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A dream deferred

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The Mets’ Fab Five may finally pitch in the same rotation, all healthy. But will it be what we hoped?

Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

We’ve heard it enough times by now. Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler have never thrown a single pitch as members of the same starting rotation for the Mets. This was to be the rotation of the future, the rotation of a dynasty, the rotation dreams were made of. The 2018 season could very well open with that rotation, about three years behind schedule, but many more years in the making.

It all started with Harvey. He exploded onto the scene in 2012 with his electric stuff and had a dream 2013 season.

Matt Harvey’s 2013 All Star Game start in front of his home fans.

He was an All-Star. He was an ace. He was The Dark Knight. Until he wasn’t. The fans and the media loved him. Until they didn’t. Tommy John surgery caused him to miss the entire 2014 season.

John Buck famously comforts Matt Harvey, having to watch from the sidelines after his Tommy John surgery.

Then the negative headlines started. He commits the cardinal sin of attending a Yankee game. He’d rather be a Yankee with a mega contract, people thought.

A couple of months before the devastating torn UCL diagnosis for Harvey, Zack Wheeler makes his major league debut. His stuff is clearly impressive, but he’s still a little bit raw. He walks too many guys, runs too many full counts, and throws too many pitches.

Into the void comes Jacob deGrom—in a lot of ways, the anti-Harvey. He makes his first major league start against the Yankees in May 2014, holding them to just one run, and he doesn’t look back. He would go on to have a 3.5 fWAR season, calmly, under the radar, away from the spotlight.

In September 2014, deGrom tied an MLB record, fanning the first eight batters he faced.

Zack Wheeler, too, had a good 2014 campaign, posting a 3.54 ERA in 185 innings—his only full and healthy season in the big leagues so far. The outlook for the rotation going into 2015 was good. deGrom had established himself. Harvey would return. Wheeler would continue to improve. Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz were waiting in the wings. It was all coming together.

Indeed, while 2015 was the closest the Mets got to seeing their five aces all healthy at the same time, it was not to be. Despite reassurances from Terry Collins that Zack Wheeler’s offseason MRIs were “clean as heck” and what he was dealing with was merely “elbow tendinitis,” news broke in mid-March that Wheeler would be the next Met ace to fall victim to a torn UCL.

Four out of five ain’t bad, though. Amid much fanfare, Noah Syndergaard made his major league debut in May. Steven Matz would then follow the next month with one of the most memorable debuts ever by a Met.

In July, Jacob deGrom pitched in the All Star Game. To say he made his mark is an understatement.

Jacob deGrom struck out the side in just 10 pitches in the 2015 All Star Game.

But even during a dream run to a playoff berth, the Mets’ injury history haunted them. Controversy over Matt Harvey’s innings limit imposed by his agent, Scott Boras, swirled like a late-summer thunderstorm. Negative headlines splattered the canvass of the news stands in the city streets. Selfish. Two-faced. Vitriol I won’t repeat here. After a very public back-and-forth and a lot of finger-pointing, Matt Harvey pitched anyway. With enough run support from a newly revamped offense and concerns about Harvey’s innings limit put to rest, the Mets’ nearly perfect starting rotation was World Series worthy.

Going into the 2016 season, the Mets pitching staff once again found themselves on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the season laden with expectations. Unsurprisingly, the blissful honeymoon period wouldn’t last long. During spring training, Matt Harvey was once again tabloid fodder, dealing with blood clots in his bladder. It only got worse from there. He struggled so badly in the early part of 2016 that there was talk of demoting him to AAA. He seemed to rebound during the month of June, but then after two poor starts in a row came the death knell: thoracic outlet syndrome. Harvey could just be replaced with Zack Wheeler, right? No such luck. This news came just a couple of weeks after Wheeler was shut down due to elbow discomfort during his rehab from his Tommy John surgery in the minor leagues. All of this was on top of the revelation that both Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz were pitching through bone spurs. When it rains, it pours.

