BALTIMORE -- By the time David Peterson walked off the mound at Camden Yards on Tuesday, head bowed and face stern, the Mets were already well on their way to a 10-3 loss to the Orioles. Peterson had again submitted a poor start, allowing four runs on eight hits over 2 2/3 innings. His ERA over his last four outings is 9.88, leaving the Mets to wonder: Is the promising young left-hander still one of their five best current rotation options?
Manager Luis Rojas, who tends to be deliberate in announcing such decisions, left no doubt immediately after the loss. Despite Peterson’s struggles, the Mets plan to keep him in the rotation.
“He’s one of our starters,” Rojas said. “We’ve just got to keep working hard with him.”
When Peterson does take the mound next week against the Cubs, he will need to avoid the sort of hard contact that doomed him on Tuesday. Peterson didn’t give the Mets much of a chance in their series opener against the Orioles, allowing three consecutive hits to open the second inning, including Pat Valaika’s two-run double. The Orioles attacked Peterson with three additional hits over a four-batter stretch in the third, leading to his exit and rendering Pete Alonso’s first two-homer game of the season obsolete.
“Right now, it’s on us -- and him -- to get him back on track,” Rojas said.
This is not necessarily a long-term problem for the Mets, who have Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard due back from the injured list in July and August, respectively. But with those two and Jordan Yamamoto all currently shelved, the Mets don’t have an obvious near-term replacement for Peterson in the rotation.
What they have are a series of imperfect options.
Option A: Stick with Peterson
Rojas made it clear that this is the direction the Mets will take, and there are certainly reasons to do so. Not everything has been as bad for Peterson as his 6.32 ERA -- fourth highest in the Majors among pitchers with at least 45 innings -- makes it seem. Peterson’s strikeout rate is up from last season, in part because he is throwing a bit harder. In the first inning Tuesday, Peterson hit 96 mph on a pitch to Freddy Galvis, by far the fastest pitch of his MLB career. He’s also increased the spin rate and effectiveness of his slider, which has developed into a bona fide -- albeit inconsistent -- out pitch for him.
But better stuff has not translated into more success for Peterson, who is allowing hard contact at some of the highest rates in the league. Peterson may be missing more bats, but when that doesn’t happen, hitters are tagging his pitches with authority. Of the eight hits he allowed at Camden Yards on Tuesday, five went for extra bases.
“We’re just going through a rough patch right now,” Peterson said, noting that consistency of command has hurt him most. “I’m going to the ballpark every day trying to get better and trying to straighten this thing out. That’s all I can keep doing is showing up and working hard, and trying to put this back on the straight and narrow.”
Option B: Call up Thomas Szapucki
This would be the most straightforward substitution the Mets could make, and the one with the most upside, as well. Szapucki has been a top prospect in the organization for years, most recently clocking in 10th on MLB Pipeline’s Mets Top 30 Prospects list. Had Szapucki not missed most of 2017 and all of ’18 recovering from Tommy John surgery, he almost certainly would be in the big leagues already.
There has always been some thought that Szapucki would end up a left-handed reliever, but the Mets have so far resisted the temptation to speed up his development by moving him to the bullpen. Szapucki has responded by posting a 2.05 ERA in four starts and one relief appearance for Triple-A Syracuse, striking out 25 batters in 22 innings.
That’s the good. The bad is that Szapucki, despite being nearly 25 years old, remains untested with just 26 career innings above A-ball. His walk rate of 4.5 per nine innings this season is well below average, as is his 1.41 WHIP, and Szapucki hasn’t shown enough velocity in the Minors -- he sat at 90-93 mph during a recent start for Syracuse -- to make scouts think he’ll consistently miss bats at the highest level. One talent evaluator recently called Szapucki a “slam-dunk bullpen guy.”
Still, Szapucki has been easily the Mets’ most effective Triple-A starter from a run-prevention standpoint. And he would be a popular pick with the fan base, given his prospect status.
Option C: Piggyback long relievers
This could be an effective short-term ploy, given how many Mets relievers are former starters capable of providing three innings at a time out of the bullpen. The Mets could, say, use Robert Gsellman for two or three innings, then follow him up with Seth Lugo or Sean Reid-Foley. By that point, they could move onto their back-end relievers to finish a game. The Mets could even take advantage of the fact that Reid-Foley, Gsellman and Drew Smith have accessible Minor League options, allowing the team to make fuller use of its 40-man roster.
The downside of this strategy is that there’s no guarantee it will work; while both Gsellman and Reid-Foley enjoyed initial success in their new roles this year, both have since lost a bit of effectiveness (Reid-Foley walked four batters in his final two appearances before a demotion to Syracuse, while Gsellman served up Maikel Franco’s three-run homer in the fifth inning Tuesday). And as excellent as the Mets’ relief corps has been, taxing it every five days could prove detrimental over a six-month season. What’s more, keeping Lugo available for bulk work might prevent him from being available in more valuable late-game, high-leverage situations.
Consider this an imperfect solution, but a potential one nonetheless if Peterson continues to struggle.
Other options of note
The last the Mets saw of Jerad Eickhoff, he was struggling in Spring Training, with an 11.25 ERA over two outings. Those issues continued into the regular season at Syracuse, where Eickhoff produced a 6.00 ERA over his first four starts. Eickhoff, a veteran of five big league seasons with the Phillies, did recover to give the Syracuse Mets two scintillating outings late last month. But he followed those two up with another poor one, hinting at the inconsistency that forced him to accept a Minor League deal last winter. He’s also not on the 40-man roster.
One of the Mets’ most intriguing pop-up prospects is Tylor Megill, who recently earned a promotion to Syracuse after striking out 14.5 batters per nine innings at Double-A Binghamton. Megill has been turning heads since instructional league last autumn, but he’s essentially still a two-pitch pitcher -- a repertoire that hints at a future as a reliever, unless his changeup rapidly develops. Megill has also thrown just 35 career innings above A-ball.