Jeremy Hefner

Mets Now Have Suspect Catching Depth

Over the weekend, the Mets traded Kevin Plawecki to the Cleveland Indians for a pair of prospects. This has left the Mets with just three catchers on the 40 man roster.

Of course, that was the same position the Mets were on April 11 last season. On that date, Plawecki was hit on the hand with a Tayron Guerrero fastball. That pitch left the Mets with the catching tandem of Jose Lobaton and Tomas Nido.

After that April 11 game, the Mets record was 11-1. From that game up until the second game of a doubleheader, the Mets would go 14-24.

Over that stretch, Lobaton, Nido, and eventually Devin Mesoraco combined to hit .212/.300/.356. As much as Mets fans were down on Plawecki and Travis d’Arnaud, it’s likely even one of them being active would have bolstered those numbers, and hopefully, would have helped prevent the Mets freefall which would be capped off with a 5-21 June.

While there were other mitigating factors at play, a significant issue was the Mets catching depth or lack thereof. It’s an issue which may rear it’s ugly head in 2019.

While Wilson Ramos is undoubtedly an upgrade over d’Arnaud and Plawecki, he’s been an injury prone catcher in his career.

There have only been four times Ramos has played over 100 games. Since 2009, he has been on the disabled list nine different times. That includes last year when he was limited to 111 games.

He’s a 31 year old catcher. He’s at an age when players tend to become more injury prone playing a position where the players tend to be more injury prone.

By the way, his backup is d’Arnaud, who is a catcher who averages 66 games a season on account of his being an injury prone player. That includes him being limited to just six games last year due to a torn UCL requiring Tommy John surgery.

While the Mets believe d’Arnaud will be ready to start the year, the organization has seen its fair issues with Tommy John rehabilitation.

Jeremy Hefner, who was rehabbing at the same time as Matt Harvey, a pitcher who was subsequently diagnosed with TOS, needed two Tommy John surgeries.

Zack Wheeler missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to the surgery and complications during rehab. In 2017, he missed time with a stress reaction, and he did not really get to form until June last year.

There’s also T.J. Rivera who underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2017. He was supposed to return around the All Star Break. Except he didn’t. Rivera missed the entire 2018 seasons, and no one is quite sure what he can contribute in 2019.

Despite this very spotty history and d’Arnaud’s own suspect health history, the Mets are going with him to backup an injury prone catcher. They are taking the chance d’Arnaud never plays, and in the event he does, there’s a chance he misses significant time.

Best case scenario is Nido backs up Ramos. Nido is a very strong defensive catcher who has hit .181/.210/.255/ in 100 Major League plate appearances. While you could hope he would be a better hitter than that, he did hit just .272/.300/.431 between Double and Triple-A.

While you may have concerns about what he would do if he was pressed into action, the real issue is what is behind him on the depth chart.

There’s Patrick Mazeika who hit .231/.328/.363 in Double-A. After him, it’s Ali Sanchez who hit .265/.294/.387 between Columbia and St. Lucie.

Sure, the Mets could bring on a veteran catcher, but what veteran wants to backup Nido in Syracuse? If you can decipher that, you gave to question who among that group you’d either want backing up or even starting at the Major League level.

After trading Plawecki, that’s where the Mets ate. They’re crossing their fingers their top two catchers, who have not stayed healthy in their careers, stay healthy, so we don’t find out what’s behind their already suspect catching depth.

Sandy Alderson Should Want Focus On Payroll Instead Of His Record

In what has already been a frustrating offseason for Mets fans, Sandy Alderson has already uttered a statement that may prove to go down in “Panic Citi” history.  While speaking with reporters, Alderson suggested people “spend a little less time focusing on our payroll.”

If Alderson wants everyone to spend less time focusing on payroll, maybe it is time to focus on Alderson’s tenure as the Mets General Manager to see how it was the team has gotten to this position.

Injuries

During Alderson’s entire tenure, there have only been eight players who have played over 140 games in a season – Asdrubal Cabrera (2016), Ike Davis (2012) Lucas Duda (2014), Curtis Granderson (2014 – 2016), Juan Lagares (2015), Daniel Murphy (2012 – 2014), Jose Reyes (2017), and David Wright (2012).

This is because of a long list of injuries that have occurred to their position players.  This ranges from the ordinary (Yoenis Cespedes‘ hamstring issues) to the bizarre (Davis’ Valley Fever) to the tragic (Wright).

