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Once again, the Mets’ success hinges on the starting rotation

Somewhat like the bullpen, the starting rotation has the chance to be one of the best in the game, but it iss top-heavy and lacks depth.

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MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Absent any injuries, the composition of the Mets’ starting rotation come Opening Day was never in doubt. While there were competitions in camp for bullpen roles and some jockeying for position in the pecking order as a potential spot starter, there were no jobs in the starting rotation to be won or lost. Aside from the brief period of time to start last season when Zack Wheeler was in the minor leagues and the starts missed by Noah Syndergaard while he was battling viral maladies, this year’s group is the same as last year’s, which posted a 3.54 ERA in 914 13 total innings. The 18.1 fWAR accrued by the Mets’ starting rotation in 2018 ranked third in baseball.

Of course, about half of that number belongs to Jacob deGrom, the undisputed ace of the staff and National League Cy Young Award winner. It’s hard to feel pessimistic about any rotation that has deGrom and Noah Syndergaard at the top of it. While deGrom rightfully stole the show last year, Syndergaard had a season that many viewed as underwhelming by comparison, probably unfairly so, because it was actually a damn fine year all things considered. But what’s more exciting than realizing that a 3.03 ERA and 4.2 fWAR season is, in fact, pretty good, is realizing that Syndergaard has the potential for so much more than that. With deGrom around, sometimes it’s easy to forget that Syndergaard would be the ace of nearly any other team’s staff in the majors. But Thor will undoubtedly do his best this season to make sure we don’t forget it.

Speaking of exciting, it’s difficult not to be high on Zack Wheeler going into 2019 with the second half he had last year. At times it’s hard to believe that this time last year, Wheeler was being sent to the minor leagues. Now, in his final year before free agency, he is the clear #3 of a very talented staff and will look to replicate last year’s second half results over a full season.

Look past the Mets’ top three starters, and you realize how much of this team’s success truly depends on Steven Matz. Last year was a banner year for Matz because it was a healthy one. He made 30 starts for the first time in his career, which is a huge milestone for someone that has struggled with injury as much as he has. But the results were inconsistent. While a 3.97 ERA and a 3.62 DRA are certainly nothing to sneeze at from your fourth starter, we know that Matz—like Syndergaard—has an even higher ceiling. So what can he do to get there in 2019? Put simply, surrender fewer walks and fewer home runs. An 8.9% walk rate and 1.46 home runs per nine innings are not sustainable rate stats for an effective season. But Mickey Callaway, Dave Eiland, and Brodie Van Wagenen all have sung Matz’s praises this offseason and seem firmly convinced he will continue to grow in 2019.

“I think he’s kind of in between the stage that … Wheeler kind of got there this year,” Mickey Callaway said of Matz back in December on WFAN. “I think Matz is one step behind him, but closing in fast. He’s got a tremendous arm. I love the way he throws inside to righties, so he neutralizes that component that usually hurts a left-handed starting pitcher, and he’s gonna continue to improve. Great worker, great guy, and Dave Eiland is gonna get him where he needs to be.” Matz is taking a page out of deGrom’s book, too, throwing two bullpens in between starts and throwing all offseason, which he feels has been helpful for him.

Like Zack Wheeler, the difference between Jason Vargas’s first half and second half in 2018 was stark. Vargas put up an 8.60 ERA in the first half last season and a 3.81 ERA in the second half. And after “Vargy” debuted at the Little League Classic on August 19, he had a 2.56 ERA the rest of the way. Of course, while expecting him to post a 2.56 ERA or even a 3.81 ERA may be optimistic or even borderline delusional depending on who you ask, it does seem reasonable to think he probably won’t post an 8.60 ERA either.

Vargas has looked awfully good on the mound this spring and getting reliable fifth starter type numbers from him consistently all year would be a huge boon to the 2019 Mets. The key to his success this year will likely be limiting him the third time through the order, when he tends to get hit particularly hard. Opponents hit .283/.377/.660 against him the third time through the order last year, while that line was .269/.331/.450 the first and second times through the order. With multiple relievers in the bullpen that can give the Mets more than one inning, they have the capability to deploy Vargas properly and put him in the best position to be successful.

All of that said, injuries do happen, especially to starting pitchers and even more especially to this group of starting pitchers. Jokes about hand-foot-and-mouth disease aside, the rotation was, for the most part, remarkably healthy last season. At the moment, the Mets are very ill equipped to handle a starter going down for a prolonged period of time, particularly any of deGrom, Syndergaard, or Wheeler.

