Sunday, August 21, 2022

How the Dominoes Fall

More thoughts on constructing a Mets starting rotation in 2023. Is exercising Carlos Carrasco's $14 million option for next season really a no-brainer?

The New York Mets had a rough time down in Atlanta this week. They lost starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker to injuries in the first two games of the Atlanta series, although it looks like Walker will only miss one start. Their infield defense took a big hit, losing Luis Guillorme and Eduardo Escobar to the I.L. The Mets' offense seems to be in hit-or-miss mode since the series against the Cincinnati Reds with run totals of 1, 1, 6, 1, 0, 9, 2, 7, 8, and 1 through Saturday's doubleheader split with the Phillies. They lost all but one of the games in which they scored 2 runs or fewer.

Meanwhile, the Braves win almost every day. Since June 1, Atlanta's record has been 52-20. Over a 162-game season, that would translate to 117 wins — one game better than the MLB record for wins in a season. Eight of those losses came against the Mets, meaning Atlanta has only lost 12 games against the rest of baseball from the beginning of July through last night's games. I doubt they will sustain that pace for the next month and a half, but I guess we'll find out. I'm not going to go on and on about the Braves here. They are a better team than I thought they were. Not that I ever thought they were nearly as bad as their 23-27 record heading into June, but I thought they were a club that would struggle to reach 90 wins, and that's clearly not true.

My focus is on the Mets, and I believe this past week has raised some interesting questions. One is about Carrasco. Carlos has had an excellent season for the Mets this year. Without him, they might not have survived the Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom injuries.

On the other hand, I'm not sure of the consensus of opinion that sees exercising Carrasco's $14 million team option for 2023 as a "no-brainer." Carlos turns 36 next March. Tossing out the pandemic season, Carlos has pitched 80 and 53.2 innings in his last two 162-game seasons, and 126.1 so far in 2022. It remains to be seen how many more he contributes this year.

I understand that $14 million isn't a huge outlay for a starting pitcher in today's game. Still, it's hard to evaluate how many innings it might be reasonable to expect from Carlos next year, and at what level of performance. If you feel you could expect around 130 innings at the exactly league-average ERA+ of 100 he's chipped in with this season, it probably is a no-brainer at $14 million. But it wouldn't be shocking to see Carrasco's performance go off a cliff at age 36, either.

I wrote a post on the decisions Billy Eppler's front office must make on the starting pitchers this winter. Pitchers definitely returning are Scherzer, Tylor MegillJoey Lucchesi, and David Peterson. Everyone else represents a decision to be made. Moreover, these decisions won't be made in a vacuum.

I think the Mets will probably want an answer on deGrom before they make any other decision. If they can retain Jake, how much they have to pay him will affect other judgments. Presumably, that will be somewhere in the $40-50 million per year range. He's making $33.5 million this year, so that's a healthy jump. But if the Mets hold onto Jacob deGrom, they are looking for third, fourth, and fifth starters along with some important depth. If not, there is more pressure to find a top-quality pitcher to take Jake's place.

Of the other three pitchers under contract, legitimate questions surround how many innings to reasonably expect from each. Megill has been on the I.L. twice and has only totaled 41.1 innings so far after amassing 89.2 last year. Tylor will supposedly return as a reliever in September, but even if he returns as a starter, he won't match 2021's IP.

Peterson has 109.2 IP combined in Triple-A and MLB this season, making him the most durable of the three. He has a 3.44 ERA with the Mets this year and has been generally quite good. On the other hand, his ERA in Syracuse has been 4.85 in 26 IP. Peterson still struggles to complete 5 innings with the Mets, but he generally keeps them in ballgames.

Joey Luchessi is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery that cost him most of last season. If he returns to the Mets in September, it will likely be as a reliever. Only the Mets know how they see Joey long-term. He'll be under the Mets' control through 2024, and has worked primarily as a starter in his pre-surgery career. But there is some speculation that he profiles more as a bullpen piece than a starter.

Besides deGrom, the biggest free agent starting pitcher decisions the Mets will have to make will be on Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Carrasco, and Trevor Williams. Bassitt is the number three starter now, and slots in quite well at that position. I'd love to see the Mets retain and keep him in that spot. There are both pros and cons to doing so. Bassitt will turn 34 next February, so there is a question of how long of a commitment to make to a 34-yar-old pitcher. But he didn't really become a regular MLB starter until 2019, so the mileage on his right arm is still relatively low. He's in great shape and has been durable.

But even if the Mets sign him to a 3-year contract, that will cover his age 34, 35, and 36 seasons. If another club competing for Bassitt's services offers a fourth year, he'll pitch at 37 that season. I'm not sure the Mets will want to go that far out on a limb with Bassitt. Still, I love the guy. He's a great competitor and knows how to pitch. His stuff offers a nice contrast to deGrom and Scherzer, who pitch ahead of him. But one final concern with Bassitt, besides age, is how slowly he pitches. With reports that a pitch clock will be instituted next season, Chris will need to make significant changes to how fast he and his catcher work together to decide the next pitch.

