“Offense wins fans, pitching wins championships” is the old adage – and it remains true, considering the recent success of the San Francisco Giants, a team that has won 2 World Series in 3 years built around strong, mostly young & homegrown starting pitching and a solid but unspectacular and somewhat patchwork caliber offense. Generations of Mets fans grew up with the Mets being known around Baseball as an organization built around pitching. Seaver – Koosman – Matlack – Ryan or Gooden – Darling – Fernandez – Cone were exciting young frontline pitchers that helped the team to multiple playoff appearances and the two only World Series titles in franchise history. Once David Cone was traded in late 1992, the Mets´ got off track a bit. And even the 1999, 2000 and 2006 playoff teams were mostly known for their strong hitting, helped by a good veteran bullpen but somewhat sabotaged by merely ordinary rotations that ultimately weren´t good enough to deliver another World Series title.
When Sandy Alderson & Co. took over almost 3 years ago, the plan was to “develop the pitching” and “buy the bats”. That plan figures to remain in place and the Mets right now – arguably – have the deepest pool of young pitching up & down their organization, highlighted by Matt Harvey starting the 2013 All Star Game for the NL and top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero facing each other in the Future´s Game this past July. Zack Wheeler is one of the most promising young arms in the majors. Jenrry Mejia looked great during his 5-start cameo and with Jon Niese & Dillon Gee the Mets also control two very solid semi-young arms who have been successful on a consistent basis for several more years. So, with all sorts of obvious holes offensively, wouldn´t the smart money say to focus on addressing those needs instead of adding more pitching – possibly expensive – when you already have several high end options ?
No. While adding offense will have to be an obvious priority, if the Mets are serious about trying to win in 2014 without losing focus regarding their long term plans, adding a legitimate veteran starting pitcher this winter makes all the sense in the world.
Consider these numbers…
Matt Harvey (if healthy which remains a HUGE if):
2012: 169 IP combined between AAA and majors
2013: 178 IP
2012: 149 IP between AA and AAA
2013: 168 IP between AAA and majors (100 IP in majors)
2012: 108 IP combined between a bunch of levels
2013: 51 IP combined between a bunch of levels (27 IP in majors)
2012: 121 IP combined between Low A and Hi A
2013: 154 IP combined between AA and AAA + another 6 IP or so in the playoffs
2012: 103 IP in Low A
2013: 117 IP combined between Hi A and AA + another 6 IP or so in the playoffs
2012: 13-9, 3.40 ERA, 190 IP in 30 GS
2013: 8-8, 3.74 ERA, 137 IP in 23 GS with maybe one more start left
2012: 6-7, 4.10 ERA, 109 IP in 17 GS
2013: 12-10, 3.54 ERA, 193 IP in 31 GS with one start left
So, as of today, the Mets have seven legitimate candidates to pitch in the 2014 rotation at some point under contract. Only Gee & Niese have ever reached 190 IP in their careers (once).
None of the other candidates has ever reached 190 IP and none of them are likely to exceed it even in a best case scenario in 2014 considering the policy of not letting pitchers exceed a 30 IP bump and concerns about their health.
So, if the plan is to contend in 2014, that could be sabotaged by pretty much all SP candidates other than Dillon Gee and Jon Niese to be facing some sort of IP cap in 2014. And with Matt Harvey being a big question mark, Mejia never having completed a full healthy season and Syndergaard unlikely to be allowed to proceed far beyond 150 IP and thus not being a realistic candidate for an extended major league look in 2014, this puts enormous pressure on Zack Wheeler & Rafael Montero, plus Niese & Gee, the latter both having battled significant shoulder issues in recent years.
For that reason, a veteran rotation piece is needed. And fortunately, while lacking high-end pitching, this winter´s free agent pitching market is rather deep in solid veteran pieces. You can pretty much rule out Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, three quality, albeit volatile # 2/3 caliber SP in their primes who figure to receive contracts in the Edwin Jackson (4-years, 52.0 million) to Anibal Sanchez (5-years, 80 million) range. Not a fit as the Mets seem to have a shot at a very good rotation with no limitations by 2016 and should not hand out a long term contract for any pitcher now. Since the Mets already have a bunch of high risk / high reward arms that also rules out volatile former aces like Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum or Scott Kazmir who could certainly pitch great for 15 starts or totally collapse even if all 3 figure to receive shorter term contracts due to their checkered history. Disappointing former top prospects turned back-end starters like Mike Pelfrey, Edinson Volquez or Phil Hughes could be worth flyers for a good pitching coach to fix – but not for a team looking for stability. That also pretty much eliminates the idea of hoping for one final comeback season from former aces like Roy Halladay, Johan Santana or Chris Carpenter. Even in a best case scenario, they won´t provide 30+ starts and 190+ IP.
What the Mets need is a durable veteran who can be had on a shorter term contract of maybe two years. And that leads us to three names that could fit:
# 1 RHP Bronson Arroyo, age 36
2012: 12-10, 3.74 ERA, 202 IP in 32 GS
2013: 14-11, 3.60 ERA, 197 IP in 31 GS with one start left
Arroyo is a durable # 3 caliber SP who has pitched quite well in the pitcher unfriendly confines of Cincy. He could provide stability and is showing absolutely no signs of declining in spite of topping 195+ innings for 8 straight seasons. While he has been a steady force for the Reds, Cincy figures to move on thanks to the emergence of Rookie sensation Tony Cingrani who will join a strong staff headed by Mat Latos, Jonny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake.
# 2 RHP Ricky Nolasco, age 30
2012: 12-13, 4.48 ERA, 191.0 IP, 31 GS
2013: 13-10, 3.72 ERA, 198 IP, 33 GS with maybe one start left
Nolasco is well known to Mets fans after anchoring the Miami Marlins staff for several years before being acquired by the LA Dodgers. He also takes the ball every 5th day and keeps the team in most games.
# 3 RHP Hiroki Kuroda, age 38
2012: 16-11, 3.32 ERA, 219 IP, 33 GS
2013: 11-13, 3.31 ERA, 201 IP, 32 GS
After a long & solid career in Japan and emerging in his 30s as a fine SP for the LA Dodgers, Kuroda has been the most consistent and best SP for the Yankees over the past two seasons. Considering their rotation woes, they´ll probably try to bring him back. But just maybe, the Yankees will consider getting a bit younger after their disappointing 2013 season, so Kuroda might be available.
Last winter, similar veteran pitchers signed contracts of 2-years, 26.5 million $ (35-year-old Ryan Dempster with BOS) and 3-years, 33 million $ (34-year-old Kyle Lohse with MIL). Hiroki Kuroda himself signed a 1-year, 15 million $ deal with the Yankees. The three veterans listed here all figure to end up in that range. More dollar value on a shorter term or less dollars in a longer term deal. Realistically, a 2-year, 26.5 million $ contract – similar to the one Ryan Dempster signed with BOS – figures to suffice. Sure, that´s a lot of money. But the Mets should finally be able to spend thanks to their current payroll projection of barely 50 million $. Signing any of these three to a 2-year contract in that range will neither keep the Mets from eventually extending Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler & Co. a few years down the road nor from addressing their hitting needs either.
While nurturing a potential rotation for the ages, it would give the 2014 Mets one likely reliable constant to build their staff around short term. And with better than anticipated health, it could enable the Mets to make a blockbuster trade eventually for a superstar player such as Troy Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez if they get moved. Enormous starting pitching depth can never hurt. And with all due respect to fragile scrap heap pickups like Shaun Marcum, Aaron Harang, Dice-K Matsuzaka or Chris Young, the Mets need a stabilizing force and not another lottery ticket.