No timetable for return. That's the latest news from the Mets regarding ace Noah Syndergaard, who left Sunday's start against the Nationals in the second inning with what has been diagnosed via an MRI as a partial tear in his latissimus dorsi. The injury came just three days after the 24-year-old righty was scratched from his regular turn due to shoulder and biceps discomfort but declined to undergo an MRI. That sequence places this whole mess within the Mets' much longer litany of questionable injury management, which had been brought to the fore earlier in the week as slugger Yoenis Cespedes reinjured his left hamstring just two days into a return from a three-game absence. But at a time when their ongoing failure to field their "Five Aces" rotation stands out, the Mets should be grateful they have the pitching depth even to dream about such a prospect.
Based upon at least the superficial similarity to the lat strain suffered by teammate Steven Matz in July 2015, Syndergaard could miss two months. That's not going to help New York climb out of its 10-14 start, which has left the club in the NL East basement. With Cespedes, first baseman Lucas Duda, infielder Wilmer Flores and third baseman David Wright all on the disabled list, the Mets are just 11th in the NL in scoring (4.29 runs per game), and the pitching and defense has failed them too, as they rank last in the league in run prevention (5.33 per game). It's small wonder then that after Sunday's 23-5 drubbing by the Nationals, manager Terry Collins fumed at a reporter who prefaced a question by noting that he looked upset in the dugout following Syndergaard's exit by snapping, “You think?”
With Matz sidelined by a flexor stendon strain since late March, the dream of a rotation featuring him, Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Zach Wheeler—who lost both the 2015 and ’16 seasons to Tommy John surgery—had already been deferred for the umpteenth time. Even without Wheeler, keeping the other four healthy and effective has proven to be a nearly impossible task, and they've been together for about four months dating back to Matz's debut on June 28, 2015.
That day the 24-year-old Matz, a Long Island native, collected three hits and four RBIs while making a strong start against the Reds at Citi Field with his parents and grandparents in attendance. However, he made just one more turn before going on the DL with the aforementioned lat strain. His September return that year allowed New York to skip deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard once each as the club coasted to the NL East title, and with good reason. Including their minor league work, Syndergaard (a 22-year-old rookie at the time), Harvey (a 26-year-old in his first year back from Tommy John surgery), deGrom (a 27-year-old in his first full major league season) and Matz each set career highs in innings before pitching in the postseason, a run that took them all the way to the World Series.
The focus on Harvey's innings total was a season-long drama unto itself, from February up to and including his willingness to pitch the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. While one can't prove that the heavier workloads and extra innings caused the unit's falloff in 2016, all four pitched less last year than in the year before (majors, minors and postseason combined):
Harvey's 2016 was a mess, as he struggled with his mechanics and depressed velocity while getting tarred and feathered for a 4.86 ERA. Just before the All-Star break, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which led to season-ending surgery. In late June, Matz was diagnosed with a bone spur at the back of his elbow, and around the same time, it came to light that Syndergaard was pitching through a bone spur as well, though initially he denied it (shades of last week). Neither was shelved at that point, and the latter was basically available wire to wire; he vaulted from 2.4 WAR in 150 regular season major league innings in 2015 to 5.1 in 183 2/3 innings in ’16. Matz was done in by a mid-August shoulder strain and deGrom took his final turn on Sept. 1 before an irritated ulnar nerve required season-ending surgery.
If not for the strong work of 43-year-old All-Star Bartolo Colon and late-season fill-ins Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, the Mets wouldn't have made the playoffs last year. As it was, they lost the NL wild-card game to the Giants despite a stellar outing by Syndergaard. The problem for New York now is that Colon is an Atlanta Brave, Lugo himself is on the DL with a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and Gsellman has been lit for a 6.23 ERA. DeGrom and Syndergaard have both pitched well but the work of Wheeler and Harvey has been uneven; though the latter has a modest 4.25 ERA, he's got a 5.55 FIP thanks to dreadful home run and strikeout rates (1.8 and 5.5 per nine, respectively), and his velocity has again dipped. On the other hand, he's been greatly helped by the Mets' otherwise porous defense, allowing just a .212 BABIP, but Gsellman (.377), Syndergaard (.359) and deGrom (.319) have been its victims.
The handling of Syndergaard's latest injury aside—and, admittedly, it's difficult to put that aside—it's tough to see how the Mets could have done this much differently. General manager Sandy Alderson didn't come on board until the fall of 2010, after Matz (second round, 2009), Harvey (first round, '10) and deGrom (ninth round, '10) had already been drafted; he acquired Lugo and Gsellman with lower-round 2011 picks, landed Wheeler in the July 2011 trade of Carlos Beltran to the Giants and stole Syndergaard in the December 2012 blockbuster with the Blue Jays.
Should the Mets be better at managing pitcher injuries? Yes, but the same goes for each of the 29 other teams. This is an industry in need of overhauling how it handles its prized assets and is struggling for answers as to how to do so. Should the Mets have handled the Syndergaard situation better? Undoubtedly; in the age of the 10-day DL stint, skipping a turn for a pitcher with even the most minor arm complaint is a no-brainer, and now the Mets will pay the cost for not doing so by giving several turns to Rafael Montero and/or Sean Gilmartin, the eighth and ninth starters on their depth chart, instead of one or two in place of their ace. If they can reverse their slow start to remain in contention, they’ll likely look to the trade market in July, because they’re burning through Wheeler’s innings limit (said to be around 125) sooner rather than later. Fortunately, their options should be plentiful.
Ultimately, the folly is in expecting all of those high-caliber starters to be available at the same time, and that goes for any team. Keeping so many valuable arms healthy at the same time is the exception, not the rule, a challenge only slightly less daunting than herding cats. As New York showed last year, teams need to stockpile starting pitching in the hopes that they have enough to get to the finish line, come what may. If there’s good news for the Mets this season, it’s that they can hope that’s still the case.