Why sources say Billy Eppler needs to hit the ground running for Mets in free agency — especially with pitching

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Billy Eppler on field in hoodie ST 2018
Billy Eppler on field in hoodie ST 2018

Billy Eppler was already staring at an imposing to-do list, presuming that he finalizes an agreement to become GM of the Mets. And that was before he was hit with Tuesday morning’s Noah Syndergaard thunderbolt.

It’s not just that Syndergaard’s signing with the Angels creates a desperate need for some quality pitching in Queens, but it also furthered the apparent reality that the threat of a Dec. 2 lockout by the owners is pushing teams to move aggressively in the starting-pitching market.

This is often a quiet time leading up to December’s Winter Meetings, yet in the last couple of days the Tigers signed Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million deal, the Blue Jays locked up Jose Berrios to a seven-year, $131 million deal, and the Angels decided to gamble $21 million on a one-year deal for Syndergaard.

“I think you’ll see more signings before the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) expires,” a team executive told me on Tuesday. “Especially pitchers. There are a lot of teams with financial flexibility who need pitching and there’s only so much out there.”

In that case, forget hitting the ground running: Eppler needs to be in full sprint as soon as he officially takes over as GM.

For that matter, the timing of Syndergaard’s unexpected departure creates at least some appearance that the front-office turbulence played a role in allowing him to leave for $2.6 million more than the Mets had guaranteed by extending him the $18.4 million qualifying offer.

However, Sandy Alderson says the Mets were not given a chance to make a counter-offer to the Angels’ $21 million, so perhaps Syndergaard simply changed his mind about wanting to stay in New York after expressing that desire at the end of the season.

Whatever the case, Syndergaard was far from a sure thing in 2022 after essentially missing two seasons after Tommy John surgery. He did return to pitch two separate one-inning stints late last season but, on the advice of Mets’ doctors, didn’t throw any breaking pitches.

In some ways his extended absence is comparable to that of Zack Wheeler, who missed all of 2015 and 2016 after TJ surgery. And while Wheeler eventually regained his dominant stuff and blossomed into an elite starter, it’s worth remembering that his first season back, in 2017, was difficult as he pitched to a 5.61 ERA and had to be shut down after 81 1/3 innings.

Also, Wheeler was 27 at that time, two years younger than Syndergaard will be going into next season at 29.

It doesn’t mean Syndergaard can’t make a more successful return to pitching than Wheeler did. However, two scouts I spoke with made the point that Syndergaard may never again be the dominant starter who matched zeroes with Madison Bumgarner in the 2016 Wild Card Game.

“There’s a lot more velocity in the game than there was five or six years ago, so it’s not the separator it was for him when he was younger,” one scout said. “Also, as hard as he throws, he doesn’t have the late life to get guys to chase the high fastball like Wheeler or (Jacob) deGrom.

“He still needs to throw upstairs to attack the launch-angle swings in today’s game. And he has better numbers throwing his four-seamer than his sinker, but I think he needs to be selective in the way he uses it.

“I saw him get frustrated the last year he pitched (2019), because he wasn’t throwing his fastball and slider by guys the way he once did. I thought his change-up was actually his best pitch for a lot of that year. He needs to pitch with more command using all of his pitches if he’s going to be elite again. I’d say the jury is out on that.”

Whatever Syndergaard’s future may be, with him gone and Marcus Stroman a free agent, the Mets are now under enormous pressure to spend on pitching and overpay if necessary.

“I don’t know that the Syndergaard contract sets the market necessarily,” the team exec said. “One-year deals are a different animal. But Berrios basically got $18 million a year on a seven-year deal and he’s a year away from free agency.

“He’s younger than Stroman, but I would think Stroman will use that as a starting point. He’ll probably ask for seven years, $140 million, using his durability to make the case for that length, and maybe wind up getting six for $120. And you’re probably looking at something similar for (Kevin) Gausman.”

Not all of the pitching will be that expensive. The Mets will need to make the best choice among other FA starters such as Carlos Rodon, Anthony DeSclafani, Jon Gray, Alex Wood, Danny Duffy, Rich Hill, etc. All of those do not come with qualifying offers attached, an important point because the Mets don’t want to lose the No. 14 overall pick in next year’s draft, which they would because they also have the 11th pick, the result of not signing Kumar Rocker last year.

That qualifying offer makes it unlikely the Mets would be in on Robbie Ray or Justin Verlander unless they strike out with their other targets and feel they have no choice.

After all, they need quantity now, especially with little in the way of major league-ready prospects in their farm system. But they clearly need quality as well.

“If the Mets are serious about contending, they have to get at least one guy they can slot at the top of the rotation with deGrom,” was the way one scout put it.

“If I’m them, I’d throw a ton of money at (Max) Scherzer and see if he’s really committed to staying in LA. See if $45 million (per) for two or three years gets him to bite. If Cohen really wants to win, that’s the best way he could spend his money.”

Yes, it’s Cohen’s money. But it’s Eppler (presumably) who will be immediately faced with a blizzard of important decisions. And while getting them right obviously matters most, moving quickly, at least on the pitching front, may be vital as well.