These fascinating starter dilemmas await Mets’ next GM

Watching the Nationals and Mets play two games in person last week emphasized just how badly these teams messed up in 2018.

The National League played so down this year — the Dodgers underachieving, logjams in division races and for the wild card — that the inability of the Mets and Nationals to be factors of any kind defines wasted opportunity. It should trigger unflinching reassessment and, perhaps, sweeping change. The Mets, at minimum, are preparing to hire a new GM, and what that person will inherit is, at minimum, intriguing.

I have wondered, if playoff teams could pick their opponent from the NL East, would they prefer to face the Braves or Phillies rather than the Mets, who even with a diminished Noah Syndergaard could still send his talent plus Jacob deGrom and the peaking Zack Wheeler into any short series.

This has been the blessing/curse for the Mets. The potential of that rotation — as exhibited in their 2015 NL title run — is central to the organization shunning a teardown. The Mets have what should buoy them through a 162-game season and elevate them in October. The fragility of that group has undermined that thesis, as has the ineffectiveness of so many phases around the rotation.

Still, the Mets held onto all of their big starter arms at the past trade deadline, and whoever runs the team very likely will wait until July 2019 before again considering a deal from that stash. Fred Wilpon is 81 and appears to be emphasizing winning again in his lifetime. A good argument could be made that the Mets would be closer to that title if they traded those starters for a bevy of prospects and reconstructed from the bottom up.

But current signs are that Sandy Alderson’s successor will be urged to try to win around the starters. Which led me to think about what the Mets’ new head of baseball operations faces with main ones:

1. Do you extend Wheeler?

That question has revolved around deGrom. But remember Wheeler is a free agent after next season. In fact, it is Wheeler after 2019, deGrom after 2020 and Syndergaard and Steven Matz after 2021. This goes faster than you think, and the Mets are going to have to decide if there are keepers here, or do they just play it out with each.

Wheeler is in the midst of just his second healthy season, but also his best ever stretch. Does his injury history lead him to jump on a good three- or four-year extension proposal? Does that injury history keep the Mets from even making such an offer? Do the Mets believe fully that, at 28, Wheeler has found control of his fastball, mastery of a difference-making split-change and a tough-minded competitiveness that makes him a good long-term gamble? His 1.17 second-half ERA is third in the majors (minimum 35 innings).

2. Do you extend deGrom?

He will certainly want the top of the market and have a great case for it. But he also will not be a free agent until after his age-32 season. At a time when teams are more leery of long-term commitment to players in their 30s — and in deGrom’s case, one who already has had Tommy John surgery — could the righty be positioned to take a very good, but not great deal?

DeGrom also represents all that the Mets should want to be promoting: Homegrown. Low maintenance. High performance. Fan favorite. He has the craft to continue to excel even after some velocity vanishes. It also is a little thing, but the Mets have not even had a good pitcher spend his whole career exclusively with the franchise — including, most notably, The Franchise (Tom Seaver).

3. Can Syndergaard rediscover his best form?

His ERA in six August starts is 4.74. But those are six of just 26 starts the past two seasons. Syndergaard just has not pitched much in 2017-18, which could be impacting his feel. And even in August, he yielded just one homer in 38 innings and averaged fewer than 2 1/2  walks per nine innings.

Syndergaard is always going to be higher maintenance than deGrom. In part that is because he is 6-foot-6 and there are going to be more moving parts to his delivery. In part because his personality is larger, bolder and needier. But he also wants to be great. After his start Monday, Syndergaard said: “I just kind of feel like every five days … I’m just kind of wasting my ability to throw a baseball.”

I wonder if hitters have become so adept at handling velocity that Syndergaard has to think about diversifying his stuff even more. Despite his size, Syndergaard is not just a thrower.

4. Is there a better pitcher inside Matz?

Wheeler should serve as a reminder to be hesitant to give up on talent. In fact, the questions about physical and mental fortitude that converged on Wheeler also have done so on Matz.

Let’s say that the version of Matz you see is the version the Mets get. That there is some Jacoby Ellsbury in him — that Matz has trouble both staying healthy and performing when not at 100 percent.

There is still value in the player. Ellsbury had periods in which he was a difference-maker, and Matz has had runs of excellence. The key is to keep in perspective what this kind of player brings. The Yankees stupidly signed Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract.

This version of Matz could be a valuable 130-150 inning No. 4 starter. Since the Mets are not blessed with depth, that is important. Also, other teams might think they have the elixir to unlock a better Matz. In which case Matz might be a valuable trade piece. Would, for example, the Red Sox build a trade around Jackie Bradley Jr. (free after 2020) to get a starter with one more year of control? Would the Reds build a trade around Raisel Iglesias?

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