PORT ST. LUCIE — The Mets acquired Marcus Stroman last July with the idea that he would eventually replace Zack Wheeler in their starting rotation, and your first response should be, “Gosh, the rotation looked awfully good with both Stroman and Wheeler in it, no?”
Alas, the Phillies did write a big check to grab the free agent Wheeler, committing $118 million over five years. And the Mets, despite lifting their player expenditures back to the pre-Madoff days and beyond, still don’t shop in the Michael Bloomberg aisle.
Hence we’ll have ourselves a game within a game this season, within the rabid National League East race: Did the Mets bet on the right right arm? Based on the personalities of both the pitchers and their employers, it figures to provide us with a great deal of fun.
Shoot, Stroman can be fun to watch even in Grapefruit League action, as he exhibited Friday afternoon with two eventful innings at Clover Park.
“I think it’s pretty awesome to face adversity during spring, rather than kind of cruising and your first adversity be during the actual season,” Stroman said, after allowing a run, two hits and a walk to the Cardinals in a 3-2 Mets victory. “I feel ready, my mind and my body.”
“He’s a fierce competitor,” manager Luis Rojas said of the 5-foot-7 Stroman.
In his second start of the exhibition season, Stroman showed off a fastball that ranged from 90-93 miles per hour, only a tick or so behind last year’s average velocity of 92.5 mph (thanks, FanGraphs). He threw one poor slider in the first inning that Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt mashed over the wall in right-center field. Stroman watched the ball carry and calmly nodded, seemingly owning his mistake and resolving to move forward.
Really, few pitchers utilize body language as entertainingly as Stroman. When Jeff McNeil couldn’t pick up a second-inning bunt by Harrison Bader, Stroman comforted his teammate, patting him on the backside. And after he escaped the adversity of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam by retiring Edmundo Sosa on an inning-ending, 4-6-3 double play, Stroman clapped into his glove before leaving the field for the day.
“Obviously, it’s a huge moment. If that was a real game, I’d be pretty pumped up,” said Stroman, downplaying his reaction. “But you obviously try to keep everything in check in spring. Great play by [second baseman Jake] Hager and then great turn by [Amed] Rosario. Defense was great. Just made a good pitch to get in there kind of when I needed to.”
It doesn’t take much to pump up Stroman, and surely he will revel in trying to reward the Mets for acquiring him last year, not to mention increasing his free-agency value in this platform year.
And on the other side of this newly resurgent Mets-Phillies rivalry, you know Wheeler yearns to validate his new boss’ faith in him … and it wouldn’t break his heart for the Mets to look bad in the process. All the more so after general manager Brodie Van Wagenen responded to Wheeler’s jab earlier this month (voiced to The Post’s Greg Joyce) with a very public roundhouse.
Throw in the fact Wheeler is managed by Joe Girardi, whom the Mets interviewed for their own opening before passing on him, and you’ve got enough fire here to help keep the season warm through the 162-game marathon.
“I truly believe that I’ll be able to go out there and throw 210, 20, 30 innings,” said Stroman, whose previous career high is 204 regular-season innings in 2016 plus 11 more in the playoffs. “However many innings I’ll be able to go.”
Wheeler makes his Phillies debut Saturday at the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., and surely some Mets folks will monitor out of curiosity. They can afford to do so, thanks to tranquility ruling this camp as the Yankees put out daily injury-related fires over in Tampa.
Stroman and Wheeler posted identical 4.1 wins above replacement (thanks, Baseball-Reference.com) last year. This year? I’d bet a few bucks, only a few, on Stroman prevailing. I’d pay more just to watch the whole saga play out.