Michael Wacha
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Mets starting rotation competition is getting muddier by the day. That’s great news for Michael Wacha’s hopes of starting.

Kyle Newman

The competition for the New York Mets‘ fifth starter is heating up. Both Steven Matz and Michael Wacha have made two starts now and the latter has looked more impressive.

Wacha hasn’t allowed a run in five innings and he’s only allowed three hits. Matz has thrown only three innings, but he’s allowed one run on a home run. The stats don’t really tell the story here though.

The real story is the huge changes that Wacha is making to his pitching arsenal.

Michael Wacha’s performance

Wacha’s fastball velocity has been on a rapid decline over the last two seasons. He was averaging about 96 mph in 2017, which was the high point in his career. It was also Wacha’s best season by fWAR.

By 2018 his velocity was down to about 94 mph. Last season it was all the way down to 93 mph. Injuries and constantly changing roles have wreaked havoc with Wacha.

Wacha is healthy again now with the Mets and it shows. His velocity is back up to 96 mph in spring. The question is whether or not he can maintain it. If he can maintain that velocity it could mean big things for the mercurial pitcher.

That’s not the only change Wacha’s made since coming to New York. He’s also made a big change to his slider. His cutter velocity has dropped from 91 mph to 89 in spring and the movement has become more of a traditional slider than a cutter.

This would be a huge change for Wacha who has never thrown a slider before and relied heavily on his cutter in the past. It’s his second-best off-speed pitch.

The change should come as a major surprise. Wacha did throw his cutter considerably less in 2019 than he did in 2018. Still, the complete change of a breaking pitch doesn’t happen often. This is likely something that Wacha and New York Mets’ pitching coach Jeremy Hefner has been working on.

If the change to the slider succeeds it could lead to better results against lefties and potentially an increase in strikeout numbers. That’s especially true if he’s able to maintain his fastball velocity.

Signs are pointing up for Wacha so far in camp, but he’s still got a lot to overcome. His awful 2019 is a bigger obstacle to overcome than five innings and some changes to his arsenal.

However, a cross-town rival might be making Wacha’s case for him.

Steven Matz as trade bait

The Mets have been reluctant to deal away from their major league roster since Brodie Van Wagenen was hired. He even refused to trade rental players at the deadline in 2019 despite a potential haul of prospects coming back.

That might change in 2020. Spring has begun to show that the team has stable pitching depth. Even if Matz takes his rightful place as the team’s fifth starter, the Mets have Wacha and top pitching prospect David Peterson right behind him.

Like Matz and Wacha, Peterson has had a strong start to the spring. Peterson has five strikeouts in four innings and hasn’t walked a batter. He’s allowed one run on four hits, but that all came in one innings in his first start.

Peterson is expected to start 2020 in Triple-A and a strong showing there will put him just one step away from his MLB debut. That opens the door to potential Matz trade.

He would bring back more in a deal than either Wacha or Peterson would. That should be enough for the Mets to at least consider moving him and going with the two relative unknowns with a higher upside.

In fact, the Mets are already listening. After being decimated by injuries early in spring training the New York Yankees have shown interest in the Long Island lefty.

Talks aren’t likely to go anywhere with the regular season just around the corner, but it’s an interesting possibility. It would allow the Mets to add some much-needed prospect depth or even potentially add to their volatile bullpen.

Whatever route a trade takes it could be a solution to their fifth starter problem. Wacha earns the spot because Matz is more valuable as a trade asset than as a starter. That’s especially true if the team is desperate like the Yankees.

Of course, none of this is possible if Wacha’s level of play drops. He needs to stay consistent throughout spring to show he’s at least on equal footing with Matz. If he can’t do that, then the Mets will have no choice but to hold onto Matz.

That’s why Wacha’s strong start to the spring may be sorting out the Mets rotation problems all by itself.

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