'Exactly what we have to do': Mets reel after an unthinkable setback for Matt Harvey
In April, on the eve of the Mets' 2013 season, I wrote this:
"But all Harvey has done since coming to the Mets has been to blow all projections and reasonable expectations away. In a season that largely relies on ordinary-at-best players to perform at unrealistic rates, Matt Harvey stands ready to do something amazing.
"He may not start Opening Day. But if he can stay healthy, Harvey will make the Mets appointment viewing every fifth day, and give a great boost to Alderson and his rebuilding project..."
In 2013, that's exactly what Matt Harvey's been. Within the rare group of pitchers who began their careers as dominant as Harvey, those who stayed healthy were brilliant. Sadly, with the unexpected announcement on Thursday afternoon that Harvey has a torn ulnar collateral ligament, he joins the list of the ones who didn't.
The shock from the news was still evident as reporters tried to consider it, and even general manager Sandy Alderson, who will probably need to construct a 2014 team with many holes already, and now in need of a number one pitcher, didn't know what his path forward would be yet.
"Well, it's unfortunate from Matt's point of view, and it's unfortunate from the standpoint of the organization," a glum Alderson said at a hastily called news conference prior to Monday night's 2-1 loss to the Phillies at Citi Field. "There's no question about that. On the other hand, these are the kinds of things that happen in the game. And the successful teams, the successful organizations, respond to these setbacks. And that's exactly what we have to do."
But what exactly does responding to it mean? As it was, the Mets faced either trading from a so-called pitching surplus, which didn't exist prior to the recent injuries to Jenrry Mejia, Jeremy Hefner and Harvey, and certainly doesn't now, or look to free agency to address the many holes in their lineup, a difficult thing to do for ownership, given their current financial constraints.
But to field a competitive team next year, the Mets were placing their hopes largely on very young pitching, like recently-promoted Zack Wheeler, and still minor leaguers Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, to complement Jonathon Niese, who missed much of the season with a shoulder injury, and Dillon Gee, who has been about league average, on balance, though better in the second half by far.
Harvey, though, wasn't the prospect. He was the known quantity, one of the best pitchers in the game, assuming he's healthy. That phrase gets thrown around carelessly when a guy is healthy, but it's a big caveat.
What Tommy John surgery would mean if Harvey is unable to rehabilitate this tear—and to be clear, no one made that sound like much of a possibility—is an end to his 2013 season, and an average 12-month recovery rate likely ending his 2014 season as well. If he had it tomorrow, for instance, that's an end-of-August return. And nobody thinks he'll get it tomorrow.
"From a medical point of view, the conservative approach is always best," Alderson said. "Doctors will always tell you, if you can avoid surgery, you should."
That's a new kind of frustrating for Mets fans, by the way. The Mets were conservative with Harvey, too. He hadn't been battling elbow pain, but forearm tightness, and the team had been monitoring it, and his workload, all season. Whether they are good at doing so is another matter, but that's true of 29 other teams, too, all of whom have no idea how to actually prevent pitcher injuries. Even on Saturday, when Harvey's discomfort increased to the point that he went to get an M.R.I. on Monday, nothing dramatic occurred.
"I didn't feel a snap, I didn't feel a pop, there was no tingling or anything like that," Harvey, looking every bit like a scared 24-year-old, said as he addressed the media prior to Monday's game at the same podium Alderson, then Terry Collins had used.
Still, even if this is no one's fault, the consequences are dire for next season, though plenty of Tommy John success stories make Harvey's career prognosis potentially just as bright.
If this surgery knocks him out for all of 2014, a great deal more needs to go right for the Mets to contend than they previously did. Ownership, which appeared boxed into a public expectation to spend this winter, might have their public justification for avoiding it, whatever the actual reasons are for not investing in on-field product for years at a time.
However things went for the 2014 Mets, though, it was probably going to require some patience. Young players don't come along and dominate, with rare exceptions like Matt Harvey, who was the instant gratification for Mets fans as they waited for the rest of the Mets, save David Wright, to catch up to his greatness.
Now 2014 will be, in large part, about waiting for Matt Harvey, asking for further patience from a fan base that has already given so much of it.