Mets’ starting depth needs to make opener an afterthought

Now, the Mets’ pitching depth officially will get tested, and the early indications show they’ll pass well enough.

This 2021 National League won’t be kind to lightweights, though. Can the Mets match their depth with breadth? Their reaction to their first real starting rotation setback calls that into question.

With first-year Met Carlos Carrasco set to begin the season on the injured list with a Grade 1 strain of his right hamstring, and with the team declining to put a time frame on his return, manager Luis Rojas strongly hinted Friday, before an 8-5 victory over the Cardinals at Clover Park, that the team will rely on the opener strategy behind a front four of Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, Taijuan Walker (who started Friday) and David Peterson.

The opener is a brilliant innovation and a solid tactic to navigate rough waters, as opposed to throwing a replacement-level starter to the wolves in the other club’s lineup. In this unique season, however, and in a league defended by the Dodgers, it’s suboptimal.

“There’s lineups out there that we can benefit from having an opener and getting one to two innings, and having a guy come in and give us three, and bridge to the late-inning guys that we have,” Rojas said. “There’s some strategy that we can include against certain lineups.”

He’s surely right. New Met Joey Lucchesi, for instance, a southpaw, fares notably better against lefty hitters (.238/.317/339) than righties (.250/.308/.453). If a club deploys a righty-heavy top of the lineup — as the Yankees do, for instance — it would behoove the Mets to tab a right-hander to start the game, then call on Lucchesi for the second or third inning.

Taijuan Walker
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The challenge will come for the Mets and all teams to determine the path from 60 regular-season games in 2020 to 162 (they hope) in 2021. It’s all hands on all decks, and the goal will be to not exhaust your supply. Carrasco, who threw 68 innings for the Indians last year, eighth most in the American League, appeared primed to pull his share.

“It’s tough, it’s tough,” Walker said of Carrasco’s injury. “It’s definitely a blow, but he’s a veteran. He’ll bounce back quick and we’ll just have to pick him up.”

Walker preceded his words with actions, throwing four shutout innings against a representative St. Louis lineup, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out three.

“Everything felt really good,” the right-hander said, referring to both his mechanics and his stuff.

Said Rojas: It’s “nice to see him work to his pitch count [50], get the ups and downs that we wanted him to do. The repertoire was nice.”

The Mets guaranteed Walker $20 million over two years even though he totaled 67 ¹/₃ innings over the prior three seasons thanks to 2018 Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman accepted their qualifying offer of $18.9 million after opting out of last season. It’s the way of the baseball world; just look across town at the Yankees, who are heavily banking on and paying a pair of pitchers (Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon) who combined to pitch one inning last year.

You could argue that the Mets began spring training with the NL East’s best starting rotation, and now they fall further toward the Nationals, who need a rebound from Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and the Braves, who are looking to Drew Smyly to be their Walker of sorts. On the other side of the coin, they fall further behind the Dodgers and the Padres, the cream of the league.

It’s tough grading that comes from facing tough competition. The Mets have now lost two of their most important pitchers: Carrasco and Seth Lugo. Little doubt exists that they’ll hit; Carrasco’s fellow trade passenger Francisco Lindor cranked a grand slam and the en fuego Pete Alonso added an RBI double. Their pitching and defense stand in greater doubt.

The more they can avoid using the opener, with quality starting options, the better the Mets’ chances. Therein lies their mission to validate their breadth as well as their depth in the NL arms race.

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