The battle for the fifth and final rotation spot has been a key story line throughout Spring Training and as of March 20, it doesn’t seem as though the Mets are close to naming a winner.
The three main competitors — Zack Wheeler, Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo — have all pitched well in their first couple of turns this spring.
Wheeler, working his way back from Tommy John surgery, seems to be throwing like his old self, having touched 97 mph on the radar gun in a recent outing.
Gsellman has picked up right where he left off from his big league cameo last season. With most of the Mets’ rotation dealing with injuries in 2016, the righty stepped in and proved to be a capable big league starter, going 4-2 with a 2.42 ERA in eight games (seven starts).
Lugo pitched to a 3.86 ERA this spring before departing to take part in the World Baseball Classic, where he has performed well for Team Puerto Rico.
By no means is the competition a problem, however. Every Major League team would kill for the chance to have three legitimate options competing for a spot in their rotations.
“It’s a great problem to have,” manager Terry Collins told reporters. “We came into this camp knowing we have depth in the rotation. We didn’t know where Zack was going to be, but we felt with the other four guys and Robert and Seth, we had some depth here. And they have stepped up and shown us we weren’t wrong.”
All three options certainly are intriguing, but is there a right choice?
First off, it’s a safe bet to say that all three pitchers will likely start at the big league level at some point this season. Injuries happen and teams almost never stick with their opening day rotation for the duration of a season. Should one of the Mets’ five opening day starters get hurt, an opportunity will rise for the losers of this competition.
Injuries aside, only one pitcher will earn the right to be part of the rotation when the season starts.
Let’s take a closer look at each of three candidates.
While Wheeler offers the most upside of the trio, he also comes with the greatest risk. His injury history is well-known and even if he wins the rotation spot, his innings will be limited to approximately 120, according to previous reports.
The low inning count limits his value. It means that the Mets will need to replace him at some point this season, whether he is healthy or not.
Do the Mets name him the fifth starter right away and have him start the season in Flushing? Or are they better served starting him in the minors where his innings can more easily be limited and he can be built up for the second half of the major league season?
There is no right answer at the moment. If he is truly healthy, Wheeler is most likely the best choice for the spot. A healthy and efficient Wheeler clearly has a higher ceiling than a healthy an efficient Gsellman or Lugo.
But if the Mets can’t use Wheeler as a starter for the whole season, should they even consider for the spot to begin the season?
Wheeler’s stuff would also play well out of the bullpen, where his plus fastball and strong off-speed offerings could be even better if utilized in a short relief role.
Lugo is certainly an intriguing option. He went 5-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 67 innings with the Mets last season (17 games, eight starts). That performance, coupled with his strong spring, makes him a viable rotation candidate.
But Lugo probably has the lowest ceiling of the trio. He is a safe bet to be a reliable big league pitcher, but his ceiling is not as high as Wheeler’s or Gsellman’s.
While he may not make the opening day rotation, Lugo is still likely to break camp on the big league roster.
He has already shown he can be a valuable asset out of the bullpen with his performance last season and could be an efficient middle reliever capable of tossing two or three innings at a time for the Mets.
New York may also choose to keep him stretched out as a Triple-A starter who would surface as an option in the event of an injury to one of the big league starters.
Gsellman emerged last year as an unlikely hero for the Mets, helping pitch the team into the postseason.
He has looked particularly sharp this spring, posting a 2.25 ERA in four spring training appearances.
At 22 years old, Gsellman has barely scratched the surface of his potential and still has plenty of room to grow. He boasts a solid fastball that sits in the low-mid 90’s and his strong off-speed offerings help him keep the ball on the ground and in the park. He will also get his fair share of strikeouts, punching out 42 batters in 44 big league innings in 2016.
Unlike Lugo, if Gsellman loses the spring training competition, he will not likely be an option for the better. His stuff plays better as a starter and that is where his future lies.
It will either be a spot in the big league rotation or a ticket to Triple-A Las Vegas for Gsellman.
While this may not be the most likely outcome, the Mets would be wise to let Wheeler continue building up his arm strength and either keep in extended spring training or option him to the minors to monitor his innings. That will allow a healthy Wheeler to join the big league rotation the second half of the year and help the Mets make a postseason push.
Lugo should crack the big league roster, but as a middle reliever, not a starter. He has shown he is capable of getting hitters out at the Major League level and can provide solid depth to a bullpen sorely in need of a reliable middle reliever.
That leaves Gsellman as the winner of the fifth spot. He is healthy and consistent and would slot nicely behind the fearsome foursome of Jacob de Grom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz.
Reach reporter Zach Gewelb by e-mail at zgewe
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