For Mets' rotation depth, staying ready is key

February 17th, 2023

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Buck Showalter prefers his players not to hold things inside, so in private meetings, he attempts to draw emotions out of them. Last summer, Showalter would ask how he felt about being optioned to Triple-A Syracuse despite strong results at the Major League level. He would ask similar questions of the more reserved , later quipping about the experience: “I really get the pliers out to pry him open.”

To be clear: Showalter doesn’t want those two to feel satisfied yo-yoing between the Majors and Minors. But he does want them to understand that it’s a likely reality of their situations. The Mets are paying $128.6 million guaranteed -- more than the entire payrolls of roughly half the league -- to Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, José Quintana and Carlos Carrasco. That means pitchers such as Peterson, Megill, and , who could start on many lesser teams, find themselves in Spring Training limbo.

“You can sulk and you can be upset or whatever and let your performance show that,” said Peterson, whom the Mets optioned five times last season despite a 3.83 ERA over 105 2/3 innings. “Or you can continue to work, and when you get that next opportunity, be ready for it.”

In addition to the fact that the Mets have five 30-something pitchers on guaranteed contracts, Peterson, Megill, Hernández and Lucchesi -- the team’s sixth through ninth starters, in some order -- all have Minor League options remaining. That means the organization can send any of them to Triple-A Syracuse without having to run them through the waiver process and risk losing them to other teams.

For clubs, such options are a blessing; they provide flexibility at a moment’s notice. For players, they can be a curse. Relievers tend to be most affected, as teams swap out successful ones after a particularly grueling night’s work. But starting pitchers are hardly immune, as Peterson learned last season.

The cruelest example occurred last August, when Peterson twirled 5 1/3 scoreless innings in a key doubleheader sweep of Braves, reaching a career-best 99 mph on the radar gun. That night, the Mets optioned him back to Syracuse anyway, but not before Showalter communicated with Peterson when he would be back: Aug. 20 for another doubleheader. Peterson wound up sticking around the rest of the season that time.

“They didn’t leave me in the dark,” he said. “They didn’t say, ‘Hey, thanks for your work, and we’ll see you when we’ll see you.’ They had a plan throughout the year.”

Megill knows as well as anyone how quickly situations can change. Ticketed for Syracuse to begin last season, Megill wound up becoming the Opening Day starter after injuries to Jacob deGrom and Scherzer surfaced late in spring.

Then there is Hernández, an offseason trade acquisition from the Marlins who, upon hearing the news, marveled at being sent from a sub-.500 team to a legitimate title contender. Were he still in Miami, Hernández would have stood a decent chance of making the Opening Day rotation. In New York, he’s a long shot, far more likely to receive a plane ticket to Syracuse.

“At this point, it’s just trying to get a spot on the roster,” Hernández said through an interpreter.

Such flexibility is what general manager Billy Eppler hoped to engineer in building this year’s team, understanding that every member of his projected rotation is on the wrong side of 30. Even for younger rotations, injuries happen. Doubleheaders happen. Unforeseen circumstances occur. The average MLB team ran through 13 different starting pitchers last season; every club used a minimum of eight.

That’s why the Mets intend to keep Peterson, Megill, Hernández and Lucchesi (who hasn’t returned to the Majors since undergoing 2021 Tommy John surgery) stretched out as starters. In the short-term, it could be disappointing for those pitchers, essentially forcing them to Syracuse if everyone is healthy. Longer-term, it figures to be critical for the Mets, who have been burned by a lack of starting pitching depth in the past.

“Does [Peterson] think he can pitch in the big leagues right now, and Tylor? Yeah, of course they do,” Showalter said. “You want them to. I think they’re mature enough to know how quickly things can change, and they’ve got to be ready.”