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The Mets have a simple path to success

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Currently projected to finish far behind the Nationals, the Mets might be closer than they appear.

MLB: Spring Training-Miami Marlins at New York Mets Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 and 2016 seasons ended in massively different ways for the New York Mets. Following up a World Series appearance with a Wild Card exit will always be disappointing, and to call the 2016 campaign as a whole “frustrating” is a massive understatement. The Mets battled through injury after injury to core players, and somehow managed to grab a Wild Card berth, only to see their hopes dashed by the Giants in the first game.

As the 2017 season dawns, most projection systems aren’t terribly high on New York. FanGraphs projects the team to finish in second place in the NL East, well behind the Nationals. Given the amount of pitching talent on this team, though, these projections may end up looking too conservative in a few months’ time. There is an easy, clear path for the Mets to climb back into the upper echelon of the National League. All they need to do is stay healthy.

Of course, that’s close to impossible. It would require essentially the opposite of last year’s terrible misfortune, and to simply assume the health of several pitchers with extensive injury histories would be foolish, as pitcher health usually trends downward. However, the Mets have an extremely formidable rotation. Given even reasonable health, it’s not hard to envision this team blowing past its projections on the back of an elite core of starting pitchers.

Amid all the injuries in 2016, New York’s starting pitchers led the majors with 18.1 fWAR. This came from elite talent like Noah Syndergaard and aging veterans like Bartolo Colon; it also came in spite of continued injuries to players such as Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. In short, the 2016 Mets had fantastic starting pitching despite a number of considerable setbacks. Given even reasonable health, that level of production should be easily within reach again for 2017.

Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Harvey, and Robert Gsellman are the top Mets pitchers by projected 2017 WAR, per FanGraphs’s Depth Charts. Altogether, the rotation is projected to earn 18.6 fWAR, in line with last year. Gsellman, with a projected fWAR of 1.7 in 137 innings, ranks lowest, meaning that New York’s weakest projected starting pitcher ranks around league average. That’s an incredible advantage to have, one that would be even more effective if the Mets can make it back to a playoff series. It’s not exactly a secret that this rotation is expected to be near the top of the league, but these projections come in spite of (reasonable) injury concerns given how last year went.

This is perhaps the greatest evidence of New York’s potential: a healthy staff will almost certainly outperform current projections. The team boasted great starting pitching last year, and is projected to be very good again this year. If the team can get full seasons from deGrom, Matz, Harvey, and Syndergaard though, “very good” may look foolishly conservative. Given the amount of talent in the rotation, the best-case scenario for New York is the best rotation in baseball. Washington will likely be very difficult to compete against in the NL East, but reassembling the core of young flamethrowers is a fantastic starting point for doing just that.

For example, Harvey is currently projected by different models on FanGraphs to finish with anywhere between 2.5 and 3.6 fWAR in 2017. Even the more conservative estimates project a clear improvement from last year, when thoracic outlet syndrome limited him to two wins, and his talent demands that an even more ambitious finish isn’t out of the question. The same is true for deGrom. FanGraphs sees his WAR finishing anywhere between 3.6 and 4.1, all of which would be an improvement from his 2016 finish of 3.2. Both Harvey and deGrom’s 2017 projections are pretty similar to their 2016 on a rate basis; they’d just get more playing time — with hopefully better health — and thus more opportunity to provide value.

It makes absolute sense that different models would price injury concerns into their forecast for New York. To ignore these very real issues would be irresponsible. There are even lingering concerns about Syndergaard’s durability, and losing their ace would be a devastating blow to the Mets. If last year’s team was terribly unlucky, though — and it was — it’s not hard to imagine a 2017 season where New York enjoys better-than-average health. And with even average health, this rotation could be one of the league’s best.

Teams with good pitching are always fun to watch, and excruciatingly difficult to play against (especially in a playoff series where aces can go multiple games). The 2016 season severely limited what one of baseball’s best rotations was able to do, dampening much of the enthusiasm from the 2015 World Series run. In 2017, the Mets look strong and healthy, for the most part. If they can hold up, they might become one of baseball’s most interesting stories.