David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
As tempting as it may be to imagine Zack Wheeler in a deal for Starlin Castro or Jon Niese for Carlos Gonzalez or Noah Syndergaard for Matt Kemp -- just to name a few of the more popular fantasies -- we were reminded again Sunday of the fine line that separates a pitching surplus from a deficit.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Mets chose to put Niese, their best active starter, on the disabled list with what the team described as a left shoulder strain. Manager Terry Collins spoke a night earlier of a few disturbing signs with Niese.
So let's recap. We now know that Niese is a talented pitcher who needs a two-week breather, minimum, every 100 innings or so because his shoulder evidently begins to weaken around the All-Star break.
Matt Harvey had been pushing the envelope with his Tommy John rehab before the Mets put on the brakes, and we've spent much of this year talking about the alarming number of second-timers for that procedure.
Dillon Gee, who missed two months with a strained lateral muscle, is scheduled to take Niese's start Wednesday. But it's also important to remember that Gee does regular maintenance for a small labrum tear in his shoulder that he's had for years.
Wheeler? Solid front-of-the-rotation stuff; still learning on the job. Jacob deGrom has been a nice surprise. Syndergaard's arrival, which was supposed to be in July, has been delayed twice by injuries, an elbow scare, then a sprain of his non-throwing shoulder in a plate collision.
As for Bartolo Colon, he's due $11 million next season, so we anticipate Alderson taking the opportunity to move him in the weeks ahead.
On paper, it's true: The Mets have some pitching currency for the trade market. If not in the next three weeks, then certainly in the offseason. But you also can understand why Alderson might be leery of dealing from that deck. The fragile nature of pitchers, now more than ever, has made it crucial to have quantity as well as quality. If the Mets go the trade route, the pressure to pick the right chip can be cause for hesitation.
And if Alderson trades the wrong guy, how will that affect plans for 2015 and beyond? When the A's went all-in Friday, they used an elite shortstop prospect, Addison Russell, as the centerpiece of a deal to net two major-league starters, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Mets, with most of their talent developing in the minors, tend to worry about weakening one area to strengthen another.
"We're not going to give up major pieces to help somebody else right now," Collins said after the Mets' 8-4 win. "We're going to try to win here, too."
Niese, 27 and under the Mets' control through 2018, figures to be a big part of those plans. But we're not sure what to make of a pitcher who keeps getting sidelined with nebulous shoulder fatigue. Niese made things even more confusing by saying he's not injured. As long as the shoulder is structurally sound, he should be OK. But the way the Mets sprung this DL stint on him -- and us -- raises questions.
"It's been that way for probably a month and a half now," Niese said of his shoulder. "It's something I can pitch through. But I think it's as good a time as any to take a break. This isn't an injury. Just a rest period."
With the Mets camped on the distant edge of the wild-card race, allowing Niese a chance to reload seems prudent. What's a couple of mid-July starts? Plus, the return of Gee is fortuitous timing. But with Niese requiring a similar furlough last season, Collins suggested this could be an annual thing with him.
And the only insurance policy against such gaps in the rotation? You guessed it. A reliable stable of arms to go to in a crisis.
"We've got a ton of guys that can take a spot," Niese said.
Filling it is one thing. Winning is another. The Mets will tread lightly.