PORT ST. LUCIE — Sam McWilliams’ fastball was popping at new levels and his slider had developed into a plus-pitch. The Mets were taking notes during spring training last year, aware the right-hander would become a minor league free agent after the season.
In camp at the time for the Rays, the 6-foot-7 McWilliams — who had pitched to an 8.18 ERA in 11 appearances at Triple-A the previous season — intrigued Mets scouts. But any chance to further evaluate him in person ended with the pandemic and the scuttling of the minor league season.
An app called “Synergy,” which allowed teams to keep tabs on players in alternate site camps, reaffirmed the Mets’ interest in McWilliams. When the season concluded, the Mets were ready to pounce.
“As a department we ranked all the available minor league free agents and identified Sam as a top target,” Mets director of pro scouting Bryn Alderson said. “One of our goals this offseason was to improve our overall upper-level pitching depth.”
It took a bidding war against other teams with similar ideas about the 25-year-old minor league journeyman. In the end, that meant giving McWilliams a major league contract above the minimum, which will pay him $750,000 this season.
What did the Mets see in McWilliams, who is attempting to earn a bullpen job this spring? Mainly somebody who had improved his mechanics while replacing his two-seam fastball with a four-seamer, increasing his velocity a few ticks into the 95-96 mph range.
“He has changed the way he approaches the game,” Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “Certainly the results in 2019 weren’t great, but with the changes he made at Tampa’s alternate site we expect his performance to be better and far more consistent.
“He has a much more efficient delivery now — mitigating some risk for injury.”
It’s a low-risk, high-reward gamble for an organization that over the last two years traded pitching prospects Justin Dunn, Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson, among others, in an attempt to improve the major league roster. Dunn went to the Mariners as part of the Edwin Diaz/Robinson Cano trade. Kay and Woods Richardson went to the Blue Jays in exchange for Marcus Stroman.
McWilliams is hardly the only minor league free agent the Mets signed, but perhaps the most notable because it involved a major league contract.
“We believe his fastball/slider combination will play well in the bullpen,” said Alderson, whose father, Sandy, returned to the Mets as team president last November. “We dug deep into his makeup and learned Sam is a great kid with a strong work ethic.”
It’s a professional career that has taken McWilliams from the Phillies (which selected him in the eighth round of the 2015 draft) to the Diamondbacks, Rays, Royals and then back to Tampa Bay.
Bolstering the intrigue of Mets officials was the fact McWilliams pitched in a Rays organization known for finding and developing pitching gems. Another Rays pitcher the Mets were monitoring, John Curtiss, received a shot with the major league club last season and was the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the World Series against the Dodgers.
“Heading into the winter, I really had no idea what to expect,” McWilliams said earlier this week. “All I had to go on was the video from the alternate site and the team sharing and I didn’t really know what teams had access to our video or our data. We tried to get it out there as much as possible.”
The fact McWilliams has minor league options remaining increased his attractiveness. That the Mets were beginning a new regime and weren’t as beholden to some players as they had been previously made it easier to give McWilliams the major league contract, putting him on the 40-man roster.
McWilliams has worked as a starter for most of his professional career, but said his bullpen work last summer at the alternate site camp has prepared him for anything.
“I think mentally coming in out of the bullpen, it’s helped me to get back to be a little bit more aggressive,” McWilliams said. “That will definitely carry over into a starting role — pounding the zone, putting up strikes and letting myself play.”