Mets’ Opening Day starter debate is their biggest problem

PORT ST. LUCIE — Welcome to that rare spring camp without controversy. Or even competition, really.

The Mets’ first-day press conference debate here was whether incumbent superstar Max Scherzer or incoming superstar Justin Verlander will start Opening Day, and while it was left officially unsettled, who in the name of Roger Craig or Craig Swan gives a rip?

Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young winner who’s led the league in wins four times, innings twice and strikeouts three times on his way to what’s certainly a first-ballot Hall of Famer berth.

Verlander is a three-time Cy Young winner (though his wife Kate Upton thinks he should have had one more, and I agree) who has led the league in wins twice, innings pitched four times and strikeouts five times on his way to a just as certain first-ballot Hall of Fame berth.

Scherzer has 3,193 career strikeouts, Verlander 3,198.

Scherzer makes $43.33 million a year. Same as Verlander.

Scherzer has a 70.7 career WAR (if you’re into that sort of thing), Verlander 77.6.

I know this about war: if I had to go, I’d take either of these guys. Either way it’s not good news for the Marlins, the Opening Day opponent who allegedly beefed up an offense that was undeniably light on meat.

“It’s a good problem,” manager Buck Showalter said of the Opening Day call. “It’s not a problem.”

New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer greets a coach at Spring Training
Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer greets a coach at Spring Training.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

New York Mets starting pitcher Justin Verlander, right, walks with pitching coach Jeremy Hefner
New York Mets starting pitcher Justin Verlander, right, walks with pitching coach Jeremy Hefner.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Want to catch a game? The Mets schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.

I think we will go with answer No. 2 there.

Showalter eventually concluded it’s an issue that’s “handle-able.” Which in Buck speak may signal it’s already been quietly resolved.

Since Scherzer deferred to the homegrown deGrom last year before both were ruled out, logic says it may be the holdover Scherzer this year. In any case, it was a nice sign both superstars rode to camp together Tuesday, which just might put the kibosh on the potentially juicy storyline about their allegedly icy relationship in Detroit. Back then Verlander was the clear No. 1 and as Verlander previously pointed out the pair were young guys focused on refining their repertoires and establishing their greatness (kudos to both, as they are 2-for-2 there).

The organization that’s rich in pitching never has had two Hall of Famers leading its staff, though last year still has a chance with Jacob deGrom and Scherzer, whose schedules were decided the way many things are in baseball: by pain. DeGrom was out with a shoulder injury, Scherzer a nagging oblique injury. The unknown Tylor Megill got the call in Showalter’s first correct decision in a season of them, and the Mets wound up winning 101 games in 2022 with every starter missing time except Chris Bassitt, and deGrom missed his usual half a season en route to his $185 million contract to shine for half a year somewhere else.

Anyway, this year’s Mets team is as set as can be, unless you count the roles only we baseball nerds can get excited about. Showalter mentioned middle relief plus the sixth and seventh starters, two fellows who hopefully won’t be needed or called upon.

Folks talk about how similar this team is to last year’s. But the dependability gap between Verlander and deGrom is, fairly, enormous. Fifteen times Verlander pitched the requisite innings to qualify for an ERA title, or 10 times more than deGrom.

Last year’s slightly less perfect team delivered 101 wins, and would have won the division if not for a rough finish and a tiebreaker system that determines such things before bowing out, ignominiously, in Round 1 in the battle of the big spenders versus the Padres, who just keep spending and added Michael Wacha on Tuesday. Showalter suggested they don’t overdo the talk about the finish, which is probably a good idea.

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter speaks to the media at Spring Training
Buck Showalter enters the 2023 season with an air-tight Mets roster at his disposal.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

On to this year, where the payroll is up precipitously to a record $364 million. While that doesn’t guarantee anything, it helped remove almost all competition and controversy. It also adds to the pressure for Showalter, who has four Manager of the Year awards and is 23rd lifetime with 1,589 career wins (right between Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Dick Williams), but has yet to reach the World Series, thanks to the quirks of the postseason.

Anyway, it’s a hole in his otherwise sparkling résumé. Beyond the air-tight roster, you just know he already knows the new rules better than anyone else, and will undoubtedly squeeze an extra win or two out of them.

This time he enters as the preseason favorite, big expectations and bigger pressure (though Showalter seemed to prefer the word expectations to pressure Tuesday). While he didn’t make a bold proclamation, and thus avoided adding to the chorus, he did say, “You know what the team is supposed to deliver.”

New York Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz throws in the bullpen at Spring Training
New York Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz throws in the bullpen at Spring Training.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Yes, everyone does.

The one Met available to the media Tuesday said what most are thinking.

“Our expectation is to win the championship,” the game’s best closer Edwin Diaz said.

When you start with two all-time greats heading one of the greatest rotations ever built — no matter the order — that has to be the goal.

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