(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)
Sean Gilmartin wasn’t supposed to be a role player. The Atlanta Braves took the California native with the 28th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Florida State University, and he was frequently ranked in the top five in most Braves prospects lists.
Atlanta scouts considered Gilmartin a quality left-handed pitcher with a great make-up and excellent pitch ability. His command of four pitches separated him from many prospects and he was very polished mechanically. He was also an above average athlete because he played some outfield in high school. The scouts even compared him to former Atlanta lefty, Tom Glavine, who pitched with a similarly calm, methodical approach that Gilmartin employs.
“I just thought of it as a nice compliment,” Gilmartin says now about being compared to the pitcher he grew up idolizing. “Obviously, I know I’m not going to be Tom Glavine, I can only go out and do what I can do. Obviously, it’s nice to have that comparison, but at the same time you got to go out there and do what you can do.”
The Braves put Gilmartin on the fast track through their minor league system with him reaching their Triple-A team in Gwinett during his first year in the pros. But he never really caught on bouncing back and forth between Double-A and Gwinett during his first two seasons in the minors. In 2013, shoulder issues arose and the Braves seemingly saw enough of him to believe that he would never pitch significant innings for them.
That winter, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins for veteran backup catcher Ryan Doumit. Splitting time between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester, Gilmartin went on to have the best season of his professional career. He started 26 games going 9-7 with a 3.71 ERA and a 1.297 WHIP. However, when the Twins shaped their 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft this past offseason, they decided to leave Gilmartin unprotected.
Though Gilmartin had yet to live up to the expectations that come with being a first-round selection, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson believed that he was worth a $25,000 looksee because of his pronounced Triple-A splits against lefties, who hit only .190 against him. The long-legged lefty tossed 23 1/3 innings against fellow southpaws compiling a 0.75 WHIP, allowing no HR’s, and striking out 27 batters against just 3 walks.
Despite being a starting pitcher his whole career, Gilmartin seemed like a good candidate for a lefty specialist role. He competed for a bullpen job with the team in spring training and made the Opening Day roster, mainly because of his status as a Rule 5 player. Per Rule 5 Draft regulations, the Mets had to keep Gilmartin on their 25-man roster or disabled list all season, or offer him back to the Twins for half of their $50,000 drafting fee.
“It was just kind of one of those things,” Gilmartin told me about being thrust into a bullpen role. “Everything worked out the way it was supposed to, so I’m very blessed to be in the situation that I’m in.”
The 6-2, 205-pound Gilmartin made the transition from starter to reliever rather painlessly, but he did admit that it was a tough adjustment mentally getting used to working out of the bullpen, after starting 79 games in the minor leagues.
“It was more so difficult on the mental side than anything else,” said Gilmartin, whose father was a first baseman who played five seasons of minor league ball and his brother, Michael, was an infielder in the Oakland Athletics organization. “Physically I knew I’d be able to handle it, but the mental side was a little bit tougher just to be ready every single day.”
While the Mets figured Gilmartin could be a serviceable LOOGY in the pen, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. He has actually posted reverse splits in 43 relief appearances this season. He’s been very effective against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .215/.288/.280 line. Meanwhile, he has held lefties to a slash line of .243/.300/.338. This may seem strange, but to Gilmartin the reason is simple.
“Because I’ve been a starter my whole career,” Gilmartin quipped.
He’s pitched in a variety of roles for the Mets this season, but appears to have found a niche in long relief. He has posted a 1.60 ERA in fourteen relief appearances in which he’s pitched more than one inning, allowing runs in only three of those outings which span across 28 2/3 innings. The Mets haven’t needed a long reliever too often this season thanks to the fine work done by their starters, but when the need has arisen, Gilmartin has proven his worth.
According to Baseball America, only 28.46% of Rule 5 picks stick with their teams. Gilmartin has been one of those rare exceptions, and he never really worried about being shipped back to Minnesota.
“Honestly, no,” said Gilmartin. “I didn’t think about that at all, it was more so in spring training I thought about it for sure. But once the season got started you can’t worry about stuff like that, you just got to go out there and pitch.”
Gilmartin will never fulfill the expectations that Atlanta had when they picked him in the first round. Heck, he didn’t even fulfill the expectation of what the Mets had hoped when they selected him in the Rule 5 draft. But he has quietly emerged as a dependable arm out of Terry Collins’ bullpen and he will clearly become Mets property at season’s end.
Perhaps he could provide a left-handed possibility in the starting rotation if Jon Niese gets moved in the off-season. Or perhaps he may once again come out of the bullpen. But that’s not his call, and either way the Mets unearthed a rare Rule 5 keeper.
“You know what, that’s not up to me,” he said. “So I’ll be readily available to do whatever they want me to do.”