Front Four For Fortitude (2015)
John Buck patted his head, grabbed his shoulder, and corralled him in for bro love. Matt Harvey didn’t break a single smile – he was angrier than anyone about his probable 12-18 month recovery, after all. But he probably isn’t too grim, or at least won’t be for very long. The ace is likely looking towards other things – more than just recovery and strengthening his arm – that relate to the New York Mets’ future. Because while there is no other Matt Harvey, there are three other something-like-Matt Harveys that prevent any Mets fan from being morose for too long when they ponder their rotation.
Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero. These are the names that have rightfully become a mantra in the mind of the Mets organization and their fans. A projected rotation that didn’t even exist a little over three years ago, any and all prospects of Mets success hang upon these four young men. No longer the club that dabbles in reckless spending on inaccurately valued players, the Mets have torn apart their former team of All-Stars in order to flirt with that voluptuous temptress, the young rebuilding team. Carlos Beltran, R.A. Dickey – both were some of the best stories in Mets franchise history but were costs of doing business with the future, the price of creating a powerhouse.
For the near-sighted, free agent-loving, money-splurging, you’re-a-New-York-team-so-you-must-spend-and-compete-now nut jobs (a.k.a. Michael Kay), this vision in all probability looks overly optimistic. Sure, Matt Harvey was a wonderful “surprise” who is one of the best pitchers in baseball, but expecting Wheeler, Syndergaard, and Montero to pan out as successful Major League starters is ridiculous! The Mets having four prime Cy Young-level starters less than five years after signing them must be a dream!
For those who can reason a little better the truth is a bit stunning to see but not improbable. With the exception of Zack Wheeler who has displayed control issues throughout his pro career, all of the Mets’ Big Four have dominated the three most independent pitching statistics, homeruns allowed, walks, and strikeouts (Harvey: at least 9.16 strikeouts-per-nine-innings every season, an average 2.16 walks-per-nine-innings, no more than 0.76 homeruns-per-nine in any season; Syndergaard: averages of 10.1 SO/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9; Montero: 8.4, 1.7, 0.4). These raw numbers are eye-opening in showing exactly how well the four rode, and are still riding, through the Minor Leagues en-route to big league stardom. Prospects don’t have to be flameouts more often than not. Many current frontline starting pitchers rattled batters in the Minors – Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander. They weren’t “surprises.”
And that’s why Montero, Syndergaard, and Wheeler are on their ways to back up Harvey. Their attributes heading into their prospective debuts (actual debut for Wheeler) matched the Dark Knight of Gotham’s trend, the proven prospect turned Cy Young-level pitcher. Controlling the home run, limiting walks, blazing pitches, strikeouts piled upon strikeouts upon strikeouts – sound familiar? Wheeler’s fastball is even better than Harvey and he was projected higher than his constant comparison; Syndergaard has huge stuff, power, and success already; and Montero’s control with his fastball, slider, and changeup is practically big league level now. All the ingredients are there for the starters, most importantly the control, and Wheeler has even improved in that department of late, cutting down his walks.
Everyone is essentially going according to plan to one day become great starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. Harvey and Wheeler were expected to pitch for the Mets by 2013, and Montero and Syndergaard figure to start hurling to Major League batters by next season. It is the recipe for the Mets to compete in 2014, you would think. Wheeler, Montero, Syndergaard, in addition to some combination of Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese, and maybe Matt Harvey – it is enticing for any baseball fan to envision them zapping teams as soon as 2014. Harvey and Wheeler rode the fast track, after all, and they went down in Mets record books under the Best Starts to Mets Careers section. So why can’t Syndergaard and Montero do the same next year?
As it happens, though, the Mets’ best chances of competing are likely to come the year after. If Harvey does not return 100 percent healthy until Opening Day 2015 – a serious scenario if he and the team decide that rehabbing his elbow without Tommy John Surgery would be too risky – he should by then have the full rotation waiting for him – a full rotation with the rest of the Big Four done developing. By Opening Day 2015 Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, and Rafael Montero, the three top pitching prospects in the New York Mets organization outside of Harvey, should boast enough Major League experience and should have reached their starting potential. By Opening Day 2015 they should posses the full experiences of swings and misses, strong outings, rough starts, injuries, adjusting to adjusting, fine-tuning the last bits of control, and more. By Opening Day 2015, the last of the Big Four should have gone through every success and struggle Matt Harvey went through in his first season in 2012, come back from it stronger after the off season, and then begin dealing to opposing hitters.