Taijaun Walker has done an excellent job as the fourth starter in 2022. But, he's dealing with a bulging disk in his back now and it remains to be seen if he can avoid last year's late-season fade. Taijuan just turned 30 a week ago, so he's the youngest by far of the free agents. Durability remains a question, however, and a chronic disk issue that he'll need to manage won't make it easier for him to stay healthy. Still, Walker is a fine pitcher who enjoys pitching in New York and has mostly done quite well for the Mets.

Trevor Williams is only a few months older than Walker. Although he hasn't been a regular part of the Mets' rotation, he's been terrific in a Swiss Army Knife type of utility role. I hope the Mets can hold onto him in that same valuable role. However, as I noted in my earlier piece, I believe a team out there will see Williams as a backend starter and pay him accordingly. That will likely preclude his return in 2023.

Okay, so what does this all add up to? Well, at least in my opinion, I don't believe exercising Carrasco's $14 million option for next season is a sure thing at all. Carlos will likely have to return from this injury and give the Mets some effective innings before the end of the season in order for them to do that. Also, decisions made regarding deGrom, Bassit, and Walker will influence the decision to bring him back rather than exercising the $3 million buyout.

If the Mets keep deGrom in the fold, I think it's likely that they will decide between keeping either Chris Bassitt or Taijuan Walker. I don't think they will want to invest what it's likely to cost to keep two starters in their 30s in New York along with Scherzer (38 next year) and deGrom (35). On the other hand, if deGrom goes elsewhere, it's more possible that they might retain both. Either way, there will be plenty of age in the Mets rotation. My belief is that the Mets will want to avoid having an entire rotation in their 30s.

If deGrom goes, I think the Mets will look to trade for a younger, more controllable starter that can pitch towards the top of the rotation. If Jake stays, I can see them choosing between Bassitt and Walker and then allowing Megill, Peterson, and Lucchesi to vie for one of the remaining rotation slots. If they feel that Carrasco has one more good season in him, it's conceivable that they'll retain him in the other. But maybe the Mets manage to hold onto Bassitt and Walker, which would make keeping Carrasco less likely, in my opinion. I believe having a rotation slot open for a younger arm will be a priority for the Mets next year.

What makes all of the free agent decisions even more interesting is the relative dearth of young pitching that's close to major league ready in the Mets' system. Heading into last year's spring training, Matt Allan was seen as the big pitching prospect. This is no longer so. Allan pitched 10.1 innings in the minors in 2019, then only pitched at the alternate site in 2020. After going down to the dreaded TJ surgery last spring, Allan has yet to return to a minor league mound. There are reports he may get some work in the complex this fall, but a return to organized minor league baseball will apparently have to wait until 2023. At that point, he'll be 22 and basically looking to get his pro career started.

Allan is no longer the highest-rated pitching prospect in the Mets' top 30 on MLB.com. He's behind 2 other pitchers in their ratings:

  • Blade Tidwell, taken by the Mets in the second round of this year's draft, is #8 on the list. He's just getting his feet wet in Low-A as I write this; he is unlikely to pitch more than a relative handful of pro innings this summer. Tidwell pitched 2 years for Tennessee in college, totaling 137.2 innings for the Vols. Tidwell has a long way to go to be an MLB option, even if you have to love the name Blade for a pitcher.

  • Calvin Ziegler is next up at #9. He was also a second-round pick, the highest pick actually signed by the Mets in the 2021 draft. You know why. He's an interesting prospect who has enjoyed a successful first season in Low-A ball, but has some command issues and a long way to go before possibly pitching in Queens someday.

  • Matt Allan is next at number 10. He will need to return healthy and reestablish some value before we can even consider Matt as an MLB rotation piece.

  • Mike Vasil is the number 11 prospect. Like Ziegler, he's a 2021 draft pick, taken in the eighth round. He was promoted to High-A Brooklyn after a strong start in Low-A, but he's struggled since the promotion. As with the other names on the list, he's not that near to the majors.

  • Dominic Hamel, #12, like Vasil a 2021 pick who was promoted to Brooklyn during the season. He's pitching well, but still a ways away.

  • Joel Diaz, #13, is an 18-year-old pitcher from the Dominican Republic who just made it to the complex league this year.

  • José Butto, #15, is closest to the majors of all the names on the prospect list. He even started for the Mets against the Phillies today in an emergency call-up. He has some promise and features an excellent changeup, but lacks a consistent breaking ball. His fastball is okay, but not good enough for him to win with 2 MLB-caliber pitches. It sure didn't go well today, despite the stirring win.


So there you have it. While the Mets farm system is blessed with some interesting pitching talent, there isn't any immediate help for the rotation in sight. Billy Eppler's front office will have to find a delicate balance between paying older pitchers to hold down the fort now while continuing to develop some young arms who may eventually pay off in wins for the New York Mets.

The 2021-2022 offseason was a consequential one for the New York Mets. Eppler's crew was able to make some good decisions that helped the Mets turn the corner from a losing team to a legitimate contender. But there is quite a challenge ahead for them to keep the Mets competing while they wait for some of this talent to stock the big league club. Deciding who to pay and retain will be a key part of that. So will finding a way for the organization to identify and nurture some talent who failed to blossom with other clubs.

I don't believe there will be many "no-brainer" decisions for this front office, and I don't believe exercising Carrasco's option will fall into that category. Depending on how (and when) other dominoes fall, keeping Carlos may be the correct decision, but it won't be an easy one.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!


Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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