David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The Mets have a lefthanded relief problem, a dilemma that reached red-alert status Thursday when it was revealed Josh Edgin, the only lefty in the bullpen, might need Tommy John surgery.
Steven Matz is possibly the best lefthanded pitcher in the entire organization -- we'll give Jonathon Niese a slight edge on experience -- and like any other 23-year-old, is anxious for his shot at the majors.
Hmm. What to do, what to do? Go the 2006 Adam Wainwright route and break camp with Matz as your lefty hammer in the pen? Or stay the course and keep Matz as No. 6 or 7 on your rotation's depth chart?DataLI baseball stars drafted by MLB teams all-time
Despite their desperation, to the Mets, it's a no-brainer. Matz is staying on the starter track, and we couldn't agree more with the decision.
It took two years for Matz to overcome a difficult rehab after TJ surgery. There's no sense putting him at risk as a stopgap solution for an obvious hole.
"I think that's extraordinarily unlikely,'' Sandy Alderson said Thursday after the Mets hung on for an 11-9 win over the Nationals. "Highly improbable. But one never says never because you never know what's going to happen.''
Alderson's right. Always good to leave an inch or two of wiggle room in these decisions, but we'll say it for him: There's a 0.00 chance of Matz pitching in relief for the Mets anytime soon -- unless it's an all-hands-on-deck situation in Game 7 of the NLCS (stop rolling your eyes).
Matz said he's never pitched in the bullpen at any level. He did say, however, that he'd be open to the possibility if the Mets approached him about the vacant role. "If they need me,'' he said, "I'll do it.''
That's what players are supposed to say, obviously, especially the ones without a day of service time in the bigs. But Matz wants to be a starter, and fortunately, the Mets have every intention of keeping him in that role.
Alderson floated the longshot idea of maybe going to Matz in relief just to give him a taste of facing major-league hitters, sort of what he intended last season with Jacob deGrom and Rafael Montero before injuries put them both in the Mets' rotation anyway.
With the high casualty rate of starting pitchers, odds are the Mets will need Matz sooner rather than later for the job he's being groomed for. On Thursday, Matz wasn't as flawless as he had been in his Grapefruit debut, allowing three hits and two runs in three innings. He still looked sharp sitting at 94 to 96 mph with good command of his curveball, but missed on an 88-mph changeup that Danny Espinosa smacked over the leftfield fence.
"I think it all starts with confidence,'' Matz said. "I'm feeling more comfortable out there.''
Why mess with that process? If this debate sounds familiar, you may remember us being on the other side of it in 2010. Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel faced the same decision, but it involved moving Jenrry Mejia to the bullpen. Mejia was only 20 at the time, but Manuel -- who compared his cutter to Mariano Rivera's -- publicly lobbied to have him in the bullpen for Opening Day.
And yes, we did, too. Manuel got his wish, Mejia's development was sacrificed for the bullpen -- and it turned out to be a mistake. He was miscast from the outset, was used inconsistently and needed two shoulder surgeries. Five years later, the Mets think he can reprise his closer's role from last season.
With Mejia, Manuel and Minaya knew their jobs were on the line, so there was no need to think long-term. Both were let go at the end of the season. In Matz's case, he probably would make the Mets a better team by immediately shoring up a glaring weakness. But that's too shortsighted, even for a team that badly needs a strong showing in April.
"It's always hard,'' Terry Collins said. "We're sitting here telling everyone we're going to win -- and we've got a lefthanded pitcher who's got dominant stuff. But you can't sacrifice this kid's career and everything else down the road for the big picture.''
The smart decision here actually feels like the easy one. Or maybe the Mets have just learned from past mistakes.