We all remember the comment Brodie Van Wagenen made over the offseason when he proudly declared that he had built the “deepest starting rotation in baseball” after signing both Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello to the Mets’ pitching staff. The statement turned out to be not only laughably untrue, as the Mets’ starting pitching ERA ranked among the worst in the majors this year, but it was 2020’s version of “come get us,” a bold statement that has turned out to be a point of mockery for the Mets’ GM.
Of course, Van Wagenen could never have predicted that a global pandemic would shrink the season to 60 games, creating an awkward ramp-up period in the middle of the summer that was far too short for pitchers, leading to a barrage of pitching injuries and opt-outs across the sport. Nobody could have reasonably predicted the team would get zero innings from both Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman this year. There’s no doubt that the Mets got the worst-case scenario out of their pitching staff. The problem, however, is that they built a house-of-cards rotation that made it possible for this all to happen.
Anyone who was paying attention at the time could see the Mets did not have the deepest starting rotation in baseball even before the season, nor was it even a rotation that could really be considered “deep.” Sure, they had six pitchers—deGrom, Stroman, Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello, and Michael Wacha—for five rotation spots, which is indeed mathematically a surplus.
But the the concept of “pitching depth” is so much more than just having more bodies available than spots. Having pitching depth means that you not only have several useful pitchers to plug in beyond your starting five, but that the five pitchers in your rotation are already good enough to be there. When you have the volatility of someone like Matz already in your rotation, and then sign guys like Wacha and Porcello to fill out that rotation—bad pitchers who were cheap because they were bad—with the expectation they can provide quality pitching, without a backup plan if they don’t, that’s not having pitching depth. That’s having the illusion of pitching depth.
If Wacha and Porcello had been better versions of themselves and stayed healthy, then it’s true the Mets would have had a rotation at least five pitchers deep before the pandemic. But you don’t build pitching depth that only functions as depth if everything goes right, you build pitching depth as a safety net for when things go wrong.
And when things went wrong, the Mets had absolutely no idea what to do. When Stroman’s hamstring issue first arose in July after Syndergaard had already gone down in March, they didn’t have a clear-cut next man up. They went with David Peterson, who more than held his own, but was never really considered to be part of the plan this year. Even after Peterson, the Mets had nobody else for when Wacha and Matz were ineffective and hurt, and they had to pull Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo from the bullpen, something their bullpen was not built to survive.
To summarize: The Mets built a starting rotation around several high-risk pitchers with nobody to step in if those high-risk pitchers didn’t work out. As a result, two unexpected absences in the rotation turned the situation into a cataclysmic disaster. They touted this as the deepest rotation in baseball and expected to contend for a division title with this set-up.
This was not the first time we’ve seen the Mets brag about their exceptional pitching depth just because they had an extra starter or two, either. The problem is that anyone who has followed a baseball team for a whole season knows that you will always need to go deeper than six or seven into your starting depth during the course of the year. Last year, the Mets had nine different pitchers start games. That was their lowest number of starting pitchers used since 2014. Most years, they’re up near 11 or 12 starters used. This year, they used 10 pitchers to cover just the 60 games.
Even if the season was a normal-length season with no opt-outs and more standard pitcher injury frequency, the Mets would’ve likely needed several starts from pitchers beyond their top seven. Plus, Peterson probably would’ve reached an innings limit in a full season, so he wouldn’t have pitched the whole year either. They still would have needed several starts from Walker Lockett, Ariel Jurado, or Corey Oswalt, or they would’ve had to pull Gsellman or Lugo from the bullpen for an extended time. That still would have been a disaster, and is very much not what having the deepest rotation in baseball would look like.
Something the Mets never seemed to understand under the Wilpons is that pitching depth doesn’t just exist in the big leagues. Pitching depth is an organizational quality, and this year we saw what happens when you don’t have that. The Wilpon Mets never seemed to believe that quality pitching depth beyond the major league team was necessarily important or valuable, trading upper-minors pitching talent for big league talent all the time. This goes all the way back to the Scott Kazmir trade in 2004. And just as that Kazmir trade did, it came back to bite them almost every time.
Of course, the one time the Mets actually had organizational pitching depth in recent years was in 2015. They had super prospects Syndergaard and Matz waiting in the wings to cover for an injury. Because of that, they were able to survive Dillon Gee getting hurt in May and never making it back, Jon Niese having a disappointing year, and Rafael Montero—who was still a prospect with MLB success the prior year—getting hurt and disappearing after April. They had so much depth, in fact, that they were still able to use Niese and Bartolo Colon out of the bullpen in the playoffs. That team made the World Series.
They had less depth in 2016, but when injuries ravaged the rotation, they did have Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo to call on in the minors. Lugo was an unknown, but Gsellman was an actual prospect who saw improvements upon his MLB debut. When you have actual pitching prospects with upside, that can happen sometimes. That Mets team made the playoffs.
Since Gsellman’s debut in 2016, Peterson is the first notable Mets starting pitching prospect to debut for the Mets. It’s not a coincidence that the Mets haven’t made the playoffs at all since then.
The lack of actual pitching depth was a common trope of the Wilpon era. Now, the under the new regime, we can only hope Steve Cohen understands how important it is to spend on an infrastructure that can identify and develop minor league pitching talent. Given that Sandy Alderson built the pitching depth that helped get them to a World Series, we can only hope he takes the lessons he learned from his first stint with the Mets into his second one.