When I became a Mets fan in 1969, the franchise became known for its excellent starting pitching. Besides future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, the Mets rotation that season included southpaw Jerry Koosman, rookie Gary Gentry, veteran Don Cardwell, and Jim McAndrew. The Amazins also received starts from a young, wild righty named Nolan Ryan and young lefty Tug McGraw, who would become more famous in future years for finishing games. Koosman was always in Seaver's shadow, but he won 222 MLB games in his own right, 140 of them with the Mets. Gentry was a talented kid who, unfortunately, ruined his arm at a young age. He was out of baseball by age 28. Cardwell had a journeyman career, amassing a lifetime 102-138 record with 5 clubs while pitching over 2,000 innings. However, he was excellent for the Mets in 1969, pitching as a starter and a reliever.
The Mets teams of my youth were never great offensive teams. Usually, they weren't even very good. 3 runs felt like an offensive explosion. But man, you took it for granted that the starting pitching would be great. Southpaw Jon Matlack pitched a few games for the 1971 Mets as a 21-year-old and failed to pick up a win. A year later, in 1972, he won 15 games, pitched to a 2.32 ERA over 244 innings, and was picked as Rookie of the Year. The next great Mets pitcher had arrived.
By the late 1970s, the Mets went through some lean years. Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack were all gone. The team's best pitcher of that era, righty Craig Swan, just couldn't stay healthy. But, as the seventies gave way to the eighties, the Mets produced some great starting pitching again. The other-worldly Doc Gooden was drafted and developed by the Mets. GM Frank Cashen traded for Walt Terrell, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez as prospects. Darling and Fernandez would combine to win 197 games for the Mets (both falling just short of 100 wins), while Terrell was eventually dealt for Howard Johnson. These pitchers formed the foundation of the 80s dynasty, the only time in the Mets' history when they sustained winning for more than a couple of years.
Developing pitching didn't always work out for the Mets. The 1990s featured Generation K — kids the Mets chose to build their marketing around, mainly because they had little else. Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson were all very talented, but young pitchers often fail to live up to their promise due to injuries. Such was the fate of the young, overhyped Mets hurlers. Only Isringhausen enjoyed a notable MLB career, and it was as a reliever after he left the Mets.
Fast forward a couple of decades. The 2015 Mets team that made it to the World Series featured great young pitching. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard were important contributors to that club, as was Steven Matz, who came up late and contributed in the postseason. Rafael Montero made a small contribution, while Zack Wheeler missed the season due to Tommy John surgery. Homegrown southpaw Jon Neise also started 29 games for the 2015 Mets, although his star was fading. He would be out of baseball after the 2016 season. The closer, Jeurys Familia, who saved 43 games for that club, was signed and developed by the Mets, one of their few successful efforts with a pitcher signed on the international market.
These few paragraphs are not an attempt on my part to write a comprehensive history of Mets starting pitching. My point is that while there were periods without much homegrown young pitching of note, there were several eras where the Mets were synonymous with dynamic young starting pitching. That's certainly not the case currently. When Jacob deGrom chose to sign with the Rangers this winter, it marked the departure of the final member of that remarkable group of young pitchers around which the 2015 club was built. As the Mets try to construct the framework of a sustainable contender, they do it without any consensus great young pitching prospects.
There was an article last week by John Harper on SNY.tv "What happened to all the Mets' young pitching?" Harper comments on the seeming lack of arms in the Mets system:
In David Peterson and Tylor Megill the Mets may have enough homegrown depth to weather the current injuries and performance drop-offs, but beyond those two, the organization boasts no blue-chip pitching prospects -- at least none deemed close to major league ready.
They're loaded on the position-player side, something Mets fans know very well as they track the Triple-A at-bats of Brett Baty, Mark Vientos, and Ronny Mauricio, in addition to the recently promoted Francisco Alvarez.
But where are the pitchers? Since the 2009 and 2010 drafts that produced Steven Matz, Matt Harvey, and Jacob deGrom (they traded for Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, remember), the Mets have come up mostly empty in drafting quality pitching.
As Haper points out, the Mets had to gamble large amounts of cash on older pitchers like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander because no Harveys or deGroms were waiting in the wings to lead the rotation. There was a time when Matt Allan looked like a potential future top-of-the-rotation option, but his second Tommy John surgery this offseason was a terrible blow. Allan is a long shot now at achieving any MLB career.
But, as Generation K taught us almost 30 years ago, that's how it often goes with young pitching. Out of the 2015 group, Harvey, Syndergaard, and Matz saw injuries severely hamper their MLB careers. Wheeler missed a lot of time early on with injuries, and later-career injury problems might derail deGrom's otherwise strong case for the Hall of Fame. And Neise, who looked like a solid mid-rotation lefty at age 25, didn't survive to pitch in MLB baseball as a 30-year-old.
