Scouts evaluate Sean Manaea, Mets' starting rotation in 2024

Sean Manaea might be a “sneaky good signing,” as one MLB talent evaluator told me Sunday. But even if that’s the case, it’s now as clear as can be that the Mets are indeed taking a step back in 2024 and will need a best-case scenario to reach the postseason as a wild card team.

It’s not a surprise. This is the plan that was hatched at the trade deadline last summer, when the Mets pivoted from a win-now mentality to long-term sustainability, with Steve Cohen’s willingness to eat huge money in the Max Scherzer/Justin Verlander trades essentially buying top prospects and reinforcing an improving farm system.

It’s just that with Cohen you couldn’t be sure if his desire to win would prompt big-splash signings this winter and alter the plan. But other than chasing Yobinoshu Yamamoto, whose youth fit with the 2025-and-beyond vision, the owner has been content to count on David Stearns’ ability to find undervalued talent via trade or free agency to build a competitive roster.

And so, there is nothing sexy about this Mets’ offseason -- to be sure.

Whether it adds up to more than meets the eye will be an early referendum of sorts on Stearns, the new president of baseball operations, who built a reputation as a smart executive by winning on a small-market budget in Milwaukee with an emphasis on pitching.

One colleague of Stearns says that Mets fans shouldn’t pass judgment until they see some results from the team’s new pitching lab, which includes all the new technology that teams like the Houston Astros (for whom Stearns worked before the Brewers) have rather famously used to their advantage for several years.

“David took what he learned in Houston and built a pitching lab with the Brewers that got results,” the colleague said. “From what I can see, this offseason he’s signed some flawed pitchers -- starters and relievers -- with upside that he believes will benefit tremendously from changes that will come out of their evaluations in the lab as well as what their analytics tell them.”

The Mets, of course, have their own long-standing tradition of excellent pitching without a pitching lab, from Tom Seaver to Doc Gooden to Jacob deGrom, albeit with a few too many non-competitive eras in between.

Now, after Sunday’s signing of lefty free agent Manaea to a two-year, $28 million deal (with a player option for 2025), their likely starting rotation for 2024 has been assembled and, suffice to say, it will not cause a stampede to buy season tickets:

Kodai Senga, Jose Quintana, Luis Severino, Adrian Houser and Manaea.

Even with a bounce-back year from Severino and proof that Manaea’s strong finish to his 2023 season with the San Francisco Giants was significant, the most obvious cause for concern is how the Mets handle a 162-game workload.

Senga’s 166.1 innings were the high mark for any of the five projected starters, and he still figures to work best on the extra rest he was accustomed to in Japan. Manaea was next at 117.2, but he pitched much of the season out of the bullpen, making only 10 starts and pitching to a 4.44 ERA overall. Quintana and Severino missed big chunks of time due to injuries, and Houser started the season in the minors.

“Even with good health I’d suspect you’ll see them need to use 10 or 11 starters,” one scout says. “They have some fringe guys like (Joey) Lucchesi and (Tylor) Megill. They’ll probably get (David) Peterson back (from injury) at some point, and a few of their top minor leaguers should be major league-ready as the year goes on.

“But even if the rotation is better than it looks on paper, they’re going to need more dependable relievers than they have now if they want to be competitive.

“I’ll say this, though: I like the changes Manaea made last year. I think he has a chance to build on what he did, especially late in the year.”

I heard similar optimism about Manaea from two other evaluators on Sunday, both also referencing the changes in repertoire and style the 32-year-old lefty made last season, after spending a winter at the well-known Driveline Training Center in Seattle.

Working on rotational strength and doing drills with weighted balls, Manaea increased his velocity, averaging 93.57 mph on his fastball, up 1-to-2 mph from previous years. As a result, he ditched his sinker, a long-time staple, and used his four-seam fastball as his primary pitch, and added a sweeper in place of his more traditional slider, to go with his changeup.

“The increased velocity made his changeup more effective,” said one scout, “and the sweeper became an effective pitch for him. He didn’t start using it until about June and he got a lot of swings and misses with it. I think as he learned to use his new mix of pitches, he got better as the year went on.”

Still, the Giants used him mostly as a reliever until September, when he pitched to a 2.67 ERA over four starts and demonstrated better control, allowing only two walks in 27 innings.

“You need to see it over a larger sample,” said the scout, “but he was really solid in those last four starts. I like the signing as a back-end starter.”

So perhaps Manaea will prove to be a bargain of sorts, but that would be more significant if they had more front-end-of-the-rotation starters, not to mention a deeper bullpen and more thump in their offense.

Maybe they’ll still sign J.D. Martinez or Justin Turner to handle the DH duties, and even add another depth starter, but because Yamamoto was the only difference-making pitcher they were willing to sign to a long-term deal, what you see now is almost certainly what you’re going to get as a starting rotation.

In short, the Mets are sticking to their plan. And for a team that needed a reset, it makes sense.

Cohen tried to buy a championship and was smart enough not to throw good money after bad when the plan went off the rails. Instead, he ate more money than any other owner in sports would have to accelerate the reset, and he still looms as a key reason to believe the Mets will win a championship before too long.

Just not in 2024.