If the shortened 2020 season made one thing abundantly clear, it was that the New York Mets lack starting pitching. Despite having the best pitcher in the game atop their rotation, Mets starters combined for a 5.37 ERA this year, the fifth-worst mark in all of baseball.
Behind Jacob deGrom, who is a Cy Young finalist but unlikely to win the award, the Mets’ rotation had just one bright spot. David Peterson, the rookie who hadn’t pitched above Double-A before this year, made nine starts, threw 45.2 innings, and finished the year with a 3.74 ERA and 4.55 FIP. It was hardly a year that would earn him Rookie of the Year consideration, but it was a solid start in the big leagues.
Aside from him, though, the rotation was really a mess. Of all the other pitchers to start a game for the Mets this year, Corey Oswalt led the way with a 4.15 ERA, which he compiled in just one start that lasted four-and-one-third innings. The next best mark belonged to Rick Porcello, who made twelve starts and had a 5.64 ERA. Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, Walker Lockett, Robert Gsellman, Steven Matz, and Ariel Jurado started games for the Mets, and they all fared worse than Porcello.
Even if things had gone better, Wacha and Porcello have hit free agency. Lugo seems much more likely to shift back to the bullpen role in which he’s excelled. Lockett is out of the organization, Gsellman was dealing with injury issues late in the season and shouldn’t be counted on to make starts, and Matz pitched so poorly that he is legitimately a non-tender candidate. And while he deserves consideration for a rotation spot, even Peterson should not be locked in just yet.
All of that brings us to the first installment of our series on finding starting pitchers for the Mets in free agency. The team could obtain pitchers through trade, but dreaming on signing players on the open market—especially with a new owner of the team—is one easy way to see the Mets being good.
Going into the 2021 season, the team will have deGrom in his usual spot at the top of the rotation, and at some point, Noah Syndergaard should be on track to return at some point during the season from Tommy John surgery. Even if you count both of those pitchers as full rotation spots and throw in Peterson, there’s a need for two major league starters. And ideally you’d want the Mets to find more than that—in case Syndergaard’s return isn’t smooth, Peterson isn’t as solid as he looked this year, or both.
The process here is straightforward. We’ll run through groups of free agent starting pitchers in descending order of fWAR since the start of the 2019 season. It is not the best metric for measuring pitching performance, but it’s an objective way of sifting through the long list of names.
Charlie Morton is a free agent after the Tampa Bay Rays declined their option on him for next year. The 36-year-old had a 4.74 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 38.0 innings over the course of nine starts this year, which was a step down from his very good season last year. In that 2019 season, he had a 3.05 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 194.2 innings with 11.10 strikeouts and 2.64 walks per nine innings. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, he’s racked up 7.0 fWAR and 5.1 bWAR.
A longtime major league pitcher, his best years have been the past few, as he took a step forward in 2017 with the Astros, was even better in 2018 for them, and continued to improve upon joining the Rays. His four-seam fastball averaged 94.0 miles per hour this year, per Brooks Baseball, which is down one mile per hour from 2019 and two miles per hour from 2018. Given his age, he seems unlikely to command a massive contract, but he would be a welcome addition to the Mets’ rotation.
Trevor Bauer is almost certainly going to win the National League Cy Young Award for his performance in the short season this year, which consisted of a 1.73 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 73.0 innings for the Reds with 12.33 strikeouts and 2.10 walks per nine innings. He’s totaled 5.8 fWAR and 3.8 bWAR since the beginning of the 2019 season. Last year, he had a 4.48 ERA and 4.34 FIP in 213.0 innings, numbers much closer to his career marks of a 3.90 ERA and 3.95 FIP.
Set to turn 30 in January, Bauer seems likely to land the biggest contract of any pitcher on the market this year, as teams might focus on his best seasons—2018 was the other one, as he had a 2.21 ERA in 175.1 innings that year—and downplay the fact that he’s been a four-something ERA guy in most of the seasons he’s spent in the big leagues.
It’s worth noting that the Reds gave Bauer a qualifying offer, which would net Cincinnati compensation if he signs elsewhere. And off the field, there’s no question that Bauer’s online behavior is an issue. He has no problem using his platform to draw attention to people who criticize him, with his targets including current and former writers here at Amazin’ Avenue.
Mike Minor is set to turn 33 in December, and his 2020 season did not go well. Despite underlying metrics that looked mostly the same as a very solid 2019 season, he finished the short season with a 5.56 ERA. The lefty has totaled 5.0 fWAR and 7.8 bWAR since the start of the 2019 season thanks to the fact that he had a 3.59 ERA in 208.1 innings last year. While he would have fit right in with the Mets’ struggling starting pitchers this year, right now this year looks like an aberration, and he’s not far removed from being a solid-to-above-average major league starting pitcher.
Jake Odorizzi was limited by injuries and only threw 13.2 innings for the Twins this year, and they were ugly. Over that very limited span, he had a 6.59 ERA and 6.12 FIP, both drastically worse marks than the 3.51 ERA and 3.36 FIP he had in 159.0 innings in 2019. He has 4.3 fWAR and 3.4 bWAR since the start of the 2019 season. With a career 3.92 ERA, he’s not an incredibly exciting option, but he is probably much closer to that pitcher than the one he was this year.
Masahiro Tanaka is a free agent after spending the past seven seasons with the Yankees, and he has a 3.74 ERA and 3.91 FIP in his major league career. Like Seth Lugo, he’s been working with a partial tear in his UCL, but it hasn’t stopped him from pitching effectively. Tanaka had a 3.56 ERA and 4.42 FIP this year and a 4.45 ERA and 4.27 FIP last year. He’s totaled 4.1 fWAR and 2.6 bWAR since the start of the 2019 season.
While the Yankees heralded his arrival as the acquisition of an ace, Tanaka’s 2016 season was the only one in which he pitched near that level, with a 3.07 ERA that earned him a seventh-place finish in Cy Young voting. But not being an ace is not something that should be considered a deal breaker, and Tanaka would be a perfectly cromulent member of a Mets starting rotation.
Marcus Stroman rounds out this group of pitchers and is the most familiar face of the bunch, having been with the Mets since they traded for him at the 2019 trade deadline. Early in the shortened 2020 season, he opted out because of concerns about COVID-19, a perfectly reasonable decision as there had been outbreaks of the virus in Major League Baseball very soon after the season got underway.
Stroman has 3.9 fWAR since the start of the 2019 season, all of which was obviously from his performance last year since he did not pitch in a game this year. But he was very good in 2019, as he had a 3.22 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 184.1 innings with the Blue Jays and Mets. He had a down year in 2018 with a 5.54 ERA in just 102.1 innings, but he finished the 2017 season with a 3.09 ERA that was much more in line with what he did last year. The Mets extended him a qualifying offer, and he still has time to accept or decline that offer.
On top of pitching well, Stroman’s upbeat approach and presence on the Mets’ roster would be valuable, and it would be great to see him back with the team to see what he could do over the course of a full season—or several of them—with the Mets.