For Noah Syndergaard, now is probably the best time for a terrible injury. If he was going to need Tommy John surgery eventually — within baseball circles, there was a feeling of inevitability regarding the ripped 6-6 flamethrower and a torn ulnar collateral ligament — it might as well be during an abbreviated season, as this one will be because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So Syndergaard will have surgery Thursday, on what was supposed to be Opening Day, and begin his year-plus rehabilitation by missing something less than a normal 162-game slate (plus a portion of 2021). The timing is suboptimal from a business perspective, because he is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2021 season, but he is young enough and talented enough that this is far from a death knell for his earning potential.
But for the Mets? Missing Syndergaard this year, of all years, has the potential to be particularly painful for two reasons: their minimal rotation depth and the unusual schedule we might see once baseball resumes.
To address the depth first: The Mets’ hypothetical contention this year is built largely on their excellence during the second half of last season (46-26). But now they are looking at substituting Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha in the current rotation for Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler from that rotation. That is a potential ace No. 2 starter and a guy who had a 2.83 ERA after the All-Star break last year replaced by a pair of veterans who have been injured or ineffective or both in recent seasons.
Beyond the top five, you have the likes of Walker Lockett, Corey Oswalt, David Peterson and Erasmo Ramirez (a non-roster invitee with 92 major-league starts of experience who impressed manager Luis Rojas in his audition for a long-reliever/swingman role before spring training was halted).
During the Mets’ surprise run to the 2015 World Series, they benefited from strong debut seasons from Syndergaard and Steven Matz. There aren’t any similar majors-ready pitching prospects in the pipeline, though Peterson, a first-round pick in 2017, has a chance. The closest the Mets could have come were a pair of Long Islanders, Justin Dunn and Anthony Kay, who were part of the Edwin Diaz/Robinson Cano and Marcus Stroman trades, respectively, by general manager Brodie Van Wagenen. Dunn (Mariners) and Kay (Blue Jays) made their major-league debuts with their new teams last season.
Aftereffects of the coronavirus delay might make that depth matter more than usual. It is true that, because of the shortened schedule, the Mets won’t need to replace all of Syndergaard’s would-be 32 starts. But as Major League Baseball and the players’ union figure out what the season will look like — nobody knows when it will start — among the adjustments reportedly under consideration are fewer days off and more doubleheaders, in an effort to play as many games as possible. That would force teams to dip into their rotation depth more frequently, which would not bode well for the Mets.
Eventually, teams will set their Opening Day rosters, which will result in some players being cut, which will result in Van Wagenen and his front office going through the usual rigmarole of deciding who is available and who might be worth adding. But don’t plan on finding answers there. The quality of pitcher available during that time will be worse than usual, with teams hyperaware of the need for depth (and potentially carrying more pitchers than usual if 26-man rosters are expanded to account for the odd “spring” training).
All of which makes what would be true any year even more true this year: The Mets are going to miss Noah Syndergaard.
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