NEW YORK -- Hours before the Mets' 3-1, 12-inning defeat Wednesday to the Braves, in which losing pitcher Rafael Montero walked three batters, allowed three hits and threw 13 of his first 27 pitches out of the strike zone, general manager Sandy Alderson stood outside the Mets' Citi Field batting cage and admitted he is starting to "sniff around" for starting pitching depth.
Imagine that. A team that not so long ago boasted baseball's deepest trove of young starting pitching is seeking veteran depth on the open market. In April.
"That's why we've got to be more cautious than ever," manager Terry Collins said. "We came out of Spring Training saying we're seven deep, and right now we're not. We're five deep."
The sixth man on the depth chart, Montero, underscored that assessment with his performance in extra innings. In both the 11th and 12th, Montero allowed the leadoff man to reach base. Though he used a well-timed double-play ball to escape the initial jam, a hit and two walks -- one intentional -- thrust him into an even tighter spot in the 12th.
This time, Montero did not emerge unscathed, allowing Matt Kemp's go-ahead, two-run double.
"That's a tough situation to come into when you're trying to impress people," Collins said. "We're not scoring. We've got to hold them down and he did OK."
In additional defense of Montero, he was far from the Mets' primary plan. A former top prospect, Montero made the Opening Day roster only because Seth Lugo didn't, nursing an elbow injury that turned out to be a partially torn UCL. Montero then appeared Wednesday only because the Mets' offense sputtered, creating an extra-inning situation that wasn't anywhere in the team's blueprint for him.
But this is the new normal for a club that, at least for now, is stretching its starting pitching depth to the limit. Lugo and Steven Matz are both on the disabled list, each of them out until at least May. In the interim, the Mets cannot afford an injury to any of their top five starters, knowing another bad MRI reading would force them to use Montero -- or a similar-pedigreed Triple-A Las Vegas starter -- in important early-season divisional games. At least in-house, no Lugo or Robert Gsellman types seem to be on the Mets' horizon.
That's why Collins is preaching caution for his starting pitchers, pulling Jacob deGrom from his debut after six brilliant innings and 95 pitches. The Mets will not risk overburdening deGrom, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler in particular, all of them coming off surgeries.
In return, the team hopes that those two, Noah Syndergaard and Gsellman can keep them afloat until Matz and Lugo return.
"That's the plan," deGrom said. "Lugo stepped in for us [last year] and did a great job. So while he's out and while Steve's out, it's on us to kind of pick them up and keep this team in ballgames."
Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.