As poorly as things have gone for the position players, the pitching situation is even worse.  Johan Santana, Tim Byrdak, and Scott Rice suffered injuries that effectively ended their careers.  Same could be said for Bobby Parnell, Jeremy Hefner, and Jim Henderson.  The list goes on and on..

That list includes a starting pitching staff upon which this franchise was supposedly built.  Each of the treasured purported five aces have undergone surgeries that have cost them multiple months.  Matt Harvey may never be the same, and the same can be said for Zack Wheeler.

The irony is Alderson implemented the famed “Prevention & Recovery” mantra, and arguably things have gotten worse under his control.

Evaluating Own Talent

Now, there are varying reasons why teams choose to extend some players while not extending others, or why they choose not to re-sign other players.  Still, Alderson’s record is not exactly sterling on this front.

The main players discussed on this front are Murphy and Justin Turner.  However, there are some other less discussed players that have slipped through the Mets fingers.

The Mets traded Collin McHugh for Eric Young only to watch McHugh thrive elsewhere.  Chris Young was given a large one year deal, was released, and has been an effective player for the Yankees and Red Sox.  They released Dario Alvarez to see the Braves claim him and trade him to the Rangers for a former first round draft pick.  Finally, there was the Angel Pagan trade for a couple of players who amounted to nothing with the Mets.

The troubles evaluating their own players go beyond who they willingly let go.  It goes to those players the Mets opted to extend – Lagares, Jon Niese, and Wright.  None of these three ever amounted to the promise they had at the time the contracts were extended.  There are differing reasons for this, but in the end, the Mets proved wrong in those decisions.

The Draft

The glass half-full is that every first round draft pick made prior to 2015 has made the Majors.  Additionally, two of those players have made All Star teams.  The glass half-empty is the players the Mets have drafted have not lived up to their potential.

At a time the Mets need a starting center fielder, Brandon Nimmo isn’t even being considered.  This is not surprising as many see him as a fourth outfielder.

Coincidentally, the Mets also need a second baseman, and they are not even considering Gavin Cecchini for so much as a utility role let alone an opportunity to compete for a job in Spring Training.

The team was not at all enamored with Dominic Smith‘s rookie campaign, and they have publicly talked about bringing in insurance for him not being on the Opening Day roster.

The Mets had no 2015 draft pick because the team lost it signing Michael Cuddyer.  Effectively speaking, this decision cost the Mets two first rounders as the team’s lack of offense and health caused them to trade Michael Fulmer for Cespedes.  We have all seen Fulmer win a Rookie of the Year Award and make an All Star team in Detroit while the Mets have been desperate for pitching.

Justin Dunn has done little to quell the concerns he is a reliever and not a starter while Anthony Kay, the compensation for the reigning NLCS MVP, has yet to throw a professional pitch because of his Tommy John surgery.

This leaves Conforto, who should be a burgeoning superstar, but sadly we wait with baited breath looking to see if he is going to be the same player he was before separating his shoulder on a swing.

Free Agency

Alderson’s ventures into free agency have not been all that fruitful.  Of all the players who have signed multi-year deals, only Granderson has posted multiple seasons over a 2.0 WAR.  In fact, Granderson is the only player who has posted a cumulative WAR of over 4.0.

For those that would bring up Colon or Cespedes, their exploits are not attributable to their multi-year deals.  Colon accumulated 4.9 WAR with the Mets with 3.4 of that coming during his one year contract.  Cespedes has accumulated 7.2 WAR with the Mets with just 2.1 WAR coming last year in an injury plagued first year of a large four year deal.

It should be noted Alderson may not have much success on this front because the team has not gone crazy in free agency signing just a few players a year to Major League deals.

Depth

Even in 2015 and 2016, two years the Mets made the postseason, the Mets had depth issues.  This was why the team traded for Kelly Johnson in consecutive seasons.  It’s also a reason why in those consecutive years the Mets had to add to the bullpen.

Those seasons have taken a toll on the Mets prospect front.  They have sent away a number of assets and potential Major League contributors for a number of players who were attainable before the season began on reasonable deals.  Instead, the Mets thought they would be set with players like Eric Campbell

Synposis

Much of what is attributed to Alderson being a good General Manager is predicated upon a stroke of genius in obtaining Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, and Wuilmer Becerra in exchange for R.A. Dickey.  Even with many fans wanting to give him plaudits for Cespedes, it should be noted the trade was made largely because of a series of missteps.  It should also be noted the Mets lost a pretty good pitcher.

