New York Mets: Choosing between Steven Matz and Michael Wacha

The New York Mets will need to make a choice in the battle between Steven Matz and Michael Wacha for the fifth starter spot.

This much seems definite about the New York Mets‘ starting rotation: Jacob deGrom and a cast of several. OK, kidding. Behind deGrom will surely be Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and Rick Porcello. And, most likely, a choice between Steven Matz and Michael Wacha.

That’s where things may prove somewhere between intriguing and impossible. These are two pitchers with starting experience to burn and periodic relief experience. The Mets need not only a fifth starter but bullpen fortification. Which one gets the number five slot and which one, the bullpen job?

These are two one-time phenoms (Matz with the Mets; Wacha with the St. Louis Cardinals) who got compromised by injuries. Matz has dealt with elbow and shoulder issues; Wacha has battled his shoulder. They also have postseason experience with a couple of striking highs and a couple of shattering lows each.

More Mets: The Noah Syndergaard conundrum

Wacha got his first. 2013: National League Championship Series MVP; looked untouchable until the Boston Red Sox solved him en route the World Series championship. 2014: Missed almost three months with a shoulder stress fracture, returned for four September starts, then didn’t turn up again until Game Five of the NLCS. Disastrously.

He still looked rusty and in search of his formerly lethal changeup when he was brought in to work the bottom of the ninth with the game tied at three and the San Francisco Giants one win from the World Series. Single, fly out, walk, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny—with a then lights-out closer named Trevor Rosenthal in the wings—stuck with Wacha, because it just wasn’t a save situation yet.

Not reaching for his best relief option because his Book told him otherwise ended Matheny’s and the Cardinals’ season right then and there. Travis Ishikawa hit the three-run homer San Francisco will never forget for game, set, and a trip to the World Series they won as part of The Madison Bumgarner Show.

A year later, Wacha started and lost Game Three of a division series the Chicago Cubs swept on the way to their own World Series conquest. He hasn’t been seen in the postseason since.

Matz turned up three times in the 2015 postseason. He started and lost division series Game Four against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He started Game Five of the NLCS against the Cubs and was lifted with two out, two on, and a five-run lead after four and two-thirds innings.

And he started Game Four of the World Series. That’s where things got really interesting. He opened the sixth surrendering a leadoff double and an RBI single back-to-back to the Kansas City Royals, closing a Mets lead to 3-2.

Then-Mets manager Terry Collins lifted Matz, turned it over to his bullpen, and kept the lead until Daniel Murphy‘s error on a certain double play ball opened up a three-run Royals eighth. The 5-3 score held up to set the Royals on the threshold of winning the Series they’d win in Game Five.

It was tough to tell which inspired the bigger second guesses, Collins letting Matz open the sixth in Game Four or letting a gassed Matt Harvey try to finish the shutout he took through eight innings in Game Five. Both spelled disaster for the Mets in a Series their then-porous defense did the most to cost them.

Picking between Matz and Wacha for the number five spot now won’t be simple. As Rising Apple writer Tim Boyle observes, Matz has shown the Mets up close and personal that his likely major league ceiling is as a number five. Wacha is an entity the Mets have seen from the other side alone now and then. And he has a deal with the Mets that includes some incentives tied to relief appearances.

One advantage for the Mets if Matz ends up in the bullpen—he’d add a lefthanded presence now occupied solely by Justin Wilson, who looked good enough with the Mets last year to make himself a fixture for now in a bullpen that lacked for lefthanded bulls. When the Mets surprised observers with that staggering post All-Star run last year, Wilson had a big enough hand in it, surrendering a measly six runs in 28 relief innings for a jolting 1.92 ERA.

One disadvantage: Matz’s relief inexperience. His only two relief gigs were last year, when the Mets thought a turn in the bullpen would get him re-horsed. He pitched a third of an inning against the crosstown Yankees and got a ground out; he pitched two-thirds against the Philadelphia Phillies three days later and didn’t surrender a run. It looked good but a two-game sample is a tricky one for determining whether an experienced starter has a bullpen future.

Wacha isn’t that much more experienced in the pen. He worked five games in relief last season. His first, against the Phillies in late May, was disaster: a two-run double surrendered to Bryce Harper and then, the next inning, three homers including a pair of two-run bombs (Scott Kingery, Andrew McCutchen). Ouch.

But his next three relief gigs went: three scoreless against the Cincinnati Reds, one and two-thirds scoreless (and a win credit) against the Reds, one run in three innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and one run in four and two-thirds against the Houston Astros.

You’d think even with small sample sizes it might be advantageous for Matz if the New York Mets want to pen him. But both Matz and Wacha have said on the record they prefer to start. Unless the Mets have ideas about six-man rotations after all, picking between the pair for number five is a challenge. Matz finished 2019 with a respectable 3.47 ERA from July 3 through season’s end; Wacha battled inconsistency all season long.

Wacha has found his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s working as a starter this spring. The Mets could also consider that a dangerous bullpen weapon to open the season, even if his once-vaunted changeup isn’t what it used to be, with a built-in insurance policy should any Mets starter become unavailable for any reason. Even Porcello, who’s known as an innings-eater and was signed to do just that.

Matz continued making his own rotation argument in his most recent spring start, retiring all nine Washington Nationals he faced last Saturday and showing his curve ball with a little more deception than normal while he was at it. He may have been the happiest Met about it. “To have that curve ball so early in the spring, that’s something that normally comes at the end,” he told reporters after that game. “I feel really comfortable with it, so I’m happy.”

Earlier this month, Wacha admitted he thinks he still has a lot to prove. “Just that I can get the job done up here at this level,” he told veteran New York Post columnist Steve Serby. “That I can be one of the best in this league. That’s my mentality. I feel like whenever I’m out there, I’m one of the best in the league. Just prove to everybody … prove to myself, prove to my family that I can do it.”

Next: Mets show Alonso what he means to franchise

Both Matz and Wacha would love to prove the same thing to everyone on the same list. How they’ll get to start doing it is the New York Mets’ immediate headache. The answer may not be aspirin alone.

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