Reese Kaplan -- Handicapping the 5th Starter Race

As spring training began everyone pretty much assumed it was a three horse race for the fifth starter role for the New York Mets.  While everyone had their favorite, this was a rare case where it seemed as if there actually was going to be a real competition and not a predetermined selection as more often happens.  Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo and Zack Wheeler all have legitimate claim to this slot but there are issues with each one of them.

Zack Wheeler

Arriving in exchange for Carlos Beltran, prospect Zack Wheeler moved rapidly through the Mets system until arriving in Queens in 2013.  He turned in a highly credible partial year as a rookie with a 7-5 record and a 3.42 ERA over 17 starts.  That kind of freshman campaign signaled great optimism for what would follow.  In 2014 his ERA had a slight uptick to 3.54 but he gave up fewer baserunners which resulted in a drop in his FIP.  For those of you not fans of then advanced sabermetrics, this figure equates to ERA but makes allowances for poor fielding behind a pitcher.  The lower the number the better.  He dropped from 4.17 in 2013 to 3.55 in 2014.

Everyone knows what happened next.  Spring training of 2015 came and Wheeler felt something “pop” in his arm.  Tommy John surgery and two long years of rehab have finally culminated in his return to the mound.  There were some misgivings early in camp that seemed to indicate he might not be fully healed.  As of Monday he had only appeared in a single game, 2 IP, gave up a run and had a somewhat unsightly 1.50 WHIP.  That’s pretty much to be expected after not having pitched competitively in two full years, but the smart money is on Wheeler starting the season in the extended spring training in Port St. Lucie rather than rushing him back during what could be a cold April.

Seth Lugo

Drafted in the 34th round of 2011, Lugo did not have the pedigree that guaranteed a swift rise through the ranks.  He started out well in Kingsport going 5-2 with a 3.66 ERA but then wound up missing the entire 2012 season due to a condition that required spinal fusion surgery.  People within the organization probably didn’t know what to expect from the big Cajun righthander, but between two teams in 2013 he returned successfully, pitching to a better 3.39 ERA and upping his strikeout rate to 1 per IP.

Unfortunately as he moved up again to Port St. Lucie, he kept winning (8-3) but his ERA rose.  However, his strikeouts did as well as he was now up to 9.8 per 9 IP.  He continued his slow climb up the ladder and at Binghamton he got his ERA down to 3.80 but the strikeout rate also dipped.  He got his first taste of Las Vegas in 2015 where over 5 starts he improved on his WHIP and posted his highest K rate, so signs were looking up.  In 2016 however it appeared he hit the wall and was bounced from the starting rotation and thrust into a never before experienced bullpen role.  It was this role that actually earned him a promotion to the Mets in 2016.

During his first appearance against the Cubs he tossed 2 shutout innings and helped seal a victory out of the pen.   In late August he joined the starting rotation as one-by-one the Mets lost their regular pitchers.  He finished in impressive fashion, going 5-2 over 8 starts with a 2.67 ERA, allowing just about a single baserunner per inning.  His strikeouts were down but you can’t argue with the results.

This spring he was off to a pretty decent start with 7 IP and a 3.86 ERA.  However, it is his performance in the WBC that really opened eyes.  He started and delivered 5.1 IP of shutout ball against a Venezuela lineup that included Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez and Victor Martinez, All-Stars all.

Robert Gsellman

Drafted out of high school in the same 2011 class as Lugo, Gsellman went in the 11th round so he was a bit more highly regarded.  Their greater faith was well rewarded.  Despite facing the usual Las Vegas challenges that resulted in some ugly numbers, his career ERA is a tidy 3.11 with a 1.2 WHIP and nearly a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio.  He was a little hittable with 8.6 hits per 9 IP, but he never had a bad year until his 2016 debut in Sin City where he was rudely greeted in the thin, dry air.  How bad was it?  Try 1-5, 5.73 ERA and a WHIP of over 1.5.  Ugh!  In fact, it was a little surprising when he was promoted to the Mets given his struggles during his first look at AAA.

Perhaps it was gratitude about being out of the high elevation or pride in making it to the majors, but Gsellman truly shined in his seven start trial.  He went 4-2 with a 2.42 ERA, striking out a career high 8.5 per 9 IP.  In his early career he was known to hit the upper 90s in velocity but lately his cutter and sinker dominant pitching has been a more pedestrian 93 mph.  Still, like Lugo, the results speak for themselves.

His initial start in AAA seemed to cement his frontrunner position for the 5th starter role.  After all, the high strikeout potential of Lugo might better be suited to the pen where he also had had some experience.  Unfortunately his next start was not a good one and it looked like he was facing his first adversity since putting on a Mets uniform.  However, he acquitted himself with 3 scoreless innings of relief on Monday, lowering his spring ERA to 2.57.


Given the depth at this position you would think it’s nearly impossible for anyone else to crack the starting rotation, but a few pitchers this spring are opening some eyes.  Once uber prospect Rafael Montero is having a whale of a Grapefruit League 2017.  He’s leading all starters with 9.2 IP, struck out a very impressive 14 and walked just 3.  His 1.86 ERA is pretty eye popping as well, though some observers point out he has had some vultured situations in which he’s allowed inherited runners to score.  Still, batters are only hitting .176 against him.  Wow.  While a front office source said that the Mets couldn’t give him away during the winter, it would appear he’s done what he had to do to make people consider his viability.  It’s not likely going to be on the Mets, but he could sneak into the bullpen and last there long enough for another club to make an offer.

