By Ernie Palladino
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As pitchers and catchers reported Monday to Port St. Lucie, the Mets set their eyes on a division championship.
That’s probably not going to happen. Realistically, they have too far to go to unseat the Nationals, at least as things stand right now. A wild-card berth should not be out of their reach, however.
To accomplish that, they’ll need their own wild card, Matt Harvey, to come back hard from the failures of his last two seasons.
By finding health and success, Harvey will become the link in the pitching chain between Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard that will renew the fearsome reputation of a rotation that all but disintegrated before manager Terry Collins’ eyes last year. Now under Mickey Callaway and his Zen circle of love, Harvey will get every chance imaginable to regain the ferocity that marked his first three seasons.
Do that, and the Mets will certainly have a shot at the postseason.
If that seems like an organization putting undue pressure on a right-hander who has fought off woes such as thoraic outlet syndrome in 2016 and a stress fracture in his scapula last year, think again. The Mets thought enough of him to give him a $6 million tender to keep him around another year. Not that anyone wants a broken Knight, Dark or otherwise, in a trade, but by securing his presence, the Mets showed they still believed he could make a difference.
From Harvey’s end, a return to health could mean the big contract his 9-17 record over 2016 and ’17 denied him.
And, of course, there’s the completion of the top three. DeGrom and Syndergaard are virtual locks to produce — the former newly shorn and ready to lead the rotation again, the latter healed from the torn lat muscle that held him to just seven starts. The extra heft that contributed to the lat injury is gone, replaced by flexibility training that should still enable him to break the 100-mph mark.
With deGrom poised and Syndergaard pleasantly unwound, it is Harvey’s job to complete the picture. The rotation will get along quite well with Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz in the back if they can avoid the problems that curtailed their own 2017 seasons last July and August.
But if Harvey can provide that link from the front to the back, they might just have the stuff of which postseason dreams are made.
He seems ready. The offseason workouts went well, as pitching coach Dave Eiland recently told the media. And Harvey’s picture hasn’t appeared on the gossip pages with any of those high-fashion heartbreakers he’d been known to hang out with in the past.
As far as has been reported, there have been no innings-limit demands, though one can imagine Callaway will probably want to keep a close eye on those anyway. Modern analytics as they are, the former Indians pitching coach will probably pull a lot of starters out after their first two times around the lineup to play bullpen roulette.
Harvey’s shoulder blade has healed. The attitude appears righted. The distractions are gone.
Perhaps the biggest motivation: He becomes a free agent after the season.
It’s all set up for Harvey to have a rebound season after two utterly forgettable years.
He will remain the staff wild card throughout spring training. But if he puts things together now, he might just turn into the factor that separates the Mets from the rest of the wild-card contenders.
Do that, and he might not have to think about moving in 2019.
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