Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Mets have their five starting pitchers make most/all of their scheduled starts this year. The result would be a rotation of Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee. No starts from Miguel Batista would be necessary, Matt Harvey wouldn’t have to be rushed.
It’s still hard to see how that group is better than any other rotation in the division. That says less about what would be a perfectly competent group of starters, and more about exactly how much pitching New York is up against. Let’s take a closer look.
1. Philadelphia Phillies: you want to know what keeps me up at night? The development of Vance Worley. Sure, there’s Halladay, there’s Lee, there’s Hamels- but those are all the givens, the first two are already in their 30s, Hamels is about to be a free agent. But Worley, that’s the irritating one. His K-rate at the major league level has surpassed anything he did in the minor leagues, he’s obviously solidified his spot in that rotation, he’s young and cost-controlled. He’ll complicate the easy Phillies downward slide storyline. And a healthy Joe Blanton should be good for around a 4.00 ERA, a perfectly reasonable fifth starter.
2. Washington Nationals: Here’s a fun comparison, and I mean fun if you are a Nationals fan. Jon Niese posted an ERA of 4.40 over 157 1/3 innings last year. The Mets have him penciled in at number three starter, and are trying to sign him to a long-term contract. John Lannan posted an ERA of 3.70 over 184 2/3 innings last year. The Nationals sent him to Triple-A because he wasn’t good enough to make the rotation. ERA overstates this- by xFIP, Niese was about a run better last year-but Niese has consistently underperformed his peripherals so far, and Lannan certainly has proven things durability-wise, that Niese hasn’t. The two are uncomfortably close, given the way their treatments reflect on the talent surrounding each.
The group in Washington has star talent up top in Stephen Strasburg, tremendous 2-3-4 in Edwin Jackson, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, and a perfectly serviceable fifth starter in Ross Detwiler. Should any of them falter… they have John Lannan.
3. Miami Marlins: Here’s another fun comparison, Miami-style. Anibal Snchez pitched 196 1/3 innings last year, struck out better than a batter per innings, walked fewer than three per nine, and posted an xFIP of 3.25. R.A. Dickey pitched 208 1/3 innings, struck out fewer than six per nine innings, walked around 2.3 per nine innings, and posted an xFIP of 3.95. Sanchez is Miami’s fifth starter. Dickey is New York’s second starter.
Realistically, if I didn’t like Gonzalez/Jackson so much, or if Josh Johnson wasn’t returning from an injury-marred 2011, Miami would be ahead of the Nationals with a chance to challenge the Phillies. Carlos Zambrano is a great rebound candidate. Ricky Nolasco and Mark Buehrle should be as advertised. They are going to be tough every night.
4. Atlanta Braves: Okay, last depressing reference point. Brandon Beachy had a strikeout rate of 10.74 per nine last year and an xFIP of 3.16. The last time Johan Santana had an xFIP of 3.16 or better was 2006. The last time he struck out batters at that rate over a full season was… never. (He did fan 11.38 per nine in 2002, but spent much of that year as a reliever, and logged 108 innings, total.) Beachy is Atlanta’s third starter. Santana, as you might have heard, is starting on Opening Day.
The group is solid to start: Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado. Minor is much more polished than Delgado, and should be terrific this year. Delgado is more of a wild card. But that doesn’t really matter, with Tim Hudson set to return as the fifth starter by late April. That’s 215 innings of 3.49 xFIP pitching in 2011 Tim Hudson. I mean, holy hell. This is the fourth-best rotation in the division?
5. New York Mets: consider this best-case scenario. Santana produces 25 starts at around a 4.00 ERA. Dickey is Dickey, 3.70 ERA and 200+ innings. Niese takes a step forward, comes closer to matching his xFIP in ERA, and pitches 190 innings at around a 3.50 ERA. Pelfrey is durable but falls victim to a poor defense, 200 innings, 4.20 ERA. Dillon Gee is a reasonable fifth starter, pitches around 180 innings of 4.30 ERA. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a sunnier array of conclusions for this group, and it means essentially no injuries.
Are the best-case Mets starters touching any of the four groups ahead of them? That would be no.