It’s been awhile since something went right for the Mets, but on Sunday, Noah Syndergaard traveled the 20-odd miles from Citi Field to Coney Island and didn’t gorge himself on 74 Nathan’s hot dogs in 10 minutes. Nor did he suffer a sword-swallowing mishap, or have his hair charred by a fire-eater with questionable control. In his first competitive outing since May 25, a rehab start for the Low-A Brooklyn Cyclones, the 25-year-old righty singed Staten Island Yankees hitters with fastballs that sat at 98 mph and touched 99 during a five-inning, 71-pitch outing that could pave the way for his return to the majors later this week, and perhaps an audition for a blockbuster trade later this month.
Syndergard hasn’t pitched in the majors since being scratched from his May 30 outing due to a strained ligament in his right index finger. Unsurprisingly, he had a bit of extra adrenaline early in his return, beginning with six straight balls. He issued a four-pitch walk of leadoff hitter Alex Junior, who followed with a steal of second. Junior took third on a single by Josh Breaux and scored on a wild pitch, the first of two that Syndergaard uncorked on the afternoon. That run was the Yankees’ only one of the day, however, and after Breaux’s single, Syndergaard retired nine of the next 10 hitters and allowed just one additional hit, a fourth-inning single by Frederick Cuevas. That single was followed by another steal and a wild pitch on a strikeout that put Syndergaard under pressure, but he escaped by getting Eduardo Torrealba to line into an unassisted, inning-ending double play. Syndergaard then completely overwhelmed the Baby Bombers in a 10-pitch, two-strikeout fifth.
In all, Syndergaard generated 14 swinging strikes and struck out seven while walking just one. Via MiLB.com’s Vince Lara-Cinisomo, by his own admission, Syndergaard had “those first-time jitters” and struggled to adjust to the MCU Park mound, which “wasn’t the easiest to pitch off of.”
From where I sat — at least when our 22-month-old daughter wasn’t creating havoc — the 6-foot-6 righty looked major league-ready, though at this writing the venue for his next start has yet to be decided.
Pretty good seats for Noah Syndergaard’s Cyclones rehab start pic.twitter.com/bOe7PXU8Zs
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) July 8, 2018
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) July 8, 2018
This is the second consecutive year Syndergaard has missed substantial time due to injury. Last year, he made just seven starts totaling 30.1 innings due to a strained latissimus dorsi; his last three starts — the one he departed on April 30, three days after refusing to undergo an MRI due to shoulder and biceps discomfort, and two late-season cameos — were of two innings or fewer. But when available in that timespan, he’s been largely outstanding, posting a 3.03 ERA and 2.16 FIP in 18 starts and 95 innings, with a 28.0% strikeout rate, 23.9% K-BB%, and 3.4 WAR. By comparison, in 18 starts and 115.1 innings this year, Jacob deGrom has a 1.79 ERA, a 2.33 FIP, and 4.1 WAR, and only two other NL pitchers, Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola, have higher WARs this season. Considering just this year’s numbers, Syndergaard’s 2.57 FIP would rank second in the league behind deGrom, while his 23.4% K-BB% would rank fifth. Even with just 64.2 innings under his belt, his 1.9 WAR is 11th.
And he can still bring it. Though Syndergaard’s average four-seam fastball velocity of 98.4 mph is down 0.5 mph from where it was two years ago according to Pitch Info’s numbers (it was 99.6 mph last year, but again, those short stints distort the average), it’s still the majors’ fastest among starters, 0.2 mph ahead of Luis Severino. The 93.2-mph average of his slider is nearly two full clicks ahead of any starter, with teammates Zack Wheeler (91.3) and deGrom (91.2) running second and third. Somewhere, former Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen is smiling.
All of which is to say that despite his absences, Syndergaard is in the kind of robust health that would make him the top pitcher available at the deadline, if the Mets choose to go that route. That idea went mostly unspoken outside the most irate strata of sports talk radio until the Mets squandered their 11-1 start, but the prospect of trading away either Syndergaard, deGrom, or both gained traction during the former’s absence. With Jason Vargas starting, the Mets won the May 30 game from which Syndergaard was scratched to push their record to 27-26, then immediately fell off the ledge, losing eight straight to begin a 9-26 plunge (including a ghastly 5-21 June) that has pushed them under .500 for good and consigned their season to irrelevance. Our projections have them headed for 73-89 ignominy and thus their eighth losing record in the past 10 seasons.
With deGrom and Syndergaard under team control though 2020 and ’21, respectively — both are Super Twos, with four years of arbitration eligibility — the Mets could certainly jump-start a rebuilding effort that to some eyes appears increasingly necessary given that the recently rebuilding Braves and Phillies have turned the corner and are tied atop the NL East. Without dealing at least one ace, the thinking goes, the Mets’ effort would have a hard time getting off the ground given a farm system that ranked among the majors’ bottom five this spring via both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. There’s no Ronald Acuña or Ozzie Albies coming; the highest-ranked prospect on our updated list is Triple-A first baseman Peter Alonso at number 73, a 50 FV prospect.
