As we've all seen, the debate surrounding what to do with Noah Syndergaard has been the story of the spring thus far, thanks in part to last year's results, his elite pedigree, and sterling debut against the Braves. It appears as though there are two primary factors that make optioning Thor to Triple A a virtual lock. The first being that the team wants to manage his work load. The second being that the team stands to benefit by manipulating his service time. A third factor would be the Mets current place on the win curve.
Last year, Syndergaard threw 117 innings at the minor league level. Assuming the team follows the same blueprint they used for managing Harvey and Wheeler's workload, it's safe to assume the plan for Thor is as follows: Call him up mid-season and increase his innings pitched by 30, up to around 150; add another 30 IP next year, limiting him to 180 and skipping starts here and there or shutting him down in September if necessary; and finally lifting the restrictions for 2016 altogether. Working with a cap of 150 IP presents a lot of logistical hurdles at the Major League level, since it would require a late season shutdown or multiple skipped starts. Since winning takes a backseat to development in minors, it's reasonable to suggest that limiting Thor's innings in the first half will be a lot easier in the minors where skipping starts or pulling him early games have limited repercussions.
Next comes the service time issue, where for financial reasons, the team would stand to benefit by preventing Thor from earning Super Two status. It ensures that he will be making around the league minimum in 2016 rather than millions through arbitration. There is also an underlying factor in that the if Thor does prove to be a superstar, his agent stands to gain more and more leverage in negotiating a long term deal the closer Thor gets to free agency. Lastly, if it you're going to limit his innings to 150, then it makes perfect sense to recall him later in the year because the alternative would mean that he'd accumulating service time while being shut down and not pitching in parts of August and all of September.
All told, it seems that starting him in the minors is the logical choice. The argument against this line of reasoning basically boils down to the desire fielding the best team possible. On paper, at least, the Mets don't project to be a playoff contender this year. So the question then becomes whether or not the 15 - 18 or so starts made by, say Dice-K, instead of Syndergaard could ultimately be the difference in making the playoffs. Even the most optimistic projection of Thor, along with the most pessimistic projection of Dice-K, would suggest only a gain of a win or two by going with Thor. Not to mention that again, we're probably looking at someone filling in for Thor in September if he starts with the big team in April.
So case closed huh? Well not so fast. There is an alternative that addresses two of the factors against Thor being on the opening day roster and I conveniently ruined the surprise by making it the title of this post. So should the Mets go with a six-man rotation? I really believe the answer is a resounding yes as the positives far outweigh the negatives. I'll begin by diving into the benefits that each member of the rotation would gain.
The Rotation Locks
Bartolo Colon - He's old. In fact, he's basically ancient by starting pitcher standards. His body looks like a mound of mashed potatoes with arms, legs and a head attached to it. Last year he seemed to run out of gas by the end of the year, so much so that he was passed over by the A's during the playoffs. There's also the injury factor, where according to research by FanGraphs' Jeff Zimmerman, Colon is the most likely DL candidate in the entire sport for 2014. So it's pretty reasonable to expect something well below 200 innings out of Colon with diminishing returns for all innings beyond the 150 mark. Also to add some anecdotal evidence, older pitchers seem to thrive with an extra day of rest. Of note is Pedro Martinez, who always stated that he felt stronger with the extra day and the his numbers backed up the claim. Colon would seem to benefit the most.
Zack Wheeler - Just as they were attempting to do with Harvey before he went down, the Mets figure to limit Wheeler's innings total. Between Vegas and Queens, Wheeler threw 168 innings last year, meaning the team would probably like to limit him to somewhere around 190 - 200 innings this year. A six-man rotation would all but ensure that he stays within that threshold, even if he takes that leap to ace status and is consistently pitching deep into games.
Jon Niese - Injuries limited the left-hander to 143 innings over 24 starts. The six-man rotation figures to allow Niese to settle back into the rotation without the pressure of having him throw over 200 innings or make 30+ starts coming off of a shoulder injury.
Dillon Gee - He's the only guy that doesn't have the durability concerns (199 IP last year)and workload limitations (like Wheeler). He had 3.62 ERA last year and was brilliant in his last 20+ starts.
The Other Guys
Dice K/Lannan - Basically, we're looking at addition by subtraction. Instead of seeing our worst pitcher make 30 - 32 starts, in a six-man setup, those guys will only make 20 - 22 starts. That leads to spreading the other ten starts amongst the other five superior pitchers. Dice-K, in particular, as guy who runs up high pitch counts and struggles to go deep into games could probably pushed a little bit more with an extra day of rest. In other words, more 120 pitch/six inning starts as opposed to pulling him after five innings/100 pitches.
Jenrry Mejia - While he was electric when he got the call last year, he got hurt again after just a few starts. Durability is an obvious concern and he's clearly behind Dice-K and Lannan, who are the frontrunners for the fifth spot in the rotation. Terry Collins has even stated that a return to the bullpen is a very real possibility.
Rafael Montero - Same boat as Thor with regard to service time and workload issues.
The Bullpen - Ostensibly, an extra day of rest for the starters mean they can go deeper into games preventing Collins from overworking his bullpen. Or in some cases, prevent downright abuse (see Scott "Every Minute" Rice).
What it Would Mean For Thor
As stated above, the six-man rotation quells two of the main concerns. Limiting his innings would be a snap in a six-man rotation. It would eliminate the need to pull him early in starts. It would lessen the need for the team to skip his spot in the rotation which would lessen the need to either shuttle guys up and down between Vegas and the big leagues or pitch the other guys on short rest. If Thor continues to dominate this Spring and prove that he's ready for The Show, it allows the team field a better roster by having his dynamic arm contribute to this year's team. It allows him to get his feet wet earlier and could better prepare him to pitch like a stud in 2015. For once, the team would be making a fan friendly move that will no doubt excite masses.
The only glaring negative is the service time issue by putting Thor on track earn Super Two status. There's also intangible issues. Pitchers, and athletes in general for that matter, are said to be "creatures of habit" and pitching every 6th day may throw some of our starters out of whack. While it could benefit an older guy like Colon, it could be detrimental to guy like Gee who relies more on control and command than he does pure stuff.
I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. As of this writing, the Mets rank 23rd in payroll at around $82M. The team has only $54M committed to four players for 2015. I just don't see how allowing Thor to get a crack at arbitration a year early is going to damage the team's future payroll flexibility by all that much. Teams usually don't consider a six-man rotation because few teams have five good starters, much less six. For us, it's the opposite as a six-man rotation would be playing to our biggest strength, our starting pitching depth. We'd still have Montero and Mejia waiting in the wings should Thor suffer a hiccup or if Dice-K or Lannan flat out sucks. With Harvey out and another non-playoff year potentially staring us Mets fans in the face, having someone to rally around or get excited about from start of the season could help make an otherwise bad year more palatable. What do you say Mets fans? I say yes!