Coming off a season where their starting pitching cost them a chance to play in October, the Mets have tons of work to do when it comes to fixing a rotation that arguably has only two guarantees in it at the moment.
There is Jacob deGrom, who is the best pitcher in baseball. And there is David Peterson, who emerged in his rookie campaign as someone who should be a reliable back of the rotation starter. That's it.
What the above means is that the Mets need to find three reliable starting pitchers between now and Opening Day of 2021, whether those pitchers come from outside the organization or from within.
Before analyzing the internal options, let's talk about Noah Syndergaard for a minute.
Syndergaard, who is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, could potentially be ready for Opening Day, but that would mean making it back roughly 12 months after surgery.
In a potential likelier scenario, Syndergaard might not be ready to return until June or July. Translation? The Mets cannot rely on him, especially early on. If they get him, great. But it should be viewed as a bonus.
THE INTERNAL OPTIONS
We might as well get this out of the way first.
Lugo has been a decent starting pitcher during his career -- his 6.15 ERA in ERA in 26.1 IP over seven starts in 2020 notwithstanding. But he has been a dominant reliever. And with tons of uncertainty in their bullpen, that's where he's of greater value to the Mets.
Had Lugo performed exceptionally well in the rotation this past season, it would've been hard to remove him. But he didn't. And while Lugo could potentially be a high-upside rotation piece, what he did in 2020 did not inspire confidence.
Matz struggled so badly in 2020 that he was not only moved to the bullpen but rendered unusable for a time.
From 2015 to 2019, even when you include the clunker of a season that 2017 was, Matz had a 4.05 ERA and 1.29 WHIP while striking out 8.5 batters per 9. If he can get back to that in 2021, he could be of great value. But the Mets cannot count on him doing so.
That Szapucki is listed here speaks to how barren the Mets' upper minors are of potential starting pitchers -- especially those who can make an impact.
The above is not a knock on Szapucki. It is an acknowledgment that a pitcher who has yet to make his big league debut and is still building his arm back up after Tommy John surgery should not be this high on the list. But he is.
Szapucki, 24, tossed 61.2 innings in 2019 and it's unclear how many innings could be allotted for him in 2021. If the safety wheels are mostly off, he is a lefty with a plus fastball and curve who could be a solid option as a No. 5 starter.
Kilome struggled badly in relief in 2020, posting an 11.12 ERA and 2.02 WHIP in 11.1 IP as he got his first taste of the majors.
All hope is not lost for Kilome, who is only 25 years old and flashes plus stuff at times. But like those above him, he cannot be counted on in a big way in 2020
Of the non-Lugo internal options listed here, perhaps the Mets can have them battle it out in spring training to see if one of them is worthy of the final spot in the rotation.
But no matter what the Mets do, they need to add minor league starting rotation depth this offseason through free agency and/or trade, and they need to sign or trade for two legitimate starting pitchers -- ideally one who can pitch near the top of the rotation, and another who can pitch in the middle of the rotation.
That takes us to the below...
First, a note on the Mets' payroll.
As things currently stand, when you account for money already owed in 2021 and potential raises via arbitration, the Mets should have roughly $76 million available under the luxury tax threshold of $210 million.
That's a solid chunk of money to play with, and they're going to need a lot of it to fix the rotation...
THE EXTERNAL OPTIONS
Bauer is the big fish here, and his agent recently clarified that he is open to deals of more than one year.
Coming off a season where he'll almost certainly win the NL Cy Young award, Bauer is far and away the best starting pitcher on the market, and the expectation is that he'll earn far more than the other free agent options when it comes to average annual value.
For the Mets, Bauer would be a perfect fit behind deGrom in the rotation as a true ace who would give New York arguably the best 1-2 punch in baseball.
It would behoove the Mets to make the one-year, $18 million qualifying offer to Stroman and hope he accepts. If he does, it would mean getting a reliable mid-rotation starter without having to do too much work.
The Mets could also extend the QO and try to negotiate a longer-term deal with Stroman in the interim.
With a potential payroll crunch coming for the Yankees, it's possible Tanaka's time in Pinstripes is over. And he would be a good option for the Mets if that's the case.
Tanaka, who is entering his age-32 season, stumbled in the postseason for the Yankees, but had a 3.56 ERA and 1.16 WHIP while striking out 8.3 per 9 during the regular season.
While Tanaka would be a bit of a risk, he's a proven performer in the New York market and has been remarkably healthy over most of the last five seasons despite pitching with a partially torn UCL in his right elbow.
Signing Paxton would add a 'What If' to the equation, and that's something the Mets should be trying to avoid after the wreckage caused by the 2020 starting rotation.
In a world where the Mets land Bauer and also bolster their depth with other moves, taking a one-year flyer on a guy like Paxton could make sense as a high-upside play.
The Mets' strategy should be as follows...
Go after Bauer and try like hell to land him. If that fails, pivot to a second-tier option like Stroman (if he hasn't already accepted the QO) or Tanaka.
In addition to landing at least one of the above pitchers, the goal should be to add depth and high-upside options, such as Paxton, while potentially going internal for one of the open rotation spots.
And then the Mets can hope for the in-season return of Syndergaard, which could potentially make the rotation lethal.