Mets arriving where Phillies hope to go

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New York Mets starting pitcher Jonathon Niese. (Brad Barr/USA Today)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Turn to your right after entering the New York Mets spring-training clubhouse at Tradition Field and you'll see why, after six straight losing seasons and an eight-year postseason drought, there is a ray of hope.

The reason is the row of hope. Lined up side by side at the far right end of the clubhouse are four of the best young starting pitching arms in baseball. From left to right you'll find the lockers of Matt Harvey, Jonathon Niese, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler.

All four are under the age of 29 and they have already experienced varying degrees of success in the big leagues. If they take another step forward in 2015, it's easy to see a scenario in which the Mets return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the year before their monumental collapse that started the Phillies' run of five straight National League East titles.

"It's cool knowing the potential we have and what we could do if we can all stay healthy," said Wheeler, a 24-year-old righthander who is 18-16 with a 3.50 ERA in 49 big-league starts. "It could be a lot of fun. I know the fans are having a good time with it and they're looking forward to seeing us."

You could see that during the Mets' Monday morning workout. As Harvey threw his first live batting practice of spring training, the fans lined up around the field. When one man in his 20s caught a ball hit by third baseman David Wright, he joyously relayed the news to his friend that he had possession of a ball that had been thrown by the future of the franchise and hit by the face of the franchise.

"This is a Wright-Harvey ball," the man said.

"How do you know?" his friend asked with a tinge of jealously.

"I was watching them," the man said.

Harvey, of course, is the headliner of the Mets' young guns. The seventh overall pick in 2010 - that's the same pick the Phillies used on righthander Aaron Nola last year - was electric upon arrival late in the 2012 season and followed that by going 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA in 26 starts in 2013. Elbow pain, however, ended his season in August and after undergoing Tommy John surgery the righthander was forced to miss the entire 2014 season.

While his return has energized the Mets and their fans, his absence also had a serendipitous impact for the often star-crossed team from Queens. DeGrom, a 26-year-old righthander and former ninth-round pick, was given a shot at pitching in the rotation he might not otherwise have had. He made the most of it, posting a 9-6 record and 2.69 ERA on his way to winning the National League rookie of the year award.

Niese, 28, endured some early big-league growing pains, but was able to pitch through them on a rebuilding team and has posted a 3.49 ERA in 84 starts over the last three seasons. Wheeler, at 24, is the youngest of the arms expected to be in this rotation, but the Mets also have three other young pitchers - Noah Syndergaard, Steve Matz and Rafael Montero - who are knocking on the big-league door. For now, however, Bartolo Colon, who turns 42 later this month, will open the season in the rotation.

Some of the Mets' young arms - Harvey, deGrom, Niese and Matz - came through their farm system. But others - Syndergaard and Wheeler - were acquired in trades. The Phillies are trying to accumulate pitching in that same manner now, but it's too soon to tell if they will have the same success as the Mets in that regard.

Mets manager Terry Collins is on record as saying his team should make the playoffs this season. Hitting could still be a problem - the Mets only scored 10 more runs than the Phillies last season - but they are hoping it is less of one with the free-agent addition of Michael Cuddyer and a healthier Wright.

Regardless, it appears as if the Mets are finally out of the rebuilding mode that the Phillies are now in. They admit it was long and painful.

"As a competitor, it's always painful, because it's a process to get to where you want to go," said J.P. Ricciardi, a special assistant to Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and also a former general manager in Toronto. "But if you're really going to rebuild and you're going to put your time and effort into doing it the right way, you're going to suffer at the major-league level.

"You're going to compete and you're going to try to win, but the bottom line is you are probably not going to win more than you lose. I think at this point we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel gets dark for a long time."

The Phillies are just entering the tunnel. Who knows how long they will be in the darkness.

 


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob