David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - In one of the least surprising things ever, Sandy Alderson let slip Tuesday that the Mets may have lined up Matt Harvey for the second game at Citi Field in part for the potential bump in ticket sales.
To those outraged by the general manager's suggestion, we can only say this: Have you been paying attention? Season after season of 70-something wins don't fill stadiums, so when a marketable commodity like Harvey returns, it's best to maximize value.
And this was not a recently hatched plot, either.
Harvey was penciled in for April 14 pretty much from the start of spring training, according to a person familiar with the team's plans, and the rest of the rotation would be built around that. With Harvey in place, Jacob deGrom, the reigning Rookie of the Year, then was rewarded with the Citi opener against the Phillies.
That left the Mets to choose between Bartolo Colon and Zack Wheeler as their Opening Day starter in D.C. But the decision was made for them last week when Wheeler wound up needing Tommy John surgery.
Harvey remained unaffected, however. And with the Citi opener a sellout every year, it made financial sense to have him behind deGrom in the rotation. Alderson coyly mentioned that Harvey "probably'' has more eyeball appeal than deGrom, and talked about "secondary considerations'' when setting up the rotation.
Alderson then was asked if ticket sales were one of those considerations. "Could be,'' the GM replied.
Fortunately for the Mets, they have a number of baseball reasons to provide cover for what otherwise might come off as simply deploying Harvey as box-office bait. Even by slotting Harvey in the No. 3 spot, the Mets still get to start their top three pitchers against the Nationals, the NL East favorite, and he and deGrom will be set up for the Citi homecoming on April 14.
It also helps that Harvey, who bumped heads with the Mets at various points during his rehab, sounds as if he's on board with the plan. Harvey seems thrilled by his performance this spring, and after being away for 18 months, getting a shot at the Nats is enough for him. He remembers when the Mets talked about skipping him until the second week of the season in an effort to curb his innings, so this is a bonus.
"I'm happy to be throwing in the first series,'' Harvey said.
Beyond that is when life is going to get tricky for Terry Collins and the Mets. Everyone has been up front about the need to limit Harvey to roughly 180 innings this season, the standard protocol for post-TJ pitchers, but it's going to require some hard choices. The Mets figured they owed it to Harvey to let him pitch the first week rather than bank those days.
Eventually, a toll will have to be paid for greenlighting Harvey on April 9. But right now, it looks like the Mets are kicking that down the road until May.
"I think in April, we'll just let him be himself,'' Collins said. "And then after that, we'll start to monitor some things.''
In other words, buckle up, because that's when the real frustrating stuff begins. Waiting three days to see Harvey's 2015 debut is nothing compared to watching Collins spoil a six-inning no-hit bid later in the season because he's already thrown 100 pitches. Collins is dreading those days, but he knows they're inevitable. On those occasions, the path to the mound at Citi is going to feel as long as the GW Bridge.
"That's what we got to do because it's about protecting him,'' Collins said. "It's about getting him through the season. If he gets 32 starts, he's going to win a lot of games. But we've got to get him those 32 starts.''
Probably wishful thinking on Collins' part. The Mets would gladly sign on for the 25 to 30 neighborhood from Harvey, and then maybe recalibrate for the playoffs, if they make it that far. That's a ton of Harvey Days, which translates into spinning turnstiles at Citi and higher TV ratings, but Collins said they have yet to map out a season blueprint for him.
"Because this game is never etched in stone,'' Collins said.
Except for the bottom line, which is always the primary consideration for these Mets. There's no getting around that.