As we keep creeping closer to pitchers and catchers reporting in February, there’s still plenty of work for New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen to do, despite an active winter thus far. While the organization could stand to gain some depth for the starting rotation, this group is likely to be the most valuable part of New York’s roster, which was the case in 2018.
A lot of things happened last season to get to that result, too. Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young award in a career season, Zack Wheeler hit another level during the second half, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard stayed mostly healthy, and Jason Vargas looked like he forgot how to pitch for a good portion of the year. With all that new information, how is the current starting rotation expected to perform in 2019?
In order to get a glimpse, we’ll be using FanGraphs’ Steamer projections. These numbers can change slightly from day to day, but it’s helpful in giving us an idea as to whether we should be expecting positive or negative regression heading into next year based off a player’s history.
As a point of reference, here’s how each of the above five starters mentioned performed in 2018.
Although it’s rather clear to see the Mets’ production from their rotation was top heavy, this group was still among the best starting staffs in baseball last season. As things currently stand, though, how are these five hurlers projected to perform in 2019, according to Steamer?
These projections yield a cumulative fWAR of 14.8. If we throw that number up against 2018 rotation fWAR numbers, the Mets would’ve been the fifth-most productive unit in the National League. That would be valuable for a club with postseason aspirations, but we can see where the obvious issues may come about.
It would be unfair to expect another year from deGrom like the one he just had — those don’t come around too often. Even with some negative regression projected, he falls within his career norms and would still likely be among the league’s most effective starting pitchers. The overall projection on Syndergaard may be a little light, as that projected ERA would be a single-season career-worst mark. However, it could be based off injury issues in recent years. Wheeler did make significant strides after a slow start, but it’d be impossible for projection systems to trust that performance fully until he sustains it over a longer period of time.
That only leaves the back of the rotation, where a lot of the uncertainty lies. Matz set new single-season career highs in starts made (30) and innings pitched (154) in 2018, which was significant because of seemingly constant injury issues throughout his young big-league career. Projecting him to once again surpass that innings pitched number feels rather aggressive given his history.
While Vargas has typically been an adequate innings eater throughout his time in an MLB uniform, his 2018 campaign was decidedly dreadful. His last two months of the year were much better (3.60 ERA in 50 innings), but it wouldn’t make sense to count on the veteran southpaw to just bounce right back like nothing happened.
This line of thinking may have been employed during the last front-office regime, but we’re well aware that BVW wants as many certainties as he can get with his roster heading into Spring Training and Opening Day. These projections (while not perfect) continue echoing the fact that New York needs to keep its hand in the starting pitching market in order to improve depth. It’s great to have a strong top three like the Mets do, but it could get wasted if there aren’t good sixth, seventh, and eighth options. The Los Angeles Dodgers have displayed how beneficial it is to have depth on the pitcher’s mound.
A key for this group heading into next year will be how they handle quality of contact. That was a category the Mets rotation dominated in 2018, and it could be the difference between being an above-average rotation and a top-of-the-league rotation.
The Mets need an improved offense and bullpen if they want to contend for a playoff spot next year — that’s clear. However, they’ll likely only go as far as their rotation can carry them, as has been the case for a number of years now. New York’s recent rebuild focused on compiling as much top starting pitcher talent as possible, and here they are (well, most of them).
It’s time to take advantage of this group while they’re still around. Part of that will be ensuring there’s enough proven depth in place to withstand whatever obstacles appear along the way.