Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
Each and every time we talk about the Mets, any story is subsumed by the greater narrative through line: The Mets Have the Best Young Pitching!
It’s what I wrote about for last year’s preview, it’s what I’m writing about in this year's version, and it’s what someone—maybe even me!—will write about for next year’s preview. It is as inescapable as gravity, this pull toward high-90s velocity and late-breaking sliders and long, luxurious hairstyles. The Mets have seven young, talented starting pitchers who would likely slot into any team’s rotation, if not front it. It is a collection of arms more impressive than Goro from Mortal Kombat. And when we look back at this 2017 team, and how remarkable this septet looks, we will remember one thing:
You can never have enough starting pitching.
There’s a case for Noah Syndergaard being the best right-handed starting pitcher in baseball. Jacob deGrom is a living “screw you” to the prospect-industrial complex and still one of the most underrated top-of-the-rotation starters in the game. Matt Harvey is a living “screw you” … full stop. Steven Matz is the kind of left-hander baseball operations VPs dream about on the nights they’re allowed to sleep. Robert Gsellman is trying very, very hard to deGrom himself, right down to the hair. Zack Wheeler was traded for a Hall of Famer with five good seasons left in the tank and everyone pretty much agrees that the Mets won the trade because of his wicked velocity and ability to induce browned-up balls in play. Seth Lugo spins his curveball more than anyone, which is cool, and that’s probably his third-best pitch.
Combined, these seven hurlers are projected on our depth charts to eat up 964 innings with a composite 13 WARP and 159 starts between them. If everything breaks exactly right, we could see something that resembles that outcome. But the risks are many, and all it takes is three dominoes to fall in order for this team to be starting Rafael Montero or Sean Gilmartin for the second consecutive season. And the cracks in the facade are already starting to show.
The 1-2 punch of Syndergaard and deGrom is as stable as one can hope for, which is to say that I’d put something like a 70 percent chance each will stay healthy over the course of the season. As talented as they are, so long as injury is avoided, these two should shove at a high level all season long. While every pitcher presents a double-edged risk from injury and performance …
The Injury Risks: Matz and Wheeler
The Mets’ two potential aces are mirror images, and not just because one throws lefty while the other one throws from the right. Matz is a fly-ball pitcher with sick breaking stuff, while Wheeler induces grounders like crazy on the strength of his heavy fastball. And while both are incredibly risky from an injury perspective, they give the Mets palpitations for different reasons.
Matz has never been completely healthy and has never thrown more than 160 innings in a professional season. Just this past week, he was scratched from a start with irritation in his pitching elbow, and this follows bone spur concerns last season. Meanwhile, Wheeler is working to return from Tommy John surgery, and is likely to be on some sort of heavy innings cap in his return season. It’s almost certain that neither will take the hill 30 times this year, though people seem to agree that both will be effective if they can remain upright and with all connective tissue intact,
The Performance Risks: Gsellman and Lugo
Last year, when the injuries piled up and the Mets looked down in the dumps, the team was saved by the emergence of two low-profile starter prospects who positively sparkled in their debuts. Robert Gsellman immediately flashed the Dan Warthen Special: his slider emerged as a powerful offering and his velocity jumped upon proximity to a starting role in Queens. If he pitches as well as he did at the end of 2016—when he posted a 2.67 FIP, but 3.93 DRA—he’ll settle in as a high-end mid-rotation starter even with all of the other top talent on the Mets. But in order to do that, he’ll need to keep getting favorable contact (grounders and no homers) and hold his gains over a full season.
Meanwhile, Lugo has started some of the most important games of the last month as the nominal ace for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He doesn’t have the raw stuff of Gsellman—or any of the other New York starting pitchers—but his repertoire has also expanded this offseason. He too is trying out a hard slider, and with another breaking pitch to complement his spinny-spinny curve and fastball, he could become something more than a starter who struggles after the lineup turns over. Until he can prove that, though, we’ll have to assume he won’t replicate his 2.67 ERA from last season.
The Matt Harvey
With Bartolo Colon playing in the baseball equivalent of The Villages, the 28-year-old Harvey is now the grand old man of this Mets rotation. As an insight into our own mortality, that is deeply unsettling. However, that’s not quite as unsettling as Harvey’s velocity reports coming out of his first couple of spring training starts. After living in the mid-90s even during his disappointing 2016, he threw in the low 90s during his first few starts in Port St. Lucie. It's a hint that his recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery may be anything but seamless, although his velocity ticked upped in his most recent outing.
Remember, it was Harvey’s surprising velocity bump that powered his advent as New York’s Next Big Thing in 2012—without it, he had the profile of a mid-rotation arm or reliever—and he’ll need to find his velo and his once-plus command in order to return to his previous self. Between his two huge injuries (the aforementioned thoracic outlet syndrome and Tommy John surgery) over the past three years and the open questions about his stuff, Harvey has major risks in play both in terms of injury and performance. In a rotation full of wild cards, he is still the wildest.
There’s the potential for a history-making run of pitching excellence, but it’s not just the casual pessimism of being a Mets fan that keeps one from banking on that outcome. For two straight years, the Mets have been burned by injury. That’s not to say that everything could break as bad as possible, but between balky elbows and errant fastballs, there are multiple scenarios that end with the Mets trading for Colon at the deadline or giving Montero a half-dozen starts this season. We’ll remember this season because of this rotation: either we’ll see a world-class collection of pitching talent for the ages or we’ll talk about how we still haven’t seen the Four Horsemen or Five Aces that we were once promised. Nothing short of sweeping the NL Cy Young finalists will ever be good enough to match the hype built up in our heads.
There is no ceiling here; this Mets team will rise as high as this remarkable set of men can take them. After all, every baseball team is like a rocket—they are each built to blast as long, as fast, and as high as possible, breaking apart even as they ascend. This Mets team could burn bright, but the question is if there’s enough fuel to make it to the very top.
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