while celebrating with his teammates during the World Baseball Classic.

In addition to Diaz is Brooks Raley, a good reliever who is probably miscast as a setup man.

There's also Drew Smith, who has promise but hasn't been able to put it all together just yet as he enters his final season before free agency.

It's murky after that, with relievers like Yohan Ramirez, Josh Walker, Sean Reid-Foley, Grant Hartwig, Phil Bickford, and Reed Garrett on the 40-man roster.

Translation: the Mets don't have one legitimate late-inning arm to help get the ball to Diaz.

Edwin Diaz
Edwin Diaz / © Brad Penner - USA TODAY Sports

Luckily for them, there are plenty of free agent relievers still on the market who fit that bill.

The one who immediately comes to mind is Josh Hader, who is seeking a deal worth at least five years and $100 million. If Hader is fine setting up for Diaz or splitting closer duties, the idea of him and Diaz at the end of games is incredibly tempting.

But if the Mets don't go for Hader, there are about a half dozen other relievers they can target, most of whom won't get more than a one or two-year deal, and whose salaries won't be terribly high.

Among them are Robert Stephenson, Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek, Phil Maton, Matt Moore, and old friend David Robertson.

Stephenson is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch, coming off a stellar season he split between the Pirates and Rays.

In 52.1 innings over 60 appearances, Stephenson -- utilizing a fastball that averaged a tick under 97 mph and a cutter he debuted last season and threw over 40 percent of the time -- had a 3.10 ERA and 0.87 WHIP with an eye-popping 13.2 strikeouts per nine.

Neris, who has been one of the most reliable late-inning relievers since his rookie season in 2015, has also been the picture of health, making 68 or more appearances in every season since 2019 (save for the shortened 2020 campaign).

Then there's Stanek (a bullpen stalwart with the Astros over the last three seasons), Moore (a left-handed crossover guy who's emerged after transitioning from a starting role), Maton (whose funky delivery would offer a different look), and Robertson (who has proven he can succeed in New York and did not want to be traded at last year's deadline).

Absent a Hader pursuit, the Mets can take the same approach when it comes to building their bullpen as they've taken with the signings of Luis Severino and Bader: add key pieces who can help the team contend in 2024, but who won't seriously impact their plan to play at the top of the market and be all-in next offseason.