How will the Mets handle their starting pitching?

Some people think the Mets have one starting pitcher, a couple of relievers, a shortstop and one, maybe two outfielders. And these same people imagine a big offseason spending spree to fill in the rest. But depending which options are picked up and how arbitration cases are settled, the Mets could have $125 million committed in payroll to existing players. It’s not a pretty picture, especially since ownership has given zero indication that payroll will be rising from last year’s Opening Day number of $155 million.

Even if payroll was to take a significant jump, Sandy Alderson would still have a huge issue to confront, one which will determine the fate of the 2018 Mets. And that’s simply how to handle the injured pitchers. Most of us entered 2017 hoping for an improved year in pitcher health. And we didn’t get it at all. And there’s little or no sound reason to expect that to be different this go-round.

So, how do you plan for next year when you have no idea which, if any, pitchers will be healthy?

In 2016, when we thought the staff was riddled with injuries, the five pitchers to make the most starts combined for 126. Last year, the top five made just 107 starts, with 18 of those coming from Rafael Montero, who no one wanted to see get a single start when the year began.

The plan was that the Mets had seven pitchers who they felt good about starting and that they hoped that three or more injuries wouldn’t happen simultaneously. It wasn’t the greatest plan but it’s not like it was bat guano crazy, either. Where Alderson really came up short is once that both Seth Lugo and Steven Matz started the year on the DL, there should have been urgency to add a quality starting pitcher, one significantly better than Adam Wilk.

Doug Fister was there for the taking, too. He eventually signed with the Red Sox, made 15 starts and put up a 4.88 ERA pitching in the DH league. Only three of the 12 starting pitchers used by the Mets bettered Fister’s mark. The immortal Mr. Wilk had a 12.27 ERA in his only appearance. Tommy Milone, who was signed over a month before Fister, had an 8.57 ERA in five starts.

Let’s not pretend that one league-average starting pitcher would have made the difference last year. The question is: Will one league-average starting pitcher make the difference in 2018?

Alderson is faced with, at minimum, two large questions to answer before work begins on the offseason. First, are they a contender who suffered through a one-year downturn or is this a multi-year rebuild? And two, can you count on any pitcher on the staff to make 30 starts in 2018?

A rebuild may very well be the correct answer to the first question. However, it’s hard to imagine that ownership would willingly sign off on that plan. Plus, if this was going to be a multi-year rebuild, it’s likely they would have opted for a younger GM to guide the process all the way to completion. My reading of the tea leaves shows the answer to the first question is: contender.

The second question is not so easy. This time last year the hope/expectation was that Noah Syndergaard, coming off a healthy and dominant season, would be the rock. Additionally, the outlook would be for at least one of Jacob deGrom/Matt Harvey/Matz to join him from the established pitchers, along with one of the 2016 surprises – Robert Gsellman/Lugo. If they got full seasons from three pitchers, they could mix and match from the other four, counting Zack Wheeler in the equation, too.

But since Syndergaard was unable to duplicate his healthy 2016 a season later – why should the expectation be that deGrom will this year?

In 2015, the Mets were caught without a reasonable backup plan for center field. In 2016, they addressed the situation by signing Alejandro De Aza. Now, you may not have liked that plan. And that plan went away a month or so later when they re-signed Yoenis Cespedes. But the one thing we can say is that there was a plan. Not only a plan, but one that involved more thought than signing Wilk and calling it a day.

What will be the backup plan for SP injuries in 2018? The rub is, how can you plan for injuries when the possibility – however remote – is that enough pitchers stay healthy to make the new pitcher(s) unnecessary?

One option would be to shop in the high end of the free agent market, looking to add a Jake Arrieta or a Yu Darvish. So, even if Lugo, Matz and Wheeler are healthy, they’re not bumping a prospective ace from the rotation. The problem with that is two-fold. First, there are no guarantees that said ace would stay healthy, either. And second, if the Mets step up for that type of starter, there may not be room to add anything else of significance in the offseason.

Another option would be to add two or three low to mid-range innings eaters. Guys who would be a significant upgrade from Milone but at an overall cost less than what an ace would get. These guys would be in the rotation if the injured guys were out again and move to the bullpen if they were healthy. The issue with this approach is that there’s virtually no room for error. Just the slightest dip in quality takes these pitchers from “innings eater” to “batting practice” pitcher.” And the Mets have enough internal options for BP pitcher.

