With so much talent already at the major league level, even with ace Matt Harvey and pleasant surprise Jeremy Hefner on the shelf for 2014, and more on the verge of coming up, the team from Queens appears to finally have one strength.
Southpaw Jonathon Niese will probably serve as the de facto 2014 ace, at least until super prospect Zack Wheeler proves he can live up to the hype in his first full year. Veteran Dillon Gee quietly had a very good year after a poor opening, and figures to be a middle of the rotation starter.
Harvey obviously would have been top dog and Hefner seemingly earned another crack at starting full-time, but those two slots remain vacant. Long man Carlos Torres exploded onto the scene in June and former top prospect Jenrry Mejia showed electrifying stuff despite multiple trips to the DL, prompting some conversation about a back of the rotation job for one. Free agent journeymen Aaron Harang and Daisuke Matsuzaka soaked up some innings along the end of the season.
Since the off-season began, General Manager Sandy Alderson has publicly said he expects to bring in at least one starting pitcher. That probably makes the most sense, although it’s not the only method of filling the rotation.
Alderson could go back to a veteran like Harang or Matsuzaka that will eat innings and carry a low price tag at the cost of ability and stats. Harang made his Mets debut in September, finishing 0-1 in four starts with a 3.52 ERA and 26 strikeouts over 23 innings. He made $3 million with the Dodgers in 2012 and received nearly all of his $7 million for 2013 from the Dodgers and Seattle Mariners. A 35-year-old veteran reliant on mixing up six pitches that top out at 91 MPH, Harang is likely to get closer to $3 million, pitch most of the season and have an ERA well north of 4. Matsuzaka was released by the Indians in late August and struggled as a Met, hammered for 15 earned runs in 12.1 innings. But the 33-year-old Japanese pitcher settled down, yielding just four earned runs in his next 26.1 innings. Cleveland paid most of his $1.5 million salary for 2013. He also mixes in several pitches, including a cutter, slurve and changeup. Comparing the two veterans, Matsuzaka has the better ERA – 4.42 in 2013 and 4.52 for career, while Harang strikes out more batters. Neither pitcher should earn more than a few million from a team looking to add a fifth starter with some experience on the cheap.
The Mets could also opt to look a higher tier of free agents this winter. Both Bronson Arroyo and Phil Hughes are on the market, as is Matt Garza. The 30-year-old Garza has to be among the best on the list, with a career 3.84 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, very close to his totals in a 155 IP-2013 campaign. Reliant on control to make his fastballs, slider and changeup effective, the righty earned $10 million with the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers last year. There’s no chance he signs for anything less that after Dan Haren signed for 1-year/$10 million with Dodgers this month and Edwin Jackson inked a four-year/$52 million deal in January. Not only would this type of signing cut into the remaining $25 million this off-season, but it would block upcoming prospects like Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero. Arroyo would also occupy a rotation slot, publicly demanding a three-year deal. Hughes earned $7.15 million from the deep pockets of the Yankees, but his 5.19 ERA, 1.48 home runs per nine innings and low innings pitched will drive him out of pinstripes in 2014. The good news is that a change of scenery away from the 314 foot porch in right field could do the righty well, as lefty pull hitters hit a disproportionate amount of home runs there and his 2013 road stats include a 3.88 ERA. A National League team and/or organization with a bigger park could gamble on a team-friendly, one-year deal with Hughes.
Tossing Alderson’s public comments aside, theoretically the Mets could also look at internal options. The 23-year-old Mejia threw just 27.1 innings last season, but sported a 2.35 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings before getting sidelined to clean up bone chips in his shoulder. His stuff – a 90s fastball, slider and curveball – all look ridiculous at times, although Mejia has never stayed on the field and pitched consistently for a whole season. Of the Mets prospects, Syndegaard is by far their best prospect, as well as one of the best in the game. The young righty has both an explosive fastball and curveball to go along with a solid changeup. With just 54 innings at Double-A Binghamton last season and a very lucrative contract likely in six years, Alderson could delay the clock by leaving Syndegaard in the minors for at least a month. On the other hand, Montero has 155 innings pitched in Double-A and Triple-A Las Vegas, and he doesn’t project to be the same stud Syndegaard and Wheeler are. The 23-year-old looked solid last season with a combined 2.78 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He boasts a healthy fastball with good movement and power, but his slider isn’t quite there and his changeup needs work. More minor league innings in 2014 could make the difference between starting and relieving in his career.
At this early point in the off-season, the facts seem to outweigh the temptation to hand Syndegaard or Montero a job in Spring Training. Neither is quite ready for the Big Show and extra time away from a likely-disappointing major league squad won’t make a discernible difference. On the other hand, signing an expensive pitcher to a long-term deal is a terrible idea if Alderson values their pitching prospects and injured major leaguers. It also pulls money away from a small pool to begin with, limiting the offense for whoever takes the mound at Citi Field in 2014. Someone like Hughes could offer the best risk/reward for a fair price, and could always be replaced mid-season by Montero if the bigger park doesn’t help.