Now, if you are going to defend Alderson by saying his hands have been largely tied due to the Mets payroll, remember, Alderson himself doesn’t want thinks we should spend a little less time focusing on that.

Sadly, we have to do that because the Alderson regime has had difficulties in evaluating their own talent and drafting high end talent.  If he had, the discussion would probably be the Mets fine tuning to make another postseason run instead of there being fan anger over how the payroll is restricting the Mets from building a World Series caliber roster.

Terry Doesn’t Know Who To Abuse

After what was a shaky second inning where he allowed back-to-back homers to Justin Bour and Marcell OzunaJacob deGrom settled in and found his dominant form yet again.

The Marlins had no chance against deGrom who had all his pitches working. His velocity was back as well with him even hitting 99 on the gun. Through seven innings deGrom had only allowed four hits, which includes the two solo home runs, and one walk while striking out 13 batters.

After seven innings, deGrom had thrown 97 pitches, and with a 4-2 lead, he seemed poised to win the game.

deGrom was on the long side as the Mets bats finally hit Adam Conley whose start was pushed back a day with Don Mattingly using him in the 16 inning game.

You knew Conley wasn’t going to have it when he walked Jose Reyes to lead-off the game. By the way it’s interesting that it only took Reyes to be good in one hand for him to reclaim the lead-off spot on the team. It should be noted after the leadoff walk, he went 0-3. Still, Reyes would score on a Neil Walker double giving the Mets a 1-0 lead.

The Mets tied the game in the seventh on a Curtis Granderson RBI triple. The ball tipped off Christian Yelich‘s glove with Yelich trying to emulate a catch Juan Lagares made earlier in the game. Granderson scored on Michael Conforto‘s sacrifice fly giving the Mets a 3-2 lead.

When Asdrubal Cabrera hit a solo home run in the eighth, it seemed as if the Mets’ 4-2 lead would be enough to win the game. It wasn’t.

To much consternation, deGrom didn’t start the eighth. However, it was a very defensible position considering deGrom was already at 97 pitches and his having season ending elbow surgery last season.  It was also a very defensible position to use Fernando Salas in the eighth inning.  That’s the reason the Mets signed him in the offseason.  He was to be the eighth inning guy until Jeurys Familia returned from his suspension.  At that point, Salas would become the seventh inning guy.

As happens in baseball, Salas didn’t have it.  It’s part of being a reliever.  Sometimes you just don’t have it.  It also happens when you lead the majors in appearances this season.  In fact, dating back to September 1, 2016, his first game with the Mets, Salas is the most heavily used reliever in all of baseball.  He was bound to struggle sooner rather than later.

What was strange with Salas was how quickly it just happened.  He made quick work of Ichiro Suzuki and Dee Gordon to begin the inning.  Then he issued a four pitch walk to Miguel Rojas.  Believe it or not, this was Salas’ first non-intentional walk as a member of the New York Mets.  This set the stage for a matchup against Yelich.  Now, it should be noted Jerry Blevins was warming up just for this situation.  If you are going to have Blevins warming up, this is the exact situation you bring him into the game.  Plain and simple.

Instead, Collins elected to go with Salas.  Note, Salas pitching to Yelich wasn’t a bad move per se.  Salas is your guy for this spot, and he did make quick work of the first two batters.  However, Blevins was already warming in the pen.  If he’s up, bring him in, get out of the jam, and give Addison Reed a two run lead.  Instead, Collins left in Salas, who gave up the game tying home run to Yelich.  He then gave up a go-ahead home run to Giancarlo Stanton.  To add insult to injury, Collins brought in Blevins to get out Bour to get out of the inning.

And with that, the Mets 4-2 lead became a 5-4 loss.  Sure, you can’t completely pin the loss on Collins as he made some defensible moves.  That was at least until he left a warm Blevins in the pen.  You could argue that doesn’t mean Salas should give up a home run.  You’d be right, but you’d also ignore the simple fact that Collins didn’t put his team in the best position to win.  Because of that, this loss is on him.

Perhaps knowing that, he was angry and downright rude to the beat reporters after the game.  In the video, Collins explained every reason for his decisions, omitting some key facts:

Look, we all agree the starters should be protected, but that doesn’t mean you ruin the arms and the careers of the relievers.  There’s a balance, and the fact that Collins doesn’t see that is downright frightening.  It’s probably the reason why we saw him run through damaged relievers like Tim Byrdak and Jim Henderson in his career.  Apparently, Collins only protects the arms of those pitchers he deems more valuable.

