Three weeks into Grapefruit League games and the starting pitching situation isn’t much more clearly defined than it was heading into camp. Still, a few questions have been answered, we have both game action and numbers to view and we can combine a few factors to make some educated guesses on how this will play out for Opening Day.
Manager Mickey Callaway and pitching Dave Eiland have been upbeat about the pitchers in camp but otherwise have kept their cards close to the vest, not giving much away as to who starts the year in the rotation. In fact, Callaway has downplayed the importance of the initial group who hold down the starting five, noting that frequently the guy who isn’t in the rotation at the start of the year ends up pitching more innings than one who is. Perhaps that’s nothing more than a continuation of keeping everything upbeat.
So, let’s take a look at the contenders.
Noah Syndergaard – You want to see health, velocity, command and results and Syndergaard has done most of these particularly well so far in Florida. He’s made every appearance, topped out over 100 mph and has 18 Ks and 0 HR in 13 IP. The only thing that hasn’t been dominant is his 6 BB but that almost feels like nitpicking. He’s been announced as the Opening Day starter.
Jacob deGrom – His Spring got off to a delayed start because of the one-two combo of the birth of his daughter and a mild case of lower back tightness. But he seems healthy now and in two Grapefruit League appearances, his numbers are even better than Syndergaard’s. He’s allowed 1 BB and 0 HR in 7.2 IP with 12 Ks. As long as there’s no further issue with his back, deGrom will start the second game of the year.
Matt Harvey – Perhaps nowhere is the upbeat mantra more in place than with Harvey. Political operatives could learn a thing or two about spin watching how the brass makes everything Harvey does in March as some sort of triumph. Looking past the spin, he’s been healthy and his velocity has consistently been in the 93-94 range, touching 96. And 4 BB and 1 HR in 14.2 IP has to be viewed favorably, too. At this point, it would be a major shock if Harvey wasn’t in the rotation, likely starting the third game of the year.
Jason Vargas – He seemed destined to be in the rotation after signing a contract that pays him more than any other starter on the club than deGrom. Vargas does not rely on velocity but he seemed to be right where you’d expect him to be in the low to mid 80s with his fastball. His command hasn’t been great, as he’s surrendered 4 BB and 2 HR in 8.2 IP. But perhaps the most troublesome thing is that he suffered an injury while pitching in a minor league game and was struck by a line drive. An X-ray on his non-pitching hand was negative yet that was followed up with a CT scan and plans to meet with a specialist. Vargas claims to be not worried about the situation but right now things seem up in the air.
Steven Matz – The good news is that he’s been healthy and his velocity has been fine. But he had two absolutely dreadful starts at the beginning of the Spring and he allowed two runs in the first inning of his fourth start against the depleted Marlins. He’s allowed 8 BB and 14 H in 10 IP in Grapefruit League play. He might still be a favorite for a rotation slot, as the Mets have given no indication they think of him as a potential reliever. And if Vargas’ injury is more serious than expected, he would become a lock.
Zack Wheeler – Perhaps the guy most affected by the Vargas signing, the brass tried to make things better for him, as Callaway called him a starting pitcher. Wheeler got off to a solid start but his last time out against the Nationals was not good. After not allowing a base on balls in his previous outings, he walked the first two batters he faced, who both came around to score. He’s been healthy and he’s hit the upper 90s on the radar gun, so velocity hasn’t been an issue. But 15 H and a 2.13 WHIP are not going to turn many heads. His only hope for the rotation would seem to be Vargas not being able to go right away. Otherwise, the big question would be if the Mets would send him to the minors or have him work in extended Spring Training to allow him to remain as a starter.
Seth Lugo – Last year when he came back from his elbow injury without having surgery, the Mets used him as a starter, thinking the defined role of when he would pitch would be easier in the rotation. Lugo did not have surgery in the offseason yet has been used out of the pen in four of his five Grapefruit League appearances. These relief outings have all been planned ahead of time, so perhaps not too much should be read into them. It will be curious if the club tries to use him in back-to-back games before the end of the Spring. Lugo’s had good results, with a 1.69 ERA in 10.2 IP. He’s allowed 2 BB and 0 HR in this span, to go along with 9 Ks. If his elbow is up to it, and he’s been healthy so far, he appears to be a weapon for the bullpen. But a trip to the minors to work as a starter is not completely out of the question.
Robert Gsellman – He’s been healthy and the spin is that he has the sink on his pitches that was missing last year. Gsellman has made two starts in five appearances, with a 4.09 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP. Those numbers are serviceable and while they won’t win him a spot in the rotation, he could be an asset as a multi-inning reliever. However, Gsellman seems to be the guy most likely to start the year in the minors, so he can stay ready as a starter. It will be curious to see if the new regime values the multi-inning reliever role more for Gsellman than being stretched out as a starter. Either way, 4 Ks in 11 IP is a red flag.
Obviously the most important thing for deciding the rotation slots will be Vargas’ health. However that turns out, Matz and Wheeler will still have a couple of outings to show the brass they belong. And while Lugo has had a bunch of relief outings, he’s given length in those and should not be ruled out of the running for a rotation slot. Perhaps the most interesting call overall will be what to do with Gsellman. There’s been speculation that the Mets are gauging the trade market for Rafael Montero, who’s out of options. If Montero is dealt, that might make it easier to keep Gsellman in the majors as a reliever.