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Steven Matz’s career is at a crossroads in 2018

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Tons of questions surround the southpaw going into the season.

Steven Matz throws a pitch during a bullpen session at Mets spring training in 2018.
Chris McShane

When Steven Matz burst on to the scene in 2015, it was hard not to dream on the tall, lanky specimen from Long Island. Matz’s profile was one of a future ace, with a great pitch mix, above-average velocity from the left side, and excellent control. But Matz’s elite tools and tremendous potential were constantly clouded by his troublesome injury woes.

Matz’s first two seasons were a pefect demonstration of this. Once he reached the big leagues in June 2015, Matz hit the ground running and pitched to a fantastic 2.21 ERA and 3.61 FIP at the major league level. But those numbers came over just 35.2 innings, thanks to a lat injury that kept him out for two months. And in 2016, Matz again pitched well, with a strong 3.40 ERA, 8.77 K/9, 3.30 xFIP, and 2.8 fWAR, but his season ended in August after he could no longer pitch through a bone spur in his elbow that required surgery.

And before the 2017 regular season even began, Matz went down with what was labeled as “left elbow irritation.” He recieved a PRP injection and did not make his season debut until June. But once he debuted last year, Matz did something he had never done before in his career: he pitched poorly. In fact, he was downright terrible.

In 13 starts, he put up a ghastly 6.08 ERA and a 5.05 FIP. He struck out just 6.48 batters per nine and allowed 1.62 home runs per nine, both of which are the worst figures he’s had in those respective categories at any level in his entire professional career. At the beginning of the year, it seemed like health was the only thing holding Matz back from being a truly elite starter. But by the end of the year, he seemed to have a whole host of other problems dragging him down completely.

Matz went back on the disabled list for irritation in his ulnar nerve in August, once again ending his season prematurely. But when he went down, it was reported that he’d been pitching through elbow pain all year and that his elbow would swell to the size of a grapefruit between some starts. Matz had surgery to correct the nerve issue and spent the offseason recovering.

Going into 2018, Matz’s role is now completely up in the air. The southpaw is competing for a spot in the starting rotation this spring, but he has not made a very strong case for himself through his first two starts. In his first start, he failed to get out of the second inning after giving up five runs, and he was pulled in the first inning of his second start after giving up five more runs. While results obviously aren’t the main focus of spring training, it is still concerning to see that he’s only struck out one and walked four of the 17 batters he’s faced so far.

Despite the results, Matz has said he still feels healthy and strong right now. But if he cannot procure one of the spots in the Mets’ rotation, there’s a chance he could end up in the bullpen to start the year. The Mets don’t have a second left-handed reliever after Jerry Blevins, so Matz could be of use there. In addition, a diminished workload in a relief role could go a long way towards keeping him healthy, and his sinker could play up quite a bit in relief.

But if the team is not inclined to send Matz to the bullpen, he does still have an option year remaining as well. So while there’s a chance it won’t please him too much, the Mets could plausibly send Matz down to Triple-A Las Vegas to start the year if he does not turn his spring around soon.

Matz has never been a good bet to stay on the field, but now it’s not certain if he can even pitch well when he is on the field. Steamer projects a 4.01 ERA and 4.02 FIP for Matz in just nine innings of major league work this year. ZiPS has him at a 3.86 ERA and 3.89 FIP in 105.0 innings, but PECOTA projects a 4.10 ERA in 86 innings.

That said, even with his lackluster spring training results thus far, the 26-year-old is only one year removed from being a quality starting pitcher, and still has an incredible amount of talent. And it goes without saying how important a pain-free, healthy Matz pitching like he did in 2016 would be for the Mets this year.