How Good Can the New York Mets Rotation Be If Shaun Marcum Stays Healthy?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2013

Shaun Marcum battled elbow problems last season.
Shaun Marcum battled elbow problems last season.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

If not for Justin Upton getting traded to the Atlanta Braves on Thursday (Jan. 24), a transaction by another NL East team might have gotten more attention.

The New York Mets signed a free agent! Pitcher Shaun Marcum agreed to a one-year contract worth $4 million, according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. The deal includes incentives that can add to Marcum's salary. 

Signing Marcum is notable because he was one of the best starting pitchers—if healthy—still available on the open market. But as the New York Times' David Waldstein points out, Marcum is the first major league free agent the Mets have signed this offseason. 

No MLB team signed Marcum up until this point because of fears over his pitching elbow. He was limited to 21 starts with the Milwaukee Brewers last year as he struggled with tightness in his elbow. Marcum underwent Tommy John surgery after the 2008 season. 

In addition, Marcum dealt with shoulder problems in spring training last year and a calf injury during the regular season. Overall, he went 7-4 with a 3.70 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 124 innings. 

Obviously, injury concerns make signing Marcum a gamble for the Mets.

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But general manager Sandy Alderson minimized the team's risk by inking the 31-year-old right-hander to a one-year contract and lower salary. The $4 million Marcum will make in 2013 is less than the $7.7 million he made last season in his final year of arbitration. 

If Marcum can stay healthy, however, he should fill many of the innings that R.A. Dickey threw for the Mets last season.

That's not to say Marcum is the same sort of pitcher. Dickey won the NL Cy Young Award, led the league in strikeouts and innings pitched. Oh, and he throws a knuckleball. 

Yet Marcum is capable of giving the Mets 200 innings. He hit that mark in 2011 and threw 195 innings in 2010, his first full season after reconstructive surgery on his elbow. 

Did that workload lead to his injury problems last year? It's certainly possible and that's something Mets manager Terry Collins will have to monitor throughout the season. 

Could Marcum actually be the Mets' No. 1 starter? No, that role will be taken by Johan Santana, who's also recovering from an injury-shortened 2012 season.

Though the left-hander threw the first no-hitter in franchise history last June, Santana may have been overextended in his first full season following shoulder surgery. He was eventually shut down in late August due to lower back inflammation. 

Santana finished with a 6-9 record and 4.85 ERA—the highest of his 12-year MLB career—while striking out 111 batters in 117 innings. 

But Marcum will probably slot in as the second starter in the Mets rotation, pitching between Santana and the starting staff's other left-hander, Jonathon Niese. That could provide the Mets with three potential 200-inning starters at the top of their rotation. It's unlikely that all three will hit that mark, but it's a possibility. 

In his fifth major league season (and third full season), Niese had the best year of his career. Shortly after the 2012 season began, the 26-year-old and the Mets agreed to a five-year, $25.5 million contract extension that could be worth up to $46.5 million if options for 2017 and 2018 are picked up.

Niese responded by compiling a 13-9 record and 3.40 ERA in 30 starts. He tallied career-highs with 190.1 innings and 155 strikeouts, while also allowing the fewest earned runs (72) and hits (174) in his three seasons of being a full-time starter with the Mets. 

The likely fourth starter will be Matt Harvey. The rookie showed promise in his first major league season, posting a 2.75 ERA in 10 starts. He also racked up 70 strikeouts in 59.1 innings. Prior to being called up, the 23-year-old right-hander compiled a 3.68 ERA in 20 starts with Triple-A Buffalo and struck out 112 batters in 110 innings. 

Dillon Gee appears to be the favorite for the final spot in the Mets rotation. But he's coming back from surgery to repair artery damage in his right shoulder. Gee was limited to 17 starts before being shut down, going 6-7 with a 4.10 ERA. He also averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings. 

If Gee suffers any setbacks or is ineffective, Jenrry Mejia could take that fifth spot. In five appearances, the 23-year-old compiled a 5.63 ERA. 

But the pitcher most Mets fans would surely prefer to see at the back end of the rotation is Zack Wheeler, the team's No. 1 prospect. Wheeler finished the season in Triple-A after pitching well with Double-A Binghamton. Overall last season, he went 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA. More promising was his 148 strikeouts in 149 innings. 

Wheeler will likely begin the season in Buffalo and perhaps needs a full season at that level to properly develop. But it's easy to envision the Mets calling Wheeler up if he dominates Triple-A and there's a clear need for him in the big league rotation. 

Is that pitching staff good enough for the Mets to compete in the NL East? Probably not, with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves looking like clear favorites. The Philadelphia Phillies should contend for an NL wild-card playoff spot as well.

But Mets starting pitchers finished with a 3.83 ERA last season, placing them eighth out of 15 teams in the NL. Their opponents' batting average of .251 ranked fifth. 

Obviously, Dickey's breakthrough season factored heavily into that. But the Mets could match that performance if the rotation is better, one through five, this year. 

However, it's difficult to see the Mets scoring enough runs to support the pitching staff and keep the team competitive. David Wright and Ike Davis currently look like the only standout hitters in the regular everyday lineup. 

Yet the pitching should be good enough to keep the Mets out of last place, ahead of the Miami Marlins in their division. That's probably the best that the Mets and their fans can hope for in what appears to be another season of transition.

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