That’s not right, and it needs to stop.  Another thing that needs to stop is the faulty logic.  If Collins was that concerned over Blevins, under no means do you have him warming up.  You either want him rested, or you want him pitching.  If you want him pitching, get him in the game against the big left-handed threat in the lineup.  Afraid of Stanton, get Reed up.  He’s the most rested reliever in that bullpen.  Considering how the long games has wrecked havoc on the bullpen, it actually made sense to go with Reed for a four out save.

Right now, Collins is picking and choosing who to abuse and who not to abuse.  It is having a tangible effect on the effectiveness of the relievers.  It may soon have an effect on their health.  We have seen this before with Collins.  Hopefully, we won’t see it again.  On that front, no one should be hopeful.

Game Notes: With the left-handed Conley on the mound, Collins went with a Yoenis Cespedes-Lagares-Granderson outfield to start the game.  Rene Rivera got the start over Travis d’Arnaud giving d’Arnaud two days off after he caught 16 innings.  Mets have now lost four of seven to the Marlins.  Last year, the Mets were 12-7 against the Marlins.

Trivia Friday – Mets Who Have Had Tommy John Surgery

With this Mets team once again built on pitching, the fear continues to be that one of these pitchers will suffer an injury.  An even bigger fear is that injury will require Tommy John surgery.  This usually means a pitcher is gone for over a year, and as we have seen with Jeremy Hefner and Bobby Parnell, it is not an easy road back, nor is it a guarantee the pitcher will return to form.  That is why the route Seth Maness has chosen is so important to the Mets and all of baseball.  It creates the possibility that a player can return in-season rather than missing over a year.

Can you name the Mets currently on the 40 man roster who have undergone Tommy John surgery?  Good luck!


Jacob deGrom Josh Edgin Chris Flexen Erik Goeddel Matt Harvey Marcos Molina Zack Wheeler

The Importance of Seth Maness 2017 Season

Back in 2013, Mets fans were shocked and depressed when Matt Harvey missed the remainder of the regular season with a torn UCL.  Initially, it seemed Harvey did not want the surgery, but eventually he agreed to have the surgery.  Fortunately for Harvey, he went through the rehabilitation process with no setbacks, and he became an important part of a 2015 rotation that went all the way to the World Series.

While rehabilitating, he worked alongside former Mets starter Jeremy Hefner.  In 2012 and 2013, Hefner had performed better than expected with the Mets, and he finally seemed to carve out some type of a role in the organization.  The team even tendered him a contract while he was rehabbing from his own Tommy John surgery.  However, disaster struck, and Hefner would need another Tommy John surgery.  He would miss all of the 2014 and 2015 seasons.  The Mets would non-tender him, and he would have to agree to a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Now, with another arm injury, he has since retired.

These are just two of the countless stories we have seen with the Mets when it comes to Tommy John surgery.  Recently, we have heard terrific stories about how Jacob deGrom learned how to throw the change-up from Johan Santana while deGrom was rehabiliting from his own Tommy John surgery.  It was a great story, and it was something that forever changed the trajectory of deGrom’s career.  There have been other Mets who have had their career trajectories change due to the surgery.

At one point in his career, Bobby Parnell was deemed the closer of the future.  In 2013, he seemed to take over the role when he recorded 22 saves.  In 2014, he would be named the Opening Day closer.  It lasted all of one inning as Parnell was shut down and had Tommy John surgery.  He tried to come back in 2015, but he did not have the same velocity, and he did not have his command.  The Mets showed no interest in re-signing him leading to Parnell signing a minor league deal with the Tigers.  After six major league appearances that saw him post a 6.75 ERA, Parnell was released in August.

Of course, the biggest name with the Mets to have issues post-Tommy John surgery was Zack Wheeler.  Right before the 2015 season was set to begin, Wheeler was diagnosed with a torn UCL.  He would have the surgery, and he would have a number of set-backs.  He was initially slated to be a part of the Mets starting rotation around the 2016 All Star break.  Instead, he would have a number of setbacks, and eventually, the Mets would shut him down for the season.  In total, he threw one inning for St. Lucie in a rehab appearance.  Now, the Mets are discussing whether they should move him to the bullpen for at least the start of the season.

Hefner, Parnell, and Wheeler show exactly why the experiment Seth Maness is undergoing is so important to the game of baseball.

