By December it became clear Sandy Alderson would trade R.A. Dickey before his Cy Young Award could collect a spec of dust. The only questions remaining were where the knuckleballer would land and who the Mets would receive in return.
It came as little surprise that Alex Anthopoulos was lurking — fresh off acquiring much Miami’s talent less than a month earlier. It was certain the Mets would require Travis d’Arnaud to make a deal, but would they demand another player, too? Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez vaulted up prospect lists this season as pitchers in the Lansing Lugnuts’ rotation, and their success created a divide among analysts. Syndergaard or Sanchez? Sanchez or Syndergaard? Who was atop Alderson’s list? Was Anthopoulous correct when he deemed Sanchez “untouchable?”
Sanchez is listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds and is a lean, projectable right-handed pitcher. Out of the windup, his tempo is more deliberate than one would expect for a 20-year-old starter who sits in the mid-90s with his fastball. Despite above-average athleticism and good body control, Sanchez has trouble finding a consistent release point. Part of Sanchez’s issues stem from his long legs. After raising his left knee to his hands and beginning to uncoil towards to the plate, he employs a small kick toward the batter.
This movement is inconsistent and he often finds his plant foot landing at a different place each time. When he plants early, his fastball — which normally has good sink and arm side run — flattens out and sails high in the zone. While control has hindered Sanchez, he has an elite ceiling due to featuring three of the minor leagues’ best pitches. In addition to his fastball, Sanchez has a devastating change-up that runs away from left-handed hitters. His change-up came into the season as his third offering but now rivals his 12-6 curveball as his best pitch. The curve is also a true out-pitch that features tight rotation and no visible hump. Like all curveballs, it can be inconsistent, but it’s already a plus-offering.
Syndergaard is also a projectable right-hander. He stands an inch taller and is more physically developed than Sanchez, especially in the upper half. Interestingly, he is also slow to the plate out of the windup and from the stretch. Due to his size and high three-quarter delivery, Syndergaard’s fastball is thrown on a steep downward plane with moderate sinking action. While he is subject to youthful inconsistency, Syndergaard has good command of the pitch and pounds the bottom of the strike zone.
Due to these attributes, it’s easy to project the 20-year-old to be a ground-ball machine at higher levels. He couples his fastball with an above-average-or-better change-up that features both sink and fade. The two pitches complement each other, and inexperienced Midwest League hitters were rarely able to adjust to his change after sitting on the fastball. Syndergaard’s third pitch is an underdeveloped curveball. Currently, the offering is a looping 12-6 curve that needs to be tightened significantly and thrown consistently before it is considered even an average pitch.
Choosing Sanchez or Syndergaard comes down to whether one think Sanchez can rein in his command or Syndergaard can develop a third pitch. Both have the aptitude to make changes. Sanchez has the athleticism, body control and repeatable delivery coaches look for when gauging whether a pitcher can harness his command. It’s more difficult to determine whether Syndergaard can develop a curveball, which is tied to a skillset he’s yet to showcase: consistent tight rotation due to wrist pronation and tensile strength.
But there are other pitches he can develop should his curveball’s development plateau. Most importantly, Syndergaard already has an above-average change-up to keep left-handed hitters — and his platoon splits — in check. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Mets had Syndergaard develop a slider, too, as that tends to be their breaking ball of choice.
Both pitchers will be in the Florida State League (High-A) this season with an outside change at reaching the Eastern League (Double-A) before the season ends. A lot will happen in the two or three years before their debuts, but if each develops as I expect, Sanchez has a higher ceiling as an ace. Syndergaard, on the other hand, is realistically a second or a third starter. With that said, I am more confident that Syndergaard can complement his fastball and change up with a third offering than I am in Sanchez’s command profile. If I had to pick one of them to start a playoff game for me today, it would be Syndergaard. But talent like Sanchez’s is rare.