The New York Mets will be without ace Matt Harvey in 2014 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Luckily, the team still has a host of promising young arms to look forward to in right-handers Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero.
While Wheeler is coming off an impressive rookie campaign, both Syndergaard and Montero are on the verge of reaching the major leagues and expected to debut during the 2014 season.
But how good will the trio actually be? Well, if each player stays healthy and comes close to reaching his respective ceiling, then the Mets should feature one of the best and most exciting starting rotations for the years to come.
Wheeler is obviously the better-known pitcher of the Mets’ trio, as he was regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in the minor leagues headed into the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Wheeler quietly emerged as one of the better rookie pitchers in the major leagues last year following a mid-June debut, registering a 3.42 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 100 innings (17 starts). The right-hander was especially solid in his 12 starts after the All-Star break, posting a 3.38 ERA with 66 hits allowed and 63 strikeouts in 72 innings.
In a recent article, I mentioned that Wheeler should continue to improve this season but that he’s unlikely to emerge as the Mets’ ace this early in his career.
Specifically, I highlighted how Wheeler struggled last year when pitching with one strike; he seemingly was less aggressive in those particular counts, opting to throw something in the zone rather than challenging opposing hitters as he would normally in a zero- or two-strike count.
Plus, learning to throw more quality strikes and avoid deep counts should in theory enable Wheeler to last longer into his starts—as a front-of-the-rotation starter should.
Acquired by the Mets from the Toronto Blue Jays last offseason as part of the R.A. Dickey deal, Noah Syndergaard took a huge step forward on all fronts in 2013—as many expected he would—posting an impressive 3.06 ERA and 133-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 117.2 innings between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
At the latter, the 21-year-old was utterly dominant, as he registered a 3.00 ERA and 69-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 54 innings spanning 11 starts.
The 6’6”, 240-pound right-hander is an imposing presence on the mound; he uses his power frame to throw everything on a steep downhill plane and pound the lower portion of the strike zone. Syndergaard’s plus-plus heater sits in the mid- to upper-90s with late, arm-side life, and he frequently flirts with triple digits.
And in spite of his ability to overpower most minor league hitters with sheer velocity, Syndergaard consistently executes his fastball throughout the zone.
Terry Collins said of Noah Syndergaard's bullpen session: "97 mph today with a hook from hell."— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) February 17, 2014
Syndergaard’s curveball also has plus-plus potential—manager Terry Collins has already described it as a “hook from hell”—and his command of the pitch improved last season after adding a slider to his already-impressive arsenal.
Lastly, the right-hander throws his changeup with good arm speed and confidence, and it could serve as a third plus-or-better offering at maturity.
Syndergaard has one of the highest ceilings among all pitching prospects, boasting a combination of talent and command that profiles at the front of a big league rotation. Assuming he opens the 2014 season at Triple-A, the right-hander could be ready to debut around midseason—just as Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler did in previous years.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 as a 20-year-old, Montero tends to get grouped with Harvey, Wheeler and Syndergaard on account of his immediate success in the minor leagues and quick rise through the Mets system.
After an impressive full-season debut in 2012 across both Class-A levels, Montero, now 23, was equally impressive last year in the high minors. The right-hander began the season at Double-A Binghamton, where he posted a 2.43 ERA (1.88 FIP) and superb 72-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66.2 innings.
As a result of his strong performance at the more advanced level, Montero was challenged with a midseason promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas.
Though his numbers were slightly inflated pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Montero still held his own with a 3.05 ERA (2.87 FIP) and 78-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88.2 innings. Overall, he posted a 2.78 ERA with 150 strikeouts against 35 walks in 155.1 total innings.
While the undersized right-hander (6’0”, 170 lbs) boasts impressive arm strength and a mature arsenal, his plus command profile is easily his strongest attribute. Montero’s fastball comes in at a deceptive 90-93 mph and generates a surprising amount of swing-and-misses, and he commands the pitch well to both sides of the plate and changes hitters’ eye levels aggressively.
Montero’s curveball and changeup are both serviceable offerings that tend to play up thanks to his feel for sequencing. In order to achieve long-term success in the major leagues, the right-hander will need to make one of his secondary offerings an out pitch.
While we all know what Harvey can do when healthy, Syndergaard could develop into the same kind of monster; they’re both power pitchers with electric, swing-and-miss stuff and a knack for keeping the ball on the ground.
Montero doesn’t have a high ceiling like Harvey, Wheeler or Syndergaard, but his plus command and overall feel for his craft makes him a safe bet to emerge as a quality back-end starter in the near future.
Who will be the Mets' ace in 2016?
If Wheeler continues to make adjustments and builds on last year’s success and everything goes as planned with the development of Syndergaard and Montero, then the Mets could potentially boast one of the best starting rotations in the major leagues within a matter of years.
However, for that to happen, the organization will need Harvey to return to his pre-Tommy John, Cy Young-caliber form, even if only to take pressure off its other young arms. Furthermore, the club will need to retain a veteran hurler such as left-hander Jonathon Niese, who is under contract through 2016 with team options for 2017 and 2018.
It may be a few years until the aforementioned pitchers individually and collectively fire on all cylinders in the major leagues. However, when that time finally comes, the Mets will have an ideal starting rotation to build around long term.
All videos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media, MLB.com.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.