HARVEY ... SYNDERGAARD ... DEGROM ... MATZ ... WHEELER
If those five names form the best starting rotation in the National League from start to finish this season, we'll be seeing the Mets in another World Series telecast. If those five names spend more time in Dr. David Altchek's office than they do on the mound, well, never mind.
If that 50-word burst of pithy analysis comes as a shock to the Yoenis Cespedes Fan Club, just listen to the only man in the room who has worn a Mets uniform for the past 14 seasons.
"You could ask anybody in here, 'What's this team based off of?'" Wright said. "And the answer would be, 'It's our starting pitching that we're built around.' And that's no knock on our offense, our bullpen, our defense or anything else. But when I think of, 'Whose back can you jump on to get us to where we want to go?' I don't think there's any question: It's our starting pitching."
After all, Wright has to remember back only 16 months to relive the unexpected joy ride the Mets took on those backs -- all the way to the 2015 World Series. That, Jacob deGrom said this week, "was only a taste" of what these guys are pretty sure they're about to unleash on the rest of Planet Baseball.
"We know now what it takes to get there," deGrom said. "Now we've got to go win it."
You don't visit many clubhouses in the first week of spring training where people talk matter-of-factly about winning the World Series. But deGrom had no reservations about broaching that subject with unabashed confidence.
"Winning the World Series," he said, almost casually, "that's the plan."
Hold on. Don't book those hotel rooms quite yet. The Mets aren't winning the World Series if they spend the next seven months talking about bone spurs and impingements and thoracic outlet syndrome -- all fun topics that invaded their world pretty much nonstop last season. The road to winning the World Series is paved in basic math.
As in: 4 x 30. Or even: 5 x 30.
The translation of that equation comes to four or possibly five starters making 30 starts apiece. Asked what his rotation might be capable of if that happens, deGrom made zero attempt to suppress a laugh.
"Heh-heh," he said. "I think we know what could happen. And we know what we want to happen. We just have to go out there and do it still. It all looks good on paper. And it's great talking about it. But until we go out there and actually do it, it can't be a reality. So that's the plan. And that's what we're here working for. That's the goal: to win a World Series. And it starts now."
"People haven't seen the best of this rotation. I think they'll see the best when we all go out there every five days. And that'll be this year -- hopefully."
Just the other day, before the first workout of spring training, manager Terry Collins laid out his own goal for 2017. He wasn't talking World Series. He wasn't talking wins. He wasn't talking losses. He was talking about five starters teaming up to make 150 starts.
"I had a meeting with those guys," Collins said. "And I told them, 'That's the objective. I know people are saying, "Make 33-34 starts." I'm not even pushing that. I'm telling you five guys: If you get 30 starts apiece, that's 150 games. And you guys are so good, I know we're going to win the majority of those 150 games.'"
Now it's time to inject a little reality into the manager's foolproof formula for success. According to research by Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, just nine teams in history have had five pitchers make 30 starts apiece. Getting four starters to the post 30 times is so tough that only two teams -- the Cubs and Cardinals -- pulled that off last season.
That means the math is challenging even before you get to the five pitchers Collins is talking about, five guys who combined to make 93 starts last season, almost a third of them by Noah Syndergaard. The occupants of this clubhouse sound remarkably confident that this year is going to be different. Why is that, you ask? Here's a rundown:
The 2014 National League Rookie of the Year appears fully recovered from an offseason procedure to move his ulnar nerve, a fairly common complication for pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery. Those elbow issues ended his 2016 season in early September, caused the biggest drop in average fastball velocity of any NL starter and wreaked havoc on his normally reliable fastball command. But deGrom said he was "almost guaranteed" by the doctors he'll be back to his old self this season. Plus, the surgeons took a look at his reconstructed ligament and "said it looks great."
A shoulder impingement ended the 25-year-old's season in September. But it was the bone spurs in his elbow that bothered him much of the year and eventually required surgery. After a routine arthroscopic cleanup, he's "good to go" and "back where I need to be," Matz said. Because he had the surgery two days after the end of the regular season, he was able to have a normal offseason throwing schedule. There's still a hint of caution because Matz has never made 25 starts or pitched more than 140 innings in any season, minor league or major league. "We've got to keep him on the mound," Collins said. "And that's the battle."
The Dark Knight is the biggest question mark of all. He's just eight months removed from surgery to remove a rib and relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. While two dozen other major league pitchers have had that surgery, with varying degrees of success, almost no one on the list is as young as Harvey (27) and depends on the same arsenal of power stuff that Harvey dominated with at his best. So even though Harvey says he "feels great," his team will be watching him closely this spring. Collins is charged up by seeing a guy who is "determined to be great," he said. "Last year was a humbling experience for him. And you can tell it really bothered him."
Once, Wheeler was routinely lumped into the same future-ace class as the other monsters in this rotation. That was a long time ago. Other than a one-inning rehab stint last year, Wheeler last pitched in 2014, had Tommy John surgery in March 2015 and had a frustrating summer of setbacks that eventually wiped out what was supposed to be his comeback season. Wheeler is easing his way back this spring. Despite the blitz of tabloid headlines this week, he believes he's merely working his way through "a little early soreness." And since he has dealt with so many issues over the last two years, "I kind of know how to tell the bad [soreness] from the OK and worse," he said. As upbeat as both he and his team are that he's finally healthy enough to pitch again, he probably has more to prove than anyone in this group -- especially considering that both Robert Gsellman (2.63 ERA in seven big-league starts last year) and Seth Lugo (2.68 in eight starts) look like excellent rotation options themselves.
Meanwhile, Syndergaard has zoomed past all those men to the top of this rotation. His teammates seem highly amused by his pronouncement (by the hardest-throwing starter in the big leagues, you understand) that he's intent on throwing even harder this year. Not that they're putting it past him.
"You know," Collins deadpanned, "there are freaks in this game."
"No. I probably shouldn't say that. ... But when we went to the World Series two years ago, our starting pitching carried us. So to me, it's all about pitching."
Terry Collins, on whether the Mets can win the World Series if their starters don't stay healthy
If all goes according to plan, there might eventually be five freaks in this rotation. The Mets are taking steps this spring to help all of them save their bullets for the moments when they come in handiest. They're all on a revamped throwing program that gives them an extra day of rest between bullpen sessions, includes strict orders not to throw to any base during fielding drills and has introduced more running to build up their legs this spring -- because "you pitch from the ground up," Collins said.
At least some of that program is a result of conversations the manager had with former Braves great John Smoltz about how those celebrated Braves staffs prepared every spring to pitch deep into October.
"I know games in April are important," Collins said. "But when you look where we've been the last two or three years, those games in August and September, they're huge games. And it seems like we were always talking about shutting somebody down, or you've got to skip a guy. And this is a year we can't afford to do that."
In retrospect, it's almost miraculous the Mets made the playoffs last year in a season in which only Syndergaard (not to mention the now-departed Bartolo "The Bambino" Colon) made it through the year healthy. Does their skipper think they can win the World Series if their rotation doesn't stay healthy?
"No," Collins said flatly. "I probably shouldn't say that. ... But when we went to the World Series two years ago, our starting pitching carried us. So to me, it's all about pitching. It's about keeping our starting pitchers healthy."
Early in a critical spring, his starters have gotten that memo.
"People haven't seen the best of this rotation," deGrom said, confident as ever. "I think they'll see the best when we all go out there every five days. And that'll be this year -- hopefully."