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What’s left for the Mets in the starting pitcher free agency market

If the Mets want to bring in a starting pitcher as rotation insurance, there are still some options in free agency.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As the Mets continue through an active offseason that has nevertheless left their starting rotation untouched since the 2018 season came to an end, there are still eighteen starting pitchers available on the market, according to the list of free agents over at MLB Trade Rumors. And when it comes to depth behind those five pitchers, the team could use some help.

Like last offseason, this one has seen the free agent market play out at an incredibly slow pace. And there have been plenty of players who’ve settled for contracts that seem incredibly team-friendly, while plenty of others remain unsigned. Given that reality, the Mets should probably not hold tight with their current starting pitching depth chart, which starts with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Jason Vargas. After that, it’d be some mix of Hector Santiago, Chris Flexen, Corey Oswalt, Kyle Dowdy, or—if the team is willing to move either one out of the bullpen—Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman.

If the top four pitchers in the rotation are healthy for the vast majority of the season, things should go reasonably well. And if you squint a little bit, it’s at least possible to see deGrom, Syndergaard, and Wheeler doing that, even if the three of them combined have just two 200-inning seasons—both of which belong to deGrom—under their belts. And Matz, who performed decently last year, with a 3.97 ERA and 4.62 FIP in 154 innings, after throwing 66.2 innings with a 6.08 ERA and 5.05 FIP in 2017, has not pulled off that feat, either.

Vargas had a nightmare season last year, finishing with a 5.77 ERA and 5.02 FIP in just 92.0 innings across twenty starts. A freak broken bone in his non-throwing hand in spring training delayed the start of his season, and he missed a little over a month between June and July with a calf injury. Through August 14, the date of his thirteenth of the twenty starts, he had an 8.10 ERA. His last seven starts went much better, as he had a 2.56 ERA in 38.2 innings in them. But even pitching that well in just over 40 percent of his innings just barely got his ERA under six.

Going into spring training, the team might want to bring in at least one pitcher who could really compete with Vargas for the job as the team’s Opening Day fifth starter. So let’s run down the list of who’s left, from best to worst 2018 ERA. Whether or not any of these pitchers would take just a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training to try to crack the Mets’ roster is certainly a factor here.

The sub-4.00s

The best of these eighteen pitchers last year was Clay Buchholz, who had a 2.01 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 98.1 innings for the Diamondbacks. Staying healthy has been an issue for him over the course of his career, but the 34-year-old righty has been at least capable and occasionally exceptional when he’s pitched over the past few years.

Wade Miley, who is 32 years old and is a lefty, was coming off back-to-back seasons with ERAs in the fives last year, but he managed a 2.57 ERA and 3.59 FIP for the Brewers, albeit in just 80.2 innings over sixteen starts.

Edwin Jackson was somewhat similar in the sense that his 2016 and 2017 seasons went very poorly before he turned in 92.0 innings with a 3.33 ERA for the A’s in seventeen starts. He’s 35 now and is a right-handed pitcher.

Jeremy Hellickson fits in with this group, too, as he had a 3.45 ERA and 4.22 FIP in 91.1 innings over nineteen starts for the Phillies after posting a 5.43 ERA in 30 starts in 2017 for the Orioles and Phillies.

Unless his market ends up putting him on par with the rest of the pitchers on this list, Dallas Keuchel will be far too expensive for a Wilpon budget. Even though his past three seasons have been a bit up and down—relative to his 2014-15 dominance—he finished with a 3.74 ERA in 204.2 innings for the Astros last year.

From 4.00 to 5.00

Gio Gonzalez has made a habit of torturing the Mets, especially in Queens, over the course of his career. He’s coming off a so-so season that saw him finish with a 4.21 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 171 innings over 32 starts. Since 2010, he’s averaged 186 innings pitched per year, and he has a 3.69 ERA and 3.63 FIP for his career in total. And he’s averaged 183 innings per season over the past three, though his 3.87 ERA and 3.95 FIP over that span are a bit worse than the career numbers. It’s worth noting that his 19.8% strikeout rate was a career-low and his first mark under 20%.

Brett Anderson checks in next, having put together a 4.48 ERA and 4.17 FIP in 80.1 innings for the A’s last year. That was his best single season over the past three years by far, both in terms of innings and the ERA. Doug Fister was similar, with a 4.50 ERA in 66 innings for the Rangers.

James Shields had one of his better seasons since Bartolo Colon took him deep in San Diego, as he had a 4.53 ERA and 5.09 FIP. Those aren’t fantastic numbers by any stretch, and his struggles in 2016 and 2017 are legitimate cause for concern.

Francisco Liriano rounds out this group after throwing 133.2 innings for the Tigers with a 4.58 ERA and 5.11 FIP. The 35-year-old lefty hasn’t finished with an ERA under four since 2015.

Over 5.00, sometimes by a lot

In addition to hitting his first home run as a Met, Bartolo Colon was really solid for the team in his stint with them from 2014 through 2016. Now 45 years old, he’s struggled over the past two seasons, posting a 6.48 ERA in 2017 and a 5.78 ERA in 2018. He’s still managed to keep his walk rate incredibly low, but his strikeout rate fell to 12.9%, the lowest mark of his second phase as a successful major league pitcher.

Jason Hammel went from being a solid pitcher who was praised heavily for his work with the Cubs to a not-so-good pitcher for the Royals over the past two seasons. He had a 6.02 ERA and 4.55 FIP in 127 innings last year.

From there, things get uglier. Josh Tomlin had a 6.14 ERA last year, but he was serviceable in 2016 and 2017 in Cleveland with a 4.66 ERA across those two seasons. Yovani Gallardo had a 6.39 ERA in 2018 and hasn’t had a good ERA since 2015.

Ervin Santana only threw 24.2 innings for the Twins last year, and they were awful, as he had an 8.03 ERA and 7.94 FIP. But he’s not far removed from having been really good, as he had a 3.32 ERA in 392.2 innings over the course of 63 starts between 2016 and 2017.

Chris Tillman’s 10.46 ERA came in a limited amount of time on the mound, as well, as did Miguel Gonzalez’s 12.41 ERA.

The guy who didn’t pitch

Nate Karns missed the 2018 season because of injury and last pitched in 2017, when he had a 4.17 ERA and 4.48 FIP in 45.1 innings. His 27.1% strikeout rate that year is what makes him intriguing, though.