When those four are primed, that’s when the New York Mets can compete with the best of the best. Aided by the large confines of Citi Field, the Mets can flaunt one of the best rotations in the National League, one they can ride into the playoffs and beyond. That’s how deep this rotation will look. Every team aspires to have a front four of ace-level prowess, and having a legitimate number one starter is easy enough if you make the right transactions. There are probably more than 30 pitchers in MLB teams and farm systems that can post Earned Run Averages of the ace level. Lee, Fernandez, Strasburg, Liriano, Wainwright, Cueto, Kershaw, Cain, Corbin, Sabathia, Lester, Price, Verlander, Sale, Shields, Weaver, and more and more and more to bother naming. Just about every team has at least one starter who is a true ace. Heck, even getting two is simple with enough hard work and studying. But you discern a separation once you get to the backend of rotations. 3-4-5 for a lot of teams ends up being average to below average starting pitchers. The premier teams can fill out 3, but few can have a 4. You have to really, really try to have a significant 1-2-3-4, a string of starters so good that even the 4 can be the 1.
That’s the distinction the Mets procured. Any one of Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, or Montero is an ace on almost every MLB team. Sure, a lot of clubs have at least one legitimate starting pitcher prospect comparable to Syndergaard and Montero, but do they have four? And if you were to inspect the current NL rotations, the only ones akin to the Mets’ rotation depth are the Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and maybe the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates. There are very few teams with Cy Young award-winning-type pitchers to start four straight games. With this powerful of a starting group, the Mets in 2015 can easily have an excellent chance to win every day. There are no question marks, no sitting on the edge of your seat with apprehension, no counting a game as a loss before it begins. The Mets can be the best team in the National League by 2015 thanks to their young four.
The prospective rotation is so good that of Dillon Gee, Jeremy Hefner, Jonathon Niese, and Jenrry Mejia, four Mets starters that have had strong stretches this season – ace-like stretches for Gee, Hefner, and Mejia – likely only one of them is going to make the 2015 starting rotation. You’re talking about Gee (2.4 and 2.3 walks-per-nine-innings over the last two years) a guy who when healthy was close to All-Star quality in 2011, Hefner (at one point allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight straight starts this year) a pitcher with a good arsenal, Niese (7.4 strikeouts-per-nine-innings in his career) the Opening Day starter for 2013, and Mejia (159 ERA+ this season) with a slider as electric as anyone’s. As good as these four have been in 2013, Syndergaard and Montero have long histories of triumph in the Minors and are projected higher to definitely take Mets’ rotation spots. No one of the Gee-Hefner-Niese-Mejia crew has had an entire career of strikeouts-to-walk ratios of nine or more or average WHIPs under 1.2.
The hope for the Mets in 2015 is so high that it stretches even beyond the starting rotation. The bullpen should be a reliable source by then, too, a very unusual thing to associate with the Mets of recent years. But the Mets’ relief arms have pitched well this season for a long stretch, at one point posting a 2.18 ERA between early-July and early-August. Bullpen prospects are on the way to fortify the late-inning relief, as well, as Victor Black and Jeurys Familia, two of the Mets’ top prospects, are set to join the bullpen soon. With a good pen backing up four starters that eat up innings while destroying hitters, the Mets’ pitching can be exceptionally deep by 2015, helping the team in the potential crucial postseason times when they need power pitching to face the best power hitters in the game.
With so many pitching bright spots, the Mets even have many trading options. Gee, Hefner, Niese, and Mejia are good trading bait to bring in the last pieces – the bats – to make a colossal club once the rotation fills in. The Mets lineup is so weak at the moment that they only have one real good hitter, their .391 on-base captain David Wright. While an overbearing lineup card won’t be necessary if the Mets’ pitching pans out, the Mets can trade or spend to get at least one or two major hitters to support Wright so the Mets have the three most important aspects to a team – pitching, bullpen, and hitting, the usual requirements of a championship team. Maybe Matt Harvey sees it. Maybe that’s why he won’t smash a water cooler, grab a base pad, or throw bats onto the field. Perhaps he is aware. Under the hood of blue darkness, with his overwhelming future and reserved demeanor, he might just be suppressing a grin, knowing that he is simply waiting – resting his arm, healing it and bringing it back to its devastating 95 mph-plus heaters and 92 mph sliders – for the day not too long from now when everything else that was supposed to follow him is ready: A pennant-level rotation and team.
Stat to Note: Dilson Herrera, the former Pittsburgh Pirates’ prospect now playing for the Mets after the Marlon Byrd and John Buck trade, has collected 116 hits in 112 games between the West Virginia Power (Pirates A ball) and the Savannah Sand Gnats; he’s stuck out 112 times. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio this season? 2.95. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio every other season in the Minors? 1.25 and 2.47 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.