Which free agents could fill Mets' rotation?

January 7th, 2021

NEW YORK -- The Mets’ reported disinterest in Japanese free-agent starter Tomoyuki Sugano leaves a hole unfilled in their rotation. Sugano could have been a snug fit, settling into the starting five behind Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman, or even lower if Noah Syndergaard thrives in his return from Tommy John surgery. It instead appears he will head elsewhere.

However, the Mets’ decision to pass on a free agent of Sugano’s caliber is due to a calculated baseball operations choice, not a financial constraint. Mets owner Steve Cohen, president Sandy Alderson and general manager Jared Porter have been open in saying the team intends to be one of the most active Major League clubs this offseason, and they showed that in a big way on Thursday with a blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco.

While Carrasco could fill that third spot in the rotation behind deGrom and Stroman, the Mets may not be done making big moves. Here are several options they could still pursue to bolster what's shaping up to be a strong rotation.

Until Bauer signs elsewhere, he remains an option for the Mets. Easily the best starter on the free-agent market, Bauer has tantalized fan bases -- often publicly, via his Twitter account -- from New York to Anaheim, San Diego and beyond. Bauer is coming off a Cy Young season and should command a sizeable deal, though his track record before 2020 may be spotty enough to give teams pause. In five of his past seven seasons, Bauer has posted an ERA over 4.00. Still, if the Mets want to make the biggest rotation splash possible, Bauer represents the simplest and most obvious way to accomplish that.

The Mets have been linked as closely to Odorizzi as to any starting pitcher this offseason, and for good reason. Despite a down year in 2020, Odorizzi remains one of the better long-term bets on the open market entering his age-31 season. The right-hander relied on mechanical tweaks to engineer a velocity spike in '19, which he parlayed into a career year with the Twins. He maintained his gains into '20 but battled multiple injuries, ceded more hard contact and probably suffered from a bit of rotten luck in a four-start sample -- his rate of home runs on fly balls skyrocketed from 8.8 to 23.5 percent. A move to the National League could benefit Odorizzi, but he remains a health risk, having landed on the injured list four times over the past two seasons.

Enough mixed information exists about Tanaka that he took to Twitter over the weekend to dispel it, writing in Japanese that he is still considering options outside of the Bronx and Japan. The idea of Tanaka ending his career in his home country does appear real, as does a return to the only Major League team he has known. But the Yankees have made it clear that DJ LeMahieu is their priority on a relatively limited budget, potentially putting the Mets in play as a fallback option for the two-time All-Star righty. They can offer both money and geographic familiarity in exchange for mid-rotation excellence. Tanaka was still plenty effective last year at age 31, posting a 3.56 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 48 innings.

Walker and Richards are linked as former first-round Draft picks who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018 and returned to prove their health in '20. Walker submitted the more dominant performance over the shortened season, posting a 2.70 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. Richards produced similar underlying statistics but a higher ERA, finishing with a 4.03 mark and 46 strikeouts over 51 1/3 innings. The biggest difference could be the cost. While both pitchers are options for those in need of rotation help, Walker figures to come at a higher price, considering he is 28 and Richards is 32.

//José Quintana
These veterans combined to make seven starts in 2020. Paxton made five of them, missing the rest of the season due to a strained left flexor tendon. The southpaw has been injury-prone throughout his career, topping out at 160 1/3 innings in '18, but he can be dominant when healthy, with a strikeout rate of 11.1 per nine innings over the past four seasons. The Mets, who sent an official to scout Paxton during a throwing session last month, understand that as well as anyone. Paxton represents a significant risk, but also boasts as much upside as any free-agent pitcher this side of Bauer.

Kluber threw a single inning in 2020 before a torn right shoulder muscle nixed the rest of his season. Now 34, he is a two-time Cy Young Award winner who delivered an All-Star season as recently as '18, but who has mustered just 36 2/3 innings since. The Mets intend to scout Kluber’s scheduled workout next week, according to a source, but his age and injury history make him more of a reclamation project than a bona fide rotation piece at this point.

Also intriguing is the 31-year-old Quintana, a consistent Major League starter for eight seasons in Chicago before missing most of 2020 due to left thumb and lat issues. Teams must decide if that was a fluke or genuine regression, factoring in a reputation for durability that saw Quintana average 193 innings per season from '13-19.