Noah Syndergaard to undergo Tommy John surgery: What it means for Mets, his free agency and more

The New York Mets have lost an important member of their vaunted rotation. Hard-throwing righty Noah Syndergaard has a torn ulnar collateral ligament and will have Tommy John surgery, the Mets confirmed Tuesday. Syndergaard, 27, will have surgery on Thursday, the team said.

“After experiencing discomfort in his elbow before Spring Training was suspended due to the pandemic, Noah and our health and performance department have been in constant contact,” GM Brodie Van Wagenen said in a statement. “Based on the persistence of his symptoms, Noah underwent a physical examination and MRI that revealed the ligament tear. A second opinion from Dr. Neal ElAttrache confirmed the diagnosis and the recommendation for surgery. 

“Noah is an incredibly hard worker and a tremendous talent,” Van Wagenen added. “While this is unfortunate, we have no doubt that Noah will be able to return to full strength and continue to be an integral part of our Championship pursuits in the future.”

Before his elbow starting acting up, Syndergaard appeared in three Grapefruit League games this spring and looked healthy. He allowed four runs (three earned) in eight innings while striking out 11 and walking zero. There were no indications his ulnar collateral ligament was about to give out.

Syndergaard is among the most obviously talented pitchers in the game. He throws in the upper-90s with ease and has an array of dastardly secondary pitches. Despite that, he mustered only a 4.28 ERA in 2019 and has a 3.73 ERA in 352 innings the last two seasons combined, numbers that are merely good rather than great.  

Syndergaard is the latest big-name pitcher to require Tommy John surgery this spring. Red Sox ace Chris Sale, Yankees righty Luis Severino, Giants righty Tyler Beede, Padres setup man Andres Munoz, and Tigers prospect Joey Wentz have all needed their elbows rebuilt in recent weeks. Tommy John surgeries typically peak in February and March as pitchers increase their throwing.

Here are four things to know about Syndergaard’s injury and what it means for the Mets.

1. New York still has a formidable rotation

The rotation would be more formidable with Syndergaard, of course, but the Mets had six starters for five rotation spots this spring. Syndergaard’s injury means they now have five starters for five spots:

  1. Jacob deGrom
  2. Marcus Stroman
  3. Rick Porcello
  4. Steven Matz
  5. Michael Wacha

The depth beyond the top five is rather thin — up-and-down righty Walker Lockett is likely next in line for a rotation spot — but they’ll still send a viable big-league starter to the mound every five days. DeGrom is excellent, Stroman is very good, Porcello will chew up innings, and Matz and Wacha have upside.

2. The Mets are at a disadvantage in the NL East

The NL East was poised to be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball in 2020. It’s home to the Nationals, the defending World Series champions, the two-time defending division champion Braves, as well as the Mets and Phillies. According to SportsLine, here are the Mets’ chances of making the playoffs and winning the division in 2020 with and without Syndergaard (based on a 162-game season):

Making playoffs
With Syndergaard: 35.4 percent
Without Syndergaard: 32.3 percent

Winning NL East
With Syndergaard: 17.3 percent
Without Syndergaard: 15.3 percent

The tighter the division, the more likely it is one big injury derails a team in the race. The Mets may have just suffered that injury.

3. Syndergaard’s free agency will be hurt

Syndergaard will earn $9.7 million as an arbitration-eligible player in 2020. He will go through arbitration one more time in 2021 before qualifying for free agency following that season. Syndergaard had a chance to be a $300 million pitcher with huge seasons in 2020 and 2021. That is almost certainly off the table now.  

Tommy John surgery typically comes with a 14-16 month rehab timetable these days, meaning Syndergaard is unlikely to return until around next year’s All-Star break. That would only give him two months or so to prove himself before free agency. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, but Syndergaard seems like a candidate to sign a one-year “prove yourself” contract in the 2021-22 offseason, then try to cash in big the following winter.

4. This is the time to have a major surgery

MLB is currently shut down until at least mid May due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) threat and it is possible the shutdown will extend beyond that depending how the next few weeks play out. What is the required level of COVID-19 containment to play MLB games? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that right now.

If a player needs a major surgery, now is the time to have it. Syndergaard is done for the year either way, but with each passing day it becomes more likely the 2020 season will not include a full 162 games, so he’s missing fewer team games. For all intents and purposes, Syndergaard is missing a partial season, not a full season. That’s the silver lining in an otherwise terrible situation.

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