Mets fans can dream about next year’s starting rotation, which will presumably include Matt Harvey, Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, and Jacob deGrom. All of them will be 28 or younger when the season begins and all could be well above average next season.
There is no doubt that when Matt Harvey is healthy, the Mets are a much better team. While getting him back will be like trading for an ace making the league minimum (except without giving up your entire farm system), there are still lingering questions over how the Mets should approach his return.
Obviously, Harvey isn’t going to be pitching this season, despite his determination to do so. He may pitch a few innings in the Arizona Fall League, but that’s just about it.
Everyone remembers the controversy surrounding Stephen Strasburg‘s return from Tommy John Surgery. He hit his innings limit in early September in the midst of a pennant race, and the Nationals shut him down for the season. The Mets may be facing another very similar scenario next year, in a season in which they expect to compete. Perhaps the 2012 Nationals weren’t sure they were going to compete, so they proceeded normally. However, with all the trade buzz surrounding the Mets combined with the new arrivals of top prospects, the front office expects next year to be a big year. That makes this situation a bit different from the one Strasburg was in two years ago.
As dangerous as it is, the Mets will more or less throw Harvey into the fire at some point next season. It sure is risky to do that. I’ve always said the reason Johan Santana got hurt wasn’t the no-hitter, but the fact that after not pitching for over a year, the Mets suddenly threw him out there regularly, taking very few precautions. Unfortunately, there really aren’t many more practical methods to easing a pitcher back into it. Luckily for the Mets, Harvey is quite a bit younger than Santana.
Nevertheless, the Mets will still need to be careful how they handle Harvey, knowing that their goal is to compete in September and possibly October. How will they do this? Here are a few options.
Extreme option: Put him in the bullpen for a while
The Mets may want to put him in the bullpen to start the season, possibly for four to six weeks to limit his innings. They will still get use out of his arm, but without the early season wear and tear. In the often cold and raw April games, it could reduce injury risk.
There are, of course, many problems with this idea, which is why it is an “extreme option.” For one, the transition to and from the bullpen isn’t exactly easy or quick. It took Jenrry Mejia a while to transition back and forth. The Mets may have two weeks at both ends of the experiment with a somewhat wasted roster spot, two when he’s getting used to pitching on back-to-back days, and two more when he transitions back to the rotation. And don’t forget the risks of Terry Collins overusing him, which is never out of the question with any relief pitcher.
Somewhat extreme option: Start his season late
Instead of beginning workouts at the Port St. Lucie complex in early February, start Harvey out in early March. He will have an extra month to strengthen his arm and the rest of his body, and could pitch through the end of the season. It makes sense on all fronts, but there is one huge problem with it: Harvey will absolutely hate it.
Remember, this is the pitcher who said he would pitch Opening Day this season. What are the odds he would go along with a delayed start? Probably slim to none. That being said, this option is probably the best compromise between Harvey’s long-term health and the Mets’ hopes to compete.
Realistic but ineffective option: Skip starts, be cautious
This is one of the more likely options, but it is probably the worst. As we have seen, skipping starts throws pitchers off their routines. However, what makes this a realistic option is how well Harvey has fared with more rest:
Four days rest: 19 starts, 3.07 ERA, 1.065 WHIP
Five days rest: 10 starts, 2.25 ERA, 1.029 WHIP
Six or more days rest: 7 starts, 0.77 ERA, 0.707 WHIP
Keeping that in mind, this option is less attractive for the team. Taking Harvey out early taxes the bullpen and focusing on skipping him allows you less flexibility with the rest of the starting rotation. Consider that and the fact that doing this still probably won’t be enough. IT may come down to the Mets putting Harvey on the DL for a few weeks with “elbow fatigue” to keep him from exceeding his limit.
Most likely option: Do nothing, shut him down in September
This option is fine for Harvey’s health, but it doesn’t take into consideration the needs of the team. Right when the Mets will need Harvey the most, he will be shut down. This is what the Nats did with Strasburg and what the Mets will likely do with Harvey next season.
The Mets need to sit down with Matt Harvey and his agent Scott Boras and lay out a plan that will both keep him healthy and make sense for the team. There is absolutely no excuse. There will be a media frenzy if either side is left in the dark about the other’s intentions and it could get very ugly.