Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland know about pitching talent. Callaway, the Mets’ new manager, was the Cleveland Indians’ pitching coach when they won two division titles, reached the World Series in 2016 and posted one of the finest pitching seasons in baseball history last year. Eiland, the Mets’ new pitching coach, held the same position with two World Series-winning teams: the 2009 Yankees and the 2015 Kansas City Royals.
Yet as they watched the Mets’ gifted but oft-injured pitching staff throw recently at the team’s spring training complex, Callaway and Eiland had a similar epiphany.
“I’ve been around some pretty good arms, and this is the best group of arms and stuff I’ve ever seen from top to bottom,” Callaway said.
Eiland added, “Not to downplay anywhere else I’ve ever been, but I’ve never been around a collection of talent like I’m around here.”
And those comments came before the Mets reached a deal more than a week ago to add the veteran left-handed starter Jason Vargas, a much-needed move to get a reliable arm into an unreliable rotation. The ripple effects were also critical: Vargas on board meant strengthened depth and a fortified bullpen.
Last year, the Mets didn’t have enough. They headed into the 2017 season with eight starters — Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero — but most of that group ended up injured or pitched poorly, the most obvious reason for a 70-92 finish.
Until recently, the Mets had essentially the same rotation and depth, and the same worry that it might not be enough.
“We were somewhat at risk,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said. “But at the same time, we wanted to manage our own expectations.”
I take pride in being somebody that the guys behind me can count on,” Vargas said. “And they’re not going to have to wonder if I’m going to step out there on the field on that fifth day and be able to give them a quality start.”
Yet even before signing Vargas, Alderson said he was optimistic the team’s new coaching staff and some revised medical and training protocols would yield better health. Pitchers were given an off-season throwing program, and Callaway and Eiland were diligent about regular check-ins.
The results have been positive in initial spring training starts: Wheeler, who used bone-strengthening medicine in the off-season, has hit 97 miles per hour with his fastball already; Gsellman’s sinker was improved after off-season shoulder exercises; and Lugo looked sharp after a winter spent building strength around his elbow.
Alderson also said the off-season checkups by the training staff had “a lower level of tolerance for variance and idiosyncrasies.” The team believed Syndergaard’s bulking up and improper weight training last winter were factors in the right latissimus tear that forced him to miss four and a half months last season. He has since changed his workouts.
“I felt more limber, more athletic and more under control,” Syndergaard said after his spring training debut on Monday. “Pitching is kind of controlled aggression, and I think I was able to control that a little better.”
Against the Houston Astros on Monday, Syndergaard looked to be back to his adrenaline-fueled, flame-throwing self, with two perfect innings. Although 11 of his 22 pitches were at least 100 m.p.h., he said he did not feel he was “exerting a whole lot of effort.” He froze Jose Altuve, the reigning American League most valuable player, with a darting 92 m.p.h. changeup.
The rest of the once-injured Mets starters — Lugo (elbow), Harvey (shoulder), Matz (elbow surgery), Wheeler (stress injury in upper arm) and Gsellman (hamstring strain) — also appear to be in relatively good health.
That did not mean the team’s rotation depth was suddenly better, however. Matz has never pitched a full major league season, and Wheeler hasn’t done so in three years. Harvey, who is a free agent at the end of the season, hasn’t been the same since the 2015 World Series, and Lugo has the specter of Tommy John surgery hanging over him. Gsellman regressed. Montero is out of minor league options. And Flexen is still green.
Hence the need for Vargas, who will make his spring debut on Thursday. Although Callaway has said Wheeler is competing for a spot in the starting rotation, Vargas’s arrival could allow Montero, Gsellman, Lugo or Wheeler to be pushed into the major league bullpen, or stashed away in Class AAA Las Vegas. The Mets added even more depth on Monday by signing starter A. J. Griffin, who posted a 5.94 E.R.A. with the Texas Rangers last season, to a minor league deal.