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Starting Pitcher Profile: The mystery of Matt Harvey

After a year-plus away from the game, the Mets pitcher is set to return for the start of the season, and that maybe means things!

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Look, Matt Harvey, 2015 version, is an enigma right now. There isn't a one of us out there who has any real idea what to expect out of him. Will he repeat 2013's strong season and be a Cy Young candidate? Maybe! Will he develop some soreness in his next spring straining start and have to go back under the knife? Also maybe!

In a sense, that's true of every pitcher, of course. We know that. Even the most durable pitchers — Justin Verlander, James Shields, whoever — are one more pitch away from a missed season. Heck, CC Sabathia before recent times. But a pitcher who has already gone through Tommy John surgery once — especially one we haven't seen actually make more of a return than Friday's (admittedly encouraging) two-inning outing — is a bigger question mark still.

As 2015 Tommy John returnees go, you have to like Harvey the most, or close. The rest of the guys are too far from their return (Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, Martin Perez, A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin) or, if they're due back at or near opening day, they just lack Harvey's upside (Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar, Ivan Nova, etc.). Harvey had his surgery 17 months ago now; if Major League Baseball were played year-round, we might well have seen him in December.

And of course, Harvey has been amazing as a big-leaguer thus far, with a 2.39 ERA accompanied by a 2.33 FIP and a 2.84 xFIP in 36 career starts. He also has a 4.6 K/BB rate, one that improved dramatically from his first season (2.69) to his second (6.16). It's an impressive-if-short resume, buoyed by a not-quite-as-impressive minor-league track record. Still, if Harvey were coming into this season fresh off his last healthy season, Harvey would be, what, an easy top 10 starter? Maybe top five? Heck, top three?

Of course, that's not the reality. Harvey missed 2014. And history tells us to not be too excited about guys in their first year back from such a surgery. Hardball Times' Jeff Zimmerman ran through as much of the TJ record as he could last year, in the wake of Fernandez going under the knife, and found, among many other things, that the first year back from surgery tends to be the worst, as guys deal with a new ligament, possibly reduced velocity, and — if nothing else — a year-ish of rust.

By and large, the projection systems are cautiously optimistic about Harvey's 2015. Steamer calls for 3.01 ERA, 2.99 FIP and 156 innings, while ZiPS says 3.12, 3.21 and 153. Neither system expects even 3.0 WAR, in part because 150-ish innings works out to much less than full time — which stands to reason, considering teams' penchant for easing guys back into a workload, especially if the team is not in contention.

Ultimately, I think Harvey will have a fine year. The Steamer and ZiPS projections read fairly well to me. I might be a little more optimistic than the computers, but then again I have a heart and really want good players to be good. But, as I said, there is undeniably more risk to Harvey than there is to, just to name names, David Price, or Hyun-jin Ryu, or Alex Cobb, even if some names there might have a lower ceiling.

Preseason rankings, remember, aren't a prediction of the end-of-season SP rankings. At least, that's not how I ever handle them. It's a ranking of where I would take each guy. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, for example, a half-ish season of Jose Fernandez (my No. 70) outperformed James Paxton (my No. 68) or fell behind Ervin Santana (my No. 71). But considering the risk and reward of part of a season of Fernandez, I'd be willing to draft him over Santana and hold for a season. Paxton, though, would be too much for me. It's not a performance prediction, per se; it's just where I'm comfortable taking a shot on a guy. It's a subtle difference.

That said, here's my strategy for ranking guys who are injured and/or coming off an injury: First, I ignored them. When I made my SP rankings, I set Harvey, Fernandez, Moore and their ilk aside. Didn't even consider them. I ranked all the healthy, relatively questionless pitchers. And then, one by one, I took each questionable name and slotted them, like with Fernandez, where I was comfortable taking the risk. "Would I take Clayton Kershaw before Jose Fernandez? Obviously yes. Would I take Brett Oberholtzer? Well hold on there." With those guys, the deciding factor isn't merely a talent question so much as it's a talent-versus-risk-versus-expected-time-missed three-way ratio.

Harvey, obviously, should play more of the season than Fernandez, and deserves to be ranked higher based on that alone. There's some reason for optimism for Harvey based on that outing the other day, but it's one game and all sorts of crap could still happen (*sigh* Cliff Lee and Yu Darvish). Still, Harvey has so much potential. Anibal Sanchez, for example, lacks Harvey's upside and has a sizable injury risk himself. Jake Arrieta had a great 2014, but that's a tiny sample. Adam Wainwright's injury scares me as well. For me, that meant Harvey was my No. 20 starter, just ahead of those guys and just behind Hisashi Iwakuma, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Smyly.

As it turns out, ranking a guy who just missed an entire season-plus as my No. 20 starter is not a bold call. Of our seven other SP rankers, six people had Harvey higher than I did, ranging from 18th to fourth. The other one, Brian Creagh, didn't rank Harvey at all, and I'd be fascinated to see his argument for leaving him out of the top 100. Frankly, I could see a legitimate argument for dropping Harvey pretty far (basically "Aaaaah, scary"), but not top 100 seems a bridge much too far.

Still, as I said at the top, we don't know crap about Matt Harvey for 2015. We don't know crap about most starters, but we know even less crap about Harvey. You're a little kid, and your parents have gotten a new cereal you've never seen before. They promise you there's a prize in the bottom, but they don't know what it is. Maybe it's a cool slide whistle. But maybe it's one of those stupid brain-teasers with the two interlocking pieces of metal that you try for four seconds before throwing away. You don't know what you're getting. Are you willing to try an alien cereal for the chance at a slide whistle?

(That analogy got weird. Matt Harvey's a question mark, I'm saying.)