By Brad Kallet
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In mid-February, Mets manager Terry Collins told reporters that Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo and Zack Wheeler would compete for the fifth spot in the starting rotation behind Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey.
With spring training in full swing and opening day less than a month away, let’s take a look at where each of those pitchers stands in the battle for the final slot.
Gsellman came into camp as the odds-on favorite to win the job after making an impressive rookie debut in 2016. The 23-year-old Californian pitched in eight games, including seven starts, and went 4-2 with a sparkling 2.42 ERA. He allowed 42 hits in 44 2/3 innings, surrendering just one homer, and posted 42 strikeouts to just 15 walks.
Gsellman has thrown just two innings this spring, but he held serve in his lone appearance, allowing no runs and a hit, while striking out two. He’ll get the ball on Wednesday when the Mets take on the Astros at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Like Gsellman, Lugo made his major league debut in 2016 with much of New York’s rotation on the shelf. Lugo might have been as good as Gsellman, if not better. In 17 appearances, including eight starts, the right-hander went 5-2 with a 2.67 ERA. However, seven of the 49 hits he gave up left the yard, which is quite alarming. In all, he threw 64 highly productive innings, but was far from overpowering. Lugo struck out 45 and walked 21.
Lugo has made two starts and a relief appearance this spring, and has looked rather pedestrian. He’s given up three runs on seven hits in seven innings (3.86 ERA), striking out seven and walking two. That’s more than serviceable, especially for a fifth starter, but if he’s to beat out Gsellman, who is thought to have a higher upside, he’ll need to put together some catch-your-eye performances.
Unfortunately, we won’t see those in the next couple of weeks. Not because Lugo isn’t capable, mind you, but rather because he’s currently representing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. (Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson must love that.) Lugo has every right to represent his country in the team competition, and I’m sure he’s thrilled and honored to be participating. His absence from Port St. Lucie, however, might ultimately cost him the job.
It was always going to be a long shot for Wheeler, who hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2014, to break camp as the fifth starter. That’s still the case in the second week of March, as Wheeler has yet to pitch in a game.
Early in camp, the former first-round pick complained of elbow tenderness, sounding off alarm bells considering his injury history and past Tommy John surgery. But the 26-year-old right-hander appears to be healthy and ready to go.
Wheeler isn to expected to throw many pitches when he makes his long-awaited Grapefruit League debut on Friday, but it will be a terrific test and a significant step forward in his recovery.
But make no mistake, he still has a long way to go.
All indications are Gsellman will get the nod if he stays healthy and continues to put up zeroes — and he should. Gsellman has better stuff than Lugo, and deserves more innings. Lugo made 11 relief appearances in 2016 — Gsellman made just one — and fills a bullpen need.
Wheeler, of course, remains the most talented of the trio. But after missing so much time, he needs to be eased back into action. His innings will be watched closely, as they should be. More than likely, Wheeler stays in Florida for extended spring training when the team departs for New York. From there, he’ll likely make some minor league appearances before getting the call to the big club.
Should all five projected starters stay healthy, which in all likelihood won’t happen, Wheeler could see innings out of the ‘pen. If injuries or struggles lead to someone getting demoted, the former top prospect will have an opportunity to start.
Don’t Give Up On Travis D’Arnaud Just Yet
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that catcher Travis d’Arnaud, in what’s unquestionably a make-or-break season for him, is scorching hot at the plate. Alderson decided not to pursue a catcher in the offseason and instead give the 28-year-old another shot to prove himself. So far, so good. The California kid has resembled his idol, Mike Piazza, through seven games, hitting .450 (9-for-20) with two homers, a double and four RBIs.
If he finally realizes his potential in 2017, this lineup will be incredibly deep — and incredibly dangerous.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet