David Peterson was not supposed to have a huge role on the 2020 Mets. After all, the 2017 first-round pick was a good-but-not-great prospect who had never pitched beyond Double-A coming into the year. Meanwhile, the Mets had added Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha over the offseason, and they expected those two to provide stability to a staff that already had high-upside starters like Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Marcus Stroman. Peterson was a nice piece to have as a depth option, but the hope was that the rotation would be solid and consistent enough that he wouldn’t need to be called upon to fill any major role.
Alas, the roller coaster of chaos that has been 2020 ended up changing the equation pretty quickly. First came the pandemic which wound up cancelling the minor league season and pushing back the opening of the major league one. Then the Mets found out that Syndergaard would need Tommy John surgery, ending his year before it even began. And then when the shortened season was finally about to begin, Stroman too was hit with the injury bug in the form of a calf injury that left him unavailable. And thus Peterson found himself with a spot in the major league rotation, and given what has transpired since then—Wacha being placed on the injured list, Stroman electing to opt out instead of returning, and the general awfulness of all the non-deGrom starters up to this point—it seems safe to assume that his job is secure for the rest of the season.
While he has certainly benefited from circumstance, Peterson has also helped his cause by thus far looking fine. Indeed, fine is as appropriate description as any for what he has done in his first three starts. None of the numbers in his stat line—a 2-1 record with a 3.78 ERA/3.99 FIP with 16 hits, 14 strikeouts, and 6 walks over 16.2 innings pitched—jump out as being particularly impressive, nor do they jump out as being particularly unimpressive. There have been moments when he’s demonstrated the shakiness that you would expect from a rookie starter, but he has thus far avoided letting such moments get completely away from him. A good example came in the third inning of his second start, when he loaded the bases to open the frame and then walked a runner in on four pitches, but subsequently rebounded against the heart of the Braves’ order to get out of the jam having only allowed one additional run. The ability to bend but not break is as important an attribute as any for a starting pitcher, and Peterson has thus far proved adept at that by keeping the Mets in the ballgame each time he’s been out on the mound, as evidenced by his having gone at least five innings and not given up more than three runs in each start.
His performance looks especially agreeable in light of how putridly Steven Matz (8.20 ERA), Porcello (6.92 ERA), and Wacha (6.43 ERA) have pitched so far. Nobody expected those three to compete for a Cy Young, but they were all expected to at least be competent members of the pitching staff, and up to this point they have woefully failed at that. DeGrom is still deGrom, and the bullpen has shown flashes of improvement in recent times, but the Mets desperately need more from their starting rotation if they want to have any hope of going anywhere this season. It’s not particularly fair to Peterson to expect him to immediately be a stabilizing influence so early in his big league career, but nevertheless, that is the position that the team find itself in. One can only hope that added experience and the extra comfort that results from that will allow him to improve upon what he has done so far, but at the very least he needs to continue to keep his team in the game and not overwork the bullpen too severely.
His performance in the remainder of the year arguably has even more far-reaching implications for the 2021 Mets than the 2020 squad. Stroman, Porcello, and Wacha are all free agents after this season. Syndergaard will presumably be back at some point in 2021, but it’s no sure thing that he’ll be ready to start the season, and either way it’d be ill-advised to assume that he will immediately be his old self. DeGrom and Matz are both under contract for next year, but the latter will need to rebound in a big way if he wants to keep his spot in the rotation. Even in the most optimistic scenario, the Mets will need to add multiple starting pitchers over the offseason. With any luck, the team will by then have new owners who will be willing and able to spend more than the Wilpons, but the team will also have other holes to fill on the roster, and resources will likely still be somewhat limited. If you want to make yourself extremely sad, imagine a scenario in which the Mets have to sign not one, not two, but THREE starting pitchers of Porcello and Wacha’s ilk to fill the starting rotation while still having enough money left over to add a decent catcher, to say nothing of other additions the team will likely need to make.
If Peterson can pitch well enough for the rest of the 2020 season to justify slotting him into the rotation moving forward, it would be one less hole for the team to worry about. Even pitching more or less as well as he has so far—unremarkable as that might be—would be enough to make him a valuable and cost-effective long-term addition to the staff. As thrilling as it is when your farm system can produce a Jacob deGrom or a Noah Syndergaard, being able to produce a Jon Niese every now and then—someone who will rarely wow you, but who can be a consistent and stable presence on the roster for multiple seasons—also has plenty of value. It’s certainly more likely that Peterson will wind up being the latter kind of player as opposed to the former two, but that would still be a huge victory that the suddenly pitching-starved Mets need to desperately hope comes to pass.