The twist in this Mets season is that if they win the NL East, no opponent is going to want to see them in the playoffs if their starting pitching — notably Jacob deGrom — is healthy. Yet nothing threatens the Mets even making the postseason more than the well-being of their pitching.
It is why what is being said over and over from opposing teams is that the Mets are relentlessly asking about pitching. They would love impact. But they are not viewed as legitimate players for Max Scherzer. Unless they could involve a third team, they may lack the top-level pitching prospects necessary to land Jose Berrios — if the Twins even trade him.
What remains on the chessboard then are starters such as Texas’ Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, Colorado’s Jon Gray and the Cubs’ Zach Davies. The expectation is that the Mets will still add an arm (maybe two) before Friday’s trade deadline, but that it might be more of the Rich Hill level of impact.
Their rivals sense they are desperate to protect themselves. For there is a best-case scenario for Mets pitching in which Carlos Carrasco comes back well beginning Friday, deGrom is not far behind, Noah Syndergaard offers a multi-inning September hybrid and the recent dip of Taijuan Walker is the natural ebb of a season rather than a dive for a starter who already has thrown 27 more innings this season than from 2018-20 combined.
What the Mets essentially want to guard against is a repeat of 2007, when they held first place from mid-May until the third-to-last game of the season amid a historic collapse. They blew a seven-game lead with 17 to play because their pitching hit a wall with pitchers like Philip Humber and Brian Lawrence (think the 2007 versions of Jerad Eickhoff) starting games late with Orlando Hernandez physically shot at the end of his career and most of the rest of the rotation working on fumes.
In 2007, the Mets’ ERA rose every month up to 4.93 in August, then 5.14 in September, which included a 5.51 by the rotation — third worst in the NL. The Mets ERA by month this year: 2.90, 3.18, 3.71 and 4.49 going into Wednesday. These Mets have been in first place since May 8 even as their rotation has followed the same negative trend line, climbing to 4.69 in July and obviously ballooned by Eickhoff’s 10-run, 3 ¹/₃-inning debacle Tuesday.
Just about every contender is facing a version of what the Mets are because 1) at this time of year it is familiar to need to add pitching and 2) this year clubs are particularly worried about what the last few months look like since workloads were so disrupted last season with a 60-game season and no minor league campaign.
The Mets’ situation has some extremity to it, though. Expected depth pieces who could give length such as Robert Gsellman, Joey Lucchesi, Corey Oswalt and David Peterson are either out the rest of the year or could be, and doubt swirls on Sean Reid-Foley, Robert Stock and Jordan Yamamoto, too. And in the major aisle, Carrasco and Syndergaard have yet to pitch an inning this year and deGrom has dealt with various injuries and is on the IL for a second time this season.
There is reason for optimism because if the Mets get to a division series and have deGrom, Carrasco and Marcus Stroman lined up, that will be formidable. But they have to get in and have spent the year being unable to pull away from the Braves and Phillies as they both tangle with the .500 mark. That has allowed Atlanta and Philadelphia — despite defects bigger than those of the Mets — to be deadline buyers.
The Braves are at least trying to raise their roster floor with additions such as Joc Pederson and Stephen Vogt and have minor league depth greater than the Mets to do more than that. The Phillies lack prospect capital, but the history of their president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, is that when he has a team with a chance, he goes for it. And one AL head of baseball operations said, “I really do think the team that does the best this week will win the division.”
The Mets might have to hit on the right secondary starter and depth reliever. The pool of relievers is deep, and some teams could just be looking to escape money close to the deadline and all but give pieces away.
As for the Mets doing something bigger, the last time they were in first this late in the season was 2015. They wanted an outfielder as badly as they want a starter now. They completed a deal for Carlos Gomez that was scrubbed because they said he failed a physical. They tried hard for especially Justin Upton, but also Jay Bruce and couldn’t get a deal done. With 20 minutes until the deadline, then-GM Sandy Alderson recommended to Jeff Wilpon that they honor a first-place team by flinching and including pitching prospect Michael Fulmer to obtain Yoenis Cespedes.
Zack Scott, as acting GM, is holding conversations with rivals this week, but the sense among those teams is he is bringing everything home to Alderson and Steve Cohen for a decision. Will the old baseball exec and new owner decide this first-place team deserves for the front office to blink and use a top prospect for a starter such as Berrios?
That would be riveting, but at minimum — if there is no 2015 redux — the Mets must further deepen their staff to prevent a repeat of 2007.