As the Mets hosted the Cardinals for four games in New York this week, the comparison between the teams’ young pitchers came up again, as it did back in spring training. In short, the suggestion goes, the Mets should mimic the Cardinals and use some of their best young minor league pitchers in the major league bullpen this season.
Adam Wainwright is the Cardinals’ most famous example, as he was exclusively a starting pitcher in the minors before getting a couple of relief appearances late in 2005, his major league debut, and pitching in relief over the course of the 2006 season. Following that successful campaign, the Cardinals went back to using him as a part of their rotation in 2007, and Wainwright went on to become one of the best starting pitchers in the game.
But Wainwright is really the exception when it comes to the Cardinals’ use of young pitchers in the major league bullpen, at least among the pitchers who have already made the switch back to the starting rotation. Since 2005, fourteen pitchers have made at least thirty starts for the team while getting at least two percent of their major league appearances out of the bullpen. Of the fourteen, five have come up as starters in the Cardinals’ system before joining the team’s bullpen in their debut seasons: Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly. And with ten more starts, Michael Wacha will join that group, too.
Unlike Wainwright, who spent his entire rookie season in the bullpen, the rest of the pitchers started to begin the year and saw relief work later. The grand majority of their relief appearances came in July, August, and September. While Wainwright saw his innings dip in a big way in his rookie season, the rest of the Cardinals’ young pitchers did not. Their bullpen assignments were relatively brief, allowing them to get their feet wet in the big leagues without reducing their annual workload, especially since some of them threw more innings in the postseason.
As the Mets continue developing their minor league pitchers, that’s where the comparison might make some sense, though the team has not handled its best pitching prospects in recent years. Matt Harvey’s debut came in late July a couple years ago, and Zack Wheeler’s debut came in mid-June last year. Neither pitcher made a relief appearance in his rookie season.
Of course, the Mets were 47-51 with four teams and several games separating them from the then-new second Wild Card spot when Harvey debuted. And the season quickly went down the drain from there. When Wheeler debuted, the team was 25-40 and already out of the Wild Card picture entirely. So as the the calendar turned to August and September, the Mets didn’t have a potential postseason for which they might want to preserve either young pitcher. It’s not surprising that each pitcher remained a starter until hitting his innings limit for the year in mid-September.
Now, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero are the team’s best pitching prospects. If the Mets allowed each a 35 percent increase on his innings from last year, including one postseason start each, Syndergaard would be capped at 167 innings this year and Montero at 215. Assuming the Mets deem each pitcher ready sometime this year, they have some options.
Obviously, the team could go the route they went with Harvey and Wheeler. Syndergaard or Montero could be promoted in June or July and slotted into the rotation until hitting their innings cap for the year. For Montero, that’s not likely to be an issue unless the team finds itself in the postseason and wants him to start games in it. Syndergaard, though, would probably hit his limit around the same time that Harvey and Wheeler hit theirs.
Alternatively, the team could promote either pitcher exclusively as a bullpen arm for the second half of the season, allowing each to build up innings towards their limit in the minors before debuting in the big leagues as relief pitcher, as the Cardinals’ young pitchers have. But the starting rotation will likely have a need for at least one pitcher at some point this season, particularly if Jenrry Mejia is on any sort of innings limit himself.
If gradually increasing workloads are thrown out the window, the Mets could promote either pitcher as a relief pitcher sooner than the halfway point of the season. They would have to deal with the fact that each pitcher would eventually become a Super-Two player in abritration, but they’ve already ensured the duo won’t get enough big league service time this year nullify a full extra year of control a few years down the road. Perhaps the appeal here would be that the pitcher could help the bullpen in the short term and transition back to a starting role when the need eventually arises. The risk would be that the pitcher never gets to his innings limit this year and enters 2015 with a cap in place.
So if the Mets find themselves more relevant than expected after the All-Star break with a healthy rotation intact, perhaps Syndergaard and Montero find their way to the big leagues as relief pitchers. But if there’s a need in the rotation, it would awfully difficult to keep either one in the bullpen if the team still finds itself in the Wild Card mix. It would be a good problem to have.