Mets season preview: Team counting on young pitching staff

Jon Niese opens the season as the Mets' No. 1 pitcher. Credit: Getty Images
Jon Niese opens the season as the Mets’ No. 1 pitcher.
Credit: Getty Images

 

The Mets are armed and ready. Well, maybe they’re just armed.

It was mid-February when manager Terry Collins told reporters at the Mets’ training facility that the organization was “optimistic about our pitching staff.”

Whether the Mets starters can carry out their marching orders begins Monday afternoon at Citi Field. The Mets will begin their 51st season with Jon Niese making the Opening Day start against the Padres.

“I thought after last season, especially at the end of last season, Jon Niese stepped forward to be the pitcher everyone expected him to be,” Collins said. “He’s had a very, very good spring. We feel very, very confident that he’s the right guy to start this off.”

He is 1-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 17 2/3 innings this spring.

It will be imperative that the young arms keep a decidedly flawed team at-or-above .500 in the first two month as it appears the Mets will start the season without starters Johan Santana, Shaun Marcum and Jeremy Hefner.

Niese will likely be followed in the rotation by Matt Harvey and Dillon Gee. Harvey electrified in his eight starts after being called up in July, going 3-5 in 10 starts with 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. Gee went 6-7 in 17 starts with a 4.10 ERA in 109 2/3 innings before his 2012 season ended due to a blood clot in a right shoulder artery.

Santana told reporters last weekend he did “not know when I’m going to be pitching again.” Santana’s words echoed those of Collins, who said the lefty was not going to start the season with the major-league club.

The organization shut down Santana last August due to inflammation in his lower back. Santana compiled a 6-9 record with 4.88 ERA last years after missing the 2011 season recuperating from anterior capsule surgery on his left shoulder.

At the time Santana was shut down, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said the ace was “prescribed rest, medication and, of course, intermittent exercise,” but “there is no issue with his ankle, no issue with his shoulder. Obviously with a back problem and continuing to pitch, that [in] itself could lead to problems with the shoulder or the ankle or the elbow, and [that’s] another reason why we’re trying to be cautious about this.”

Unlike the winter between the 2011 and 2012 season, where he began throwing in December, Santana did not throw this offseason until February, which was pointed out by Alderson and Collins.

The Mets shut down Santana in February with shoulder weakness after a bullpen session in February. Collins speculated that it may take at least a month for Santana to get into game condition.

Santana is scheduled to make $25.5 million this season. The Mets have a $25 million option for the 2014 season but it is not likely the organization will exercise it. Instead, it is believed they will pay the $5.5 million buyout and Santana will become a free agent.

Marcum, whom the Mets signed the right-hander to a one-year, $4 million contract over the winter, has been idled due to shoulder and neck pain. The organization said on its Twitter feed that Marcum’s “shoulder impingement is improving. His neck discomfort is being treated with anti-inflammatories.”

Collins told reporters Marcum “hasn’t pitched in two weeks” making it unlikely the middle-of-the-rotation starter could pitch in the season-opening homestand.

“I’d be real surprised,” Collins said.

Hefner suffered an “elbow contusion” according to the organization when he was struck by a batted ball in Tuesday’s 11-4 loss to St. Louis. While the injury is not expected to be serious, Hefner could miss his season-opening start.

Even though the injuries would appear to open a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler will not get the opportunity to start the season in Queens. The crown jewel of the Mets farm system, Wheeler threw only two innings in spring training due to a strained oblique.

“I’m not happy,” Wheeler told reporters when it was reported that he was going to start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas. “I wanted to sort of get out there and prove myself. Hopefully, I’ll be up there soon.”

This is not the first time the current organizational regime has decided to be patient with its highly touted prospects. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade, was sent to Triple-A Las Vegas on Monday.

Follow Mets beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.


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