How Mets can improve their pitching staff behind Kodai Senga in 2024

Aug 13, 2023; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Kodai Senga (34) looks at the scoreboard in the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field.

The Mets’ sell-off at the trade deadline has created an air of mystery about just how committed they’ll be to winning in 2024, but if Steve Cohen is looking for a reason to up the ante, so to speak, Kodai Senga may just be providing it.

“He might be more of a No. 1 than most people thought he could be, myself included,” one scout told me Saturday, one day after Senga’s seven-inning gem on Friday night against the Seattle Mariners. “I think it took him some time to gain confidence that his stuff would play against major league hitters, and now you’re seeing him attack hitters aggressively and throw more strikes, which sets up his splitter as a true wipeout pitch.

“His dominance could help convince the Mets they could contend next year if they add to their rotation.”

With that in mind, in looking ahead at the ways they could improve that starting rotation during the offseason, it’s worth noting that three baseball people I spoke to this week are of the opinion that the Mets should be considered favorites to land another Japanese star, Yoshinobu Yamamoto this winter.

“I’d say they have to be the favorite,” said one rival team executive. “Their GM (Billy Eppler) has a strong history with Japanese pitchers, and signing Senga has worked out well for them. Also, Yamamoto is young enough (age 25) that he fits what they seem to be doing, replenishing their farm system.”

Another exec made essentially the same points and added: “I think it’s all about Yamamoto being young. The guy will be expensive but I don’t think Steve Cohen is going to stop spending just because it didn’t work with (Max) Scherzer and (Justin) Verlander. He might not be giving someone like (Blake) Snell a seven-year deal but signing Yamamoto fits as far as the pivot they made.”

Yamamoto is expected to draw heavy bidding from several teams, perhaps more so now that Shohei Ohtani’s immediate pitching future is in question due to his elbow ligament injury. Yet the execs make sense in laying out reasons the Mets could have an edge.

Eppler indeed has notable ties to Japanese pitching. In addition to signing Senga for the Mets, he scouted Masahiro Tanaka for years for the Yankees as their assistant GM, then successfully recruited Ohtani while GM of the Los Angeles Angels.

Ah, yes, Ohtani. It should be noted that the same scouts and execs see him as being in a separate category as a free agent who would supersede any financial restrictions the Mets may be thinking about this winter.

The feeling around baseball is that the Angels’ superstar wants to remain on the West Coast, but if he shows a willingness to come east, the expectation is that Cohen would still make a big play for him, even now that Ohtani’s elbow injury creates uncertainty.

As one scout put it, “Just as a hitter Ohtani would be hugely valuable to the Mets. They underachieved this year but they have enough talent that with Ohtani they could have a much more productive offense.”

If Ohtani isn’t willing to come east, however, the feeling is the Mets will limit their spending beyond someone like Yamamoto.

As the exec mentioned, Snell, the lefty for the San Diego Padres who could win the NL Cy Young Award, may be the top MLB free-agent pitcher this winter. He turns 31 in December, which isn’t old but it’s not 25 like Yamamoto, and Snell also has a history of injuries that have limited his innings over the years, as well as inconsistency that might give teams pause regarding a long-term deal.

The other attractive young free agent on the market will be lefty Julio Urias of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just turned 27. He’s found his form the last several weeks after a hamstring injury cost him time this season, but execs note that Urias’ agent Scott Boras will be looking for a huge deal.

Perhaps Jordan Montgomery, the ex-Yankee lefty who has had a solid season for the St. Louis Cardinals and now the Texas Rangers, could fit for the Mets on a relatively short-term deal. He’s a free agent who turns 31 in December.

Then there are the trade possibilities.

After their trade-deadline moves, the Mets now have enough of a surplus in position-player prospects to deal from strength. So perhaps they could lure a proven starter from a small-market team who is a year or two away from free agency and thus available for financial reasons.

Such possibilities could include Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff from the Milwaukee Brewers, Tyler Glasnow from the Tampa Bay Rays, Shane Bieber from the Cleveland Guardians, Mitch Keller from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Pablo Lopez from the Minnesota Twins.

In a recent story I did about the updated state of the Mets’ farm system, Keith Law, the analyst who ranks prospects for The Athletic, mentioned that some baseball people believe the Pirates might make Keller available this winter, two seasons away from free agency, and suggested the Mets try to make such a trade because “they don’t have high-end pitching” among their prospects.

Keller is relatively young, turning 28 next April, and has shown the ability to dominate at times with power stuff, just not consistently.

“He’s fallen off after a good first half,” said one scout. “I think it’s possible he’s been worn down a bit in that (losing) environment. I believe his best years are ahead of him.”

Otherwise, the idea of trading with the Brewers could be very intriguing if the Mets hire David Stearns to be their president of baseball operations this winter, as has been speculated. Stearns was the GM in Milwaukee for seven years before stepping down in 2023 with one season to go on his contract, increasing the speculation he was freeing himself to be available to the Mets.

In any case, trading for either Burnes, the 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner, or Woodruff, would add a difference-maker at the front of the rotation.

And with Senga’s ascension, in addition to Jose Quintana’s impressive pitching since his return from injury, adding such a difference-maker, or even two, could make the Mets a strong contender next season, depending what they do to tweak their underperforming offense.

If they only add, say, Yamamoto to the front of the rotation, they would also need to sign a few lower-cost starters to fill out the back end of the rotation and provide depth, while hoping David Peterson or Tylor Megill bounce back as depth pieces as well.

In addition, at some point next year the Mets should begin to get help from their farm system, as a few of their top pitching prospects are said to be close to being ready for the big leagues, most notably Mike Vasil.

But they can’t lean on internal options if they want to contend.

The question, though, is how hard they’ll try to do that. Will the Mets follow through on what Eppler apparently told both Scherzer and Verlander before each veteran pitcher agreed to waive their no-trade clause, that the team will take a step back in 2024? Or did Cohen simply want to start over with the old guys gone, no matter how much of their contracts he’s eating?

Whatever the Mets’ original intentions, it’s possible that Senga’s dominance in recent weeks has given them more incentive to be aggressive as traders and buyers come the offseason.

In that case, perhaps the scouts and execs are right about the Mets being the favorites to sign Yamamoto. After all, in one sense it’s very possible that nothing has changed, sell-off or no sell-off.

As one exec put it, “If Steve Cohen wants someone he’s still a good bet to get him.”