After standing idly by and watching Zack Wheeler walk away to a division rival and the other elite starting pitchers in free agency sign with other teams, the Mets finally made moves to bolster their rotation with the signings of Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello. Both pitchers represent a noticeable downgrade from the level of production that Wheeler provided, which is disappointing for a team that needs to improve its roster if it wants to compete in an improving division in 2020.
Nevertheless, the signings initially suggested that the team was placing a much greater priority on starting pitching depth than it did last season, which was hugely important in the wake of how the roster was constructed in 2019.
The fact that the team had such terrible rotation depth last season was mostly masked by good luck, as the Mets’ rotation remained remarkably healthy. The main starting pitching unit—including the combined half-seasons of Jason Vargas and Marcus Stroman—made all but eight starts in the 162-game season. As a result, the backup starter squad, which included the fearsome likes of Chris Flexen, Walker Lockett, and Wilmer Font, did not have too much of an opportunity to drag the team down.
But the one universal truth in baseball is that pitchers break, and expecting the Mets to experience the same level of rotation health for two seasons in a row would be woefully naive. So while neither Porcello nor Wacha are anything to write home about in a vacuum, having both of them on the roster—likely with Porcello as the team’s fifth starter and Wacha as a swingman in the bullpen—helps to ensure that the Locketts of the world will be low on the organizational depth chart.
But because this is the Mets we’re dealing with, we had approximately five minutes to celebrate the depth that the team was seemingly building before the possibility emerged that they were not being as unusually smart as it seemed they were being. In the aftermath of the Porcello signing, Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the team could use its newfound depth to trade one of its starting pitchers away, specifically packaging one of them with Jed Lowrie or one of the other high-salary contracts on the roster.
Given that the Mets have indeed been rumored to be trying to shed one or more of those contracts to stay under the luxury tax, it certainly passed the smell test that the team would consider this sort of transaction as a way to accomplish that goal.
We don’t know how likely it is that the Mets would pull the trigger on that sort of deal, nor do we know which starter they would try to trade if they did. But if the team were to make such a move, it would be detrimental to their ability to be competitive in 2020. And it would represent the latest in a long line of decisions by this front office that are designed to prioritize saving money over fielding the strongest possible roster.
At the center of the argument in favor of trading one of the starting pitchers is the misguided notion that having six capable starters on a roster represents an overabundance of pitching depth instead of the minimum amount of depth that a team should have. Having capable replacements for pitchers who get hurt, as opposed to Quadruple-A pitchers who can’t be expected to hold their own at the major league level, allows a team to survive in those stretches where one of the mainstays in the rotation goes down instead of having near-automatic losses once every fifth day.
Wacha is not particularly good, and his own checkered injury history would make him a fairly risky bet as one of the team’s top five starters. But he does at least have a track record of providing adequate performance at the major league level, which is exactly the type of guy a team should have ready to step into the rotation when someone else goes down. And during the periods in which all of the starting pitchers ahead of him on the depth chart are healthy, he could potentially provide some value in a bullpen that also has its fair share of depth issues.
Aside from the fact that trading a starter would eliminate depth, it would also almost certainly result in the strength of the starting pitching—an area which, in spite of Wheeler’s departure, should still be an area of strength for the team—being greatly diminished. The decline of the rotation would be particularly egregious if the Mets decided to trade Noah Syndergaard. We’ve made the argument that it was foolish to trade Syndergaard on this site before, and it remains as true now as it was the other times we made it. While his 2019 season wasn’t his best, he remains an elite talent, and the 2020 Mets will need him to live up to his talent level if they want to have a chance at making the postseason.
Neither Wacha nor Porcello can reasonably be expected to provide the level of production that Syndergaard could potentially provide. The same logic applies to Marcus Stroman, and while Steven Matz doesn’t possess the upside of those two pitchers, he nevertheless is likely a more reliable source of production than the two new guys are.
Indeed, while one can argue that their past success gives them some amount of upside, based on their most recent seasons, Porcello and Wacha both likely profile as little more than borderline number five starters. Going into a season with one pitcher of their caliber in the starting rotation is forgivable, but going into it with two of them is not. A team that wants to be taken seriously as contenders will utilize these types of players in the roles that their talent level dictates they should have. And the talent levels of Porcello and Wacha do not suggest that they should be starting two-fifths of the games for a successful ballclub.
The point of accruing depth is not to immediately trade it away once you’ve gotten it. It’s to ensure that the success of your team is not solely reliant on their being successful at avoiding injury and that you are free to utilize each player in the role that will be most fruitful for both the player and the team. A trade made not to improve the roster but rather to simply save a few bucks would be very frustrating. And the 2020 Mets would almost certainly be a lesser team, with the goal of overtaking their rivals becoming more daunting.