JUPITER, Fla. — The harsh reality of the game dictates that there is no such thing as a surplus of good pitching. Muscles fray. Ligaments tear. An entire franchise’s fortunes can hang on an achy elbow.
Any team with serious aspirations of winning must first insure themselves with depth, and the Mets know better than most that even then it will be tested.
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But with Opening Day little more than two weeks away, the Mets find themselves with a good problem on their hands. They have too many pitchers for too few spots — at least for now.
Consider Robert Gsellman, the 23-year-old righthander who on Saturday furthered his cause for inclusion in the starting rotation. In the Mets’ 5-4 win over the Cardinals, he allowed one run and four hits in five innings. He struck out three, walked one and lowered his ERA to 2.25 in four spring training games.
“It felt good,” said Gsellman, who alongside Seth Lugo bailed out an injury-ravaged rotation late last season. “Just attacking down in the zone, trying to get outs. I thought I did a good job.”
Under most circumstances, Gsellman would be a lock for the fifth spot in the loaded rotation. At the start of camp, team officials figured he had the inside track by virtue of the 2.42 ERA he posted in eight appearances in the final five weeks of last season.
Talent evaluators from rival clubs are nearly universal in their assessment that he is considered a mid-rotation starter, with the heavy sink on his two-seam fastball and his ability to throw it in the mid-90s setting him apart.
But competition has emerged in the form of Lugo and resurgent righthander Zack Wheeler, who has vaulted himself back onto the radar just as the homestretch of camp approaches.
Despite his diminished velocity in spring training, the Mets’ plans still call for Matt Harvey to begin the season in the rotation. His latest tuneup comes tomorrow in Lakeland. So barring a drastic development or a change in direction, the Mets have three pitchers vying for one rotation spot.
“It’s a great problem to have,” manager Terry Collins said. “We came into this camp knowing we have depth in the rotation. We didn’t know where Zack was going to be. But we felt with the other four guys, and with Robert and Seth, we had some depth here. They have stepped up and shown us that we weren’t wrong.”
Wheeler, 26, faces the longest road. He arrived at camp as a wild card. Rehab from Tommy John surgery became little more than a series of bumps in the road. In the two full seasons he missed after the procedure, the Mets churned out more fireballing pitchers to take his place.
But after a tender elbow early in camp put him behind schedule, Wheeler last week flashed the physical tools that made him such a promising pitcher. His fastball touched 97 mph and his pitches showed life.
It was his strongest statement yet that he might be healthy enough to help the Mets immediately instead of spending the start of the season in extended spring training as a way to build up arm strength and stay within a cap of about 120 innings. “Certainly,” Collins said, “Zack got our attention the other day.”
Lugo, 27, posted a 3.86 ERA in three appearances in spring training before leaving for the World Baseball Classic, where he’s done his best work. Pitching for Puerto Rico, Lugo has a 2.45 ERA in two starts.
Lugo’s tournament performances have caught the Mets’ attention, adding to the resume he built last season, when he pitched to a 2.67 ERA in 17 appearances including eight starts. That production helped the Mets cover for a starting rotation besieged by injuries.
If he’s not in the starting rotation to begin the year, Lugo still has a chance of sticking around in the bullpen as the team’s long man.
And then there’s Gsellman, whose second-half emergence earned him a shot at sticking in the rotation this year.
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “You start thinking about it and next thing you know, I’m giving up runs and not doing good, thinking too much. I go out there and do my job, worry about myself.”
For now, Gsellman’s worries involve feeling healthy enough to swing the bat in games after undergoing offsseason surgery in his non-throwing shoulder. Though he’s been taking batting practice, he stuck to bunting on Saturday, with hopes of swinging in games before camp is over.
“I’m starting to get stronger, starting to get loosened up, getting the pitch count up to get deeper in the game,” Gsellman said.The Mets’ pitching riches were apparent Saturday. Opening Day starter Noah Syndergaard stayed behind in Port St. Lucie to pitch in a minor-league game, allowing one unearned run in five innings and getting his pitch count to 70. Meanwhile, Gsellman refined his repertoire against the Cardinals.
“They’re all on track,” Collins said. “They’re getting more work. The more pitches they throw, the more confidence they have, and trust in their stuff a little bit more.”