For the past four seasons, Maness has been an effective reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Because of his own torn UCL, Maness would make his last appearance on August 13th, and it was assumed he would be headed for Tommy John surgery like so many other people have with the same injury.  He didn’t.

Derrick Gould of the St. Louis Dispatch reports Maness underwent a surgery called “primary repair” which is ” a repair and buttressing of the existing ligament at the bone, not Tommy John’s reconstruction of the ligament.”  Like Tommy John once was, Maness is now a trailblazer that may have the name of a surgery attached to him.  The physician that performed the surgery, Dr. George Paletta, spoke about the procedure saying:

In select cases of UCL tears, with this technique, they have the real potential to not miss the next year.  This is potentially a huge stride forward in three ways. First, early results show a high success rate. Second, a return to play is cut by 40 percent. That’s a huge factor. We are able to accelerate the return-to-throwing (rehab) program for the athletes. With this technique at the end of 2016 we have a pitcher who is ready to pitch in games by opening day.

And the third way, as a consequence of this, in the right setting, one would feel more confident moving to surgery early on.

Believe it or not, Maness is a week away from being able to take the mound after a little more than seven months after the surgery.  It is expected the free agent reliever will be ready to pitch on Opening Day.  Once he takes the mound, there is going to be a lot of interest in his performance.

Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, another surgeon who performs this surgery and the managing partner at the Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, AL noted there is now a lot of interest in how Maness performs post-surgery:

People are watching this and it’s an interesting thing for all of us.  There is a lot that we need to learn from Seth, a lot that we need to learn from all of the guys (who have had it). We need the data. There are still so many hurdles to go over, but we’re excited to watch what is going to happen because of what is possible. We’re going to follow him very closely.

Therein lies the rub.  We had gotten to the point with Tommy John surgery where it had felt almost routine; where we looked at pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka and wondered why he just didn’t get the surgery.  The “primary repair” or Seth Maness Surgery is far from that point.  However, if Maness has a strong 2017 season, and a couple of more pitcher follow his path, and have similar success stories, the treatment fo UCLs may have been revolutionized.

There may no longer see the Harveys of the world miss more than a season.  We may also see an alternative route for the Hefners, Parnells, and Wheelers of the world.  Ultimately, when there is at least a chance pitchers will miss less time and have an alternative surgery that may work better for them, it is a time for cautious optimism.

And with that, a middle reliever who induces a number of groundballs could have one of the most important seasons in major league history.

Editor’s Note: this was first published on Mets Merized Online

Jeremy Hefer and the Highs And Lows of Baseball

At the same time, baseball can be beautiful, and it can be a cruel sport with absolutely no forgiveness whatsoever.  When you are discussing pitchers, the highs can reach into the heavens and the lows seem to abut the depths of hell.  Perhaps no one knows this better than Jeremy Hefner.

For those unaware, the former Mets pitcher announced his retirement from baseball.

In his announcement on Facebook, Hefner said he was retiring because he needs yet another surgery.  This surgery would be to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder.  Hefner tried rest twice, but it didn’t work.  If he is going to continue his career as a baseball player, he will need to have another surgery.

And with Hefner, we learned that surgery isn’t routine.  Back in 2013, when seemingly everyone was pushing Matt Harvey to just accept his fate and get Tommy John surgery, Hefner had already decided to have his surgery.  He was actually ahead of Harvey in the rehabilitation process.  While Harvey was chomping at the bit to try to pitch for the Mets at the end of the 2014 season, it was Hefner who would actually get that chance.

Catastrophe struck.  Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, Hefner suffered a stress fracture and a second tear of his UCL, which required a second Tommy John surgery.  In baseball today, Tommy John isn’t seen as major reconstructive surgery.  Rather, the surgery itself and the rehab required to pitch again is seen as routine.  Hefner proved it was anything but.

With Hefner needing a second surgery, the Mets needed to move on.  In some sense it was strange seeing the Mets move on from Hefner because he was a player they had coveted.  Hefner was twice drafted by the team, but he never signed with them.  After he was waived by the Pirates and the Padres in 2011, the Mets picked him up, and they put him on the path to the majors.  When Hefner suffered his first UCL, the Mets believed it was worth the $500,000 to keep him around for a season of rehab.  But with the second surgery, he was gone.

During this time frame, it was hard to remember all of the high points in Hefner’s career.  In fact, Hefner was actually the answer to a trivia question as he had done something in baseball that no one had ever done before.

