Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and then what? Mets still need more pitching

SAN DIEGO – “What should I not talk about today?”

So began Billy Eppler, the New York Mets general manager, as he addressed the media on Monday at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego. The correct answer — and the elephant in the room to which he was referring with his rhetorical question — was Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.

On Friday, Jacob deGrom signed with the Texas Rangers and, in doing so, became Not A Met for the first time in his professional baseball career. For the next five years, fans in Arlington will feel the effects — the hold-your-breath-as-history-unfolds-in-front-of-you highs when he is on the mound and the hand-wringing hypotheticals when he's not — of that move. But for now, it resonates at least as deeply in Queens.

After the news broke — reportedly, deGrom did not give the Mets a chance to match the Rangers' five-year, $185 million offer — Eppler texted him. "I said, 'I'll miss seeing you on a regular basis,'" he said Monday. "And congratulations."

And then, evidently, Eppler set about securing the next-best thing in terms of talent, which might be even better in terms of actual production: Justin Verlander, who reportedly signed a two-year, $86.66 million contract, with a vesting option for a third year, with the Mets just as the winter meetings were getting underway. But while Eppler spoke, the deal was still not official — which brings us back to the glib hedging.

In winking reference to his inability to say much more, someone asked Eppler if he had plans to replace deGrom.

To which he replied: “Working on those plans.”

A deflection, but in another sense, still the truth.

But perhaps the better question would've been whether the team has plans to replace Chris Bassitt or Taijun Walker, who threw a combined 339 innings for the Mets last year and who are both free agents this winter.

The Mets will pair Verlander with Max Scherzer, acquired last offseason, to replicate their tantalizing co-ace formula of 2021. Between the two of them, they have six Cy Youngs and more than 30 combined seasons. They are first and third on the active wins leaderboard, first and second in strikeouts.

But while 29 other teams would love to have that pair atop their rotations, it takes far more than two pitchers pushing 40 to get from Opening Day to October.

“You’re going to try to navigate a 162-game season — no matter what team you are, you're going to use a lot of starters to do that. So depth is very important,” Eppler said. “It's almost two different mindsets for a regular season and, if you're lucky enough, to be playing in a postseason.

“Having impact in that moment in time serves you a little bit better than the depth. So I think you're trying to manage for both situations and just prepare as much as possible.”

Verlander — like Scherzer and deGrom — is that “impact” pitcher. As a 39-year-old returning from an entire season lost to Tommy John rehab, he posted a 1.75 ERA in 2022, the lowest in baseball and good for an ERA+ of 220, meaning he was more than twice as good as the average major-league starter. He won his third Cy Young unanimously, his ninth time finishing in the top five.

He is also remarkably durable — and not just for someone who can actually remember the ‘80s. Four times he has led all of baseball in innings pitched, and his 175 innings in 2022 would’ve been second-most on the Mets’ staff, behind Bassitt. Verlander and Scherzer both are outliers on the aging curve, remarkable anomalies defined by their defiance of the decline expected of athletes entering midlife.

And yet: They will never be younger than they are right now. By next postseason, they’ll be 39 and 40. Verlander, who pitched into November for the first time in his career this year, will enter 2023 having thrown 3,370.2 innings (including postseason) as a major-leaguer, Scherzer 2,815.1.

Verlander’s persistent, uncharacteristic struggles in the World Series remain mostly a mystery, but we do know that they come at the tail end of an inherently long season. Scherzer struggled in his final few starts this past season and, in 2021, missed his final playoff start with the Dodgers due to a self-described dead arm.

The inevitable degradation of age follows even the highest of highs.

The point is not that Verlander, or Scherzer for that matter, won’t each be worth the co-AAV record $43.33 million the Mets will pay them next year. Rather, in order for these “impact” pitchers to be at their most impactful in the important moments, the Mets might need to ration their innings. And, indeed, to even get to those important moments, the Mets need to add depth. A postseason appearance is hardly a guarantee, even for a team coming off 101 wins.

With Bassitt and Walker gone along with deGrom, the rotation beyond the twin pillars looks like some combination of Carlos Carrasco, Tylor Megill, David Peterson and Elieser Hernandez, whom the Mets acquired from the Marlins last month. Only Carrasco has an ERA+ over 100 in his career, and simply put, that’s not enough. Even a five-man rotation is never actually five guys wire-to-wire — guys get hurt, old guys especially.

With a loss and a gain for the Mets, the top two starters are off the free-agent market, but there are still plenty of interesting arms to potentially pursue: a reunion with Bassitt or Walker, a splurge for Carlos Rodon or Kodai Senga, a gamble on Tyler Anderson or Nathan Eovaldi or Jameson Taillon.

For now, anyway, help is not coming from within the organization. The Mets’ top seven prospects are position players. Their top pitching prospect is a 21-year-old who threw nine innings in Rookie and A-ball last year and isn’t expected in the majors until 2025.

As far as strategy, Eppler offered only that his team would be “opportunistic” and to remember that a winning run differential “can be done by scoring a lot more, too.” Asked to speculate on the back end of his rotation, he laughed a little. “We’re a long ways away from that,” he said. “A lot of things can change.”

In some ways, it’s a cruel sport that sees a team sign a future Hall of Famer, only to leave fans wondering whether they’ll do enough to capitalize on that top-end talent.

But the winter is young: What next?