Looking For Value In The Mets Rotation

Without Mat– okay, I won’t even say it. Without their ace and one of the best pitchers in the game, the 2014 Mets rotation takes on a decidedly different look, one led by…

The big four

Bartolo Colon

Colon was a pretty fun fantasy option when you could get him for a buck or two, which you almost certainly could since he was lousy in 2009, out of baseball entirely in 2010, and looking like this in 2011. (You’re staring at that picture. You’re wondering if it’s fake. I’m not going to spoil it.) Then he had to go and win 28 games in two years for Oakland, and put up a 2.65 ERA last year, and you’re left with the reality that he’s clearly going to cost more than a buck this year, but he’s still 41 years old and hasn’t had a swinging-strike percentage of even seven percent since 2005. He’s obviously clearly rosterable, but at what price?

The good news is this: the move out of the AL West into the NL East means that he gets fewer lineups full of Mike Trout and Adrian Beltre, and more lineups full of pitchers and Marlins. That’ll help, but the counterpoint is this: Colon did face the 111-loss Astros five times last year, putting up a 24/2 K/BB in 29 innings. You take out the Astros, and he put up 93 strikeouts in 161 innings. The opposing pitchers will give some of those back, but you’re obviously not drafting him for strikeouts. And you’re not drafting him expecting him to put up another 18 wins, not when the Mets have an unsettled roster and have had exactly one pitcher — R.A. Dickey’s 2012 Cy Young campaign — put up even 17 wins in the last quarter-century.

What about for ERA? Citi Field isn’t exactly Coors Field, but it does help more balls go out of the park than does whatever Oakland’s park is called these days, and that means that a career-low 0.66 HR/9 shouldn’t really be counted upon. If he suddenly turns into more of a 12-win, 3.60 ERA, 5.0 K/9 pitcher this year — that’s discounting the fact that he just implodes entirely at 41 — he’ll still be a valuable pitcher for the Mets. He just won’t be worth the kind of dollars he’ll command in fantasy drafts.

Jon Niese

A year ago, you might have thought that Niese was a decent breakout prospect, headed as he was into his age-26 season with three solid years under his belt and continual improvements in command. Then he missed nearly two months of 2013 with a sore shoulder — it’s bothering him again this spring, and he hasn’t even been in a game yet — and declined in a few ways otherwise. For the first time in his four full seasons, his strikeout rate fell below seven per nine; for the first time since 2010, his walk rate went above three per nine. He’s been a perfectly acceptable major league starter, though like Colon, one more useful in real life than in fantasy.

There’s still some upside here, because he’s still only 27, and he was much better last season coming off the disabled list stint. But the fact that his shoulder is barking again this spring is more than a little worrisome, and there’s at least some sense of “is this all there is?” here. If so, that’s still a valuable major league starter, though like Colon, one more useful in real life than in fantasy. Assuming his shoulder survives the spring, he’s an obvious NL-only choice, and should be worth a look in most mixed leagues.

Dillon Gee

At the risk — okay, certainty — of repeating myself, this is another pitcher more more useful in real life than fantasy. In parts of four seasons as a Met, Gee has given 502.1 innings of 3.89 ERA ball. That’s perfectly acceptable from the middle-back of your rotation, and the Mets are happy to have had him. But while he’s shown improvement in his control — down to a pretty good 2.13 BB/9 last year — he’s not elite at anything. He’s perfectly fine, there’s just little or no upside here, especially if arm troubles (shoulder surgeries in 2009 and 2012, elbow pain in 2013) pop back up, because he has very little margin for error. If the Mets can get another 180-200 innings of league-average work out of him, they’ll be thrilled with that. He’s just not more than a streaming option in NL-only leagues, fantasy-wise.

Zack Wheeler

Now we get to the fun part, because Wheeler is a name Mets fans have been waiting on for a while, and he showed enough flashes in his 17 starts last year to give them something to dream on. Harvey’s injury means that perhaps too many eyes will be on Wheeler, because while there’s real talent here, it’s probably not fair to expect him to be leading this rotation right away, and he has a lot of work to do. As Jeff Zimmerman noted in January, Wheeler’s command is a huge concern, as was the declining velocity he showed during the year. (Not that these things can’t be fixed; Wheeler was also tipping his pitches, and that eventually got resolved.)

Wheeler has said that improving his command is a goal in 2014, and it really has to be. It’s hard to work deep into games with a 4.14 BB/9, not only because of the extra pitches thrown, but because the additional base runners so often turn into additional runs. The talent and the pedigree make him an obvious draft target, of course, just be careful to keep an eye on the hype. Wheeler should be a good pitcher in 2014, and very possibly even the best Mets starter. He’s just not likely to be an elite ace-level starter right away, and so he shouldn’t be valued as such.

The fifth starter battle

Though I suppose we can’t simply assume the Mets would have still signed Colon had Matt Harvey been healthy, the fact that Wheeler or Gee isn’t the fifth starter, bouncing one of the names below, really goes to show what a blow Harvey’s loss is. With him, this is a pretty interesting quintet. Without him, well, you’re betting on at least one or more of the below.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

To my own detriment, I’ve always been a Matsuzaka defender, and so I was a sucker for the New York Times article that came out on him last month, talking about significant changes he made after joining the Mets last year. And while the “small sample size” alarms are obviously astoundingly huge here…

First three starts: 10.95 ERA, 12.1 IP, 12/7 K/BB
Final four starts: 1.37 ERA, 26.1 IP, 21/9 K/BB

…it’s still a nice turnaround after some testable changes. Lest it not be clear, I am not suggesting that Matsuzaka is somehow “back” because of four September starts against the Indians, Marlins, Phillies and Reds. Far from it. That said, it still feels like there’s some small amount of value here if he can win the fifth roster spot. He’ll almost certainly be available for free or $1 at most in all leagues, and he can still miss his share of bats. Though it somehow feels like he’s older, he’s still only 33. If Colon can do it, why not Matsuzaka?

The most recent reports have Matsuzaka as the likely leader for the fifth spot, and if only for my own enjoyment, I think he might get the final roster spot on one of my fantasy teams. Why not?

Jenrry Mejia

I’ve long loved Mejia’s talent, but my respect for his skills is nearly matched by my almost certain belief that he’s too fragile to survive in the rotation, and while he might have a chance to grab the fifth starter spot, the fact that Terry Collins has already said he’s a bullpen candidate should tell you that the team isn’t counting on him. Nor should they. Nor should you. If he does come out of camp with a rotation job, then by all means pick him up, because he’s got the talent to make it pay off — he looked great in a short stint in the rotation last year — just know that you’ll need to keep a DL spot open, too.

John Lannan

Lannan is still in the mix as well, but there’s no fantasy utility here. Even at his best years ago in Washington, he had no ability to miss bats — I still have no idea how he managed to survive 206 innings in 2009 with 89 strikeouts — and he hasn’t been at his “best” in some time. He’s solid at limiting home runs, but isn’t even really a control artist, and so while he’s not likely to start for the Mets, he’s even less likely to be on a fantasy roster.

The others

Rafael Montero, Carlos Torres &  Noah Syndergaard

Torres was a swingman last year and is likely to do the same this year, though the unsettled bullpen means that he’ll probably start the year in relief and perhaps stay there all season. Montero and Syndergaard are of course two of the better regarded prospects in the Mets system. Neither one is going to break camp with the team, but both could be in the bigs by midseason, with Syndergaard worth stashing away in keeper leagues if you can.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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good thing I play mixed leagues…if I were NL league only, I’d be forced to take one of the Mets starters. If I had to choose, I’d pick Wheeler, his potential is just too good to ignore.