With their limited budget, the New York Mets should consider looking at failed starters with top-end stuff. Enter Taijuan Walker.
The New York Mets‘ bullpen is in dire need of help, yet they seemingly refuse to make upgrades. The closest thing to an upgrade they’ve made is the addition of Michael Wacha, who will likely battle Steven Matz for the fifth starter’s spot. The loser of that position battle will head to the bullpen.
However, it’s clear that the Mets will need to add more to strengthen the bullpen. One strategy that teams have employed to great success recently is transforming failed starters into relievers.
Specifically, teams look for failed starters with elite stuff. The best examples of this were Drew Pomeranz and Kevin Gausman. Both moved into the bullpen in August to great success for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds.
Those moves earned those players a ton of money in free agency. Pomeranz signed with the Padres for four-years and $34 million while Gausman signed with the Giants for one-year $10 million.
Considering the Mets don’t have money to spend, they should be looking for players like Gausman and Pomeranz were last year. Cheap failed starters whose stuff was too good to not have use somewhere else is the name of the game in Queens at the moment.
The name that fits that category best in this year’s free-agent class is Taijuan Walker.
Walker has always had issues with stamina. He’s only topped 150 innings pitched twice in his career, 2015 and 2017. He’s also never started 30 games during a season in his career.
If a team was looking at Walker as a potential starting pitcher, that would be a concern. However, as a reliever, that wouldn’t mean much. He would only be asked to pitch one or two innings at a time anyway.
However, Walker was hit with a major injury in 2018. Walker had to have Tommy John surgery early in the 2018 season. It cost him the rest of his 2018 season and nearly all of his 2019 season.
Over the last two years, Walker has only started four games, pitching 14 innings. There’s no telling how Walker will look when he returns from injury.
Tommy John hasn’t been a big issue for many pitchers in recent memory. Teams have figured out how to manage it better. While the recovery time is long, most pitchers are able to return to form when they come back.
If Walker still has his stuff when he comes back in 2020, his upside in the bullpen would be huge.
Walker relies on a three-pitch mix. He has his four-seam fastball, a cutter and a changeup. The right-hander has two other pitches that he doesn’t throw often, a curveball and a sinker.
Walker’s best pitch by far is his fastball and the way he manipulates it. He controls the pitch extremely well up in the zone and his sinker was nearly unhittable, despite the fact that he doesn’t throw it a ton.
An analytically-minded pitching coach like Jeremy Hefner would see the impact Walker’s sinker has and have him throw the pitch more. That should, in theory, allow Walker to effectively change eye levels with his fastball.
That would better set up Walker’s curveball and cutter. Those two have proven to be Walker’s best out pitches. Walker’s curveball was especially effective at putting hitters away. His curveball had a 34.6% whiff rate in 2017.
The issue is that he hangs it a lot. His curveball has the highest slugging percentage allowed of any of his pitches.
If he can keep hitters off the curve though, it becomes much more effective.
The cutter is a newer pitch for Walker that he debuted in 2017. It was the first season he threw the pitch, so there isn’t a ton of data. However, it proved to be an effective pitch. It was clearly Walker’s third-best pitch and an effective weapon against lefties.
If Walker moves into the bullpen, he would be able to focus on his fastball/sinker, cutter and curveball. He could ditch his ineffective changeup.
Not to mention that all of his stuff should play up out of the bullpen. Increasing the velocity and making the pitches more difficult to read.
Walker isn’t likely to ever become a closer out of the bullpen. He’s not likely to turn into an elite reliever any time soon. However, there could be a setup man somewhere inside that 6-foot-4 frame. Considering how barren the Mets’ bullpen is, that’s too much upside to pass up.
The best part about this is that Taijuan Walker should cost next to nothing. It’s very likely that Walker will only command a minor-league deal.
He’s barely pitched since 2017, a factor that’s going to be hard for teams to overlook.
However, when you’re desperate and refuse to spend money, there are only so many options. It’s possible, the Mets give Walker a cheap major-league deal just to get him to sign, but don’t count on it.
A minor-league deal for Walker simply has too much upside to walk away from. The New York Mets should be taking a long look at Taijuan Walker and the upside he could provide pitching out of the bullpen.