Four weeks ago, Craig Edwards compared the potential haul for deGrom and Syndergaard to the one the White Sox received for dealing Chris Sale in December 2016 (Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and two other minor leaguers) and then Jose Quintana last summer (Eloy Jimenez plus three). He also made the case that while an early projection for next year suggests that the lineup as it would stand — minus pending free agents Asdrubal Cabrera and Devin Mesoraco, with Wilmer Flores and Kevin Plawecki as placeholders at second and catcher in lieu of upgrades — leaves plenty to be desired, the deGrom/Syndergaard/Vargas/Wheeler/Steven Matz rotation on top of that would be enough to get the team to .500. With something on the order of $47 million coming off the books (much of it repurposed towards arbitration-based raises), Edwards’ view was that the Mets should be able to buy a few extra wins via free agency to maintain a shot at wild card contention.
Edwards’ piece is certainly worth a read, but with the benefit of four weeks of hindsight, I think it overestimates the Mets’ capacity to improve both from outside and within. After all, despite Syndergaard’s absence and the meltdown-and-departure of Matt Harvey, the rotation ranks fifth in the NL in WAR (7.4), a mere 0.2 wins out of third, and even with that relatively positive outcome, the team can barely maintain a .400 winning percentage. They’re 36-52 (.409) overall, and somehow 7-11 (.389) in deGrom’s starts.
The Mets have not used free agency well in recent years. As NorthJersey.com’s Matt Ehalt noted last week, they’ve committed roughly $225 million to 10 free agents over the past two winters (“some of those signings… despite resistance from the analytics department”) who have produced something on the order of -1.6 WAR thus far (I think he was using bWAR, but the point stands). Two of their three biggest expenditures from the past winter, Vargas and Jay Bruce, have combined for -0.8 WAR thus far; by Edwards’ method, the former is projected for a modest 1.4 WAR for next year, the latter for 0.3. Since they’re already under contract, with Vargas’ salary rising from $6 million to $8 million and Bruce’s from $11 million to $14 million, it would be unlike this regime to cast them aside; these Mets are incapable of conceding a sunk cost.
Elsewhere, the slow development of 22-year-old Amed Rosario and 23-year-old Dominic Smith, who have combined for a net of -0.5 WAR while losing time to the desiccated remains of 35-year-old Jose Reyes and the since-released 36-year-old Adrian Gonzalez (not to mention the 26-year-old Flores, who’s more ossified than desiccated), doesn’t exactly suggest a flourishing youth movement. Likewise, it’s taken injuries to Bruce, Yoenis Cespedes, and Juan Lagares to get 25-year-olds Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo into the same outfield.
That whole mess is an indictment of the current regime, from the micromanaging Wilpons and their opaque approach to payroll on down. Admittedly, the front office is in particular disarray given general manager Sandy Alderson’s recent leave of absence due to a recurrence of his cancer; he’s not expecting to be back in that capacity (“I will not have the decision-making authority going forward,” he said in announcing his absence). Assistant GM John Ricco and special assistants J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya are handling Alderson’s duties, which will likely include the trading of pending free agents such as Cabrera, Mesoraco, and Jeurys Familia this month, and perhaps players with more control as well.
Either deGrom or Syndergaard would be the belle of the July 31 ball if they were truly available, the centerpiece of a blockbuster haul that would dwarf the return for pending free agent Manny Machado — but it doesn’t sound as though the Mets are serious about moving them. While they’re already taking a beating in some quarters for that, I can’t quite get on board.
Via ESPN’s Buster Olney, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Mets will likely pursue a new GM from outside the organization after the season is over; while Ricco will be considered, he’s clearly not the favorite. If that’s the case, it makes more sense for that process to play out before a final decision about trading the aces, who will still have multiple years of control remaining. Find a new GM who can articulate a realistic vision for the organization going forward, whether or not it includes maintaining deGrom and Syndergaard. Maybe this miracle worker can convince the Wilpons to spend like a team in the country’s largest market, to go big after a Machado or a Bryce Harper this winter while maintaining the pair.
Pigs might take flight from La Guardia over Citi Field before that happens, but maybe instead the new GM will have fresh ideas about team-building, and an eye for the killer talent to target when dealing away those top-flight hurlers. Under those circumstances, the Mets won’t be limited to the small handful of contenders currently in need of a starter. Either way, the decision on whether or not to blow it all up, to deal away the best thing to happen to the franchise in at least a decade, is too big for a makeshift leadership to rush into right now.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.