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Nelson Figueroa previews Mets’ season as SNY prepares for Opening Day

The former Mets pitcher is looking forward to the season, and we talked mostly about the team’s pitching.

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With the Mets’ 2017 season about to begin, Nelson Figueroa—former Mets pitcher, current SNY studio analyst—is ready for the season to begin. SNY will have plenty of pre-game coverage before the Mets’ opener against the Braves on Monday, starting at 11:30 AM, a full hour-and-a-half before Gary, Keith, and Ron open the first broadcast of the regular season.

Nelson joined us for the most recent episode of the podcast, and he sounds legitimately excited about SNY’s new studio space in lower Manhattan, which is where he’ll be stationed on Opening Day. We talked about the Mets’ season, focusing mostly on pitching, and have transcribed a couple of the questions below. It’s worth noting here that we chatted before the news came out that Steven Matz had an MRI, but considering the relatively-positive outcome of that scan, the answers regarding Matz are still relevant.

Chris McShane: Are the Mets going to win the National League East?

Nelson Figueroa: [laughter] You know, it always comes down to health. I think we saw that the last two years, with both the Mets winning in ‘15 and the Nationals winning in ‘16. It came down to the question of health. These two teams are built as the two heavyweights in the division, and if health is all the same, I’d look that the Mets can out-slug them, I think the Mets can also out-pitch the Nationals, both rotation and bullpen-wise. But it all comes down to health and who’s going to have the most able bodies come September to finish that fight off.

It’s kind of been disappointing because it’s been decided relatively early for the division the last two years. So I’m looking forward to more of a knuckle-crunch going into it. I want to see that kind of battle because I think it’s only going to make you stronger going into the next round of the playoffs.

CM: Injury-wise, I think things have gone about as well as anyone would have reasonably expected for the Mets at this point. Obviously, you would prefer that David Wright is healthy, you’d prefer that Steven Matz didn’t have this hiccup late in spring training where he may not be on the Opening Day roster depending on how his elbow is doing. But Zack Wheeler has thrown well, to the point that he’s certainly at least made a case to make the rotation on Opening Day. So as someone who’s been there as a major league pitcher, I’m curious: In those situations—and hopefully we don’t have to talk about too many of them over the course of the seaosn—but when you get into a spot like Matz was in, what makes a player report it to the team or seek out medical opinion, and what doesn’t?

NF: Well, it’s one thing for medical opinion. That’s an MRI situation. That nature of debilitating pain, whatever it is, discomfort, that you’re getting an MRI, then there’s cause for concern, of course. He felt some irritation, and irritation sounds very minor. But when you’re dealing with one of the key pieces of your rotation who’s come off of elbow surgery, there’s some cause for concern. He threw flat ground today and felt great, and everything that’s been reported, he felt really strong.

It’s one of those things that they have to monitor, and I think it’s been frustrating that they have to monitor Steven Matz with kid gloves when you see how much talent is underneath. When he’s able to pitch, you see how well he’s able to pitch, and really, he hasn’t been able to display that for long reaches throughout the season. And we’ve had some short glimpses of it, and then all of a sudden, something would flare up and he’d go down. And I think when you have four starters coming off of surgery, you knew there was going to be some bumps in the road in spring training. This seems to be very minor, so it’s best-case scenario right now.

And the thing is that the Mets have that depth, that starting pitching that not a lot of teams have, especially not starting out a season. You know, you’re looking, they were as deep as eight-nine starters. And Montero even getting a spot start here the other day went over five innings. That really shows me something that these guys are ready to battle out for the last two positions in that rotation. And Steven Matz is maybe seeing some of the writing on the wall that it’s maybe not a spot that he can just think is always going to be there for him. He’s going to have to figure out a way to stay on the field.

CM: So in that kind of situation, I guess the psychology of what goes on with the player is something that makes me curious. Do you think that might make him internalize some of the concerns, to maybe try tough it out a little bit more and not be sidelined and have the spot taken from him? Or do you think the way things have gone, especially for the rotation as a whole with this team, is that secondary thing? They’re all very conscious of it. Nobody wants to get in a situation where they’re going to miss months or a year.

NF: Right. If you can kind of minimize it to skipping a start, everybody’s okay with that. I think really he’s been like that since the moment he signed. He had Tommy John soon after he signed. I think he’s always kind of been in a situation where they’ve wanted him to be open and honest about how he’s feeling. And almost to a fault, he has been very open and honest with every little ache and pain, every little thing that didn’t feel 100 percent. And for a guy who has had to go through recovery from Tommy John, you would think that there is a certain threshold, a pain threshold, that you know this is normal wear-and-tear kind of thing.

But I think he’s been brought up to just be blatantly honest with the coaching staff because they do, and they did, value his arm so much coming up through the minor leagues that they wanted to make sure that this would be something that wouldn’t be a problem at the major league level, but we’re still seeing it at the major league level. I think it’s a very tricky thing because you want him to be open and honest, but at the same time, he has to maybe go out there and not pitch at 100 percent because none of us ever really get the opportunity to pitch at 100 percent since we’ve been in Little League.

CM: You had mentioned Montero, and he’s an interesting guy. I think a lot of Mets fans were perplexed when the Mets Gabby Ynoa to the Orioles just for cash considerations, basically clearing a spot on the 40-man, and keeping Montero instead. Is there anything you saw—because it’s something we’ve talked about a little bit on the podcast, what could the potential baseball reason be?—so is there anything you’ve seen with what those pitchers have done, either in past years, or what you’re seeing from Montero so far here in spring training?

NF: Well, I’m really hoping that Montero has turned the corner finally. When you look back at 2014, when it was deGrom and Montero and they had to make a decision of who to keep in the rotation and who to put in the bullpen, the Mets were very fortunate that they made the right decision with that one, in keeping deGrom in the rotation. Montero has just always seemed to—at the major league level, during the season—just nibble around the strike zone and put himself into trouble, and having to throw fastballs in fastball counts. And having two guys on base because he walked two guys in two innings. That kind of thing is not conducive to pitching winning baseball at the major league level.

I think if you didn’t learn anything from watching Bartolo Colon go out there and pitch with one pitch and throw a sinker 92 percent of the time, and get out after out at the major league level at 43 years young, then you really wasted your time being his teammate. You look at Gsellman and Lugo in that short amount of time they spent with him, they seemed to get it. Rely on that sinker, rely on the ability to throw strikes with that sinker and have confidence with it, and challenge hitters. We saw out of Montero, he was kind of pitching, trying to avoid contact, and all that does it put more people on base, so that when the contact does come, it’s hard contact and all of a sudden you’re backing up bases and you’ve given up a ton of runs.

This spring, though, he’s looked tremendous. He’s been able to throw all three pitches in and out the strike zone. And I think that’s the biggest key, when to throw it out the strike zone and in the strike zone. He was getting ahead of batters when we saw him last year and then trying to throw that slider, and it would be right down the middle rather than being just off the corner getting swings and misses. He’s been tremendous this spring. I think he’s leading the team by a lot in strikeouts, and it looks as if he’s finally turned the corner, and the Mets have that confidence. Because there has been a lot of people in the front office and coaches who have said, ‘you know what, this kid is still too talented, he’s still too young to give up on.’ And I think that was it. He had a history with the Mets over the past three seasons, and I think that they still felt there was more to get out of him.

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We talked plenty more about pitching, what Mets fans might not see behind the scenes when it comes to how the team handles injuries, and the team’s current commitment to winning. You can listen to the full chat in the embedded player below or via any of the usual outlets mentioned in the podcast post. And be sure to catch Nelson and the rest of the SNY crew on Monday morning as they get the season started.