MIAMI -- A little less than 24 hours before the start of the 2023 season, Mets general manager Billy Eppler sat in the visiting dugout at loanDepot park and discussed the viability of what he has taken to calling “the two aces model.” Last year, New York understood that the success of its roster would hinge upon Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. When deGrom left via free agency, the Mets recreated the model with Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
It is a prototype that has led to World Series championships for teams in the past, and as Eppler ticked off examples of that, he left one truth unsaid: the model depends upon the health and effectiveness of both aces, full stop.
While things may still ultimately end well for the Mets, the idea of such unfettered health is now squashed. Shortly before Scherzer took the mound on Thursday for Opening Day in Miami, the team placed Verlander on the injured list due to a low-grade muscle strain on the right side of his body. Mets doctors will re-evaluate Verlander in a week, at which point the club hopes to have a clearer idea of his timeline.
“It feels like crap,” Verlander said of missing the beginning of the season. “Not the way I wanted my Mets tenure to start, that’s for sure.”
The news dampened what had been a rosy Opening Day outlook for the Mets, who won 101 games last season before engaging in a record-setting spending spree over the winter. While Verlander’s injury appears to be relatively short term in nature, he is certain to miss multiple starts. Consider it another hit for a pitching staff that had already lost Edwin Díaz (right knee surgery), José Quintana (left rib surgery), Bryce Montes de Oca (Tommy John surgery), Sam Coonrod (right lat strain) and Elieser Hernández (right shoulder strain) to March injuries.
“Maybe we’re getting it all out of the way now,” Verlander said. “I’m an eternal optimist.”
The warning signs of Verlander’s injury surfaced during his final Grapefruit League start, when his typical mid-90s fastball velocity began flagging by about 2 mph. Afterward, Verlander shrugged off the issue contributing it to some mechanical tweaks that had affected his performance.
It was only afterward that he began considering a potential connection between his velocity loss and a bit of mild discomfort underneath his right armpit. When the sensation lingered into a routine bullpen session on Wednesday, Verlander alerted Mets officials, who sent him for an MRI. That revealed what the team termed as a low-grade strain of the teres major -- a muscle near the lat.
Had this been a late-season or postseason start, Verlander said, he likely would have pitched through the soreness. On Opening Day, he had little incentive to risk further tearing the muscle.
“I’ve dealt with a lat before a couple times in my career, and it’s just not something to mess around with at all,” Verlander said. “I missed the better part of three months one time. In my mind, it was to be prudent here, be smart and get it looked at. So that’s what I did.”
For now, Tylor Megill will assume Verlander’s rotation spot beginning Saturday against the Marlins. The Mets had tabbed Verlander third in the rotation in part to give him the honor of pitching the home opener. That assignment will instead go to Megill -- the team’s 2022 Opening Day starter by similar default -- because manager Buck Showalter does not want to upset the routines of other pitchers.
Further rotation plans, including the use of a sixth starter later in April, will depend upon the length of Verlander’s absence. All that’s clear now is that the right-hander will miss at least two starts. Doctors have cleared him to continue throwing while he recovers, which should prevent Verlander from having to spend too much time building his arm back up to full strength.
“I’m just going to play this thing week to week,” Eppler said.
Simply put, the Mets will not rush Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner who signed with the Mets in December on a two-year, $86.6 million contract. As one of the game’s best pitchers throughout his late 30s, Verlander defied age with both his health and performance. Now 40, he aims to continue doing the same, despite the inauspicious beginning to his Mets tenure.
The Mets, in turn, made rotation depth an offseason priority in deference to the injury risk of older pitchers.
“We had a lot of bumps along the way last year,” Showalter said. “We had to bob and weave along the way, and we will again this year.”