IMPROVED HEALTH A MUST FOR THE METS

An old adage in baseball concludes that pitching is the most important aspect of the game.  A team that can pitch can stay in a game and wait for their offense to score at least one run.  If the opposition doesn’t score, all it takes is one run to win a game.  In baseball history, countless games have ended with a score of 1-0.

The game of baseball has dramatically changed in recent years.  Compared to players of the 1950’s, 60’s and even into the 70’s, the physicality of position players may appear to be relatively the same as in the past.  Back then there were huge players such as Frank Howard, Johnny Mize and Kluszewski who appeared bigger than life.

As I watch baseball day in and day out, it is the size and strength of the pitchers that stands out and differs from the days of Aaron, Mantle, Mays and Killebrew.  It is not uncommon for a pitcher to stand 6-foot 4 and throw 95 miles an hour or above.  It seems that every bullpen is staffed by flame-throwing relief pitchers that look like sculpted skyscrapers on the mound.  The hitter better not dig in.

The prototypical poster for pitchers could be the New York Mets.  Every one of their starting pitchers can dominate a game with overpowering fastballs and highly effective secondary pitches.  When they are healthy.  If they are healthy.

And that friends, is the one issue that could bring down the 2017 edition of the New York Mets.  The health of the Mets pitchers is the black cloud that hovers over Citi Field.

When healthy, Noah Syndergaard is easily within the top quarter inch of outstanding major-league pitchers.  However, the 6-foot-6, 240- pound Syndergaard is suffering from a partially torn latissimus dorsi muscle, commonly known as the lat.  The lat is a large, flat muscle of the back that is behind the arm.  He could be out for weeks.  Syndergaard throws his fastball at 97 to 98 miles per hour.  When he does return, what impact will his injury have had on his ability to pitch with the same arsenal as he deployed when totally healthy?  In short, what kind of pitcher will Syndergaard be when he returns?

Matt Harvey is 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds.  He had successful Tommy John surgery in October 2013.  In 2016 he had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.  TOS, as it is known, is a compression of the nerves, arteries or veins in the passageway from the lower back to the armpit.  Harvey had his first rib removed to help improve blood flow.

TOS is a serious matter. Years ago, pitcher J. R. Richard did not receive a diagnosis of his TOS in a timely manner.  He suffered blocking of his blood vessels and suffered a blood clot and eventually a stroke.  He never again pitched successfully.

Remarkably, Harvey’s velocity does not seem to have been impacted by his Tommy John or TOS surgeries.  Is his pitch mix different?  Is he as effective as he was as a rookie in July 2012?

That evaluation is in the eye of the beholder.

In baseball, one way to evaluate a player is to review his record.  It isn’t the only means of evaluation, but it serves the purpose of providing information.

A look at Harvey’s record is interesting.  In 2013 he pitched 178 plus innings.  His ERA was 2.71 and his WHIP was 0.93.  He was heralded as a rising star.  He missed 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

In 2015 he threw 189 plus innings, similar to his workload prior to his surgery.  He finished with a 2.71 ERA and a WHIP of 1.01.

Last season Harvey threw to a 4.86 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP.

This season, after six starts as of this writing, Harvey has a 5.14 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. You be the judge. Is Harvey reliable? Has he returned “whole”?

Jacob deGrom is 6-foot-4, 180 pounds.  In September 2016 deGrom had surgery on his ulnar nerve.  The nerve was “repositioned”.  In reality, deGrom is pitching very well right now.  He is throwing his fastball at more than 96 miles per hour, two miles per hour higher than last season. deGrom is crucial to the Mets pitching staff.  But it must not be forgotten that he went through an important surgery.  He currently has a 3.68 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP.  He’s doing the job.

Zack Wheeler was considered to be a major pitching prospect in the Mets organization.  In March 2015 Wheeler was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament.  He had Tommy John surgery in late March that year.  In August 2016 Wheeler was diagnosed with a mild flexor strain in his right arm. Wheeler returned to the mound this season and has thrown to a 4.78 ERA and 1.25 WHIP.  Wheeler is another big man with a big arm.  He has a 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame.

Many have felt that lefty Steven Matz could be a very credible left-handed fixture in the Mets rotation. Matz has the least imposing frame of the potential Mets pitching staff.  But he has a very high ceiling.  He’s “only” 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds.

