MIAMI — Thursday was supposed to be the triumphant opening act of the Mets’ highly anticipated 2023 season. Steven A. Cohen, the team’s billionaire owner, committed a record $377 million to payroll, according to Spotrac, and that’s before the roughly $105 million luxury tax bill arrives. Money doesn’t guarantee a championship but it certainly improves the odds.
Case in point: The Miami Marlins started their ace, the right-hander Sandy Alcantara, the 2022 National League Cy Young Award winner, on Thursday. The Mets countered with the right-hander Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner whom Cohen lured to New York with a record annual salary before last season. But when both stumbled, Brandon Nimmo, the outfielder the Mets re-signed this off-season for $162 million over eight years, who delivered the tiebreaking two-run double in the seventh inning of a 5-3 win.
But just over two hours before the first pitch at loanDepot Park, the Mets announced that their most high-profile addition of the off-season, the pitcher whom they envisioned would help them get deeper into the postseason after an early exit last year, would begin the season on the injured list. Justin Verlander, last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, had what the team called a low grade strain of a shoulder muscle.
“Not the way I wanted my Mets tenure to start, that’s for sure,” said Verlander, who is signed to a two-year, $87 million deal. “I put in a ton of work to not have things like this happen.”
He added later, “I take a lot of pride and I love pitching. I just want to be out there and to not be able to do that, especially with a new team and a new fan base, just doesn’t feel great.”
The Major League Baseball regular season is 162 games over roughly six months, so there is plenty of time. Both Mets General Manager Billy Eppler and Verlander stressed that the magnetic resonance imaging examination of Verlander’s right shoulder revealed a “very minimal” injury to his teres major, a muscle that runs from the lower end of the shoulder blade through the arm pit.
During his last start of spring training, Verlander, 40, felt something minor in his side that he chalked up to the usual soreness of pitching and tweaking his mechanics. But the feeling lingered into Wednesday, when he threw a bullpen session in anticipation of what was supposed to be his Mets debut on Saturday.
“The fact that I’m going to be able to continue to throw is showing how minor of an injury it is,” he said. “But still, there is something there. If this was a different point in the season, particularly late in the year, I think pitching is definitely on the table. Playoffs, I’m definitely pitching. Being the beginning of the season and coming off spring training, it just makes too much sense to not push it right now and risk three months when it could be much, much, much, much, much less than that.”
Verlander, however, is not the only key player the Mets are missing to start this season of high expectations. Edwin Díaz, the best closer in baseball, whom the Mets re-signed to a record-setting five-year, $102 million deal this off-season, was expected to miss the entire season following surgery to repair a patellar tendon in his knee he tore during the World Baseball Classic. José Quintana, the veteran left-handed starter who joined the Mets on a two-year, $26 million deal in December, may be out until the summer because of a stress fracture in a rib and a lesion on his side that required surgery.
In an N.L. East in which the Atlanta Braves are the defending division winners and the Philadelphia Phillies are the defending pennant winners, the Mets have little margin for error. The massive spending, Eppler pointed out, was part of Cohen’s plan to make the Mets contenders when he took over as the owner. His goal is to stick with a high-spending strategy as the farm system is restocked so that in the future the team could use free agency “a little bit more as a luxury rather than necessity.”
So now is the time to lean on the depth the Mets have amassed. Tylor Megill, who had a 5.13 E.R.A. last year, will come up from Class AAA and substitute for Verlander, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. David Peterson, who will start the Mets’ second game of the season on Friday, will fill Quintana’s void. And in terms of a closer, Showalter said he will lean on several relievers but he pointed out that the veteran right-hander David Robertson, another off-season addition, had the most experience in that role. (Robertson earned the save on Thursday.)
“I’ve never been part of a team from start to finish, no matter how good of a team, whether it’s a World Series-winning team or playoff team or whatever, that didn’t deal with injuries throughout the course of the season,” Verlander said. “It just seems like it piled up a little bit at the very beginning of the season. But maybe we’re getting it all out of the way now.”
Showalter said the Mets haven’t dwelled on those recent misfortunes, and he insisted that Verlander’s injury didn’t put a damper on the excitement of opening day. He didn’t deny that this season was World Series or bust for the team with the largest financial commitment in history.
“That’s why we’re suiting up,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. So are the Marlins. So are the Washington Nationals and the Braves and Philadelphia. It’s going to be hard. It was hard last year. It’ll be hard this year. What went on, the good and the bad last year, we’re starting from scratch again.”
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