One big difference between the starting pitching outlook for 2019 compared to 2018 is that the Mets appear 100% committed to using Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman exclusively in relief roles, which eliminates them from consideration as starting pitching depth. This isn’t to say that they couldn’t be used for the first couple of innings of a bullpen game if the need arises, but for the first time, neither of them have been stretching out in camp.

This leaves the options behind the five current members of the rotation less than ideal, to say the least. Kyle Dowdy appears to have won the final bullpen spot out of camp, largely by virtue of his Rule 5 status, and will likely take on the long man role. Mickey Callaway has spoken a lot this spring about how much he loves Dowdy’s stuff, but it is unclear if the need for a fill-in for the rotation should arise if he would pull Dowdy out of the bullpen to occupy the spot or if he would look elsewhere.

Looking at other starting pitchers who are on the 40-man roster, it seems like the likeliest candidate to get the first call for a spot start would be Corey Oswalt, who logged 64 23 major league innings last year and put up a 5.85 ERA over that span. The perspective on this is slightly sunnier when one eliminates the 9 13 dreadful innings he threw as a relief pitcher, which makes his ERA over a full run lower as a starting pitcher. The outlook improves further when one considers the extremely rough debut outing he had that is responsible for the lion’s share of his high ERA. One can’t completely turn the other cheek to his shortcomings, however. While he is a pitcher the Mets can likely feel some level of comfort in handing the ball to for a spot start here or there, it seems unlikely that Oswalt as a more permanent member of the rotation would be conducive to a competitive season.

Behind Oswalt, we have Chris Flexen, who has pitched only briefly in the majors over the last two seasons with not much success. But it is clear he was not ready for the majors when he was called up in 2017. He is still only 24 years old and has the potential to be a major league contributor. Amazin’ Avenue ranked him as the organization’s fourth best prospect last year (he is no longer prospect eligible this year). Flexen was one of the “in the best shape of his life” headlines in camp this spring—he dropped 30 pounds during the offseason—for whatever that is worth. While it is very possible that extra seasoning at Triple-A will prime Flexen for a breakout year if he is called upon, it seems tenuous at best to rely on that outcome.

The options only get uglier from there. Other starting pitchers on the 40-man roster include Drew Gagnon, who also was mostly overmatched at the major league level when he was called up briefly last season and Walker Lockett—product of the Kevin Plawecki trade—who had a mediocre pitching line in Triple-A last season with a brief cup of coffee in the majors with the Padres.

Moving beyond who is currently on the 40-man roster, Hector Santiago, who the Mets signed to a minor league contract this offseason to bolster their starting pitching depth, accepted his minor league assignment and will start the season in Syracuse. Santiago boasts major league experience and success, but he’s been below replacement level in the majors by fWAR for the last two seasons and given the chance to earn a spot in the bullpen as the long man this spring, his performance was not inspiring. P.J. Conlon is another starter not currently on the 40-man roster who saw time with Mets last season with less than impressive results.

As far as starting pitching prospects are concerned, with the Mets having dealt Justin Dunn in the trade that brought Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to Queens, the only prospect that is really anywhere close to big league ready is David Peterson. One could make an argument that Anthony Kay may be there with Peterson as well, but if I had to make a prediction, I would say Peterson is the more likely of the two to log any major league innings this season. Amazin’ Avenue ranked Peterson as the Mets’ fourth best prospect heading into this season. Injuries and an underwhelming performance at High-A have held Peterson back a bit, however. Both he and Kay will begin the season at Double-A Binghamton and there is an outside shot they could see some major league time when rosters expand, especially if the injury bug bites the Mets again.

While the ceiling of the Mets’ rotation is very obviously sky high, the starting pitching depth behind the big league rotation is thin at best. There is no question that if the Mets see a significant number of innings out of the likes of Drew Gagnon, Hector Santiago, and Chris Flexen, they are in big trouble. This is a frustrating state of affairs when one considers how many starting pitchers were available—and still are available—at bargain prices. Gio Gonzalez’s only offer was the heavily incentivized minor league deal he signed with the Yankees carrying a $3 million base salary. Dallas Keuchel, the fourth best free agent available heading into the offseason, remains available. The Mets could immediately improve their 2019 starting pitching outlook massively with just one final addition. However, even absent that addition, there is a lot to be excited about in a rotation that includes the reigning NL Cy Young, the occupant of the top spot on the velocity leaderboards among starters, a pitcher who bested the reigning NL Cy Young’s second half numbers, and a resurgent southpaw poised for a breakout year.

We say every season that the Mets will live and die by the health of their starting rotation, and 2019 is no different. Here’s hoping no children sneeze anywhere near Noah Syndergaard this time around.