PORT ST. LUCIE — The dream never came close to fulfillment last season.
Yes, there had been hope, maybe even optimism, among Mets officials that 2016 would be the year Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler would unite in the same rotation, at least for a few turns, but the warning signs came early to suggest the Fab Five wouldn’t be converging.
Most alarming were Harvey’s early struggles, for which there seemed no cause. Then, in early July, the stud righty revealed a tingling sensation in his arm that was diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome, for which he underwent season-ending surgery.
Already, Matz had developed a significant bone spur in his left elbow and was pitching through pain, sometimes agony. And Wheeler’s rehab from Tommy John surgery had lagged, leaving doubt he would be ready to resume immediately after the All-Star break, as team brass had projected.
The final daggers came in August, when deGrom began an inexplicable fade and Matz was placed on the disabled list. Both soon would undergo season-ending surgery — deGrom to relocate the ulnar nerve in his right elbow and Matz to remove that cumbersome bone spur. Even the healthy member of the group, Syndergaard, pitched through a minor bone spur that was deemed insignificant enough after the season not to require surgery.
Now, with another spring training about to commence, with Sunday’s reporting date for pitchers and catchers, the annual question returns: Can this be the year the Mets get their Fab Five together and pitching at peak performance?
If it happens, the NL East title should be theirs to lose.
“I don’t know why they can’t compete with the Nationals,” a major league scout said. “If the health is OK and they have five healthy starters, they are right there with the Nationals, maybe a little bit ahead.”
The diciest proposition might be Harvey, returning from an extensive surgery that included the removal of a rib. But Wheeler hasn’t thrown a pitch in a major league game in almost 2 ½ years, after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in spring training 2015 then incurring three setbacks last season that ended his rehab in August, after he had thrown just 17 pitches in his minor league stint at Single-A St. Lucie.
For good measure, the Mets have Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, both of whom entered the rotation last August and made the losses of deGrom and Matz seem bearable. With Gsellman and Lugo combining to finish 9-4 with a 2.57 ERA, the Mets rallied to clinch a postseason berth before losing to the Giants in the National League wild-card game.
The Mets love the insurance Gsellman and Lugo provide, and could look to insert one into an even fully healthy rotation on occasion to provide extra rest for the starters. It is a role the Mets envisioned Bartolo Colon filling in the second half of last season, until it became evident the ageless righty would need to become a rock in the rotation.
“I think they are going to miss Colon,” the scout said. “He was a steady guy every fifth day and, from all indications, a good guy in the clubhouse. That’s a presence to take off the team. That’s huge.”
Of course, the Mets still will see plenty of Colon, who remained in the NL East after signing with the Braves. But the emergence of Gsellman and Lugo made Colon expendable to the Mets, especially at one year and $12 million.
Placing a larger burden on the rotation, at least early in the season, will be Jeurys Familia’s expected suspension after his arrest on domestic-violence charges. The Mets are prepared to move Addison Reed into the closer’s role, shortening the bullpen.
“It comes down to that starting pitching and not blowing too many games before Jeurys Familia comes back from his suspension,” the scout said. “If you get past the injury stuff — and that is always a big if — the Mets are a 90-win team and probably the team to beat in the division.”
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