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Zack Wheeler rejects Mets' qualifying offer, leaving hole to fill in rotation

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler delivers against the

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler delivers against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning of an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Maybe it was posturing for the sake of perceived negotiating leverage, maybe it was genuine confidence in the pitchers he has. But Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, when asked this week at the GM meetings whether he would be comfortable beginning next season with only the starters already with the organization, was brief in his answer.

“Yes,” he said in full.

The top of the Mets’ rotation is, on paper, better than most: two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom followed by Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz.

But their depth beyond that is a massive question mark, underscored by news Thursday: Zack Wheeler declined the one-year, $17.8-million qualifying offer, as expected.

The Mets say they hope to keep Wheeler. But his market figures to be significant, and it’s not clear whether the Mets are willing to commit to Wheeler the sort of money he is expected to get. If he signs elsewhere, the Mets will receive an extra draft pick as compensation, part of the qualifying-offer system.

“We’ll continue to have dialogue with Zack,” Van Wagenen said. “He’s been a key contributor to our team in recent years. We’ve expressed that.”

That leaves the Mets with a hole to fill. Last week, Van Wagenen referenced the Stroman trade in July as a move that “solidified the middle-to-upper tier of our rotation” — suggesting that the Mets will be content to replace Wheeler with a middle-to-back-end type of pitcher.

The Mets’ answer might come internally. They are flirting again with the idea of moving Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman back to the rotation — both are preparing as starters this offseason, Van Wagenen said — though that would further weaken a bullpen that had the fifth-highest ERA (4.99) in the majors last season. Lugo has been the team’s best reliever the past two years.

Among the handful of Mets pitchers who have bounced between the majors and minors and bullpen and rotation in recent years, righthander Walker Lockett is probably tops on the depth chart. He had an 8.34 ERA in nine games (four starts) with the Mets and a 3.82 ERA in 13 games with Triple-A Syracuse.

Van Wagenen said Lockett was a victim of circumstance in 2019, usually pitching on an irregular schedule when in the majors.

“He came up to start at times, he was put in the bullpen at times, he was asked to be the long man at times,” Van Wagenen said. “Walker is still a guy that we think has potential to be in our rotation. We also think he’s a guy who has the ability to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen.”

A rotation solution isn’t necessarily imminent. The Mets’ front-office contingent departed the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia late Thursday morning not having completed any transactions — which is normal for the GM meetings. But they were productive anyway.

“The GM meetings are helpful for all of us because we get a chance to talk to all 30 clubs in real time, face to face, which I always think is easier and more efficient than doing it over the phones,” Van Wagenen said. “So I think we have a good handle on what teams are looking to do with their rosters, which players may be available via trade and which holes they may be looking to fill. And we try to share some of that information with them as well.”

The good news for the Mets: Rotation-wise, it should be just this one hole. Teams have checked in on Syndergaard’s availability, but there have been fewer of those inquiries compared to the summer and last offseason.

“Because we’ve made very clear that we’re not going to engage on Noah,” Van Wagenen said. “We’ve received inquiries, but we’ve been proactive in letting people know … that he’s going to be with us going forward.”

Notes: Pete Alonso finished seventh in National League MVP voting. Jacob deGrom was 10th. The Mets have a new last game of spring training: March 23 against the Orioles in Sarasota, Florida. That is also where the Mets ended camp last season. Before that trip, Noah Syndergaard expressed frustration at the Mets’ itinerary, which included a nearly three-hour bus trip across the state (followed by a Syracuse visit). … Tickets for all 2020 Mets home games go on sale at 10 a.m. next Friday (Nov. 22).

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