News of Noah Syndergaard‘s Tommy John surgery, which occurred successfully this past Thursday in Florida, wasn’t really all that surprising given the prevalence of the procedure across baseball and the max effort delivery of his 100+ mph heaters. It was actually more surprising that he was the lone outlier in his own rotation for two seasons before the Mets traded for Marcus Stroman last summer, as Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and Jason Vargas all had the surgery at some point in their careers. It was more inevitable than unexpected under the circumstances.
Syndergaard’s injury leaves the team and its fans with a lot of questions moving forward, but it does solve the logjam in the rotation the Mets created when they signed Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha and allegedly promised them both spots in the starting rotation. We now know that the team structured Wacha’s contract in such a way that it provides incentives for him to appear in relief, and that they believe Porcello provides no value out of the bullpen. As such, the final spot in the Mets’ rotation became an intriguing Spring Training story that matched Wacha against the incumbent Matz.
The loss of Syndergaard is obviously a blow to the Mets’ 2020 season (should it occur) and a potentially significant chunk of 2021, but just how large is the drop between his projected production and that of the Matz/Wacha combination? Would it help if I said that this team needed all aspects of its roster to perform well for a chance to seriously contend in the NL East anyway?
FanGraphs projected the Mets to have the second-best rotation in baseball per fWAR, with a healthy Syndergaard’s 4.6 fWAR bested only by deGrom (6.1). This would have been the ideal scenario for a team built on pitching, as an elite rotation would theoretically do the heavy lifting while a competent bullpen, above average lineup, and solid bench rounded out the edges of a roster with dreams of contention. The loss of Syndergaard alters the road the Mets need to take to make the postseason, and it’s unclear if the team now has the horses to pull it off.
The updated projections that include increased playing time and adjusted fWAR for both Matz (2.0) and Wacha (1.4) peg the Mets’ rotation as eighth best. The carryover effect of the rotation downgrade, of course, is that the team’s general projected win total has dropped from around 87-89 (depending on which system you like) to somewhere in the neighborhood of 84-85 wins. As most fans are aware, the difference between two or three wins in that range generally means the difference between securing a wild card spot and watching the playoffs from home.
So where can the team turn for those extra few wins they’ll miss with Syndergaard going down? Frankly, they’re going to need some above average performances from the rest of their roster and a bit of luck with any further injuries. The same can obviously be said for any team on the fringes of contention, but it’s never a position you want for your team heading into a season with such promise.
The good news is there are some players on the roster that FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projection system may be undervaluing because they simply don’t know what to do with them. Brandon Nimmo‘s projected 1.9 fWAR underscores an understandably skeptical view of his ability to stay on the field for a full season, but he’s shown he can be a 4.0+ fWAR player given the chance and good health. While there is belief that Jeff McNeil is the real deal (3.6), FanGraphs isn’t quite as sold on J.D. Davis (1.3). Similarly, Yoenis Cespedes‘ 1.0 projected fWAR reflects the total uncertainty of what the Mets can expect from him in the final season of his contract.
The bad news is that depth is paper thin for parts of the Mets’ roster, particularly for the rotation. Should either deGrom and/or Stroman go down for any significant amount of time, things could get ugly very quickly. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that the team is depending heavily on a bounce-back season from a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last year. Additionally, and barring a significant trade to upgrade the rotation, a postseason front three of deGrom/Stroman/Porcello is a lot less intimidating in a short series than deGrom/Syndergaard/Stroman.
A playoff berth isn’t impossible for the Mets in 2020, but the loss of Syndergaard has made it significantly more difficult in what may be the toughest division in baseball. They’ll need a lot of luck with regard to the injury bug, performances matching potential, Brodie Van Wagenen to make some shrewd depth/upgrade trades during the season, and for new manager Luis Rojas to hit the ground running. Hey, what’s a Mets season without at least a little adversity and a consistent feeling of running against the wind?