Adam Wilk has been nearly as good as Montero.  He’s also pitched over 9 innings already and sports a 1.93 ERA.  At this point you’d have to think he’s ticketed to a starting role in Las Vegas, but being left handed does stand in his favor as the projected rotation only features Steve Matz from the southpaw side.  He’s always had excellent control and he could sneak onto the Queens staff if injuries create the demand, though more likely in a bullpen role. (Update:Since written, Wilk has been sent to the minor league camp)


I still think the job is Robert Gsellman’s to lose.  He has always been a starter and nothing he’s done in front of the big bosses has to sour them on his potential to succeed.  Lugo has worked out of the pen before and whether he starts as the long man in Queens or in the rotation in Las Vegas, I think the 4 year older wunderkind of the WBC is fighting an uphill battle.  Wheeler will complicate the picture once they deem he’s both strong enough and healthy enough to carry a full workload.  The wildcards are just that – highly unlikely to happen but stranger things have happened.


Thomas Brennan said...

I think that Seth Lugo would be a great arm in the pen. I see Gsellman getting the 5th starting slot, and teams will shudder because it will look like Jake deGrom going out there twice every 5 days, what with him being Jake’s identical twin and all.

Wheeler should start in extended spring. It can get real cold in this area. Local news showed it was 19 degrees this morning, and we’re less than 3 weeks to opening day. Bring him up May 1.
Weather-wise, we got a PAID snow day for the blizzard that (for Long Island) wasn’t.

The storm shifted left, so its counterclockwise, hurricane-like circulation pulled warmth from the abnormally warm coastal waters. Result? Mostly rain, so instead of there being 18 inches on the ground today, it looked like a light dusting where I live on the south shore side of the island. WHEW. Northern Westchester got the 18 inches.

Cespedes is 12 for 27 with 5 homers, so let me reiterate: .295, 45 homers, 125 RBIs. May my estimate be low. Let me throw in MVP.

Tebow replaced him later in the game and flew out to left. One sign of a guy’s ability to succeed is (unlike Champ Stuart) NOT striking out. Tebow’s only fanned 3 times in his last 11 plate appearances, so he is making surprisingly good contact against pitching of a caliber far superior to any he has ever faced.

Mack Ade said...

Reese/Tom -

No need to get a weather check from Kaplan...

We're going down to 28 degrees tonight here on the Georgia border, which will probably kills all of my spring seedlings. Oh well. Hey, do any of you have a seedling connection?

Regarding the SP5, I believe in the theory 'it is yours to lose'. Gsellman has the job until he loses it. I sound like Casey Stengel. I need some coffee.

eraff said...

Other than the fact that Champ is actually a Baseball Player...sure..Tebow is more likely to succeed.../????????

Reese Kaplan said...

Just to ruin Mack's day, it's supposed to hit 85 this afternoon with 90 possible by Friday afternoon. Remind me again why I moved from New York. :)

There is a weird scenario I envisioned in which they send both Lugo and Gsellman to be ready to pitch every 5th day in Las Vegas and they award the temporary 5th starter slot to Rafael Montero in the hopes that he does well enough allow them to trade him once Wheeler is healthy. I don't see it happening, but this club often does things that defy logic.

Eddie Corona said...

I have to believe that performance out shines potential here... Gsellman has options so I believe with Lugo stellar performance in the WBC (should it continue) and Montero showing some results (he has never done well in Vegas) they both may be on the MLB roster... Montero gets one more crack to show he is a MLBer... Not sure how that will affect the 40 man roster...

eraff said...

Reese.... the team isn't run to Optimize trade value...certainly not for Rafael Montero... and, if he pitches well, why would you want to trade him!!!????

Reese Kaplan said...

As Mack has stated in the past, the team has lost faith in Montero. Rather than simply cut him loose, allowing him to pitch may make another club who suffers a pitching injury want to take a chance on him. Apparently there was zero interest all winter but if he puts up results like he's showing now then his market starts to develop. As to why you would want to trade him, you have depth -- Gsellman, Lugo, Wheeler -- and can afford to do so.

Reese Kaplan said...

@Eddie -- all four pitchers in question -- Gsellman, Lugo, Montero and Wheeler are on the 40-man roster. The only impact to the 40-man would occur if you surprisingly found Ben Rowen or other non-roster invitee making the big club.

Thomas Brennan said...

eraff, Champ last year in the minors, plus in the AFL last fall and this spring has 546 at bats, with 55 walks and 201 strikeouts.

I can't get past the strikeout #'s, one about every 3 plate appearances. How that results in a successful big league career, I'll never know.

I think Tebow in his first pro BB year may have better 2017 #s than the 2017 Stuart, who already has played 4 years of pro baseball. Tebow, with no pro BB experience, struck out less in the Arizona Fall League than Stuart did. Make contact and succeed.

Hopefully both surprise to the upside in 2017.

Thomas Brennan said...

Reese, until Wheeler takes off the training wheels successfully, we can't trade Montero.

Mack Ade said...

The problem I (currently) have with Montero is I do not think he could generate any trade interest with any results at either the AA (let us not do that again) or AAA level. It would have to be in Queens.

Regarding Champ, does anyone really think this guy has any chance of making it to Queens some day?

Regarding Tee-ball, how did he get in a pitching post?

Reese Kaplan said...

@Mack -- that's a great question about the T-man. After all, we've seen what he CAN'T do with his arm.

Reese Kaplan said...

Today's my day for tweaking Mack a little. Tim Tebow now is 3-13 in spring training. Jose Reyes is 2-13. Just sayin'... :)

Mack Ade said...

Just kill me...

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