As October begins and the Wild Card series rolls on, the Mets are at home. And while there are multiple reasons why the Mets are at home, the biggest one is not hard to figure out.
The Mets' starting rotation, a pillar of strength in 2019 when they were almost impossibly healthy, fell to pieces in 2020 due in part to the loss of Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery before the season and the opt-out of Marcus Stroman (citing coronavirus concerns) right before he was set to make his season debut.
While the Mets lost their projected No. 2 and No. 3 starters, they would've arguably been able to withstand that massive hit if they had the necessary depth. They did not.
New York also might have been able to weather the storm had Steven Matz been in 2020 the reliable starter he was during four of the first five seasons of his career. Instead, he melted down and became virtually unusable.
The losses of Syndergaard and Stroman and the failure of Matz meant that the Mets had to rely heavily on both Rick Porcello (5.64 ERA, 1.50 WHIP) and Michael Wacha (6.62 ERA, 1.55 WHIP), shift Seth Lugo from the bullpen to the rotation (where he had a 6.15 ERA and 1.51 WHIP), and sprinkle in starts by the not so Fab Four of Robert Gsellman, Walker Lockett, Corey Oswalt, and Ariel Jurado.
Heading into the 2021 season, the Mets have a ton of work to do when it comes to fixing the broken starting rotation, and there doesn't seem to be much (if any) immediate help coming from within the organization.
What the Mets have going for them heading into 2021
After that, there's not much.
They could start Lugo, but are probably better off using him in relief. And even if they do start Lugo, he'll be a "What If" (just like Porcello and Wacha were in 2020).
Also in the "What If" category is Matz, whose disastrous performance in 2020 puts him closer to non-tender territory than reliable starter territory.
The big wild card here is Syndergaard, who could potentially return as early as April if his Tommy John surgery rehab is incredibly fast. Or he could return closer to the All-Star break or not at all. It simply depends on how his body reacts.
Looking at the farm system, the Mets have Franklyn Kilome (who was very uneven in 2020) and potentially Thomas Szapucki at some point soon. Szapucki, however, has not yet made his big league debut and is still building back arm strength after his own Tommy John surgery.
Translation? The Mets need a lot of immediate help from outside the organization when it comes to filling the starting five and adding necessary depth.
Free agent and trade options
This is where the "how to fix" the rotation part comes in. And again, it won't be easy.
With Steve Cohen's ownership and Sandy Alderson's return in the role of team president pending the approval of MLB owners, the Mets could soon have an owner with a net worth of approximately $14 billion who just happens to be a Mets fan with a history of being smartly aggressive when it comes to his business dealings.
The above could bode well for a Mets pursuit of Trevor Bauer, though it remains to be seen if Bauer thinks the Mets are a fit.
Here's what he recently said about his pending free agency:
"I want a chance to pitch every fourth day instead of every fifth. That really drives me. Going along with that: how’s the medical staff? How’s the technology — the information that’s available on the coaching staff? What’s the culture of the organization like?"
Money could eventually talk when it comes to where Bauer lands, but that's not a guarantee.
Beyond Bauer is Stroman, who doesn't profile as an ace but has experience pitching near the top of the rotation.
Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are among the next best options, though Paxton is an especially huge risk who hasn't been able to stay on the field. For a Mets team in need of certainty, that should mean looking in another direction.
That direction could potentially take the Mets to the trade market, but there don't seem to be any high-upside arms currently sitting there. That could change in November or December, but the Mets -- whose farm system is slowly being built back up -- need to be careful when it comes to dealing any of their top prospects away.
So how exactly do the Mets fix the starting rotation? The answer is a layered one and is more general than specific.
They need to stop relying on multiple "What Ifs," they need to do a better job protecting their depth, and they need to stop yanking guys back and forth between roles (such has been the case with Lugo, Gsellman, and depth pieces such as Oswalt).
The Mets also need to keep drafting aggressively and hold on tight to their top pitching prospect trio of Matthew Allan, J.T. Ginn, and Josh Wolf -- power right-handers who could start making an impact in the majors around 2023.
To get a little more specific as it pertains to 2021, the Mets absolutely need to find a 1A to deGrom's 1. Whether it's Bauer or via trade, that should be at the very top of the agenda for Alderson when he takes over.
The Mets also need at least one additional starting pitcher who can pitch in the middle of the rotation and has been reliable. That could be a pitcher like Stroman or Tanaka if they strike out on Bauer.
If the Mets take care of the above, the return of Syndergaard at some point in 2021 could turn the rotation from good to great. If they don't, the talent of their young offensive core probably won't be enough to carry them to October. And they'll run the risk of wasting another year of deGrom's prime.