Why Mets must gamble on Noah Syndergaard -- whether he pitches in 2021 or not

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Noah Syndergaard TREATED ART spring training 2021 three panels
Noah Syndergaard TREATED ART spring training 2021 three panels

Noah Syndergaard’s latest setback, testing positive for COVID-19, according to a team source, could put the Mets in a difficult position as they try to decide on the right-hander’s value before he becomes a free agent this fall.

Syndergaard was scratched from Sunday’s scheduled rehab outing for the Brooklyn Cyclones, further delaying a long-awaited return from his 2020 Tommy John surgery, and now raising the possibility that he won’t pitch at all for the Mets this season.

If that proves to be the case, Syndergaard will have gone two full seasons without pitching in the big leagues. And while it probably won’t take a multi-year deal to re-sign him, the Mets will have to decide if it’s worth making him a qualifying offer that he could take for one year to rebuild his value.

The figure for the qualifying offer probably will be slightly more than last year’s $18.9 million, which the Mets utilized to bring back Marcus Stroman this season.

If that sounds like a big number for a pitcher coming off a two-year absence, the need for pitching in 2022 makes it practically imperative that the Mets take the gamble and bring Syndergaard back next season.

Perhaps that need is diminished if they re-sign Stroman, who will also be a free agent, to a multi-year deal worth more than $100 million. Also in the equation, the Mets’ plans could be influenced at least somewhat by whether Jacob deGrom returns in September from his two-month absence to pitch without any more forearm/elbow issues.

Obviously they will have some big decisions to make, and getting a look at Syndergaard in September, even if it’s only as a reliever, surely would help in that regard.

The positive COVID test casts some doubt on that possibility, but a team source said the ballclub is still hopeful the pitcher will make it back to pitch in the big leagues the last couple of weeks of the season. The Mets believe it helps that he is fully vaccinated, as Luis Rojas told reporters on Sunday, and asymptomatic to this point, which could help shorten his recovery time.

Nevertheless, Syndergaard will have to quarantine for a period of time, depending on how soon he tests negatively for the virus. And because Sunday was only going to be his second rehab outing, he’ll probably need at least a couple more weeks of ramping up once he’s cleared to play.

A best-case scenario, then, might result in Syndergaard making a couple relief appearances in the last week or so of the season. And while the Mets were hoping he could be a bullpen weapon to help them in the heat of a pennant race, their poor play of late makes it seem unlikely they’ll still have a realistic shot of overtaking the Braves at that point.

But any look at Syndergaard in a game would help in their evaluation of him. It helps, too, that they’ve observed him throughout his rehab process, during which he suffered a significant setback in June that delayed his return.

“They know what he’s all about, and that helps when you’re making a decision on a player,” an executive from a rival team told me. “You’d like to have the input of in-game performance but they can evaluate him to a certain extent based on the progress he’s made along the way during his rehab.”

It also helps that the pitcher, who turned 29 on Sunday, recently said publicly that he very much wants to remain in Queens.

“I can’t see myself leaving New York or the Mets,” Syndergaard said on a Zoom interview after his first rehab outing last week in Brooklyn. “I love that culture that New York has to offer, the grit and tenacity of all the citizens and fans. Especially ever since 2015. That special run will forever be ingrained in me. It was the best time in my life, and I really want to get back to that.”

In addition, the Mets have been through this, to some degree, with both Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz. Both pitchers missed two full seasons after their Tommy John surgeries, raising questions about their future, but both eventually came back strong, with Wheeler especially realizing his full potential that he hadn’t quite reached before his surgery.

“When you look at what Wheeler is doing for the Phillies -- Syndergaard has that same potential, with the high velocity and the dynamic breaking stuff,” said a former member of the Mets’ organization. “I don’t think they’d want to take the chance on losing Noah too and having him go dominate for another team, especially over a qualifying offer.”

Without any blue-chip pitching prospects close to being ready in their minor league system, the Mets are going to have to pay for pitching one way or another if they want to contend for a championship next season. And owner Steve Cohen has given every indication he’ll have such mindset.

That means gambling on Syndergaard, whether the Mets’ brass gets to see him pitch this season or not.