Any prospect represents a risk for the club. Go back 10 years and look at the 2013 draft. The Mets picked Dom Smith at number 11, probably one they wish they had over again. But look at the 10 picked before him: #1 P Mark Appel was a bust. INF Kris Bryant got off to a fast start but then faded. P Jon Gray is a lifetime .500 pitcher who never made an All-Star team. P Kohl Stewart and OF Clint Frazier were busts. INF Colin Moran has been a replacement-level player. P Trey Ball never made it out of Double-A. INF Hunter Dozier is in his 7th season with the Royals but has never developed into the star player he was supposed to be. OF Austin Meadows had a big year with the Rays in 2017 and a solid one a couple of years later, but he has struggled with the Tigers the last couple of years. P Phil Bickford, taken by the Blue Jays just before the Mets picked Smith, never signed. He's now a middle reliever with the Dodgers.
The point of this is something I wrote about here several times. Forecasting the careers of prospects is a notoriously inaccurate activity. Even good organizations make plenty of mistakes — whether their kid misses completely or just doesn't come close to living to his full potential. Thanks to the increased risk of injury, young pitchers tend to fall short of their best-forecasted outcomes more often than position players. Circling back to what Harper wrote, that will make it all that much more difficult for the Mets to produce great — or even very good — young starting pitchers, making them more dependent on signing guys in their 30s to start games for them.
This isn't a criticism of the team. Steve Cohen's Mets are doing the right thing as an organization. Over the last couple of years, they have made big investments in both technology and the coaches they have hired to implement that technology. I wrote a post last November about the hiring of Eric Jagers to be the Mets' new director of pitching development. Besides a reputation as an incredibly hard worker, Jagers is skilled at taking that fancy technology and explaining it to players. I had a quote from Kyle Boddy, the founder of Driveline, on Jagers' unique skill set, from a piece about Jagers' hiring in the New York Post:
"It's not just the technical side of it. He's the best at the actual information and delivering it to players. That's without question what he’s the best at. Is he the best nerd in the world? Probably not. Is he the best coach in the world? Probably not. Is he the best meld of both when it comes to pitch design? I don’t think there is any question."
This investment in both the latest technology and the coaches fluent in translating it to information that young players can use will help a great deal in getting the Mets back to a point where they can become an organization synonymous with good young pitching again, but it will take time. Another factor here that could delay the arrival of homegrown Mets starting pitchers is, as noted above, young position players are a better bet than young pitching prospects — mostly due to a somewhat lower risk of injuries stalling their development.
The Mets organization might not prioritize drafting young pitching, especially with higher draft picks, choosing instead to bet on a greater likelihood of success with position players. Last year, with two first-round picks, the Mets took catcher Kevin Parada and SS Jett Williams. In the second round, they did take RHP Blade Tidwell, a potential first-rounder who fell thanks to some injury concerns. But they didn't take another pitcher until Tyler Stuart in the sixth round.
Currently, in the top 30 prospects list at Mets.com, Tidwell at number 7 is the highest-ranking pitcher. He's pitching in High-A for the Brooklyn Cyclones. Here are all the pitchers in the top 30 and where they are:
- (7) Blade Tidwell - Brooklyn (High-A)
- (9) Dominic Hamel - Binghamton (Double-A)
- (10) Calvin Ziegler - on the 60-day injured list (had surgery to remove bone spurs in elbow)
- (11) Mike Vasil - Binghamton (Double-A)
- (12) Joel Díaz - Tommy John surgery
- (15) José Butto - Syracuse (Triple-A)
- (16) Layonel Ovalles - St. Lucie (Low-A)
- (19) Junior Santos - Binghamton (Double-A)
- (20) Jordany Ventura - St. Lucie (Low-A)
- (22) Bryce Montes de Oca - Tommy John surgery
- (23) Matt Allan - Had second Tommy John surgery
- (24) Luis Rodriguez - Tommy John surgery in 2022, has not returned yet
- (25) Javier Atencio - St. Lucie (Low-A)
- (29) Grant Hartwig - Syracuse (Triple-A)
- (30) Christian Scott - Brooklyn (High-A) (Currently on IL)
If the Mets sustain winning, they won't get a high draft position year after year. If they are to find a potential ace or even a mid-rotation starter from within it won't be because they were able to draft a kid projected to be great from the start. They will have to develop someone that falls later in the draft, as they were able to do with deGrom back a few years ago. It's what they certainly hope will happen with Blade Tidwell. There are a lot of pitchers that go in later rounds that have great arms but also control issues or injury concerns. If they can draft and fix some of these pitchers, that's where you might find the next Mets legend. Or maybe they figure out how to sign and develop an international pitching prospect into an elite starter — something they have not been able to do in their entire history. They have enjoyed some limited success, as with Familia, but no superstars destined to join the elite pantheon with Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Gooden, deGrom, et al.
Or perhaps the Mets are content to concentrate on developing position players and use the free agent marketplace to sign starting pitching. Most likely, it will be a combination of some development and some free agent signings. Frankly, as much as I love rooting for the home-grown kid, I don't care how the Mets do it. I just want their minor league system to produce talent, no matter whether it's a pitcher or a position player.
Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!