With free agency officially underway, the Mets have an opportunity to improve upon a relatively positive 2019 season that saw them turn in their first winning record since 2016—and just the third winning season out of their past eleven. The team has several areas of need, but let’s start with a glaringly obvious one: starting pitching.
Right now, the Mets have four-fifths of a good major league rotation with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and Steven Matz under team control heading into the 2020 season. Things aren’t perfect with those four, but they’re certainly all capable major league starters, at minimum, with Syndergaard having pitched like a borderline ace or clear number two starter for his major league career up until the 2019 season.
Beyond those four, though, things get murky real quick. If a new season were to begin today, Walker Lockett might be the Mets’ fifth starter. Or maybe that role would be handed to Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman, both of whom Brodie Van Wagenen mentioned yesterday as he answered questions following the press conference to introduce Carlos Beltran as the team’s new manager. If not any of those three, it might be Stephen Gonsalves, claimed off waivers from the Twins yesterday, or Corey Oswalt. Clearly the Mets cannot go into a season with any of those pitchers penciled into their Opening Day rotation.
The Mets don’t have Zack Wheeler, at least not at the moment, but have extended him a qualifying offer. Reportedly he’s very likely to turn that down, but he has until November 14 to make his decision final.
Knowing all of that, the Mets should be aiming high in their efforts to bolster the rotation, not merely trying to find someone to play the role of “fifth starter.” Wheeler was merely decent this year, finishing the season with a 3.96 ERA that ranked 34th out of 58 qualified starting pitchers, but he threw 195.1 innings over the course of 31 starts. The Mets could and should try to improve other areas of the team, but they should be seeking a pitcher who is either as good as Wheeler or better, not someone who’d clearly be worse than Matz. So let’s run down some of the top options on the market, sorting by ERA among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2019.
Hyun-Jin Ryu had the best ERA in baseball among qualified starting pitchers this year, but his 182.2 innings came up a good bit short of deGrom’s 204 and Cole’s 212.1. With Ryu, health has always been the biggest questoin mark. He had a 1.97 ERA in 2018 but threw only 82.1 innings, and he’s only gotten above 150 innings in a single season three times in his major league career, which started in 2013. He’s been excellent when healthy, but there’s plenty of risk with him, too.
Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are clearly the top options on the market. They’ll be seeking contracts that recognize that, and the Mets shouldn’t be afraid to make that sort of commitment. Cole has blossomed since he was traded to the Astros between the 2017 and 2018 seasons and easily been a top-five pitcher in the game over that span with his cumulative 2.68 ERA over the past two regular seasons.
Strasburg’s 3.48 ERA ranks 15th over that same span, and though he’s rarely flirted with Cy Young contention, his track record of very good performance is longer than Cole’s. But Strasburg’s innings totals have rarely gotten near or above 200 in a single season, while Cole has eclipsed the 200-inning mark in four of the past five seasons. Wherever you land on either pitcher, the Mets would clearly be bolstering their shot at making it back to the playoffs in 2020 and beyond with one of them on their roster. Assuming the Nationals will be heavily involved in trying to retain Strasburg, bringing him on board has the added bonus of taking him away from the Nationals.
Believe it or not, Jake Odorizzi ranks fourth among this group of pitchers with a 3.51 ERA in 2019. One concern is that he only threw 159.0 innings depsite making 30 starts, meaning he averaged just about five-and-one-third innings per start. That’s not ideal for any team, and unless the Mets’ bullpen is much, much better, it could be particularly troublesome for them.
Dallas Keuchel never really seemed to be of interest to the Mets in free agency before and during the early portion of the 2019 season, but he pitched respectably with a 3.75 ERA in 112.2 innings with the Braves, the team that finally signed him after the amateur draft removed the draft pick compensation that had been associated with him.
Cole Hamels had a 3.81 ERA in 141.2 innings over 27 starts, making him a bit similar to Odorizzi in the sense that he averaged just under five-and-one-third innings per start. He’s not the pitcher he used to be, but after posting a 4.20 ERA in 2017, his first over four in many years, he has been back under that mark over the last two seasons.
A surprise addition to the free agent class, Julio Teheran had his option declined by the Braves. Like Hamels, he had a 3.81 ERA this year, isn’t quite the pitcher he used to be, bounced back from a 2017 season that saw his ERA jump up quite a bit to pitch pretty solidly over the past two seasons, and averaged just about five-and-one-third innings per start, though he made 33 starts and threw 174.2 innings.
We’ll draw an arbitrary line here and be back soon, continuing on down the list of the Mets’ options. But the team should at least be looking at the pitchers in this installment and the next one, not settling for less, if it really wants to make every effort to contend in 2020.