There is something far more important than Jacob deGrom taking the mound again for the Mets this season. And that’s discovering what exactly has prevented him from doing so over the past six-plus weeks.
DeGrom is scheduled for another trip to the MRI tube Wednesday and a visit with team orthopedist David Altchek, who the Mets hope could clear him to finally start a throwing program this week. But even under the best-case scenario, if everything goes right the minute deGrom leaves the doctor’s office, the calendar suggests he’d be lucky to make one regular-season start for the Mets at this rate.
Frankly, that’s fine, if only to discern that deGrom’s myriad health issues might actually be behind him. The Mets are long past the point of relying on deGrom to save this fading season. The only timetable that counts now is knowing he’ll be ready to return at full strength in 2022, the second-to-last season of his five-year, $137.5-million contract.
The closest thing to an official diagnosis the Mets have provided is right elbow inflammation, which in deGrom’s situation evidently sounds a lot scarier than the team or ace says it is. Heading into this next MRI, there has been no mention of any surgical remedy, but I asked acting general manager Zack Scott again just to make sure before Tuesday night’s 8-0 loss to the Giants at Citi Field.
"We’ll learn more as we go," Scott said. "But obviously if it was something where he was having surgery, we wouldn’t even be considering going down this path of ramping him up. There’s no reason to believe that -- unless something changes when we start ramping him up. But right now, I don’t have major concerns long term."
That’s the one caveat here. DeGrom has endured a number of injury scares this season -- this elbow problem being his sixth -- yet every MRI has revealed no structural damage, according to the team. While that’s certainly good news, something has to be causing these issues. And until the true problem is uncovered, who’s to say deGrom won’t keep experiencing this discomfort when he tries to begin another rehab session?
DeGrom’s last start was July 7, when he threw 85 pitches over a seven-inning, 10-strikeout win over the Brewers. After the All-Star break, deGrom couldn’t shake what initially was described as forearm tightness, then developed into more of an elbow discomfort, which is what set off the louder alarm sirens.
The first two-week shutdown period soon was followed by another after a visit earlier this month to Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Dodgers’ team orthopedist, for a second opinion. Still, the Mets’ public stance hasn’t changed, and deGrom himself admitted to being puzzled by the symptoms during his most recent interview back on Aug. 3 in Miami.
"The frustrating thing is not knowing really why it’s there," deGrom said. "Of course you never want to feel anything in your elbow. Concerning? Yeah. I don’t like it. I want to be pitching."
Aside from that night’s opponent, all of baseball wanted deGrom to be pitching. He was on the verge of an historic season with designs on a third Cy Young in four years. At the time of deGrom’s shutdown, he was 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA, 0.554 WHIP and 14.3 K/9 ratio.
Every performance was special. It was surprising when deGrom even gave up a hit. No one threw harder (average fastball velocity: 99.2 mph) more frequently, and it’s reasonable for the Mets to suspect that the incredible strain of consistently reaching triple-digits may have piled up quickly this season at age 33. While deGrom does have nearly flawless mechanics, his relatively slight build (6-foot-4, 180 pounds) seems prone to buckling under the stress of generating so much unrivaled power.
When deGrom does get through this latest setback, his whole routine probably will need to be re-examined. As great as he is, deGrom can’t be the planet’s best pitcher unless he’s on the mound, and the Mets need to tread carefully if this September ramp-up actually takes place.
"We’ll learn about how he’s doing physically," Scott said. "It’s important for him to be in a good place going into the offseason -- that can influence how we set up his offseason plan. Even if he never gets into a game, just getting him to that point, to see how he responds physically, and I think that will help us going forward."
By "forward," Scott means next year. And as much as the Mets won’t admit it yet, there’s where the focus has to be shifting with deGrom.