Starting pitching has been the New York Mets’ identity for the better part of the last decade. That energy has vanished: they self-destructed their premier strong suit.
The Mets went into 2019 with one of the best starting rotations in Major League Baseball: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz. It was a unit that appeared to be going nowhere.
Then the 2019 season commenced.
The Mets were 50-55 on July 28. Why is that day important? It’s the day general manager Brodie Van Wagenen acquired right-hander Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal was met with perplexity. Why would the Mets trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter when they’re not in playoff contention? Shouldn’t they be sellers, not buyers?
The Mets pitched that they were underachieving and Stroman was a step towards them playing up to expectations, that being competing for the National League playoffs. To their credit, they made a considerable push for one of the two NL Wild Card seeds down the stretch and finished the season 86-76.
Although Stroman was shaky in the 11 starts he made for the Mets, recording a 3.77 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP, he further weaponized their starting rotation; you can’t have enough pitching. Furthermore, he provided a safety net for the Mets, as Wheeler was hitting the open market in the offseason.
They let Wheeler walk to the rival Philadelphia Phillies for a lofty five-year, $118 million deal, a decision that wasn’t surprising from the Mets’ perspective. Then the aforementioned occurrences hit home: Syndergaard suffered an elbow injury that required season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Prior to the Mets’ 2020 season opener, Stroman suffered a calf injury and was later placed on the injured list. A few weeks later he opted out of the 2020 season, officially vacating another rotation spot.
Regarding those present, Matz has struggled mightily this season, as he posted a dismal 9.00 ERA across his first five starts. After a stint on the injured list due to a shoulder injury, manager Luis Rojas brought Matz out of the bullpen for one appearance and then plopped him back in the rotation, where he didn’t escape the third inning. It has been a rough run for Matz as both a starter and reliever, not to mention the fact that he has surrendered 39 home runs over his last 40 appearances.
Free agent signees Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha are having discouraging seasons, failing to provide length and reliability; prior to suffering a rib injury Robert Gsellman was getting chased out of games; the Mets decided to put Seth Lugo, their best reliever, in the rotation again in the wake of injuries.
Looking for good news? deGrom is still the best pitcher in baseball. He’s pitching deep into games while striking out hitters at a high rate, getting sharp movement on his delivers, and executing at an elite level. His five-year, $137.5 million contract is a steal when compared to the record-setting contracts that Gerrit Cole (nine-year, $324 million deal) and Stephen Strasburg inked this past offseason (seven-year, $245 million deal).
Meanwhile, 25-year-old southpaw David Peterson has been a pleasant development, posting a respectable 3.80 ERA across nine appearances, eight of which have been starts.
There was a viable alternative to way the Mets handled their rotation at every leg of the last two years.
Sure, injuries have been a noteworthy part of Syndergaard’s career. That said, when healthy he has been an ace-caliber pitcher, hitting the high 90s with his fastball, blowing his off-speed pitches past hitters, and logging strikeouts at a high rate. Throw in the postseason success Syndergaard found early on in his career and him being under contract for three years, and the Mets could’ve gotten a heavy haul for the right-hander.
Maybe the Mets could’ve received a team’s top prospect or a grouping of highly regarded young players for Syndergaard, which would’ve beefed up the farm system. Heck, they could’ve gotten a considerable return on him this past offseason. What could the Mets get for Syndergaard, who’s rehabbing from an elbow injury and will be playing on an expiring contract next season, in a trade this coming offseason?
While it would’ve been a stretch to say they were loaded with pitching in the minor leagues, the Mets have gutted their farm system’s pitching depth in recent memory. For Stroman, they surrendered top pitching prospects Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson. Meanwhile, Stroman is a free agent this winter.
A friendly reminder: the Mets let Wheeler walk in free agency. They could have now surrendered two highly touted pitchers for 11 moderate outings from Stroman while losing another talented pitcher in the process; they could’ve traded Wheeler at the 2019 MLB trade deadline if they weren’t going to re-sign him.
In December 2018 the Mets acquired Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz in a multi-player trade with the Seattle Mariners. The most referenced player in this trade from the Mets’ side is outfielder Jarred Kelenic, who could’ve started and made a difference in their lineup in the near future. Another crucial player involved in this trade is right-hander Justin Dunn, who the Mets sent to the Mariners.
Dunn has held his own in nine starts with the Mariners this season, recording a 4.20 ERA in an American League West division that has several imposing hitters. Dunn, Kay, and Woods Richardson all would’ve been welcome bodies to the Mets’ depleted pitching staff; having just one of them would’ve helped.
While Cano and Diaz have bounced back from treacherous 2019 campaigns, compared to their success in past seasons, the Mets, 25-31, are in fourth place in the National League East. Cano, 37, is taking at-bats away from young players, and an effective bullpen has little use for a team with a slumping rotation, let alone a team on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
The lack of foresight is astounding. How quickly the featured element of this team crumbled is difficult to fathom. deGrom is a pig among guinea pigs in this rotation, and the New York Mets took their riches for granted.