By Brad Kallet
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Here we go again.
That was the thought that went through my head on Sunday when it was announced that Mets left-hander Steven Matz would miss his next scheduled spring start with tenderness in his left elbow.
A week from opening day, this is a disappointing development for a club that has remained relatively healthy throughout camp.
The injury, if you want to call it that, doesn’t appear to be serious at this time. (We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?) But it’s hard to imagine that the left-hander won’t begin the season on the disabled list.
“It’s worrisome that he continues to be injured off an on,” general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters. “That’s the difficulty. We don’t think it’s serious. On the other hand, starting pitchers are relied on every five days. I’m not sure exactly where this is going to take us.”
And that’s the point. Even if this injury isn’t serious and Matz won’t be sidelined for long this time around, isn’t it just a matter of time? The 25-year-old needed surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in September, and back in 2010 underwent Tommy John surgery. In between the procedures, he’s suffered a myriad of setbacks.
It just seems inevitable that the injury-prone starter, who also happens to be the only lefty in the rotation, will need to miss another significant portion of the season, probably sooner rather than later.
As discouraging as Matz’s latest issue is, Alderson and manager Terry Collins don’t need to go into panic mode. It’s fair to say that of the top four starters in New York’s rotation — Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Matz — the organization was expecting the least amount of production from Matz, who projects to be the fourth starter behind the aforementioned three.
This is also where the staff’s depth comes in. The Mets came into camp seven starters deep, with Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo and Zack Wheeler competing for the fifth spot. Gsellman, who’s pitched to a 1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 innings this spring, won a spot in the rotation this weekend. If Matz misses the start of the season, Lugo, who impressed for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and went 5-2 with a 2.67 ERA for the Mets in 2016, will likely replace him.
When the team breaks camp for New York, Wheeler is expected to stay in Port St. Lucie for extended spring training. Assuming he remains on track, though, it shouldn’t be long before he arrives in Queens to bolster the rotation.
For what it’s worth, Matz believes he’ll be able to make his first regular season start, which is projected to be on April 7 against the Marlins at Citi Field.
“I think I’ll be fine,” the Long Island native, who went 9-8 with a 3.40 ERA in 2016, said confidently. “I think I’ll be good to go … I’m not really concerned right now. You never want to be set back, that’s for sure. But it is what it is. I’ve just got to try to get back on the field.”
It’s encouraging that the Mets haven’t sent Matz to get an MRI on his elbow, though that could change depending on how the southpaw feels after he throws on flat ground. That could happen as soon as Monday.
In his two years in the majors, and in the eight years since he was drafted, Matz has not proven to be durable. As good as his stuff has been, and it has been awfully good, Matz has made nay 28 starts, going 13-8 with a 3.16 ERA with 163 strikeouts and 41 walks. The Mets have the luxury of it being March, and if Matz does indeed need rest or additional rehab, this organization can be patient. There’s absolutely no reason to rush him at this point.
What’s also in the Mets’ favor is their April schedule. Even if Matz were to miss the first month, New York would still be in terrific shape to get out of the gate with a bang. Before the calendar turns to May, the Amazins’ have an all-NL East schedule, including six games against the Braves, seven against the Marlins, six against the Phillies and six critical contests against the Nats. Fifteen of their first 22 are at home.
If Matz’s tenderness is just due to the aftereffects of last fall’s surgery, and there is indeed no structural damage — the initial prognosis is that there isn’t any — then we can all go back to breathing easy. But in the event that the news is worse than anticipated, a rotation of Syndergaard-deGrom-Harvey-Gsellman-Lugo is still deep and talented enough to pitch its way through the National League.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet