Friday, June 24, 2022

Decisions, Decisions: Starting Pitchers

The failure during the Wilpon era to institute long-term strategies has forced Billy Eppler and the Mets to face a coming offseason of countless decisions.

The Mets had a tough 2-game series in Houston this week. It was particularly galling for older Mets fans like myself, whose disdain for that club long predates their blatant cheating scandal. And, of course, the Atlanta Braves continue to close the gap between the two clubs. It was down to 4 games after the Braves' win over San Francisco Thursday.

I don't really have much to say about the NL East race. The Braves have enjoyed a great month of June, thanks to a soft schedule and catching some other teams while they're down. The Mets have been up and down, with the back end of their rejiggered rotation somewhat exposed. Good news that Max Scherzer is on his way back. Apparently, he won't pitch Sunday's game against the Marlins, as the Mets seem disinclined to rush him back into the rotation. I can't fault the team for not rushing Scherzer back. The idea is to hopefully have him for the rest of the season.

Before I get to the main topic of this post, I just want to say one thing on the record. I'm not a Mets fan who blindly supports his team no matter what. I knew the Mets were going to finish behind the Braves last year once it became evident that Jacob deGrom wasn't coming back, and Noah Syndergaard wasn't going to provide the Mets with any significant contribution.

I understand that the Braves are, as the media constantly seems to point out, defending World Series champs. But here's the thing. I don't think Atlanta was outstanding last season; I think they got some guys hot at the right time in the playoffs. And I don't believe that the 2022 Braves, despite their recent hot stretch, are even as good as last year's team.

I'm not going to pull a Sal Licata and ridiculously declare that the NL East race is over. But I'm just going to say that the 2022 Mets are significantly better than the 2022 Braves. The only way Atlanta wins the NL East is if the Mets continue to have incredibly bad luck with injuries. It could happen. Season-long injuries and lousy luck derailed the 1987 Mets, and that team was still the best in baseball. But barring a really unlucky season such as that one, I expect the Mets to finish several games ahead of Atlanta in the standings when everything is all said and done. We'll see how it plays out. I'm worried about this weekend — the Mets never seem to play well in Miami.

Okay, I felt that I really had to address the NL East race before I got to the meat of this post. I want to look past the current season for a moment to the future of this club. There were many things that the Mets failed to do in the final years of the Wilpon regime. One particular failure that continues to gall me was the club failing to lock up some of their young players beyond the 6 years of control. If the Mets were doing things right back then, Zack Wheeler would still be pitching for them instead of toeing the rubber for a divisional opponent.

The Mets' failure to lock up some of their young players has put first-year GM Billy Eppler in a position where the club has many decisions to make this coming offseason. A good chunk of their roster is becoming free agents after the current campaign. Let's take a look at where the Mets will be, beginning with the rotation:

Starting Pitching
Free Agents
Obviously, deGrom is the big decision here. There have been persistent rumors that Jacob might prefer to finish his career elsewhere. Honestly, I don't know what to make of it. Maybe deGrom doesn't like New York, but if he wants to play for a winner, the Steve Cohen-owned Mets seem like a pretty good bet. We'll see how this plays out in the offseason, but if deGrom is still amenable to pitch for the Mets after this season, there is a real question as to what sort of commitment the Mets want to make with him going forward. Jacob just turned 34, so he'll be pitching most of next season at age 35. Even if he returns and makes all his starts for the rest of the season, deGrom has proven to be quite fragile these last two seasons. Cohen and Eppler have a tough call to make here. The Mets especially don't want to see a replay of what happened with Zack Wheeler and have deGrom pitching next season for a divisional opponent.

The rest of the free agents among the starting pitchers also pose interesting questions for the Mets. When Chris Bassitt got off to a hot start, there was punditry suggesting the club should consider extending him. If Bassit's slump is over, as it appears to be, those calls are likely to return.

Bassit will turn 34 next February. He doesn't have a ton of innings coming into this season, but I doubt the Mets would consider more than a 3-year deal with Chris Bassit. Even that is a bit risky for a guy who would be age 36 in the final year of that deal. However, I can't imagine Bassit signing a contract for fewer than 3 years. Some team might even offer him 4. I like Bassitt, but it's always a tough call for how long a club wants to retain older pitchers. I would like to see the Mets try to keep Bassitt, provided he pitches well for the remainder of this season.

Whether to retain Taijuan Walker is another interesting decision the Mets will have to make. If Walker doesn't repeat last season's second-half collapse, he should be a hot commodity in the marketplace. Walker will turn 30 in August and conceivably can pitch for several more years. If he can finish this year with an ERA still around 3, the Mets will have plenty of competition to sign Walker. Taijuan has done an excellent job for the Mets, even considering his 2021 fade. The Mets have to attempt to keep Walker, especially if Bassitt doesn't come back. I would hope for a 3- or 4-year contract. Perhaps overpay him a bit to keep the length of the contract down.

Carlos Carrasco has enjoyed a solid bounce-back year with the Mets, even if there have been some hiccups along the way. He'll turn 36 next March, though. If he's not done as a pitcher, the end is certainly near. I think the Mets should only consider offering Carrasco a 1-year deal if they can't resign their younger free agent pitchers.

Even though he hasn't pitched very well as a starter so far, I like Trevor Williams as a bullpen swingman. However, it seems quite possible that some teams will value Williams as a back-of-the-rotation starter and offer him a contract with that value. If that's the case, the Mets should not get into a bidding war for the man. They could find a viable swingman elsewhere.

Of the starting pitchers who have commitments to the Mets beyond this season, Mets fans can only cross their fingers and hope that Max Scherzer can continue to find the fountain of youth for the next couple of years and continue to pitch like an ace. This will be even more important if deGrom departs or even if he stays and continues to be stung by the injury bug. 

Of the other remaining starters, Tylor Megill is the only one I think has a chance to be a long-term member of the Mets rotation. If he can stay mostly healthy and continue to develop as a starter, Megill can contribute to multiple pennant winners.

Joey Lucchesi is coming back from Tommy John surgery and may contribute something this season. Luchessi is a viable back-end starter/long man type. Perhaps Joey can replace Trevor Williams if he signs elsewhere. I really don't think he has the upside to be much more than that.

I go back and forth on David Peterson, but I just believe he allows too many baserunners to ever be more than the sixth or seventh starter as he is this season. Unless Peterson develops much better control or perhaps a real swing-and-miss type pitch, I think he is what he is. I appreciate that he can step in and keep the Mets in most of his starts, but I never feel super-confident with David on the mound.

Like Lucchesi, top pitching prospect Matt Allan underwent Tommy John surgery last year. Unlike Lucchesi, it is unclear whether Allan will even pitch this season. Other Mets' starting pitching prospects who look like they have a chance of contributing, such as Dominic Hamel, Calvin Ziegler, and José Butto, are not very close to pitching in Queens. The Mets may develop a pitching pipeline someday, but they're not there yet. For the foreseeable future, the club will need to make intelligent decisions about veteran pitchers they can sign.

Next time, we'll take a look at the bullpen beyond this season. Meanwhile, please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

Decisions, Decisions:
Part 1, Starting Pitchers (This Post)

Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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