With only two weeks left in spring training, the New York Mets have most of their roster spots accounted for. There are several battles for positions that are still ongoing, however, and none of those is bigger than the race for the final slot in the Mets' starting rotation. For much of the spring, the battle has been a three horse race between Zack Wheeler, who is the club's final ace but faces an innings restriction in his return from Tommy John surgery, and 2016 rookie standouts Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. The race has gotten quite complicated over the past few weeks as each starter has stated their case to be in the rotation.
The assumption through the first couple of weeks of camp was that the fifth starter's job would go to either Gsellman or Lugo, with Wheeler staying in extended spring training to continue building up his arm strength. Gsellman has done an excellent job for the Mets this spring, showing that his strong finish to 2016 wasn't a fluke, and tossed five innings of one run ball in his last start. Lugo hasn't been in camp the past few weeks due to his participation in the World Baseball Classic, but his showing in the tournament for Puerto Rico has been extremely impressive. The WBC is a tremendous pressure cooker with national teams featuring stacked lineups and Lugo has been up to the task, tossing 5.2 shutout innings against a loaded Venezuela squad before allowing three runs in 5.2 innings against a tough U.S. squad. Lugo may have one last start in the Classic as he is lined up to pitch in the Championship game if Puerto Rico wins tonight, but his strong showing may have boosted his odds of joining the rotation.
The other option would be Wheeler, who has the highest upside of the three but can only pitch roughly 125 innings this year in his first season back from a 2015 Tommy John surgery. Wheeler has looked sharp in his last two starts, hitting 97 miles per hour on the radar gun in his last outing, and that performance may have given him another crack at the job. The Mets will have roughly two more starts for each pitcher this spring to evaluate and make their decision, but for now the best call may be to give Gsellman the rotation spot to start the year.
Gsellman has performed well enough to earn a rotation spot out of camp and he is not used to pitching as a reliever, so the idea of him contributing out of the bullpen is not a great one. The Mets may turn to Lugo as their long man since he has experience in relief, potentially using him as a two to three inning reliever one night or a setup man the next. With Jeurys Familia expected to receive official word on his suspension soon, the Mets need arms they can trust in the bullpen during his absence, and Lugo could be one of those guys.
That leaves Wheeler, who will have a role on this team eventually, but with their strong depth the Mets should opt to leave him in extended spring training to delay the start of his season. Assuming the Mets stick to a strict 125 inning cap on Wheeler, that would give him either 25 five inning starts or roughly 21 six inning starts. Instead of wasting some of those starts in April and May the Mets could have Wheeler come to the big leagues in June and join the rotation at that point, potentially allowing him to remain in it for the remainder of the season. Plans could change if the Mets suffer an injury or two, but this would appear to be their optimal strategy should everyone remain healthy.
Who should the Mets pick as their fifth starter? Let us know what you think in the comments!
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