Still, there were bright spots, to be sure, most of them Thor-related.

For the third time in four years, a Mets starting pitcher was on the All Star team. This time it was Noah Syndergaard, whose 2016 season put him on the precipice of superstardom. Not only was he hitting dingers at the plate, he was absolutely lights out on the mound, with a jaw-dropping 2.29 FIP and 10.68 strikeouts per nine innings. Somehow, despite it all, the Mets led the league in pitching WAR in 2016, mostly thanks to Syndergaard’s 6.4 fWAR. Steven Matz also pitched his only complete season of his career to-date. But the season couldn’t end without one more kick in the shins. In September, Jacob deGrom, who had put together a good 2016 season himself, had season-ending surgery to repair ulnar nerve damage in his right elbow. The Mets staggered their way to the playoffs and made their early exit.

Still, hope sprung eternal. Before the start of the 2017 season, Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey, and Matz got their latest moniker: The Four Horseman of Queens. Syndergaard was ready to start Opening Day. “I feel like we’ve got five aces on the team to come in and do the job,” he said at the time. “I am just fortunate enough to lead us off and set the tone for the rest of the season.”

Then, 2017 happened. I’m not posting any gifs or videos from 2017. We all know what unfolded. Thor tore his lat in April and missed nearly the whole season. Matz was hurt, then ineffective, then hurt again and quite frankly, was probably hurt the whole time. Post-TOS Harvey struggled to even find words to describe this new version of himself, having to face reporters in poor start after poor start. Zack Wheeler returned to the mound for the first time in two years, but was inconsistent, and suffered first from biceps tendinitis and then from a “stress reaction” in his throwing arm. Jacob deGrom was the only mainstay. The difference in WAR between the 2016 pitching staff and the 2017 pitching staff was historic—the fifth biggest drop from one season to another for any staff since 1901.

No one wants to relive 2017. That’s why the signing of Jason Vargas—unsexy as it was—was welcome news to many. It wasn’t welcome news to Zack Wheeler, however, whose rotation spot was suddenly in jeopardy. “I’m just here to be a starting pitcher,” Wheeler said, in response to questions about a relief role in the wake of the Vargas signing. Ironically, in what is perhaps the most Metsian turn of events yet, the pitcher they acquired to hedge against the injury history of their starting pitchers, is the starting pitcher currently injured as the Mets head into the final week of spring training. C’est la vie.

However, all five aces are somehow healthy at once for the time being. deGrom and Syndergaard appear to be in midseason form already and Harvey and Matz, while off to slow starts, have had very encouraging results of late. Zack Wheeler is having a rocky spring, but a pain-free one, by all accounts. Circumstances have set themselves up for a turn through the rotation with all of the members of the Fab Five, who have been teammates for the better part of three years without ever being part of the same rotation. There are a lot of ifs here. If Harvey can find a way to be effective with reduced velocity. If Matz can be healthy. If Wheeler can prove himself. If nothing untoward happens to deGrom or Syndergaard. But the dream remains, like milk that’s been in the back of the fridge almost too long—the first hint of sourness from its inertness lingering on your tongue, but masked by the sweetness of the lactose.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, as was his way, said it far better than I could in far fewer words. A dream deferred isn’t dead. But it is changed. Does the latency make it more potent or less potent? Will this rotation sag under the heavy load of years of expectations and hopes of Mets fans? Or will the stretched anticipation make this moment even more syrupy sweet?

It seems like we’ll find out soon. Even if we only make one or two passes through the rotation before Vargas’s return, even though so much can happen over the course of a long season or even in this last week of spring training, so much has led to this moment. So much hope and agony and so many “You’ve got to be kidding me” moments are weaved into the tapestry of this occasion. Even if my better judgement knows that there is a good chance that Harvey is a shell of his former self and Matz and Wheeler’s health stands on tenuous ground, I can’t help think about what can be. I can’t help but continue to dream.

And I might just explode.