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.