On April 23, 2012, Hefner made his debut as a reliever in the first game of a doubleheader between the Mets and the Giants.  When Hefner entered the game, he was the first ever 26th man on the roster to play in a major league game.  In essence, Hefner became the 21st Century version of Ron Blomberg

The first ever batter Hefner faced was Buster Posey, a player who is one of the best baseball players in the game today.  Hefner got Posey to ground-out to shortstop.  It was all part of an impressive three scoreless inning relief appearance.  Due to the quirks of the 26th Man Rule, Hefner would go back to AAA after the game.  It would not be the last the Mets heard from him.

On May 19th, Hefner once again had to enter a game to bail out Miguel Batista.  During this five inning relief appearance, Hefner would record his first ever strike out by getting Edwin Encarnacion swinging.  On May 24th, Hefner would make his first ever start against the San Diego Padres.  Then, on May 29th, Hefner would pitch six strong innings against the reigning NL East Champion Philadelphia Phillies to record his first ever major league win.  However, that May 29th game would be remembered for more than just his first win:

During that entire 2012 season, Hefner showed the Mets enough for them to make him a part of their future.  In fact, Hefner would be part of the Opening Day rotation.  Hefner proved he belonged.  In a stretch from April 25th to July 12th, he had made 15 starts going 4-4 with a 2.78 ERA and a 1.053 WHIP.  He had a 7:2 strikeout to walk ratio.  He was averaging over six innings per start.  Especially in a time where Jacob deGrom had yet to establish himself, Noah Syndergaard was in A ball, Steven Matz was dealing with his own Tommy John issues, and Bartolo Colon was an Oakland Athletic, Hefner was showing the Mets he could be a part of this Mets pitching staff over the long haul.

Hefner showed everyone he was a major league pitcher.

While these highs were great, there is one thing that stands out to me about Hefner – his perseverance.  After facing the daunting task of having had two Tommy John surgeries, not having thrown a pitch in a major league game in over two years, and with his being released by the Mets, he didn’t give up.  He would pitch, and pitch well, in Winter Ball at the end of 2015.  He showed enough for the St. Louis Cardinals to sign him to a minor league contract.

While he pitched well through April, the injuries, new and old, began to catch up with him.  He would struggle, be released, and now, he finds himself as a retired baseball player.  Hopefully, Hefner finds himself a retired baseball player who is proud of all that he accomplished in his career.

Hefner not only got the chance to pitch in the major leagues.  It’s all the more impressive when you consider about 30% of fifth rounders even play in the major leagues.  Hefner was part of an Opening Day rotation for a franchise known for its pitching.  Hefner has not only collected a win, but he also has a home run to his credit.  In fact, Hefner did something in the major leagues no one had ever done before.

Overall, Hefner had an all too brief career, but it was a career of consequence.  It was a career with highlights.  It was a career, he should feel pride in having.

Congratulations Josh Smoker

The first ever pitcher to be used in a doubleheader after Major League Baseball’s inception of the 26th Man Rule was former Met Jeremy Hefner.  On April 23, 2012, Hefner would make his big league debut pitching three scoreless innings in the first game of the doubleheader.  Since that point, Hefner would need not one but two Tommy John surgeries.  After the second surgery, the Mets would not offer him a contract making a free agent.  Currently, he is pitching for the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate the Memphis Redbirds.  His story might have began as one of a statistical oddity to one of perseverance.

With that in mind, it is fitting that Josh Smoker was called-up by the Mets to be the 26th man for the second game of the doubleheader against the Cardinals last night.

Smoker had originally been a first round pick by the Washington National back in 2007.  However, Smoker would never make it past A ball.  There was the first surgery in 2008 to remove bone spurs from his pitching shoulder.  There would be two more surgeries in 2013 to repair his labrum and rotator cuff.  After that, he was released by the Nationals organization leaving him with two options: (1) retire from baseball altogether; or (2) give it one last shot.

His shot would come with the Rockford Aviators of the Independent Aviator Leagues.  That Illinois team is located approximately 886 miles away from Citi Field, but in reality, Smoker seemed further away from the big leagues than that.  Initially, his three times surgically repaired shoulder didn’t have its velocity leaving him with an unspectacular 1-0 record with a 4.03 ERA and a 1.793 WHIP.  However, his velocity would come back, and the Mets would take notice offering him a minor league contract.

