Mets add much-needed bullpen help in trade for Phil Maton

NEW YORK — With a bullpen beset by injuries and a wide-open National League wild-card picture, president of baseball operations David Stearns didn’t wait until the end of July to supplement the New York Mets’ roster. On Tuesday, Stearns and the Mets added right-handed reliever Phil Maton from Tampa Bay for cash or a player to be named later.

The Mets designated Joey Lucchesi for assignment to make room for Maton on the 40-man roster.

It was no secret that New York’s bullpen was leaking oil. Its relievers had allowed 24 runs in 22 innings this month, and there haven’t been many reasons to think it could improve organically. The Mets entered the season with six trustworthy relievers; one was designated for assignment (Jorge López), two are out for the season (Brooks Raley and Drew Smith), and the other three are underperforming their career track records (Edwin Díaz, Adam Ottavino and Jake Diekman). Sean Reid-Foley, who has emerged as a more reliable option since the start of the season, is on the injured list.

That has left manager Carlos Mendoza with few options in close games late, which the Mets have tended to play. In the past 10 days, Mendoza turned to a pair of right-handers making their Mets debut in key spots. Matt Festa allowed five runs in extra innings in a loss to Houston, and Eric Orze was lit up in a tie game against Pittsburgh.

“Bullpen performance can be really volatile,” Stearns said Tuesday. “Clearly (we’ve had) injuries. We’ve asked a lot of certain relievers, probably more than they’ve been asked previously in their careers. We’ve also had a couple guys go through rough patches here of late. You add that all together and it’s been a challenge.”

The Mets have liked Maton for a while. He was one of their principal targets throughout the winter before he inked a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Rays. (The deal includes a club option for $7.75 million in 2025.)

Before this season, Maton had largely worked in middle relief for the Astros’ perpetually deep bullpen. He ran strikeout rates above 25 percent despite topping out in the low 90s.

“He’s been a very consistent reliever pitching in a high-leverage environment in big games in Houston,” Stearns said. “We’re happy to bring him into our pen.”

Maton’s overall numbers backed up with Tampa Bay. His ERA climbed to 4.58 and his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction. He punched out fewer than 20 percent of opposing hitters.

However, Maton has looked more like his old self in the last month. Since June 12, he’s allowed one run in 12 innings while striking out 11 of his 42 hitters. That shift has coincided with Maton’s decision to throw more two-seam sinkers. He had essentially ditched his four-seamer in 2023 with Houston, instead upping his cutter usage and playing his slider and curveball off of it. Maton had thrown all of three fastballs in the first two-plus months of the season; he’s thrown more than 18 percent two-seamers since that June 12 date.

Overall, 12 of the 18 earned runs the right-hander has allowed this season have come in three disastrous outings. The Mets are counting on the larger track record here.

Stearns cautioned against reading too much into this individual move. It doesn’t mean the Mets will be aggressive buyers at the actual trade deadline three weeks from now. It’s a move that gives the roster a chance to convince Stearns and the front office to add more in a few weeks.

“It’s a piece that we think, today, helps our bullpen and helps our team,” Stearns said. “We’re going to continue to see what is out there and what makes sense for us while also continuing to learn about our team in the next few weeks.”

It’s a move the Mets had to make as soon as possible. The move for Maton brings in a talented reliever with some extended if expensive team control and likely costs the Mets nothing beyond cash.

Like the 2015 deal for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, adding Maton doesn’t raise the ceiling of a flagging area of the team as much as it provides a sturdier floor. Those Mets had to stop batting sub-replacement players in the middle of their order. These Mets need to hand tie games to pitchers whose ERAs are defined.

Just as Maton can help the Mets in the high-leverage innings of individual games, this deal comes at a high-leverage part of the season. The muddled landscape of the NL means just about every team is a good week away from being in line for the postseason and a bad week away from being out on the fringe. The Mets showed that volatility themselves when they jumped from 13th in the senior circuit to seventh in little more than a homestand.

“We are in a spot where winning three in a row changes things in a very significant direction, and losing three in a row seems to change things in a pretty significant direction,” Stearns said. “And that’s true of a couple other teams.”

(Photo of Phil Maton: David Berding / Getty Images)

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