John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Phillies are buying into the same obvious potential in Zack Wheeler that convinced me last winter he'd turned a corner in 2018 and blossomed into an elite starter, so I can understand why they gave him $118 million to upgrade their starting rotation.
But here's the thing: Wheeler didn't turn that corner, as it turned out, and while brilliant at times in 2019, he was plagued by inconsistent command and mistake-pitch home runs that negated his dominant stuff too often, especially early as he pitched to a 4.96 ERA over the first 15 starts of the season.
And while the Mets should have tried to sign him last winter at a much more reasonable price, maybe four years, $70 million, I wouldn't have brought him back at the huge dollars he's getting in Philly.
He does leave a hole in the starting rotation, but here's how I believe the Mets could counter the Wheeler departure and not miss him at all:
Sign enough relievers to make it worth the gamble of moving Seth Lugo out of the bullpen.
I've been dead-set against this move until now, mainly because Lugo was such a late-inning savior last season and I don't necessarily believe Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia have big bounce-back seasons in them.
However, I've come to believe it's the best way for the Mets to compete in a division that's going to be ultra-competitive next season, as the Braves continue to be aggressive and the Phillies are sending signals they'll add more pitching beyond Wheeler this winter.
Part of it is the intrigue in seeing what Lugo could do if the Mets fully commit to him as a starter. He was dominant in that role during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, don't forget, pitching for Team Puerto Rico, before he suffered a partial tear in his elbow ligament.
That partial tear is still a factor, which is at least partly why his bullpen usage has been an issue, with the Mets mostly trying to avoid using him on back-to-back days.
Nevertheless, Lugo has continued to grow as a pitcher since the injury, and was one of the very best relivers in baseball over the second half of last season, pitching to a 1.95 ERA over 37 innings while racking up 48 strikeouts and allowing only three walks.
His success comes in part because of his starter's arsenal, mixing four pitches, five, really, since he elevates his four-seam fastball and sinks his two-seamer. And despite such success, Lugo has been steadfast in saying he considers himself a starter and wants to be one again.
Who knows, maybe the innings would wear him down, but his stuff is electric when he's fresh, and if he were to get on a starter's routine, managing his workload to be ready every fifth day, you'd think that might be easier than maxing out every couple of days out of the pen.
In that case, I think Lugo could give the Mets a season very similar to what Wheeler gives the Phillies, though perhaps not the same total of innings.
Again, however, let's be clear: this only works if the Mets are willing to take much of the money they saved on Wheeler and spend it on short-term deals for relievers.
That should be realistic enough, since Brodie Van Wagenen has indicated the Mets' preference is to add to the bullpen rather than spend on a starter in this free agent market.
But the Mets would have to be aggressive in bringing in enough depth for the pen to produce results even if Diaz and Familia struggle again.
Maybe it's unrealistic to think they'd sign Dellin Betances, Blake Treinen, and Will Harris, but they could do it without making anywhere near the long-term commitment Wheeler would have cost them.
There would be some risk involved, with Betances coming back from injury and the recently non-tendered Treinen trying to regain the magic that made his sinker practically unhittable in 2018.
Harris, meanwhile, would provide some certainty, having proven durable and effective over the last five seasons with the Astros.
There are other possibilities as well, perhaps a Steve Cishek, the side-armer who has pitched to a 2.59 ERA over the last four years and remains undervalued because he doesn't have a big fastball. Or even Joe Smith, another side-armer who came back from an Achilles injury to pitch well for the Astros late last season.
As it is, the Mets missed out on Will Smith, the best reliever on the market, and Drew Pomeranz, whose stunning dominance as a converted reliever with the Brewers made him a worthwhile gamble, even at the four years, $34 million the Padres paid him.
In any case, if the Mets are going to make relievers a priority, they need to get moving and be willing to take chances.
If not, well, they're the ones claiming to be a win-now team. And while they emerged from last season with a better-than-expected position-player core, the Mets are kidding themselves if they think they can compete for a division title without spending significantly on pitching in some form or fashion.
Wheeler may not be worth $118 million, but he's going to make the Phillies better, just as Cole Hamels could be a savvy signing by the Braves, even at $18 million for one year. The champion Nationals aren't going away, especially if they re-sign Stephen Strasburg.
The Mets can live without Wheeler. Maybe they can even thrive if they're bold enough to justify replacing him with Lugo.