The Mets have pushed themselves into position to claim an NL wild-card spot despite losing Matt Harvey, Neil Walker and David Wright for the remainder of the season, to say nothing of their other injuries. Now they'll have to go the rest of the way without Jacob deGrom as well. The 28-year-old righty, who hasn't pitched since Sept. 1 due discomfort in his forearm and elbow, is likely done for the year and needs surgery to repair his ulnar nerve. While he's expected to be ready for spring training, any rotation the Mets cobble together for the postseason will be far less imposing than the one that carried them to last year’s World Series.
On Friday, the Mets announced that deGrom would start against the Twins on Sunday. But while shagging balls in the outfield during batting practice after throwing a 30-pitch bullpen session, he felt pain in his elbow. “I just tried to lob it into the bucket, and I guess throwing that bullpen messed with that nerve, and after I threw it I said, ‘O.K., I’ve got to go say something,’” said deGrom. “I actually watched Jake's bullpen yesterday and it was outstanding,” manager Terry Collins told reporters. “Fifteen minutes later he said ‘I can’t pitch.’”
General manager Sandy Alderson described the surgery, which carries a three-month recovery period, as “not a significant surgical procedure at least with respect to risk, moving forward.” DeGrom underwent Tommy John surgery, which involves repairing a torn ulnar collateral ligament, back in 2010. An MRI taken after his Sept. 1 start, during which he threw 102 pitches and struggled with his command over five laborious innings, showed no structural damage, meaning that the ligament is intact. The nerve is a different story. “This thing flares up at unpredictable times and under unpredictable circumstances,” said Alderson. “So I think it’s unlikely he'll pitch again this season.”
Assuming that's the case, it ends what's largely been an effective season for deGrom, albeit an uneven one. After a six-inning one-run performance in his season debut on April 8, he missed 15 days due to lat tightness, the birth of his son and ensuing complications regarding the baby's health. He carried a 2.29 ERA through August 13 despite an average fastball velocity that via Brooks Baseball dropped from 95.8 mph last year to 94.2 this year and on some nights didn't even average 93. Over his final three starts, he was pummeled for 31 hits, four homers and 16 runs in 14 2/3 innings, pushing his ERA to a still-respectable 3.04 (10th in the league) and a 3.32 FIP (seventh) in 148 innings. His strikeout rate slipped from last year's 9.7 per nine to 8.7, while his walk rate crept from 1.8 to 2.2.
Up to this point, the Mets have had far bigger problems elsewhere in their rotation, most notably with Harvey, who managed just a 4.86 ERA in 17 starts before undergoing season-ending surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. Steven Matz, who was diagnosed with a bone spur in his elbow in late June, hasn’t pitched since Aug. 14 due to a shoulder strain that was considered mild at the time, but he was scratched from initial plans to return on Aug. 30; he threw a 20-pitch bullpen session on Wednesday, so his pitch count is far from game-ready. Zack Wheeler, expected to return from 2014 Tommy John surgery to provide a midseason lift, suffered a series of setbacks, the last of which, a flexor muscle strain, shut him down for the season after just one minor league appearance. Jon Niese, reacquired from the Pirates on Aug. 1, made just two starts before undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee; he could be back later this month.
Those injuries have been accompanied by several serious ones in their lineup, most recently the loss of Walker at the end of August to season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc. They've been without Wright since May 27 due to a herniated disc in his neck; he underwent surgery in June. They haven't had Lucas Duda since May 20 due to a stress fracture in his back, though he was activated on Saturday, albeit with the expectation that he would be limited to pinch-hitting duty for the foreseeable future.
Despite that litany, the Mets have climbed back into the Wild Card race, winning 17 of their last 24 games dating back to Aug. 20. At that point, they were 60–62, 5 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot, with just a 7.5% chance of claiming one according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. They entered Saturday occupying that second spot, two games ahead of the Cardinals and one behind the Giants for the top spot, with an 87% chance of making it into the Oct. 5 game one way or another.
They've made that climb with unheralded rookies Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman—their 20th- and 14th-best prospects heading into the season, according to The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2016—providing reasonable facsimiles of the pitchers they've replaced. The 26-year-old Lugo, a 34th rough pick out of Centenary College of Louisiana in 2011, has pitched to a 2.27 ERA with a 21/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in five starts totaling 31 2/3 innings. The 23-year-old Gsellman, an 11th round 2011 pick out of a Los Angeles high school, has just one quality start out of four, but his 3.08 ERA and 3.29 FIP in 26 1/3 innings have been far beyond expectations.
Helping the Mets’ cause is the fact that they’ll play the weakest remaining schedule of any team. They don't face another team with a winning record for the rest of the regular season, rounding out their docket with the Twins, Braves, Phillies and Marlins, the last of whom has slipped to 73–74, though they could climb back over .500 by the time they host the Mets September 26–28.
As their rotation lines up, New York has 43-year-old Bartolo Colon—not just a cult hero but a rotation savior, with a 3.14 ERA in a staff-high 177 2/3 innings—lined up for the season's final game, with emergent ace Noah Syndergaard on track for the wild card. Should they make it through, after it's anybody's guess. It won't be deGrom, but the Mets will soldier on.