The New York Mets, who were arguably the team to beat in the National League East for 2020, have suddenly lost one of their best pitchers for the foreseeable future.
Though Major League Baseball is taking a break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Noah Syndergaard has proved that elbows aren't any less fragile because of it. The Mets announced Tuesday that the right-hander will undergo Tommy John surgery on Thursday:
"Noah is an incredibly hard worker and a tremendous talent," Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said in a statement, per Anthony DiComo of MLB.com. "While this is unfortunate, we have no doubt that Noah will be able to return to full strength and continue to be an integral part of our Championship pursuits in the future."
The standard recovery time for Tommy John surgery is roughly 15 months. That prognosis puts Syndergaard in line to miss all of the 2020 season—regardless of what it ends up looking like—and as much as half of the 2021 season.
To put it mildly, this is a tough break for the man known as Thor.
Unless this year's unfortunate events result in his service time being altered, the 27-year-old is slated to hit free agency after the 2021 season. He'll thus only have so much time to boost his value upon his return next year, which won't help his chances of landing a multiyear deal on the open market.
The Mets, meanwhile, have potentially gone from the favorite in the NL East to just another team in the field.
As covered by Mike Petriello of MLB.com, there was a point in February when Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs rated the Mets as not just the best team in the NL East, but also as the fifth-best team in all of MLB.
That came down to generally optimistic outlooks for the Mets' offense and bullpen, yet it was the club's rotation that really made the numbers jump. Put simply, the projections had New York's rotation of Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz and Rick Porcello pegged as an elite unit.
In light of his back-to-back Cy Young Awards, there was no arguing with deGrom's place in all that. Porcello is a Cy Young winner in his own right, while Stroman is an All-Star and Matz is typically not much worse than average.
Indeed, Syndergaard was perhaps the biggest unknown of the five. Though he featured an MLB-best 97.7 mph fastball and other characteristically nasty weapons in 2019, he nonetheless had a down year to the tune of a 4.28 ERA and an NL-high 94 earned runs allowed.
However, it wasn't hard to find evidence that Syndergaard was just plain unlucky.
Though his overall contact rate rose to a career-high 75.1 percent, his batted ball metrics confirmed that contact off him was generally soft. To wit, his exit velocity was in the 89th percentile, and his hard-hit rate was in the 87th percentile.
Ultimately, there was a 24-point gap between how well batters should have hit Syndergaard (xwOBA) and how well they actually hit him (wOBA). Out of all pitchers who faced at least 500 batters, only three had it worse.
This is to say that Syndergaard didn't necessarily have to do anything different in order to get better results in 2020. And as long as said better results were indeed there, New York's rotation stood a strong chance of being as advertised.
That possibility is now pretty much out the window.
With Syndergaard out of the picture, Michael Wacha will get the first crack at filling his shoes. He was a rookie sensation in 2013 and an All-Star in 2015, but he's spent the last four seasons fighting through injuries and mediocrity.
This leaves little question as to whether the Mets will be losing something every fifth day. That'll put more pressure on everyone, including a bullpen that won't be any less volatile than it was in 2019 if holdovers Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia and newcomer Dellin Betances fail to have bounce-back seasons.
Needless to say, all this benefits the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. All three were contenders in 2019, and all three spent the winter preparing themselves to contend again in 2020.
Still, the Mets aren't yet capital-D Doomed.
Their faulty bullpen and Thor's down year didn't keep them from enjoying a solid 86-win season last year. That effort was largely driven by deGrom's dominance and a Pete Alonso-led offensive attack, the latter of which posted the highest OPS+ outside of the Los Angeles Dodgers among National League clubs. Those two elements are still in place and still dangerous.
If the Mets are lucky, the three aforementioned relievers will indeed bounce back and, in turn, transform their pen into a unit capable of picking up plenty of extra slack. If they're really lucky, Wacha will stay healthy and perhaps even replicate the numbers Syndergaard put up in 2019.
The Mets almost certainly won't run away with the NL East no matter what happens in 2020. But if they get the breaks they need, they can at least stay in a fight that, as of now, doesn't have a clear favorite.