The New York Mets are loaded with high-level pitching prospects such as Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, but it could be Jacob deGrom who makes the biggest impact on the major league roster this season.
Syndergaard, Montero and deGrom are all currently starting at Triple-A Las Vegas while the major league rotation is currently full. If somebody in the big league rotation goes down, it will likely be Daisuke Matsuzaka who steps in rather than one of these three young hurlers.
Syndergaard and Montero are more highly touted prospects than deGrom, and because of this, they will be handled carefully this season to ensure they reach their innings limits without risking their long-term health.
The Mets have been much more aggressive with deGrom’s development, signified by the fact that he began last season at High-A St. Lucie, yet he spent most of the year in Triple-A. This is because he is old for a prospect (he will turn 26 in June) and has conquered the challenges of every level.
Through his first four starts of the season, deGrom has been exceptional. Las Vegas is regarded as a hitter’s paradise in which regular fly balls make their way over the fence and grounders find holes at a high rate due to a fast infield. Despite the environment, deGrom has a 1.57 ERA and 0.957 WHIP in 23 innings.
DeGrom has succeeded by using a sinking fastball that can reach the mid-90s, as expressed in the below chart.
This chart shows how batters have fared against deGrom, exhibiting how even when batters make contact against him, they pound it into the ground. It also displays how he has limited opponents to just six extra-base hits, an impressive feat in the Pacific Coast League.
Montero and Syndergaard are seen by the organization as pieces of the future big league rotation and will likely be given the first opportunities to start if spots open up at the major league level. DeGrom will be 26 in a few months, and with a full rotation ahead of him and higher-ceiling prospects at the same level as him, where does he fit in?
DeGrom could end up having an important role on the Mets major league squad this season as an impact reliever.
His performance in Triple-A, along with his improving command and secondary pitches, indicates he could become an effective major league starter, and successful teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals have proven that moving pitchers to the bullpen does not ruin their futures as starters.
In fact, two of the starters the Mets will face this week, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, began their major league careers in the bullpen before transitioning back to the rotation.
Even if deGrom proves he is capable of becoming a solid starter, he has the potential to be an even better reliever. He is already blessed with solid command and a mid-90s fastball with sink, but in shorter stints, his stuff has the chance to tick up, eventually working in the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball.
While it isn’t a certainty that deGrom’s stuff would play up in a relief role, at present it is already good enough to get hitters out. Also, as a pitcher who throws strikes, he has an advantage over other young relief options such as Jeurys Familia and Vic Black.
Another thing deGrom has going for him is that he began his pitching career as a closer. At Stetson University, he was transitioned from playing shortstop into pitching by working as the team’s closer. When the Mets drafted him, they drafted a pitcher with little experience but the raw tools to succeed.
While he has developed into a starting pitcher since, his past experience shows he can pitch out of the bullpen and, if necessary, transition back into a starter.
DeGrom is currently doing everything he needs to in order to prove that he can be a starter in the long term, but with the current state of the Mets bullpen, adding him now makes plenty of sense. With Bobby Parnell out for the year, the position of closer is in flux.
Jose Valverde was solid for a few outings before blowing up. He was recently usurped as closer by Kyle Farnsworth, who was cut by the Mets at the end of spring training. While Farnsworth has been promising in the early stages of the season with an uptick in his velocity, he is still 38 and not a part of the Mets’ future.
Making deGrom the closer immediately would be overly aggressive, but if he is transitioned to the bullpen and succeeds in the major leagues, that could be his long-term role with the franchise. Remember, Parnell was a starter in the minors before being called up as a reliever, and through his performance, he eventually worked his way into the closer role.
Familia and Black have closer-type stuff, but neither throws strikes consistently. If Farnsworth falters, the next best option would be the Mets’ Swiss army knife, Carlos Torres. If deGrom comes in and succeeds out of the bullpen, he could then be used at the end of games and potentially find his long-term place in the Mets’ future.
As I have written about previously, the Mets have a surplus of starting pitching depth, and at some point, they will need to utilize some of it to strengthen their bullpen.
Transitioning deGrom to the bullpen doesn’t necessarily end his career as a starter, and he could be moved back if the Mets’ starting pitching depth is devastated by injuries or fails to reach its potential.
However, his skill set, advanced age and ability to help the current major league roster could make his impact on the 2014 season greater than that of any other pitching prospect, and he could find a home in the back of the bullpen.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.