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Destined for the Knife

Matt Harvey [1] was bad. The rest of the Mets weren’t much better [2].

Say this for the soon-to-be-extinct 2017 Mets: when things aren’t going to go well they sure don’t tease you about it. Monday’s 13-1 drubbing was the 18th time they’ve given up at least 10 runs this year — and the fourth time in the last eighth games. When they’re gonna lose, they lose big.

Some of this isn’t worth talking about. Tommy Milone [3] is a fill-in whom it would be pointless to excoriate; rather than blame a ham-and-egger for being what he is, you ask what went wrong to get him so many innings. (Short answer: everything.) Hansel Robles [4] has had a ghastly year, but he’s also a hard-throwing young middle reliever, and middle relief is a spaghetti-at-the-wall affair even in good years.

(Before we move on, it would be wrong not to mention that Giancarlo Stanton hit a ball so hard I wondered if it might knock Loria’s horrific Pachinko machine down. It didn’t, but keep trying, good sir.)

As for Harvey, well. The story has changed in disturbingly rapid fashion from “Can he be what he once was?” to “Can he reinvent himself as a finesse guy?” to “Will the Mets tender him a contract?”

(Spoiler: they will. But hold that thought.)

One thing is for certain: barring some miracle turnaround, when Harvey does leave the team the knives will be out. He’s had too many run-ins with management, too many self-inflicted controversies, too many “one Met said” quotes and too many gossip-page late nights to avoid the kind of day-after-the-transaction story that the New York sports press loves, the one in which an ex-player’s feuds and sins are hauled out of notebooks and hotel-bar sessions and dropped on the page as if they’d always been common knowledge. Total up the number of people Harvey has alienated, his continuing ability to attract clicks and light up phones, his nocturnal habits and the Mets’ penchant for backstabbing players they’ve shed and Farewell Matt Day could set a new standard for ugliness.

But we can be weary of that another day. For now, the Mets have a 2018 rotation to put together. Not so long ago an optimist would have written it in ink; now it’s all pencil and cross-outs and question marks.

Given his misfortunes and potentially diminished ceiling, Harvey might not be the biggest of those question marks. Zack Wheeler [5]‘s 2017 season never really got on track before it fell off it and Steven Matz [6]‘s entire career has been shadowed by misfortune and mismanagement. But he’ll be the loudest and most divisive one — he always has been.

Harvey’s late nights will get the pixels, but what really ought to be discussed is thoracic outlet syndrome. (You can get a head start here [7] and here [8].) It wasn’t so long ago that we’d basically never heard of it; now we’re learning it’s a killer of pitchers.

That’s only overstating it a little, but only a little. The list of pitchers who’ve had surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome is growing; the list of pitchers who’ve come back from it successfully remains stubbornly small. That may not be true forever, but it is today. Your success stories include Matt Harrison [9], sort of. Chris Young [10], sort of. Jaime Garcia [11], sort of. Not exactly like contemplating life after Tommy John [12], is it?

The hopeful case for Harvey does exist, and it looks like this: Harvey is younger than most pitchers who have gone under the knife for TOS; the surgery to repair it has robbed many pitchers of their location; and the time needed to restore that fine control has often been more than a season. Harvey’s velocity has been all over the place, but the top end isn’t gone; he may keep healing and look like more like the electric pitcher we remember next spring.

The less-than-hopeful case is that Harvey will look like what he is now: a pitcher who can’t reach back for 97 or 98 when he needs it, whose location is a mess more often than not, and who has the additional burden of being a born and bred fireballer instead of a Madduxian trickster. And if that’s the case, the Mets have to ask seriously whether they’re better off paying, say, Chris Flexen [13] the minimum rather than whatever bump Harvey will get in arbitration.

But that’s a 2018 question. It’s dumb to make decisions out of vengeance, whether we’re talking baseball or anything else. There’s no reason for the Mets not to let Harvey’s contract go to arbitration and see how things stand in spring training; if he still looks terrible, they can cut him loose and be on the hook for just a small part of that salary. With every pitcher not named Jacob deGrom [14] a giant question mark, of course they’ll do that.

We never thought it would get this far, but that’s baseball. It’s beautiful and thrilling and ridiculous and cruel. You hope for the former but often endure the latter.