David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - Perhaps the most significant reason Brian Cashman cites for paying $175 million to land Masahiro Tanaka is the premium placed on young pitching in the 25-and-under category.
Trading for it is more difficult than ever, if not impossible, with teams emphasizing the draft or amateur route to find the next pillars of their rotation.
Whether the Mets were shrewd or lucky to get Noah Syndergaard from the Blue Jays in the previously trumpeted R.A. Dickey-for-Travis d'Arnaud swap is open to interpretation. And with Michael Pineda making it back from shoulder surgery to pitch impressively during spring training and Saturday's start suggests the Yankees will be declared the winner in the Jesus Montero trade with the Mariners.
Syndergaard will be 22 in August. Pineda turned 25 in January. They also could be two of the last significant arms you see switch teams in a while.
With so many young pitching stars lost to Tommy John surgery this year in spring training, there are two schools of thought. Stockpiling them is crucial with the high casualty rate -- or it could even be more prudent to get top value in the trade market because of the imminent danger of eventual surgery.
"I think twice about trading prospects generally -- pitchers or position players," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "I think the fact there are injuries would suggest, 'Well, gee, there's such a higher risk to pitchers, they're not as valuable.' But that's why it's even more important to have volume, to have quantity.
"So it does make you more reluctant to trade pitching simply because it's hard to predict who's going to get hurt and who's not. You can do mechanical analysis, and we do that in connection with the draft and so forth. But ultimately those are educated guesses as well. Simply having more options is really the only thing that will give you any comfort about the future."
Alderson has taken that approach in keeping the Mets' inventory intact despite the team's other areas in need of improvement, especially at shortstop. But that, of course, is another premium position, and Alderson remains set on holding his cards rather than dealing them.
Conventional wisdom would say trade from that surplus to shore up a glaring weakness, but Alderson's specialty has been flipping established veterans -- Dickey, Carlos Beltran, Marlon Byrd -- in the quest for more pitching. It's not a great reflection on Alderson that the Mets' recent futility at the major-league level has enabled him to sell off those pieces in contract years. But even more consistent winners are emphasizing the need to build redundancy into their pitching staffs.
The Braves and Cardinals have been two of the best organizations at drafting, signing and developing young pitchers. But Atlanta got close to being maxed out with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both requiring Tommy John surgery, which reinforced what GM Frank Wren already knew: You can never feel comfortable about a pitching staff, at any level.
When a GM looks at a rotation, the tiniest flaws loom large, regardless of how small they may appear to outsiders.
"I don't think there's any doubt," Wren said. "We always talk about it. One of Jim Fregosi's favorite sayings was, 'If you have eight, then you really have six. If you have six, you really have four. If you've got five, then you really have three.'
"It's just the attrition and the unfortunate luck of the draw we all face. So we're always stockpiling, we're always looking to add depth. I've heard that word more in the trade market in the last year or two. We're all worried about it."
Look at what the Rays have done. By constructing his own pitching pipeline, GM Andrew Friedman used 30-year-old James Shields -- two years from a free-agent payoff -- to acquire slugging prospect Wil Myers from the Royals. A big part of that is managing Tampa Bay's limited resources to field a contender every year, but the Rays also moved quickly to sign Matt Moore (age 22 at the time) to a five-year, $14-million deal and this past week locked up Chris Archer, 25, to a six-year, $25.5-million contract.
Both Moore and Archer have multiple option years that could raise the total worth of those packages to $39.75 million and $43.75 million, respectively. Now compare those numbers to what the Yankees just paid for Tanaka -- who had yet to throw a pitch in the majors -- and you see the huge financial impact of developing a pitching staff from the ground up.
The Mets were headed in that direction before being temporarily derailed by Matt Harvey's need for Tommy John surgery last October. And the jury is still out on the club's most recent example of fiscal planning-ahead, signing Jon Niese to a five-year, $25.5-million contract before the 2012 season. That was designed to buy out Niese's arbitration years and also his first shot at free agency -- with two more option years that could raise the total value to almost $46 million.
But with Niese penciled in to be the Mets' Opening Day starter this season, what happened? Niese had his own elbow scare after experiencing shoulder soreness a few weeks earlier, and his first turn in the rotation was pushed back until this weekend after he needed only a cortisone shot and rest.
The Mets' most notable homegrown start of opening week belonged to Jenrry Mejia, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007 during Omar Minaya's regime and has had one of the bumpier rides to the majors since then.
Although it feels as though Mejia has been around forever, he's still only 24, and healthy for now.
That puts him in a pretty valuable demographic these days.