Barring any unforeseen events, the Mets’ rotation should get crowded this week, with the scheduled returns of both Seth Lugo and Steven Matz. Neither has thrown a pitch in the majors this season, but they’ll be considered saviors nonetheless for a team six games below .500 and eight games out of the wild card.
That’s some impressive hole-digging for the first week of June, with the Mets’ pitching staff doing most of the shoveling — a volatile combination of ineffective starters backed by an exhausted, feeble bullpen. Not what anyone anticipated back on Opening Day, but there’s no sense fretting over what might have been.
The Mets have a rotation to sort out, and as long as Lugo and Matz are sound physically, it won’t be all that complicated. Those two will take the place of Tyler Pill, Sunday’s starter against the Pirates, and Robert Gsellman, who could have at least given the front office something to discuss if he pitched better than he did Saturday in the Mets’ 4-2 victory.
Early on, it looked like Gsellman might do just that. He needed only 10 pitches to cruise through the first inning, and that got us thinking. With Matt Harvey vulnerable coming off Friday’s clunker, would a strong showing by Gsellman nudge the Mets’ decision-makers to consider the once unimaginable: demoting the Dark Knight to the bullpen.
The team official we consulted gave a thumbs-down to that idea, and as Gsellman’s pitch count later skyrocketed, we felt silly for asking. Gsellman required 109 pitches to get through 5 1⁄3 innings, and though he allowed only two runs, that’s still leaving way too many outs for the Mets embattled bullpen. As we’ve seen, even if doesn’t bite them the same night, the cumulative effect is likely to sink them a day or two later. It’s happened plenty of times already, crippling Terry Collins’ bullpen management.
“As we start to get into the grind of the summer with our starting pitching,” Collins said afterward, “we’ve got to get it going.”
Harvey may not be good this year — his first season back from surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome — but he is lucky in one aspect. The Mets’ rotation has been so inconsistent around him that the front office really can’t justify singling him out as a scapegoat. Harvey’s 5.43 ERA ranks fourth among the starters, a few ticks better than Gsellman (5.53), and he’s failed to pitch six innings in seven of his 11 games. Collins admitted Friday that he doesn’t know what he’s going to get from his rotation on any given day, but with Harvey, there is some certainty. It’s usually not so great.
“We’re learning stuff as we go here with Matt,” Collins said before Saturday’s game. As for whether this whole season could be sacrificed to his recovery, the manager added, “That’s a possibility.”
Also a sobering reality. Harvey’s contributions could very well be minimal all year. But there’s other reasons for thinking more long-term, and the Mets really need Harvey to rebound over the next four months. Not just for a wild-card shot this year, but to help their strategy for 2018, as well.
What’s happened so far has been a worst-case scenario. With Harvey headed for free agency after next season, the Mets were hoping a stellar 2017 would bolster his trade value for the upcoming winter. They could squeeze the best from him for a playoff push, and with zero plans for any extension talk, ship Harvey elsewhere for hopefully a decent return.
But that’s not where this appears to be headed. Aside from Harvey’s earlier AWOL drama, he’s looked uncomfortable on the mound, and the Mets have yet to come up with any solutions. For another pitcher in a similar spot, maybe the bullpen would be a good place to sort things out, tinker with mechanics, maybe rebuild the self-esteem. But the Mets clearly don’t want to open that Pandora’s box with Harvey, who they believe has been self-sabotaged by his own eroding confidence.
Sending Harvey to the bullpen is just too drastic a step in their view, and forget shipping him down to Triple-A Las Vegas for a refresher course. The Mets intend for Harvey to work through his issues up here, in the rotation, at least for the immediate future. Trying to stash him in the bullpen might be counterproductive for a Mets team that already is lacking in trustworthy relief pitchers.
The Mets gave up on Harvey being the Dark Knight a while ago. They’re not going to rally from the depths based solely on what he can deliver. Now the Mets are pinning their long-shot hopes on Lugo, who struck out eight in seven innings Saturday for Double-A Binghamton in his final tuneup, and Matz allowed five runs and eight hits in 4 1⁄3 innings later Saturday night for Las Vegas.
Both have been plagued with health concerns, and Lugo still has a partial UCL tear in his right elbow. Just further evidence that the injury-stricken Mets have had few good options this season. Some are just less bad than others.