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Around the Horn: Starting rotation

January 14, 2019

NEW YORK -- With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., in four weeks, it's time to take a position-by-position look at the 2019 Mets. First up: starting pitchers.Projected starters: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas For most of the last decade,

NEW YORK -- With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., in four weeks, it's time to take a position-by-position look at the 2019 Mets. First up: starting pitchers.
Projected starters: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas
For most of the last decade, the Mets' starting pitching has defined them as a team. So too has the health of those starters. The inability of Syndergaard, Wheeler, Matz and Matt Harvey to stay healthy has largely prevented the Mets from making good on their rotation potential, except in short bursts.
That changed in 2018, when deGrom and Matz set career highs in starts and innings, at least temporarily setting aside concerns about the rotation. Those two will return to anchor the 2019 staff alongside Wheeler and Syndergaard, whose recent health history is not as strong, and Vargas, who rebounded from a poor first half to serve as an effective back-end starter after the All-Star break.

Mets starters posted a 3.54 ERA in 2018, fourth best in the National League.
Pacing them was deGrom, whose MLB-low 1.70 ERA over 32 starts earned him the NL Cy Young Award. While there is no reason to believe deGrom, 30, is due for a major drop-off in 2019, he is coming off such a historic season that it would be almost impossible for him -- or anyone -- to repeat it. The Mets can probably expect a bit of regression, but nothing that should prevent deGrom from continuing to anchor this staff.

Syndergaard, last year's Opening Day starter, is much more of an unknown. He missed significant time for the second straight season, this time due to a strained ligament in his right index finger and a series of illnesses. When heathy, Syndergaard remained one of the game's top starters, posting a 3.03 ERA with 155 strikeouts in 154 1/3 innings. But health has increasingly been an issue for the hard-throwing right-hander.

Previously, arm issues were of greater issue for Matz and Wheeler, who combined for only 52 starts from 2016-17. They started 59 last year, combining for a 3.61 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning. Wheeler in particular excelled down the stretch, going 10-1 with a 1.96 ERA over his last 12 outings.
Rounding out the rotation is Vargas, who rebounded from injuries, an inconsistent schedule and a dreadful first three months of the season to go 5-3 with a 3.81 ERA after the All-Star break -- the exact kind of production the Mets envisioned when they signed him to a two-year, $16 million deal last February. It was enough for the Mets to stay committed to Vargas as their fifth starter in 2019.

Other candidates: Seth Lugo, Corey Oswalt, Hector Santiago, Kyle Dowdy, Chris Flexen, Andrew Gagnon, P.J. Conlon
Heading into mid-January, this may be the most pressing issue on the Mets' roster. While Lugo is a fine sixth starter on paper, posting a 4.06 ERA in 31 career starts, the Mets have made it clear that they value him more as a setup man -- and don't exactly have the bullpen depth required to remove him from that role. As such, Lugo profiles more as a spot starter than a true sixth option.

Oswalt actually performed well for the Mets in 2018 despite his 5.85 ERA; shuttling frequently between the Major and Minors, he struggled mostly in spot starts when given little time to prepare. Offered a chance to start every fifth day down the stretch, Oswalt produced a 3.07 ERA in four outings.
Two pieces the Mets added this winter are Dowdy, a hard-throwing Rule 5 Draft pick, and Santiago, a soft-tossing veteran who served mostly as a reliever with the White Sox last season. Beyond that, the Mets are relying on young, marginal prospects such as Flexen, Gagnon and Conlon for depth. Given that they have used 12 starters per year in each of the last three seasons, the Mets would do well to add more depth before Opening Day.

Prospects to watch
Trading Justin Dunn to the Mariners and losing Franklyn Kilome to Tommy John surgery left the Mets without much upper-level Minor League pitching depth. While fourth- and fifth-ranked prospects David Peterson and Anthony Kay both impressed last summer, neither has thrown a pitch above Class A Advanced ball. None of the Mets' other Top 30 prospects are likely to contribute in 2019.

The bottom line
When healthy, the Mets' rotation might be the Majors' best, headlined by the NL's reigning Cy Young Award winner. But health has been a major issue for this bunch in past seasons, and the Mets have done little to insure themselves against a major injury.

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook.