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Noah Syndergaard, the Mets, and the MLB service time game

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It's become common practice for teams to "game" Major League Baseball's service time system in order to save money down the road on their best young prospects. That strategy is financially sound, but is it right for the Mets and Noah Syndergaard on the field in 2015?

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Noah Syndergaard was demoted to minor league camp on Friday, a move mostly met with acceptance around the Mets blogosphere and even in the media. This is, after all, a drill that Mets fans have been through a number of times now in recent years. Zack Wheeler, Travis d'Arnaud, Matt Harvey, and even Ike Davis—back when he was a hotshot prospect in 2010—were all returned to minor league camp despite being on the cusp of the big leagues. The reason? Well, there were two. The stated reason was always that the player in question needed additional minor league work, which in some of these cases has been the truth.

Behind that, however, was the not-too-well-kept secret that the Mets were looking to keep their young players down in the minors in order to game MLB's flawed service time system, which has teams all over the league prioritizing cost savings over putting out the best 25-man roster possible on day one of the season. If a team waits a few weeks before calling a player up, they gain an entire extra season of control of that player before he hits free agency. And if they wait until roughly mid-June, they can prevent the player from gaining Super-Two status, which gives him salary raises via arbitration sooner than he would otherwise have them.

It's not just the Mets who game the league's service time rules, of course. With most teams abiding by the practice nowadays—see the Cubs and Kris Bryant right now—it seems to have grown into the front office version of the sacrifice bunt. It's automatic in certain situations, though some teams are still more aggressive than others.

Enter the Mets, who have their top prospect Syndergaard on the cusp of big league innings. It appeared the Mets would have a full rotation entering into the season along with a sixth starter, Dillon Gee, sitting in the bullpen as a long reliever. But last Monday it was announced that Wheeler would miss the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Down a starter, the Mets shifted Gee back into the rotation and went about their business as if that was a lateral move. No big deal, right?

The problem here is that the Mets have been busy touting 2015 as "The Year™" in which the team finally gets back into long-awaited contention. This plan was built on the back of their excellent starting rotation, which just lost one of its top pitchers for the year. The natural caveat here is that Wheeler was more league average than ace over the sum of 2014, but with his natural ability and what he showed over the second half of the year, it was possible that he would take a step forward this year. Now, three-fifths of the Mets' rotation will consist of Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee, all of whom are fine pitchers, but how much upside are we looking at with this trio?


Photo: Chris McShane

Instead of using Gee, who has limited stuff and is likely limited to backend starter upside because of it, shouldn't the Mets be going to one of their higher upside options like Syndergaard immediately? If the Mets are going to compete like they hope, they're going to need some young players to step up, and the thought was that Wheeler could be one of those players.

If contending is the Mets' top priority this year, it would be nice to see them field the best possible team. Dillon Gee is a perfectly acceptable major league starting pitcher, but it doesn't seem too big a stretch to say that Noah Syndergaard could be the better pitcher this year. Gee has managed an unimpressive 3.91 ERA over his career while throwing half his games in noted pitcher's park Citi Field. That's not too high a bar for Syndergaard to surpass. It's probably pointless to hold him back and save the extra year.

I'd prefer the extra wins today over that extra team-controlled year in 2021

Syndergaard differs from past Mets prospects who were demoted to game the system in two ways. First, he already has a full season at Triple-A under his belt and showed improvement there from first half to second half. His ERA was ugly on the surface, but his peripheral indicators paint a rosier picture and we realize that pitching in Las Vegas is a subpar environment. Second, unlike Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, whose call-ups came during non-contending seasons, Syndergaard give the Mets the boost they need this year.

After giving up a first-round pick to sign Michael Cuddyer and with Curtis Granderson and David Wright approaching their mid-30s, this season is the time to go for it. With the way pitchers tend to break down, it almost doesn't seem to make sense to waste Syndergaard's bullets in Triple-A, even for a month. He's healthy right now, and there's no telling how healthy he'll be a year from now, let alone in 2021, when the extra year saved from demoting him now will come into effect.

The question I find myself asking is whether I'd prefer the extra wins today over that extra team-controlled year in 2021. While that year would be nice to have, the Mets could have a chance at a Wild Card spot today, and every win starting in April is going to matter. And if the Mets still have financial issues in 2021 that force them to let Syndergaard go, Mets fans probably have bigger problems on their hands.

Teams certainly aren't wrong to take advantage of this service time loophole, of course. It seems that until the rules are changed, they will continue to do so. That doesn't mean, of course, that financial sense always equals baseball sense, and in this case, the financial move of demoting Syndergaard seems to fly in the face of everything the organization has said about this season. If the Mets are truly ready to go for it and are committed to getting themselves back into the playoffs, they should put their best team on the field from day one. That team includes Noah Syndergaard in the starting rotation.