Suddenly, Smoker and his fastball that could top out around 98 MPH was blazing through the Mets minor league system.  He would start the year in the Sally League, and he would finish the year with AA Binghamton.  The pitcher who had trouble getting independent leaguers out had a 3-0 record with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.184 WHIP.  Given his prior years of service in the Nationals’ organization, the Mets were forced to decide whether to put Smoker on the 40 man roster or to expose him in the Rule 5 Draft.  Not only would the Mets put him on the 40 Man Roster, but they would also allow him to start the year in AAA.  Like most pitcher’s in the Pacific Coast League, Smoker’s ERA and WHIP would take a hit.  However, what really stood out this season is the fact that Smoker is striking out 13.2 batters per nine innings.  With the Mets having an open roster spot, and the team not wanting to tax the bullpen, the Mets had little choice but to add the pitcher who is striking out more batters per nine than anyone in their farm system.

And with that, Smoker has officially made it.  He is now a big league pitcher.  He persevered through three shoulder surgeries and diminished velocity.  He has overcame each and every obstacle thrown his way.  He didn’t get in the game, but it doesn’t diminish what he’s accomplished. Given the quirks of the 26th Man Rule, he’s on his way back to AAA. Without a doubt, he will be back with the Mets, and he will pitch in a game next time. 

Congratulations Josh Smoker.

Wheeler Reminds Us TJ Rehab Doesn’t Always Go Smoothly

Last year, we were all spoiled by Matt Harvey‘s return from Tommy John surgery. Even if it took him almost a full season to find his slider, he pitched well, and he was healthy all year. We forgot that he had major surgery and issues can arise during either the surgery or rehabilitation period. 

We forgot about former Mets like Jason Isringhausen, who had three Tommy John surgeries. We forgot about Jeremy Hefner, who was rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery at the same time as Harvey. During his rehab, something went wrong, and he had to have a second Tommy John surgery. Mets released him, and now he’s working his way back to the majors through the Cardinals’ organization. Harvey made us forget about all that could go wrong. 

Now, there are reports that Zack Wheeler needed to have minor surgery to remove a stitch that didn’t resolve from his Tommy John surgery.  He’s going to need two weeks off to allow the wound to heal. He’s now at least two more weeks further away from pitching in the 2016 season. 

It’s a reminder that while we all look forward to Wheeler toeing the rubber again, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that’ll happen. There’s still every possibility that Wheeler could have another setback on his road back. In reality, until further notice, Bartolo Colon is the Mets’ fifth starter. Overall, anything the Mets get from Wheeler this year is an unexpected bonus. 

We forgot all of that during Harvey’s 2015 season. We’re now reminded of it again. Let’s all wish Wheeler a speedy recovery and wait for the day that he’s once again pitching for the Mets . . . whenever that might be. 

Thor Trying to Avoid Tommy John Surgery

Going into the 2016 season, there is one fear each and every Mets fan has. We dare not speak its name, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still present. That fear is that a pitcher will get seriously injured. 

Looking at this year’s list of pitchers who could befall the dreaded “Verducci Effect,” Noah Syndergaard headlines that list. If Syndergaard was to suffer a season ending injury requiring Tommy John surgery? it would greatly hinder the Mets chances of winning not only the World Series, but also making it to the postseason. It’s something that not just Mets fans fear, but as Anthony DiComo of MLB.com reports, Syndergaard fears it also:

I’ve thought about it quite a bit. But I trust myself to put my body in the right situations to be able to perform at a healthy level. 

The fear is justified. Syndergaard threw 65.2 innings more last year. He throws over 95 MPH more than anyone in the game. He’s working to add the fabled Warthen Slider to his already dominant repertoire. Name a risk factor for UCL years requiring Tommy John surgery. Syndergaard meets most if not all of them. 

One risk factor not readily discussed is the team he plays for. Look at the projected Mets rotation when healthy: Matt HarveyJacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler. Put aside Syndergaard for a moment. What do the other four have in common?  They are all hard throwing pitchers under the age of 30 who have already had Tommy John surgery. 

Go outside this group. Since Warthen took over as the Mets pitching coach, the following homegrown Mets have sustained arm injuries: Jon Niese (shoulder), Dillon Gee (shoulder), Jeremy Hefner (two Tommy John surgeries), Rafael Montero (shoulder), Bobby Parnell (Tommy John), Josh Edgin (Tommy John), Jack Leathersich (Tommy John). There are more, but you get the point. 

