With Senga injured, who will step up for Mets?

February 23rd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anthony DiComo's Mets Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The news Thursday that Kodai Senga will miss Opening Day due to a right shoulder strain has changed the vibe of Mets camp considerably, ripping a hole into some of the early optimism that the Mets might be able to surprise the NL East. But perhaps they still can. Entering camp, Mets officials frequently cited rotation depth as a strength of this team. They may be digging into it sooner than they had hoped, but they’re still confident in the arms they can potentially deploy.

“It means we’re going to ask people to step up,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “That’s what happens over the course of a baseball season. We knew we were not going to go through a full season with just five or six starters, and so here we are. We’ve got plenty of options.”

Suddenly, the Mets have a true fifth starter competition, with three obvious hopefuls (and a fourth pitcher worth noting).

Stop if you’ve heard this one before: A Mets pitcher suffers a Spring Training injury, forcing Megill into the rotation just before the start of the season. It happened in 2022, when Megill served as a last-minute sub for Jacob deGrom on Opening Day. And it happened again last year, when Justin Verlander’s injury resulted in Megill starting Game 3 of the season (following a roundtrip detour to Triple-A Syracuse).

Based on his MLB experience and his finish to last season, Megill is once again the presumptive favorite in the Mets’ unexpected fifth starter race. He has enjoyed some strong stretches since debuting in 2021, including last August and September when he produced a 2.55 ERA over his final six starts. But Megill has struggled to maintain consistent velocity or deliver steady results overall. He hopes that’s about to change. The right-hander is throwing in the mid-90s again and believes he’s better equipped to maintain that velocity deep into games. Megill is also confident in a new split-fingered fastball, “The American Spork,” which Senga helped him develop as an answer to his “Ghost Fork.”

About to enter his age-28 season, Megill has reached a career crossroads. A lengthy stretch of success could allow him to stick in the rotation for several years to come, potentially resulting in a hefty contract when he reaches free agency after the 2027 season. But an inconsistent run could prompt the Mets to look elsewhere when they next need rotation help.

“Obviously, it’s not something I want to do is be the next guy up,” Megill said. “I want to start and solidify a starting role. But all I can do is make the most of opportunities that I have, and go out there and compete and help the team win.”

No depth option boasts more Major League experience than Lucchesi, who debuted in 2018 with the Padres. His Mets tenure began in 2021 but was interrupted for a full season by Tommy John surgery. Finally healthy last year, Lucchesi bounced between Syracuse and the Majors, generally succeeding at the highest level but struggling in the Minors. He chalks that up to his issues adapting to the Automated Ball-Strike system at Triple-A.

In New York, Lucchesi went undefeated with a 1.48 ERA over four starts down the stretch. He shed around nine pounds this offseason and 25 over the last calendar year in an effort to become more athletic and elongate his career. If the changes click for Lucchesi, he stands a reasonable chance of beating out Megill for a job, or at least of positioning himself as the first man up in the event of another injury.

“I’m just here doing my best,” Lucchesi said. “If I perform how I know I can do, I think I have a good shot at getting it.”

José Butto
Butto ranked 12th among prospects on MLB Pipeline’s Mets list in 2022, which is higher than Megill ever did. He continued to thrive in the Minors that season but struggled during a brief Major League debut, then carried those issues into last season. Finally, in September, Butto turned into a different pitcher, producing a 3.29 ERA over five Major League starts.

Whether that performance proves to be legitimate or a September mirage will determine the extent to which Butto can help the Mets. He’s probably a bit behind Megill and Lucchesi on the depth chart at this point, given his youth and checkered results at the highest level. But it wouldn’t take much for Butto to become a major rotation factor, potentially beginning with a strong Grapefruit League performance.

Although Stearns didn’t mention Kranick by name, the former Pirate is the only other depth starter in camp with MLB experience. Kranick underwent Tommy John surgery in 2021 and made it back for nine Minor League starts last season. The Pirates subsequently designated Kranick for assignment, and the Mets scooped him up on a waiver claim.

More uncertainty surrounds Kranick than the three names above, given that he hasn’t pitched regularly in the Majors in three years. But Kranick does possess a high-octane arm and could be a consideration for the Mets early in the season, provided he’s still in the organization at that time. (Kranick is out of options and has the right to declare free agency if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.)