The Mets acquired former Padres starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi in a three-team deal with the Pirates on Monday. The 27-year-old lefty not only strengthens an already-improved starting rotation following the acquisition of Carlos Carrasco, but also ensures veteran depth the team was missing in 2020.
Lucchesi pitched nearly 300 combined innings in 2018 and 2019 for San Diego, recording 1.0 fWAR in his rookie season and 2.1 fWAR in his second. He features a sinker and a changeup for the vast majority of his pitches, showing excellent ground ball potential for a recently improved infield defense, though he only induced ground balls at a slightly higher rate (48.7%) than the major league average (45.3%) in 2019 according to Statcast. His left-handedness also breaks up a right-hand dominant rotation, allowing the team to slot in variety in the back of the rotation. Though not the sexiest of trade acquisitions, Lucchesi is an above-average pitcher with upside and room to grow, making him a vastly better rotation addition than either Rick Porcello or Michael Wacha were in 2020.
Where exactly he slots in depends on a few factors, most notably Noah Syndergaard’s potential mid-season return and how the team feels about David Peterson’s breakout year. Let’s take a look at how the rotation might settle with Lucchesi.
The Mets employ a two-time Cy Young Award winner and franchise all-timer at the peak of his powers in Jacob deGrom. Barring injury or a catastrophic decline in ability, he will start at the top of the rotation. That was easy!
Entering the offseason, however, it wasn’t clear who would start behind deGrom. Syndergaard was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and 2019 trade acquisition Marcus Stroman was a free agent with no indication he would re-sign with the Mets. But not only did the Mets retain Stroman—who accepted their qualifying offer—they also traded for star pitcher Carlos Carrasco, sparking a legitimate competition for the second spot in the rotation.
Though Carrasco (23.4 fWAR) by most metrics has pitched better than Stroman (15.8 fWAR) since Stroman’s debut in 2014, Stroman’s age and familiarity with the organization may make him a more comfortable choice for the second spot. Of course, Stroman hasn’t pitched since 2019, and Carrasco’s success in 2020 after successfully battling leukemia in 2019 likely makes him the readier option for 2021. The Mets should get similar production from both pitchers in 2021 in whichever order they pitch, but the likelier scenario is Carrasco starting the season in the second slot and Stroman in the third slot.
The back-end rotation options looked like a nightmare at the start of the offseason, but news has suddenly perked up for Mets fans. Assuming the Mets don’t acquire any more starting pitchers, the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation should probably go to Lucchesi and Peterson, likely in that order.
Lucchesi’s experience compared to Peterson’s less than 50 innings of work in the majors should give Lucchesi the edge for the fourth spot in the rotation. The only question that might appear regards each pitcher’s workload in 2020: Peterson pitched the full abbreviated season as a starter, while Lucchesi only appeared in three games for 5.2 total innings. If Lucchesi needs more time to ramp up for 2021, the team might ease him into a starting role and put Peterson ahead of him.
But even with a surprise breakout in 2020, Peterson’s numbers don’t compare favorably to Lucchesi’s. Statcast only ranks Peterson highly in exit velocity and hard hit percentage, while ranking him in much lower percentiles on fastball velocity and spin rate. Lucchesi, meanwhile, ranks in the top-third of all major league pitchers in xwOBA, xERA, and xBA, and betters Peterson in more traditional measurements like FIP, K/9, and BB/9. One could make an argument that Peterson lucked into a 6-2 record last year, meaning Peterson’s success in an abbreviated 2020 deserves nothing more than a shot at the beginning of the season and some more time for analysis.
This all changes, of course, with a mid-season Syndergaard return. Even though the Mets believe his recovery is progressing ahead of schedule, it doesn’t seem likely the team will ask him to take a heavy inning load at the top of the rotation immediately upon arrival. If Peterson’s numbers regress to his expected level of production over the first couple months of the season, then a Syndergaard replacement likely represents a significant upgrade in the back of the rotation. But if both Peterson and Lucchesi pitch well to start the season, a six-man rotation shouldn’t be out of the question for the second half of the season.
A six-man rotation only benefits the Mets if they find themselves with a comfortable lead or an insurmountable deficit in the standings when Syndergaard returns, as it would give fewer starts to their top pitchers deGrom, Carrasco, and Stroman. Rest may be advantageous for a potential playoff run, but the Mets have to get to the playoffs first, and in a pennant race the best way to do that is to give as many appearances as possible to their best pitchers. Considering how strong the Braves remain and how improved the Marlins and Nationals look to be, giving Peterson significant starts once Syndergaard returns seems unlikely if the rest of the rotation remains intact.
Having a so-far successful project like Peterson as a depth starter, however, is very good news for a team that relied on him for dozens of innings last season. He will likely lead a group of veterans on the roster with significant starting experience looking for a spot in the rotation.
The Mets now have a lot of built-in pitchers that qualify as depth in case of shakeups in the starting rotation. The head of this corps if the rotation stays strong and Syndergaard returns will likely be Peterson, who is a strong backup to a good-looking rotation. The rest of the group, however, doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Steven Matz, who pitched one of the least valuable seasons in 2020 with a ghastly -0.7 fWAR in just over 30 innings, no longer looks like a shoe-in for the rotation but an occasional spot-starter or potential long-relief option out of the bullpen. The same goes for Robert Gsellman, who did not start as much as Matz but was arguably just as bad as the lefty. Both have a past history of success with the Mets, however, so they will likely be looked to first if the team suddenly finds themselves in need of a starter.
Beyond Matz and Gsellman, the Mets still employ Corey Oswalt on their 40-man roster. Oswalt has shown great numbers in Double-A and Triple-A, but he’s put up negative value in 13 starts for the Mets over the last three seasons. If they don’t wish to retread the Oswalt option, Franklyn Kilome and recent signing Sam McWilliams might get a look. But at that point the team would be at their tenth and eleventh option, which isn’t ideal for a team with championship aspirations.
If the Mets sign another pitcher at this point, it likely won’t be a big-name free agent to fill in a rotation spot like Trevor Bauer or Jake Odorizzi, but a savvy aging starter like James Paxton or Homer Bailey. A deal like that would almost certainly put Lucchesi in a sixth starter role once Syndergaard returns, which would give the Mets an unquestionably strong starting rotation with reliable depth.
But they’re not there yet. The Carrasco and Lucchesi acquisitions, while certainly improving the pitching staff, don’t eliminate the possibility of bad starting pitching options. Considering that bad starting pitching was likely the biggest reason the Mets missed the playoffs in 2020, it still might take some work to mitigate that outcome in 2021.