ATLANTA — The prospect of an amicable divorce between Matt Harvey and the Mets, a graceful exit? It diminishes each time the right-hander takes the mound.
Sure, get the fallen ace out of the Mets’ starting rotation as soon as possible. Send him to the bullpen. Fake an injury. Let him join the search committee for the Rangers’ next head coach.
But for myriad reasons, it won’t be a pretty process.
In the minutes following another terrible outing, as the Mets suffered a 12-4 pounding to the Braves Thursday night at SunTrust Park, new manager Mickey Callaway declined to commit to starting Harvey in his next rotation turn, which would be Wednesday night in St. Louis. Then Harvey declined to commit to becoming a reliever, or any other non-starting solution, in order to make room for the returning Jason Vargas.
“I am a starting pitcher,” Harvey declared, after getting knocked around for six runs in six innings, raising his season ERA to 6.00. “That is what my mindset is. That is how I’m going to prepare, and that’s how I get ready.”
For a long time now, Mets fans have had little choice besides preparing for Harvey to be subpar. Since he departed Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, the capper to an excellent rebound from Tommy John surgery, Harvey has tallied a 5.80 ERA in 206 ¹/₃ innings.
The spring-training faith that two new sets of intelligent eyes in Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland; or a second year removed from Harvey’s thoracic outlet syndrome surgery; or Harvey being in his walk year would elevate Harvey closer to league average is dissipating quickly.
Afterward, Harvey tried a hard sell on the idea that he found something when he retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced, and Callaway commended Harvey for “battling back” and easing the workload on the bullpen. This did end a streak of 11 straight starts for Harvey in which he hadn’t recorded so much as one out in the sixth inning; he last did so May 28, 2017, in Pittsburgh against the Pirates.
Yet Eiland curbed that enthusiasm, saying, “The game starts in the first inning, not the fourth.”
While neither Callaway nor Eiland would tip his hand about Harvey’s immediate future, Eiland, who most recently worked for the Royals, smiled when a reporter asked him if he had ever switched a starter to the bullpen under duress. “Yeah, a guy by the name of Wade Davis,” he said. “It turned out pretty well for him.”
Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth for the Mets is they put together their starting rotation with a dependence on Harvey, and they doubled down on him in the way they constructed their bullpen.
The Mets tendered Harvey a contract for this season, his dreadful 6.70 ERA in 2017 notwithstanding, and didn’t sell low on him because, general manager Sandy Alderson said at the winter meetings, Callaway and Eiland believed they could turn him back into a valuable pitcher. By the second week of the regular season, moreover, the Mets had turned their seventh and eighth starting pitchers, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, into valuable relievers in a suddenly deep bullpen.
While Lugo and Gsellman both can transition back into starting roles if the Mets deem it necessary — what are the odds everyone else in the rotation stays both healthy and productive? — that would compromise the late-inning game plan. And we know all too well the Mets’ farm system lacks great reinforcements or trade chips for the rotation.
The reality is the Mets probably can’t write off Harvey altogether, no matter how defiantly he talks or how bad he looks; an attempt to introduce more changeups and curveballs on this night backfired when the Braves devoured his changeup, in particular.
“I can’t say I’m surprised one way or the other,” Callaway said. “It just hasn’t happened for him yet.”
To think it’ll suddenly happen for him, that three good innings trump two-plus bad seasons, would constitute denial. Which would be just another undesired stage in this messy parting of the ways.
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