David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It's a fun debate to have, even if we already know the answer. What to do with Noah Syndergaard, who lived up to the hype yesterday by mowing through the Braves for two innings in his Grapefruit League debut.
From a development standpoint, the answer is easy. Syndergaard, only 21, is expected to open the season with Triple-A Las Vegas, where he can sharpen his secondary pitches and likely join the Mets in mid-June.
That's the way the front office plans to handle him, and with the arbitration clock always a consideration, it's the prudent financial decision.
The Mets did it with Matt Harvey in 2012. A year later, they followed the same blueprint with Zack Wheeler. And now they are lucky enough to be facing the identical scenario with Syndergaard, who at 21 possesses a lightning-quick fastball that makes All-Stars jealous.
"Being young and having a great arm," the Braves' Justin Upton said, "is a great thing."
Also a special thing, and why it must be protected, even if Syndergaard looked as if he could win games in the majors tomorrow. Facing a fastball that ranged from 95 to 98 mph Monday, the Braves knew the pitch was coming and still couldn't catch up to it. Ryan Doumit got the only hit when he slapped a 96-mph fastball the other way for a single.
"He obviously came in ready to compete," he said.
Sitting at his locker, Doumit asked reporters if Syndergaard is battling to make the Opening Day rotation. When told he isn't, Doumit was impressed that the Mets have another kid like that in the pipeline.
We don't know how fast Syndergaard is going to mature as a pitcher down here, but he got the attention of Atlanta's A-list crew in his debut.
The Braves cautioned that it's early in spring training. Typically, pitchers are ahead of hitters at this stage, especially when they throw 98. Where Syndergaard needs work, however, is with his secondary weapons. His curveball, which Terry Collins described as a "hook from hell" last week, was a looping spinner that didn't scare anyone Monday. Nor did his changeup.
That probably had to do with Syndergaard being hopped up on first-day adrenaline, which acts like jet fuel for a fastball but tends to knock the softer stuff off course.
By the second inning, Syndergaard started to get a better feel for his secondary pitches as he calmed down. But that's all part of the process -- learning how to harness his ability in a supercharged environment.
"When you get the Atlanta Braves and their leadoff hitter is as big as you are [6-5, 240-pound Jason Heyward], you're not in Kansas anymore," Collins said. "You're where the big boys play."
But the 6-6, 240-pound Syndergaard did more than hold his own; he cut them down to size. Evan Gattis dug in to open the second inning, and his stay was brief. Syndergaard dusted him with three straight fastballs -- 95, 96, 96. Gattis took three hefty swings and it was over.
Those types of showdowns tend to get people's attention.
"He's definitely got it," B.J. Upton said.
For once, the Braves sounded envious of something the Mets have. Imagine that.
And it's not just Syndergaard. They already were thinking ahead to a 2015 rotation that should include Harvey, Wheeler and Syndergaard at the top.
So we asked them. After what the Braves saw from Syndergaard, where does he rank with the other two Mets who have made the leap? And is he major league-ready yet?
"Harvey's Harvey," Justin Upton said. "But [Syndergaard] and Wheeler are definitely a close second. Any time you got power stuff like that, it's just a matter of time before it all comes together."
So we'll preach patience. Syndergaard, like Harvey and Wheeler in their debut seasons, will make it to Flushing before the All-Star break. And there's no reason to believe he won't have the same impact.
You just know that in his mind, Syndergaard feels he's ready now, even if he gave the politically correct response Monday -- after a slight pause.
"I don't think that's really up to me," he said.
He's right. The entire Mets front office attended Monday's outing, including COO Jeff Wilpon. As thrilled as they were with Syndergaard, he's only going to get better. But it has to be one step at a time.