A third option is to address the starting pitching by focusing on the bullpen. Embrace the “five and fly” guy that may be all that Lugo and Wheeler can give you and look to fill the pen with guys who can go two innings at a time. You have your closer and lefty specialist to pitch one inning (or fewer) and then have five guys in the pen who can give two to three innings each time out. Or better yet, ditch the lefty specialist and have six guys who can go multiple innings.

Let’s say that a miracle happens and that on Opening Day that deGrom, Harvey, Matz, Syndergaard and Wheeler are all healthy and ready to go. Then in the bullpen you have Gsellman, Lugo and Montero (low leverage only, please) to back Jeurys Familia and AJ Ramos. Then you spend on one or two relievers, depending on what you do with Jerry Blevins.

By consistently pitching multiple innings, these pitchers stay a bit more stretched out and more ready to move to the rotation to become “five and fly” guys once the inevitable injury hits. Or, keep them in Las Vegas if options are available, working as a starter. And if bullpen guys get promoted to starter due to injury, you have Chase Bradford and Paul Sewald ready to step in the pen.

If the decision is made to improve the starters by packing the bullpen then one of the most important factors in the managerial search is someone who’s comfortable managing a pen for four innings at a time. With the alleged disconnect between the front office and Terry Collins, we have renewed hope that the daily lefty fetish and matchup masturbation will become a thing of the past with a new manager. You don’t have to throw these completely out of the tool box. But it’s no longer the default assumption.

In my view, the Mets have six guys who if they’re healthy you’re good with them making starts, provided you don’t expect them to go seven or more innings. And Gsellman and Montero are fine as your number seven and eight guys. Now, those guys may have to make starts in April. That’s okay, as long as they don’t combine for 40 starts overall like they did in 2016.

There are two keys for this plan to work. First, five of the eight guys have to be projected to be healthy in April. And second, they have to have bullpen pitchers who can pitch two or three innings twice a week, if needed.

It’s next to impossible to project how often a bullpen will need to be used. But let’s say in a six-game week that the hope is for the Mets to get five innings from their starter three times and one time each they’ll get four innings, six innings and seven innings. Assuming all games go nine innings and there are no extra-innings games (ha!) then the pen needs to cover 22 innings a week. How might the pen work?

Wheeler 4 IP, Montero 3 IP, Blevins 1 IP, Ramos 1 IP
Harvey 5 IP, Lugo 3 IP, Familia 1 IP
deGrom 6 IP, Gsellman 2 IP, Familia 1 IP
Syndergaard 7 IP, Mystery Reliever 1 IP, Ramos 1 IP
Matz 5 IP, Lugo 2 IP, Blevins I IP, Familia 1 IP
Wheeler 5 IP, Montero 2 IP, Gsellman 2 IP

No one used more than three times, no reliever throws more than five innings. Of course, things are never this neat and tidy for very long. A starter only goes 2.2 IP or a game goes 15 innings. You’ve got to be flexible and occasionally use guys heavier than what’s depicted above. But when you start off with a plan to balance both innings and appearances you have the chance for things to work out smooth. But when your plan consists only of finding work for your lefty reliever and using your closer in the 9th inning, well then you use guys in three of the last four or four of the last five games on a consistent basis and you burn them out.

My opinion is that with the decision to contend in 2018, along with the payroll reality, the Mets are backed in a corner trying to make it work with their current group of starting pitchers. The best way to make it work is to accept and plan on starters consistently going five or fewer innings. And the way to do that is to ignore the matchup game and commit to relievers who can go multiple innings at a time.

Spending on one or two non-closer relievers allows more money for the club to spend on a 2B and/or 3B and/or OF. Then the question becomes if they acquire those position players through trade or free agency.

23 comments for “How will the Mets handle their starting pitching?

  1. Jimmy P
    October 8, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Great post and yes, I go with option #3 — while always being eager to sign a Dice-K type reclamation project for Vegas depth. Having nothing in Vegas, just totally barren, was part of the problem.