Now, is this an organizational problem since Warthen took over, or is it just bad luck?  Could this all have been avoided?  Back in the 60’s and 70’s the Mets developed pitchers like Tom SeaverJerry KoosmanNolan Ryan, and Jon Matlack. These pitchers threw more innings than the pitchers today, and yet, Matlack was the only one of this group that suffered an arm injury. 

In the 80’s, the Mets had Dwight GoodenRon DarlingSid Fernandez, Rick AguileraRandy Myers and David Cone. Of this group, only Doc and Cone had arm issues. It should be noted that Doc had many other issues as well, and Cone’s problem was an aneurysm later in his career. 

In the 90’s, Generation K was a bust, and the Mets haven’t developed the caliber of starting pitchers like they have in the past until now. However, this generation seems to befall injuries far more often than their predecessors. Is it organizational?  Is it bad luck?  Is it preparation?  For his part, Harvey wonders what if:

I think now, there are things I could have done better in high school or in college to maybe prevent it. But I don’t know. I’m not saying [Syndergaard] works that much harder than everybody else, because we all work hard. I think as time progresses, guys pay more attention to stretching the shoulder, strengthening the shoulder. If I could go back — I don’t know if this would’ve prevented me from having [surgery], but if I could go back and really do 20 extra minutes of stretching and arm care, you never know what could happen. 

That’s the thing. We really don’t know why one guy suffers elbow and shoulder injuries while others don’t. Is it preparation?  Is it good genes?  Is it just good luck?  Much time, energy, and money has been spent on this issue, and yet pitchers still get injured. Pitchers get injured despite teams doing everything in their power to try to prevent it. 

It will help Syndergaard being in a clubhouse with players who have had Tommy John surgery. They each will have advice for him on why they suffered the injury and what they could’ve done differently. More importantly, Syndergaard appears to be a hard worker who takes the health of his arm very seriously.  There is no doubt he is doing everything he can do to avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery. 

Based on what we’ve seen, if anyone can avoid it, it’s him. 

Editor’s Note: this article was first published on metsmerizedonline.com

Good Luck Jeremy Hefner

There are all sorts of pitching prospects. There are pitchers who were uber prospects like Matt Harvey. The question with these prospects is where they’ll slot in the rotation. Then there are prospects like Jeremy Hefner

The prospects like Hefner aren’t no doubters. You’re not a no doubter when you’re a 5th round draft pick who was twice placed on waivers before pitching one big league inning. Hefner referred to himself as “an average prospect.”  Average prospects need to make the best of not only their stuff, but also their chances. Somehow, it’s more satisfying when these guys make it.  You want the Hefners of the world to succeed because you want to believe in a player that really is doing everything he can do. It’s what you tell yourself you would do if you had enough talent to get that chance. 

Well, Hefner made the most of his chances. He showed the Mets enough in 2012 for him to be in the 2013 rotation (even though he might’ve been a placeholder for Zack Wheeler). As the calendar turned to June, he seemed to figure something out. He went on a stretch of eight straight starts allowing two earned or less. Now what happened next is up for debate. Initially, it was thought he regressed to the mean. The truth may just be he was injured. In August 2013, Hefner had Tommy John surgery

It’s a crushing blow to a player who just arrived on the scene. It was also crushing to him, but also to the Mets. They lost not only Hefner, but also Harvey to a torn UCL. The two rehabbed together. Seeing Hefner’s promise, the Mets kept him around rather than release him. Then something horrible happened. Hefner was not progressing in his rehab. He needed a second surgery. It definitively ended his Mets career. It put his baseball career into question. 

Anytime a player like Hefner suffers a setback like this it’s deflating. Part of what makes sports fun is the out of nowhere stories. Everyone knows Tom Brady’s and Mike Piazza‘s stories. They’re reminders that what you need to succeed in sports, and in life, is hard work and determination. Hefner had those qualities. His mind was willing, but his flesh seemed weak. 

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Hefner again worked his tail off. We shouldn’t expect anything else. He started pitching in the Winter Leagues. He pitched well enough to sign a minor league deal with the Cardinals. Normally, I hate the Cardinals and their players. However, I’m making an exception here.  The world is a lot better when the Hefners of the world are given a chance to succeed. It’s even better when they do. 

I thought the Mets should’ve brought him back. I thought he could’ve filled a need as a spot starter or a bullpen arm. Instead, Hefner is a Cardinal, and I couldn’t be happier for him. I’ll be rooting for him. 

Good luck next year Jeremy Hefner.