Sometimes players interpret being traded away from a team as a sign of rejection, that their old front office does not want them anymore. Not Jeurys Familia.
When the Mets’ 2018 season went sideways, Familia knew they would follow the standard practice of extracting any bit of a return from their pending free agents. Sure enough, in exchange for sending Familia to the Oakland Athletics in July, the Mets received salary relief, two prospects and international bonus money.
On a conference call with reporters on Monday, Familia explained why he returned to the Mets on a three-year, $30 million contract.
“It means a lot for me because that’s where I grew up — 12 years in the organization from the minor leagues and the big leagues,” Familia said. “It’s like a family for me.”
Familia, 29, did not come back for free, though. While he will earn less annually than standout closers on free-agent deals, he will be paid around the going rate for a top setup man. The same day Familia struck his deal, Joe Kelly, who is a year older than Familia and has less of a track record out of the bullpen, agreed to a three-year, $25 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers to be that team’s setup man.
Familia, though, wanted to return to the Mets so badly that when the off-season began he told his agent to explore any possibility of returning to Queens.
He had been through many ups and downs with the Mets. He signed with them for $100,000 at 17 out of his native Dominican Republic, using his earnings to build his family a home after a humble upbringing. He rose to become the team’s closer in 2015, blew three saves in that year’s World Series, then rebounded to make the All-Star team in 2016 while setting a franchise record with 51 saves. He started a family (his wife’s family lives in New Jersey), was suspended 15 games in 2017 for domestic violence accusations, and recovered from blood-clot surgery in his throwing shoulder.
In seven years as a Met, Familia amassed 123 saves and a 2.66 E.R.A.
“There a lot of people in our organization that are comfortable with him,” Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen said of Familia last week.
When the Mets traded Familia, he said it was tough because it was all so new, but he still called his time in Oakland, where he pitched mostly as a setup man, a good experience. Even then, however, he hoped to return to New York.
Familia wanted to return to closing — and he probably could have gotten a job this winter doing that — but the Mets had already traded for Edwin Diaz, an All-Star closer, earlier this month. Diaz, who had a 1.96 E.R.A. and a major league-high 57 saves last season, is younger (24) than Familia, throws harder, strikes out more batters, and possesses better command.
“He’s one of the best closers in the game, and helping him in the bullpen is going to be fun,” Familia said of his new teammate.
The Mets will need Familia’s help; their bullpen was among the worst in baseball last season, even when he was still in their uniform.
Instead of pitching the ninth inning, Familia said the Mets told him he would pitch the eighth in front of Diaz. But roles can change, and he would earn a $500,000 bonus if he were to finish 50 games.
When Mets Manager Mickey Callaway took over last year, he preached flexible roles for relief pitchers as a way to secure the best matchup against an opponent, but he ended up using Familia primarily as a closer, anyway. Before the acquisition of Familia last week, Callaway said Diaz would also be best used as a closer because the team had confidence in versatile relievers like Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. Now Familia is in the fold, as well.
“It doesn’t matter what inning I’m going to pitch,” Familia said. “I come back here to win and get a championship.”
Follow James Wagner on Twitter: @ByJamesWagner.
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