Why losing Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery is such a major blow to the Mets’ hopes in 2020

Even though baseball is nowhere to be found at the moment, the Mets — in partial measure because they are the Mets — managed to conjure up bad news from somewhere in the unseen ether. Flame-wielding right-hander Noah Syndergaard has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and will require Tommy John surgery. That will sideline him for the entirety of the 2020 season, such as it is, and a sizable portion of 2021.

To state the obvious, this is a grave blow to the Mets. The Mets are coming off a respectable 86-win season in 2019, and absent a disastrous season from closer Edwin Diaz they probably would’ve made the postseason. That baseline plus a more capable manager (Luis Rojas) in the fold raised hopes that 2020 would yield the team’s first playoff appearance since 2016. To a meaningful extent, those expectations depended upon a healthy and effective Thor. 

The Mets have impressive depth among position players, and the extra active roster spot that goes into effect this season should help them leverage it to a greater extent. As well, likely improvement from Diaz and the addition of Dellin Betances should help the team enjoy better high-leverage relief innings. The story with the Mets, though, is on some level always going to be about the rotation. 

They’ll (presumably) get a full season from deadline addition Marcus Stroman. As well, the Rick Porcello signing is a canny one as back-end stabilizers go. On the other hand, they lost Zack Wheeler to the Phillies via free agency, and the surprisingly useful Jason Vargas (a 101 ERA+ in 18 starts and one relief appearance for the Queenslanders) was traded to those same Phillies last July. You’ve got Jacob deGrom, winner of the last two NL Cy Young awards, at the front end, and Steven Matz projects to provide solid innings. 

As for Syndergaard, he’s coming off his worst season in terms of run prevention, but his FIP of 3.60 says the skills at the command-and-control level are still very much intact. You know about the stuff, which without exaggeration may be better than deGrom’s. Before Tuesday’s news, the fact that Syndergaard registered a career high in innings last year (197 2/3 in 32 starts) was also a positive. The plausible forecast was that Thor would again approach 200 innings while running an ERA in the mid-3.00s or better. Now he’s not going to provide the Mets with any of that.

As with any injury to a starting pitcher, it cascades through the rest of the staff. Stroman becomes a No. 2 man, which accordingly raises the bar he needs to clear. Porcello, instead of being an asset at the end of the rotation, is now perhaps stretched as a No. 3 man, followed by Matz, who’s never managed a qualifying number of innings in any major-league season (he’s been on the IL/DL six times since 2015, all because of arm or shoulder problems). In the five spot, you’ve now got Michael Wacha, who last season authored a 4.76 ERA and a 5.61 FIP for the Cardinals. To perhaps oversimplify, you’re replacing Syndergaard’s starts with Wacha’s and a few more tacked onto Matz’s workload. Those are the makings of a major downgrade.

There’s not a lot of remaining depth. If circumstances demand reinforcements — and they almost certainly will — then the Mets could turn to Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman, but doing so would thin out the bullpen. After that it’s … semi-prospect Franklyn Kilome, who’s coming back from Tommy John surgery of his own, or Stephen Gonsalves, who’s a waiver claim with the full performance characteristics of a waiver claim. Given the late hour, there’s not much on the market beyond Andrew Cashner, Clay Buchholz, Aaron Sanchez, and others of their general level. Oh, and Matt Harvey’s still out there, which occasions this bit of action-sports photography: 

What compounds the loss of Syndergaard is that the NL East once again figures to be hotly fought. The Braves are reigning division winners and profile as strong contenders once again, and the Nationals are reigning world champs and likewise figure to contend in 2020. There’s also the Phillies, who have upgraded in the dugout with Joe Girardi and added Wheeler and Didi Gregorius to an already solid roster. While the Marlins won’t contend, they figure to nudge closer to respectability. Look across the NL, and you could have as many as eight teams vying for those two wild card spots (assuming the postseason structure isn’t altered). 

To sum it up, this author was giving strong consideration to picking the Mets to win the NL East. Now, with Syndergaard on ice for all of 2020, this author will pick them to miss the postseason altogether. Appealing to one’s own authority is always in poor taste, yes, but so is whatever you’re doing right now. The point is that the Mets have been greatly diminished by the loss of Thor, and it’s no great reach to say what happened on Tuesday may have cost them a trip to the playoffs.

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