In September 2016 Matz underwent surgery for bone spurs in his left elbow.

Now, during this season Matz is currently on the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon in his throwing elbow. The team questions the diagnosis and wonders when Matz will be able to pitch again?  The magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) showed no such strain. But Matz feels pain.  And Mets fans feel the pain as well.  The pain of losing two high-quality starters.

Syndergaard, Harvey, deGrom, Wheeler and Matz.  They are five very, very talented pitchers that were to have taken the Mets to a clubhouse filled with popping champagne corks and soaked championship caps.  All five have missed considerable time with arm, shoulder or elbow injuries.  All five pitch with interested parties wondering about the future durability of each of those gifted pitchers.

It isn’t just the Mets pitching that causes acid reflux.

The club paid $110 million dollars to Yoenis Cespedes for a contract that would last from 2017 through and including 2020.  During the offseason talk radio shows were loaded with fans imploring the Mets brass to sign Cespedes long term.  They did.

And now, into the first month of his new contract, Cespedes is sidelined with a bad left hamstring injury.  It has been stated that he will miss more time than many originally thought.

Cespedes is the heart and soul of the offense.  He can end a game with one swing of the bat.

I remember Oakland Athletics coach Phil Garner telling me about Cespedes when Cespedes was first signed by Oakland.  Garner said that Cespedes had trouble hitting breaking balls and off-speed pitches when he first reported to the Athletics spring training camp in Phoenix.  Garner was quick to state that by the All-Star Game that season Cespedes would be mashing those pitches and he would be punishing pitchers.  Garner was correct.  When he connects with that barrel of the bat stroke, Cespedes can punish pitchers.  But he can’t do it with a bum hamstring. Patience will be required.  If he returns too soon he could easily exacerbate the injury.

This past April 30 Lucas Duda suspended his rehabilitation activities for a hyperextended left elbow that landed him on the disabled list.  He was experiencing discomfort and his return is now delayed.  Duda is among the Mets players with power enough to hit home runs out of any park.  But he can’t do that when he’s injured and on the disabled list.

This was to be the year catcher Travis d’Arnaud would either prove he belonged as the Mets catcher or find another place to play.  His history has been far below the Mets expectations.  Now he’s on the disabled list with a right wrist bruise.  His season is interrupted and he may or may not be in the Mets future plans.

Probably the most notable and most frustrating of the Mets injuries belongs to former All-Star and franchise favorite David Wright.  Wright suffers from a cervical disc herniation. He has lived with his bad back for what seems to be an eternity.  It is unknown if and when Wright can return to the Mets lineup.  What is even more questionable is his ability to hit major-league pitching and play major-league quality defense after suffering pain for so long.  Have his skills eroded to the point where he can no longer be effective?

The aforementioned Syndergaard and Matz remain on the disabled list. Pitcher Seth Lugo, who has suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, joins those two pitchers in that disabled status.

Amid the doom and gloom of injuries hanging over the franchise like a storm cloud on a bitter winter night, there are flickers of light that help give Mets fans hope.

In the offseason, whispers and then shouts were heard about Michael Conforto.  Was this guy a major-league quality player or not?  Well, Conforto has responded to criticism with a great beginning to his season.  He is hitting .357 as of this writing with seven home runs and 18 RBIs.  One wonders where the Mets would be without his hot bat?

Like Conforto, Jay Bruce was the center of attention in the offseason.  What can the Mets get for Jay Bruce in trade? Many fans felt he was washed up and had to go.  Bruce has responded with an average of .286 with nine homers and 22 RBIs.  Bruce probably has to show an identification card to enter the stadium just to prove it’s still him.

And as Porky Pig says at the end of the cartoon, “That’s All Folks.”  At least, so far. Other than Cespedes who was hitting mildly well with six home runs before he went on the disabled list, the Mets bat rack is spending days and nights serving as a mini-freezer.  The bats are so cold the hitters may be wearing mittens instead of batting gloves in June and July.  But maybe things are beginning to look a bit better.

Yes, Jose Reyes is coming around.  As this is being written he’s all the way up to….188.  Neil Walker is hitting .212.  Juan Lagares is at .200. Perhaps the most disappointing as of this writing?  Curtis Granderson is at .143 with just two home runs.