  2. Chris F
    October 8, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Great article Brian. One thing, I’ve read payroll is heading to ~140 M$

    1. LHB – Nimmo (8) (v RHP), RHB – Lagares (vLHP) new costs = 0$
    2. SH – Cabrera (4) –> new costs = 0$ (expected pick up committed option)
    3. LHB – Conforto (9) –> new costs = 0$
    4. RHB – Cespedes (7) –> new costs = 0$
    5. L/RHB – new (5) –> new costs = ~10-15M$ (depends how contract structured)
    6. RHB – Rosario (6) –> new costs = 0$
    7. LHB – Smith (3) –> new costs = 0$
    8. RHB – TdA + KP (2) –> new costs = 2M$ arb raise TdA
    9. SP

    I think this article does a fine job with pitching.

    Bench:
    Flores –> new costs = ~2M$ arb raise
    TJ (seems redundant) –> new costs = 0$
    ??? –> new costs = 0$

    Total budget ~140M$

    (this includes Wright’s salary, which is super hard to project)
    (does not include Bobby Bonilla) 😛

  3. Name
    October 8, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    It’s not rocket science. Sure, it’s not the only way to win but it’s the easiest formula. No need for all these machinations to optimize bullpen guys

    2017 : Top 8 teams with lowest SP ERA made the playoffs
    2016 : Top 8 teams with lowest SP ERA made the playoffs
    2015: 6 teams in the top 8 with lowest SP ERA made the playoffs

    • Jimmy P
      October 8, 2017 at 5:05 pm

      Name, by this, would it be fair to think that you advocate going out and signing the best starter available?

      In some respects, that’s how the Nats proceeded. They didn’t worry too much about the pen, figuring they could address it at the deadline. Build with starting pitching.

      • Chris F
        October 8, 2017 at 5:32 pm

        And thats clearly what has made them dominant in the regular season, and should be for the postseason. But if we look at them, for 2018 they have 52M$ committed in Scherzer, Stras, and Gio. The money says “Starting Pitching” rules there.

    • Metsense
      October 8, 2017 at 5:31 pm

      +1 – pitching is everything and you build off from there.

  4. NormE
    October 8, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    Good article, Brian!
    For those paying attention it appears that the concept of starting and relief pitchers is changing. Collins didn’t’ seem too grasp it. The more essential issue is whether Alderson understands this and will he hire a manager who will implement it. Then, you have to have the personnel who can make it work.
    With enough offense and solid defense it just might work.
    What is clear to me is that the game is evolving and continuing to do the same old thing is not going to work.

  5. Benny
    October 8, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Improve the defense and you improve the pitching. Gordon, Kinsler, Hernandez,etc for second. Lagares gets his shot in CF. Frazier for 3B. Sign a second tier starter and go after two of the relievers on the market.

  6. Metsense
    October 8, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    One League average starting pitcher will not make the Mets a contender in 2018. The pitcher that is needed should be on the higher end of the free-agent market so that he will be better than Lugo Matz and Wheeler. The starting pitchers who don’t make the rotation should become multi ending middle relief pitchers. They already have these type of pitchers but they need to be utilized in this manner. Middle relief was terrible in 2017. A number 3 or better starter is still my top priority. Without pitching you can’t compete.

    • Chris F
      October 8, 2017 at 5:50 pm

      So when the Nats were in the same spot, with Stras and Gio, they went and flipped 275M$ for Scherzer. Some back of the rotation innings eater wont get it done. I completely agree.

  7. Jimmy P
    October 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

    Just voicing a pet peeve: references to the Mets Opening Day payroll number of $155 million. Not just this article, but everywhere it seems.

    Yes, technically true, but the amount of actual spend money on payroll has to be below $140 after the great sell-off. Let’s call it $135 million.

    So the talk shouldn’t be about whether they are going to go above the $155 million mark. It’s that they absolutely must go about this year’s paltry and unsatisfactory number of $135 million.

    Let’s not pretend they went anywhere close to $155 million this season.

    They had a crap team and sold less tickets while ratings went down on SNY. Why is the successful business model in NYC so difficult to comprehend?

    • October 9, 2017 at 8:08 am

      And Jimmy don’t forget the Wilpons had insurance on Wright’s contract so in effect the payroll was more in line at about 120 million dollars!

    • October 9, 2017 at 9:39 am

      Just because it’s not showing what you want to show doesn’t make it a technicality.

      People use Opening Day payrolls for a constant measure to compare across seasons. There are teams that add payroll throughout the year – like the 2015 and 2016 Mets. And there are teams that reduce payroll – like the 2017 Mets.

      • Jimmy P
        October 9, 2017 at 10:11 am

        I think quoting the OD number without comment is misleading. And if they added $20 million it would also be misleading.

        How much did they actually spend? That seems to me like the most important detail.

        • October 9, 2017 at 10:21 am

          The idea is to convey what they’re prepared to spend, with the understanding that the number will go up or down as the situation dictates. The 2017 Mets thought they were a World Series contender and they opened the season with a $155 million payroll. And with that is the idea that they would take on payroll if need be down the stretch.

          If the 2018 Mets have an Opening Day payroll of $130 million – that will certainly tell us a different story.

  8. Chris F
    October 9, 2017 at 8:37 am

    Interesting comment out of Boston yesterday:

    “I almost wonder if we’re getting to a point,” Red Sox VP of pitching development Brian Bannister said, “where roles aren’t defined. I’m not a starter. I’m not a reliever. In the postseason, I get outs.”

    (credit: Jeff Passan)

    Just curious…is this the pitching future?

    • October 9, 2017 at 9:47 am

      I don’t believe it’s that way any more now than it was 20 years ago. You have starters move to the bullpen because the playoffs don’t require five starters. And you have aces pitching in relief because you want to put your best guy on the mound whenever possible.

      Pedro Martinez pitching six hitless innings out of the pen in the 1999 ALDS didn’t change his role – he was a starter.

      You can’t manage the same way in the regular season as you do in the playoffs.

      • Chris F
        October 9, 2017 at 11:34 am

        The difference is that 20 years ago, there were starters that did pitch a lot of innings in the reg season. Now 5 is a miracle…and for the first time ever, the concept of the “quality start” actually seems to have meaning.

        • October 9, 2017 at 12:00 pm

          QS always had meaning. It’s just that people focused on what the minimum was and lost sight of everything else.

          We’ve seen managers embrace the five and fly approach to starting pitching, notably the Dodgers. The Marlins, too. But that doesn’t have anything to do what’s going on in the postseason.

          • Chris F
            October 9, 2017 at 3:01 pm

            interesting…Ive always considered it a bit of a low bar at best for something I would call “quality” – yet in the modern day, 6 IP for a starter, as we are seeing even in the reg season, is something special – even if writing that made throw up in my mouth just a little. For years Ive thought the QS was a preposterous metric to measure, but now…

            • October 9, 2017 at 7:58 pm

              I know I wrote an article that detailed the percentage of QS that were 6 IP and 3 ER but I can’t find it. But memory says it was low. Wild guess says 15%.

              Whenever a metric is created, you want it to be simple and you want it to be good at what it measures. The QS does both things. Sure, you could improve efficiency by introducing some sort of sliding scale. But the extra effort is essentially not worth it because the vast majority of QS are not of the minimum variety.

              This comes from an article I wrote back in 2010:

              Adding the three full seasons and the one partial year, the Mets have 317 QS with a 176-50 record. They get a decision in 71 percent of the team’s QS and have a winning percentage of .779 when their starter goes at least 6 IP and gives up 3 ER or fewer.
              http://mets360.com/?p=3846

  9. October 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Thanks to all those who were complimentary about the piece!

  10. Eraff
    October 9, 2017 at 10:30 am

    The Met Team structure is pretty much inescapable– they need to get 3 Pitchers to Log 170-200 really good innings or more as a start toward competing in 2018…. After that, you can cobble and add, but the entire season is a non-starter without that.

    You cannot buy that in one piece. It must come from their existing mix…we know the names. This is about returning to health and performance. Otherwise, Sell deGrom….Sell Familia and Ramos and Blevins. Bring in some top shelf young talent and Rebuild…maybe you get a surprise return to form from the other starters—you carry them forward, or you continue to sell off and build out.

    I’d see Noah and Conforto and Rosario as the only committed pieces going forward, not matter whether they decide to Go for ’18, or Remake the team in ’18.

    Trouble is, I don’t now trust the Ownership or Baseball Management— they seem to be Trail Horses, not Trail Blazers.

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