PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Our first thought when Terry Collins named Noah Syndergaard the Opening Day starter, way back on Feb. 16, was uh-oh. Why the heck would he do that?
With the Mets’ unlucky history of rotation-related injuries, the superstitious among us felt like tempting fate in mid-February was a bad strategy. Nothing against Syndergaard. He certainly deserves the honor, if not the $9K the Mets left off Friday’s contract renewal.
But as we move into the second week of March, with the Mets taking Tuesday off for a quick breather, Opening Day still seems to be a blurry dot on the horizon. Or the door you can never reach in that nightmare, despite sprinting as fast as you can. If there is a spot on the calendar for the Mets to wish away time, it’s during the dead zone of mid-March, when the rotation is intact, strong and yet vulnerable to threats — real or imagined — by pitching in practice games.
Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler are the biggest outliers among this crew, with the most work still to do, after the Big Four completed their first turn with Steven Matz’s outing Monday against the Marlins. Harvey labored through Sunday’s bumpy start with a stiff neck, and the delayed Wheeler — bothered earlier this month by elbow soreness — is scheduled to make his Florida debut Friday.
As far as anyone can tell, Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom are better than fine. Thor maxed out at 99 mph in his Grapefruit opener, and was followed a day later by the post-op deGrom, who threw an effortless 97. What people tend to forget is glove-popping velocity like that isn’t usually standard stuff for the first time out. But the Mets waited an extra week to unleash their rotation this spring, and those radar readings are probably related to the bonus buildup.
We’ll admit the pyrotechnic show is fun. Anything that spices up 30 or so practice games is appreciated. But the most critical part of the day for any Mets’ pitcher is the end of it. As long as the start is uneventful, and they walk off the mound with all of their pieces functioning, the Mets can put that day in the win column.
The sun-soaked Collins appears to wear that stress during his postgame news conferences, even when the on-field activity turns out OK. Sandy Alderson, however, insists that he doesn’t white-knuckle his way through this stretch of the Grapefruit League schedule.
“Not really,” Alderson said. “Because I don’t overreact. I try to under-react, frankly, to injuries or to milestones or things that everyone else views as seminal. I also recognize that things do happen. So rather than getting too ramped up about things in advance, I try to view those things objectively and kind of assess them afterwards. Nothing is ever a hundred percent successful and nothing is ever a hundred percent failure.”
Must be nice. Can’t say that’s the vibe we get from the rest of Mets Nation, and Alderson’s even-keel mindset doesn’t make for a splashy back page, either. But in the GM’s defense, he’s already weathered a few stormy periods in Mets’ pitching lore and has lived to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Last year, the Mets lost Harvey on July 4, Matz on Aug. 14 and deGrom on Sept. 1. Syndergaard made 30 starts, along with the additional wild-card game, despite learning of a bone spur in his elbow in June (it didn’t require offseason surgery). Unfazed, Alderson reached down to Triple-A Las Vegas for Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, who combined to go 8-3 with a 2.66 ERA in 15 starts. That’s as good as it gets for rotation depth, and both are in reserve again, unless one is needed to step up — presumably Gsellman — to sub for Wheeler to begin the season. The stockpiling of reliable, young talent has another benefit. No one has to shoulder a true No. 1 burden, like Johan Santana once did, or Harvey felt compelled to more recently.
“I think they are competitive,” Alderson said. “That’s something you want to see among the group. The competitiveness has to be managed early on during spring training and even in the offseason. But it’s not a destructive competition they have because they like each other. I think it’s a good thing.”
If only it could be safely packed up now and opened again on April 3.