A perfect storm of injuries to pitchers and key position players, as well as an inept offense, has helped land the Mets 6.5 games behind the surging Washington Nationals at this writing.

But wait! The Mets offense is showing signs of life.  As manager Terry Collins has stated, the team is “stepping up” in the absence of Cespedes.  Rene Rivera is seeing playing time with the d’Arnaud hurt.  Rivera is playing and hitting well.  T.J. Rivera is filling in at first base for Duda and doing a fine job with the bat.  Granderson may be showing signs of life.

In short, it seems that the demise of the Mets due to a continuous string of injuries has been discussed prematurely.

They are very much alive.  But not well.  They may not be able to survive another major injury.

The Mets are in what is widely regarded as the weakest division in baseball.  With the National League Central not far behind, the Mets are playing most of their games against Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.  Other than the Nationals, none are considered contenders for anything other than top-quality draft choices and a chorus of “Wait Until Next Year” from their devoted fans.

With the Chicago Cubs still the cream of the crop in the National League and few other juggernauts looming, it is conceivable that the Mets could be in the playoff hunt.

But.  And it’s a big but. But if the team experiences another injury to a starting pitcher or crucial position play the door could slam shut.

Syndergaard has a long road back. Matz has pain that still keeps him from pitching.  Harvey is still looking for his old self and is not that far away from his own surgical experience.  Wheeler has taken a long, long time to recover from his woes and he doesn’t look the same.  deGrom?  Keep your fingers crossed.

Two pitchers have to step in and step up while Syndergaard and Matz are on the shelf.

I believe in Robert Gsellman and I think he’ll get on track.  I am not as bullish about Rafael Montero, another power arm with press clippings and evaluations predicting stardom.  But as of this writing, Montero continues to struggle with a record of 0-2 and a 10.45 ERA and 3.29 WHIP.  Those statistics translate to an exit out of town.

Both Gsellman and Montero or someone else has to come forward and give the team some high quality winning innings.

The bullpen? Jeurys Familia has done it before and he can likely do it again.  I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly with Addison Reed.  He has the ability to hold games for Familia to finish.  I do think he likes pitching in New York.

Guys like Fernando Salas, Hansel Robles, and Jerry Blevins are seasoned veterans with solid track records. I believe they can be trusted.

Unlike most clubs, the Mets deploy three lefties in their eight-man bullpen. Josh Smoker and Josh Edgin join Blevins in pitching with the left hand.  I think that’s a great benefit for the team.

When all is said and done I like the bullpen, but I don’t love it.

Few teams in baseball can endure the loss at one point or another of every one of their five starters to serious shoulder, forearm or elbow injuries.  The Mets have endured.  They have survived and they are playing better baseball recently than in early April.

At some point, Cespedes will return healthy and ready to put the offense on his shoulders and carry them to a solid finish.  Where they will land is open to conjecture.

This I do know.  The Mets are not the mess that many have described and portrayed.  They are the recipient of bad luck, bad injuries, and bad decision-making along the way.

The Mets are still reeling from their involvement in the horrible Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff.

Owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz were charged $16 million in 2016 and still owe $45 million beginning in 2017 to settle the case.  Interest on the $45 million at 3.5 percent could add another $2.2 million dollars to the repay customers of Mr. Madoff.

While there were questionable player-related decisions along the way, ownership’s involvement with Mr. Madoff was without a doubt the worst decision of all.  Everyone associated with the team including players, families, other Mets owners, staff and most of all the fans have really suffered due to the Madoff involvement.

Are better days ahead for the New York Mets?  Yes, if Syndergaard and Matz return whole.  Yes, if Harvey and Wheeler return to form.  And yes, if deGrom avoids injury and continues to pitch as he is currently.

A team that can pitch can win. If the Mets want to take a bite out of baseball’s biggest apple, the team in general and the pitchers in particular will have to get healthy.  But so far this season, even eating an apple a day in America’s Big Apple may not be enough to keep the dreaded doctor away-and in the case of the Mets, the doctor is a surgeon more often than not.

Bunts:

Do you have any interest in visiting the fascinating island of Cuba for a cultural/baseball experience?  We leave January 19 and return January 26, 2018 for a week in fabulous Cuba.  You can get details by emailing me at BPleskoff.@aol.com

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About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie’s work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff