When Noah Syndergaard returns in the summer, the Mets project a starting rotation of Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, Syndergaard, and new signing Taijuan Walker. That’s unquestionably the best rotation in the division and a top-5 rotation in baseball, which should be cause for great excitement among Mets fans.
Not quite as exciting but equally positive is the starting pitching depth the Mets have now acquired with Walker and new Mets Jordan Yamamoto and Joey Lucchesi, who could compete for an early season rotation spot or spot starts later in the year. Added into the fold are last year’s breakout success David Peterson as well as free agent signees Jerad Eickhoff and Sam McWilliams, who all show great promise as starting candidates. As presently constructed, the Mets have nine or ten serious candidates for starting pitching appearances, which isn’t something the team has had for quite a while.
But until Syndergaard returns, there remains an open spot at the back end of the rotation and many potential candidates to fill it. How the Mets approach this problem depends on a variety of factors, and while there’s no clear solution, there are a lot of good options.
Walker will most likely pitch in the rotation regardless of whether and when Syndergaard returns. The Mets are paying him starter money and he’s proven himself as an effective starter more recently than Lucchesi and Yamamoto with a 161 ERA+ over 11 starts in 2020. He’s not as accomplished or productive as deGrom, Stroman, Carrasco, or Syndergaard, but he’s clearly better than the team’s other back end options. Barring a significant decline in production, he merits a spot in the rotation.
The Mets will most likely look to Peterson first to fill the fifth spot in the rotation to begin the season, not because he’s necessarily the best option, but because he’s the only remaining option that pitched a full season in 2020. None of Peterson’s Statcast numbers jump off the board, and his bottom-10 percentile fastball and curveball spin rates are downright putrid, but his value as an innings-eater and ground-ball-inducer gives him great potential with an improved infield defense. Judging Peterson based on his production in a shortened season might be short-sided, especially since he has no prior MLB experience before 2020, but his abilities play well into the limited positives of the Mets defense.
Though Peterson might be the first option the team looks to fill the fifth starting role, Lucchesi might be the better option. Lucchesi’s first two seasons in 2018 and 2019 showed steady improvement as his FIP dropped and his peripherals rose. Lucchesi also induced ground balls at a greater percentage in 2019 than Peterson did in 2020, undercutting Peterson’s best asset. What sets Lucchesi back is his injury-plagued 2020 season where he showed little effectiveness in just three games pitched. Judging Lucchesi’s poor 2020 season might be as unhelpful as judging Peterson’s great 2020 season, but if those injuries persist it might be cause for concern to start the season.
Yamamoto presents an interesting option as a starter. The third-year pitcher has some excellent Statcast measurements, including near-elite spin rates on both his fastball and curveball and wicked movement on his slider, but he hasn’t been able to translate that talent into production. Yamamoto pitched a perfectly fine rookie season with a 96 ERA+ in 2019, only to drop off a cliff with a 25 ERA+ in only four starts in 2020. The short-season caveat applies to Yamamoto as well, but unlike Peterson or Lucchesi, he has yet to put together an above-average season. If he outperforms the competition in Spring Training he has a chance to make the rotation, but considering his track record he will likely need to exceed expectations greatly to start the season in Queens.
Unlike Yamamoto, Eickhoff has paired excellent peripherals with a full season of effective production, reaching a 115 ERA+ in a full 2016 season. Unfortunately it’s been downhill from there for the former Phillie, who suffered nerve damage in his throwing hand in 2018 and hasn’t put up an above-average season since. After not pitching in 2020, Eickhoff doesn’t represent much more than a minor league reclamation project, but with fastball and curveball spin rates topping the 80th percentile, he’s one worth working on.
After Eickoff is Sam McWilliams, who is a career minor-leaguer who most recently spent time as a starter in the Rays system. The Mets seem to like him quite a bit since they offered him a major league contract in December, but without any major league experience, comparing him to the rest of the Mets options produces a big shrugging emoji. Unless four other options don’t prove as viable starters, its much more likely McWilliams first sees major league action in the bullpen than in the rotation.
This sort of depth also opens up more creative options for Mets starters. A six-man rotation may be favorable later in the season, only likely if the Mets amass a large divisional lead, as it would provide more rest for the top half of the rotation heading into the playoffs and give valuable experience to younger pitchers. Keeping a reliable innings-eater like Peterson or Lucchesi in the bullpen as a long-relief or emergency starter option might work well, especially since the bullpen doesn’t have many left-handed options beyond the recently signed Aaron Loup. Yamamoto might also play well in short bursts with a nasty fastball-slider combination, making him a solid bullpen option if there’s no room for him in the rotation. It is worth noting that while the Mets have only applied creative bullpen solutions out of necessity in the past couple of years, manager Luis Rojas recently voiced openness towards using an opener, something that can be considered bold for an organization reticent to advanced analytics.
Whether any of this happens remains up in the air, but all of these are exciting options for a team expected to compete for a title. Adding Walker to the starting rotation not only solidifies one of the best rotations in the majors this year, but also potentially gives the Mets one of their best rotations ever.