How the New York Mets are navigating an unpredictable time for their rotation — and what it could mean at the trade deadline

How the New York Mets are navigating an unpredictable time for their rotation — and what it could mean at the trade deadline post thumbnail image

Plans for the New York Mets‘ pitching rotation are cybershared among a few dozen club employees, the names of the projected starters punched onto a spreadsheet. Separately, manager Buck Showalter maintains a month-deep pitching calendar that covers most of a wall in his office, giving him a quick point of reference as he sits at his desk at Citi Field.

But early-season events have reminded Showalter, general manager Billy Eppler and the others at the top of the Mets’ hierarchy how fragile the state of any rotation can be and how quickly careful arrangements can fall apart through a series of injuries. Jacob deGrom was supposed to be Showalter’s starter in the first game of the season, and when deGrom went down due to shoulder trouble, Max Scherzer was Plan B; but when Scherzer was unavailable because of a hamstring issue, Tylor Megill got the ball and threw five scoreless innings.

Six weeks later, deGrom, Scherzer and Megill are all on the injured list.

“You might get six or seven days into your pitching [plan],” Showalter said, “and then something happens and everything changes.”

Through all of the unpredictable circumstances, however, the Mets’ rotation has been consistently effective, backed by one of the best offenses of 2022. The starters’ ERA of 3.90 ranks a respectable 13th among the 30 MLB teams, and there is optimism for improvement, particularly as deGrom and Scherzer continue to recover from their respective injuries.

A scapula problem sidelined DeGrom at the end of spring training; when he next pitches in a big league game, he might well be beyond the one-year anniversary of his last start for the Mets, which occurred July 7, 2021. But he has been throwing with increasing volume and intensity, and a few days ago, he traveled from Florida to Queens for the next stage of his rehabilitation; the team’s plans are for him to stay with the club through their upcoming road trip. The Mets’ staff has been careful to not publicly project timelines around deGrom’s return, instead deferring to the team’s medical staff. Barring a setback though, he’ll soon graduate to throwing to hitters and then move onto a minor league rehabilitation assignment.

Others in the organization who have chatted with deGrom at Citi Field in recent days have sensed how much he greatly anticipates joining the other Mets on the field and being a part of what they are putting together this year. Showalter, who is in his first season as Mets manager, remembers hearing about how deGrom was unique as a competitor. After watching him make a few spring starts and seeing his intensity in the dugout, Showalter said, “I was like: ‘OK, I got it.'”

“He’s a watcher. He’s one of those guys who will get to his locker and he’ll watch the room,” the manager explained. “He sees everything. If you want to know, he’s got an opinion, but he’s not out there giving it.”

Eleven days ago, Scherzer hit the injured list with a side strain that the team estimated would keep him out six to eight weeks. This injury that can be touchy, and pitchers, in particular, can be susceptible to setbacks. The Mets are likely to remind Scherzer to be careful, but Scherzer already knows this: When he was with the Detroit Tigers, their athletic trainer told a club executive that Scherzer was more in tune with his own body than any athlete he’d ever been around.

Without the two aces and Megill, who went on the injured list because of biceps tendinitis on May 15, the scramble has been real. The rotation was neatly planned on the spreadsheet nine days ago, but then snow and cold in Colorado jumbled everything. Following a postponement on May 20, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Williams each started in a doubleheader the next day. A few days later, before a game at the San Francisco Giants, Chris Bassitt was beset by a sinus infection — and given the overriding concern about COVID-19, there were tests and retests before Bassitt was cleared to take the ball. Bassitt carried a 2.77 ERA into that outing, but he was charged with eight runs in his worst start as a Met despite throwing his highest velocity of the season. Because of the ripples still felt from the postponement in Colorado, Thomas Szapucki stepped into the rotation for an emergency start against the Giants and didn’t get out of the second inning.

And still, the Mets are 31-17, following their win over the Phillies on Saturday night, and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner has witnessed progress from each of his active starters. Carrasco, limited to 53⅔ innings last season, has already compiled 52 in nine starts this season, throwing first-pitch strikes at his highest rate since 2015.

Taijuan Walker has refined a curveball that Hefner sees as making a big impact for the right-hander by creating a greater differential between Walker’s fastest and slowest pitches.

“It’s giving hitters something else to look at,” Hefner said about the hitters’ choice quandaries against Walker.

David Peterson was a regular in the Mets’ rotation in 2020, but he returned to the minors because of the additions of Scherzer and Bassitt during the most recent offseason. “I’ve been in that situation and you can play the woe-is-me game,” said Hefner, who pitched professionally for 10 seasons. “But he’s handled it like a pro and did well [in the minors].” Needed once again in the big leagues, Peterson has been throwing harder and has a 2.16 ERA.

What’s going on with the Mets’ rotation goes deeper than navigating injuries, the kitchen-sink repertoire of Bassitt, the rebound of Carrasco and the development of Walker and Peterson. There is an inherent belief among players and staff that no matter what the Mets need in the weeks ahead, the front office — backed and encouraged by team owner Steve Cohen — will do everything in its power to fill needs, to make deals.

This is new within the Mets’ culture, and it’s not only about adding a starter. If some money was needed for equipment, it wasn’t a sure thing that the necessary funding would come through during the Wilpons’ ownership of the team. Now under Cohen, said one source, “with personnel, with resources, the answer has just about always been yes. Steve comes in with a reputation that he’s a mover, he wants things done, and he wants it done at a really high level. If there’s a need, it’ll be addressed.”

Like signing Scherzer to the highest per-season salary ever at $130 million over three years. Like giving up the necessary players to trade for Bassitt. Like signing Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar. Like paying Showalter what was necessary to land a manager with 20 years of experience, including four years in New York with the Yankees.

Rival executives assume that when the Mets and other teams start trade talks in earnest, likely at the end of June or in early July, Eppler will be aggressive in looking to add. Cohen has signaled clearly that he is willing to do just about anything to win a championship, spending what he needs to spend to fill roster holes, to bolster, to strengthen in any way he can.

Almost all general managers are reined in significantly by budgetary restrictions during the season and need approval to take on payroll. A contender that is able to add major costs in July operates with a particular advantage — as the Braves did in July, when Atlanta’s ownership approved extra spending after fans filled their home park. The players whom Alex Anthopoulos traded for (Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler, among others) proved to be difference-making in October. Evaluators with other teams point to the Mets’ spring flirtation with a blockbuster trade as a sign of what’s to come in July. Under the proposal that Eppler discussed with the San Diego Padres, the Mets would’ve agreed to take on a lot of the salary of first baseman Eric Hosmer as a vehicle to land a starting pitcher in Chris Paddack. “A lot of teams wouldn’t even think about touching that money,” one general manager said. “The Mets can. And they will.”

If the Boston Red Sox are looking to trade away players in July, they’ll dangle Nathan Eovaldi, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha. The Arizona Diamondbacks could dangle Madison Bumgarner. Maybe the Rockies will try to flip Chad Kuhl, who is off to a strong start. The Chicago Cubs will probably be open for business, with a willingness to talk about Wade Miley or Kyle Hendricks.

Doing what is necessary for the rotation will be a priority, undoubtedly. For now, the Mets believe they’ll have deGrom, Scherzer, Bassitt, Carrasco and others aligned by then. But nobody is ready to punch that into the spreadsheet, yet.

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