On Friday night, New York Mets pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard tweeted this: "I can't wait to pitch in this city."
Two days later, he did just that, starting for the United States team in Sunday's MLB Futures Game at Citi Field. But naturally, what he really meant was to start for the New York Mets.
And before a sparse crowd at Citi Field for the affair, one on par with a typical weekend Mets crowd these days, it seems safe to say that while many Mets fans were excited about seeing Syndergaard, and World team starter Rafael Montero, few recognized just how much the team's future rises and falls on the success of both pitchers.
Consider where the Mets are at the moment. As a team, they are hitting .234/.303/.377, and their OPS of .680 ranks 14th out of the 15 National League teams. Their team ERA is 10th in the National League, but their FIP is 10th in all of baseball. So much of the pitching problem is really a position-player defense problem.
The recent blooming of Jeremy Hefner, the otherworldly Matt Harvey, the promising arm of Zack Wheeler, the vaguely reliable Dillon Gee, even Jonathon Niese, on the disabled list with a rotator cuff tear but expected back this season, is the kind of inventory the team simply doesn't have on the position player side.
This season isn't about contending, and 2014 looks to have exactly one position set: third base, David Wright. Their second-best hitter this season, Marlon Byrd, is 35, a free-agent-to-be, and indisputably, still Marlon Byrd. So there's no mystery about what the Mets have to add.
But at the Futures Game, only outfielder Brandon Nimmo, still in A-ball (and with a .716 OPS to show for it) represented the Mets in the position player department. Cesar Puello, the team's closest thing to a near-ready outfielder, is currently being investigated in MLB's Biogenesis probe, making his future availability murky. Same with Travis d'Arnaud, a top catching prospect limited to just 12 games this season with a broken foot. Wilmer Flores, the other position prospect the Mets have above Single-A, is being tested at second, since the Mets don't seem him as a fit for either corner position.
So what are the Mets to do?
The popular sentiment has the team trading from their "surplus" of starting pitching to add offense and, let's not forget, defense. There's always free agency, but the crop is lean, and ownership has some bigger things to resolve before it can deal with questions like exactly how much Shin-Soo Choo wants.
So the team's future, to a shockingly large extent, is on the shoulders of Syndergaard and Montero. Given the fragility and uncertainty that pitching prospects represent, that's alarming. Take a look at the roster of the last Futures Game I covered, back in 2008: a lot more misses than hits.
But as lottery tickets go, these two both put on a show Sunday afternoon.
First Syndergaard took the mound, earning cheers from the Citi Field faithful getting used to hyped pitching debuts. Syndergaard is a monstrous presence on the mound, a legit 6-foot-6, with a repertoire that has placed him in the Top 30 prospects of most lists around baseball. His transition to Double-A has been impressive, with a 1.35 ERA and 26 strikeouts against four walks in 20 innings over four appearances.
He is, in so many ways, the opposite of the reigning Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey, for whom he was traded last winter. But the Mets are hopeful that though Syndergaard's fastball lacks the subtlety of Dickey's knuckler, and Syndergaard is reticent with a quote the way Dickey was practically literary during postgames, the new results in blue and orange might still be comparable.
"I felt real good," Syndergaard told reporters he towered over at his locker when it was over. "I was comfortable with all my pitches. Worked with my fastball, curveball."
Syndergaard threw that fastball, less about movement and sink and more pure power, 95 mph to get a first-pitch fly out of Padres outfield prospect Reymond Fuentes. He followed by making Cubs shortstop prospect Arismendy Alcantara look silly. Three fastballs, 95 and two 96s, and the prospect, who would homer later Sunday, was back on the bench.
Against Red Sox infield prospect Xander Bogaerts, Syndergaard broke out a pair of curveballs, big looping ones. The second caused Bogaerts to swing and miss badly, the hitter timed for 95 and reacting too quickly to 78. Bogaerts singled, though, and Miguel Sano, the powerful Twins' prospect, took a fastball and curveball to get ahead, 2-0. He then watched a pair of Syndergaard heaters at 94 and 95 even the count, before Bogaerts was caught stealing to end the inning.
It was easy to mentally put Syndergaard into the 2014 rotation alongside Harvey and Wheeler. Most Mets fans have indulged this fantasy so often, it feels true already. But Syndergaard's next encounter with Matt Harvey will be his first one.
"I see, on Twitter, when Mets fans remind me it's Harvey Day," Syndergaard said with a smile. "I've met Zack, but I haven't Matt yet."
Then it was Montero's turn. He's typically throwing a few ticks slower than Syndergaard with his fastball, and doesn't occupy the mound in nearly the same way physically. But he's improved at virtually every level, a 2.43 ERA, 1.4/9 walk rate and 9.7 per nine strikeout rate at Double-A Binghamton earning a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. He's hit his first speed bump there, but nobody, not even the Mets, evaluates their prospects based on Las Vegas' notoriously hitter-skewed results.
Montero, on this day, had practically the fastball zip Syndergaard did, averaging just under 95 mph with seven offerings. (It probably helped that Montero, like Syndergaard, knew he had just one inning to throw.) His slider checked in against Astros outfield prospect George Springer, when he used a pair of them, checking in at 82 and 80 mph with more horizontal than vertical movement, to get ahead, then inducing a groundout to end an extraordinarily quick nine-pitch inning.
Montero was quick to insist, through a translator, that his fastball Sunday was typical.
"No, that's how I am, and that's how I pitch," Montero said, smiling. He did add that fans missed some of his repertoire -- specifically, his changeup and his sinker -- due to the brevity of his start. It was enough to dream, though.
Should both continue to pitch well in the second half, they'd be in the mix for 2014. The Mets like their pitching prospects to log around 150 innings at Double-A or above. Montero could get the call sooner than later, with just under 100 such innings already on his resume, and little reason for the Mets to keep him at Las Vegas rather than learning in New York. Syndergaard, if he keeps pitching as he has in his first 20 Double-A innings, might even make that 150-inning guideline moot by early next season.
And then the Mets will need to figure out exactly what to do. Do they go all young, pair these two with Harvey and Wheeler, and deal Hefner and Gee for pitching help? This hardly seems like a wise decision, with every major league team in need of depth, not to mention long relief and a bullpen.
"I feel incredibly happy to have gotten the chance to pitch here today," Montero said through a translator. "And maybe one day, I will get to pitch here... God willing, I will be back."
This is the reality for the New York Mets right now. They received an all-too-brief look at what the future might be on Sunday afternoon. Now comes the waiting and hoping it can all come true.