Friday, March 6, 2015

Spring Training Preview: New York Mets

Being a Mets fan is rough. I've been suffering since I was almost six years old, when my dad's good friend from college, Rob Karin, took me with his daughters to what I recall as this game at Shea Stadium (I distinctly recall Gooden pitching and Strawberry hitting one of of multiple Mets home runs, and I'm pretty sure it was against the Dodgers). I had always liked baseball, but that was the moment that I became a rabid fan of any team. This became difficult growing up in Alaska, because the Mets were rarely good enough for national television in the nineties, which meant that I subsisted on rigorous reading of the daily box scores in the Anchorage Daily News (which I delivered for two years) and whatever games were televised against the Braves and Cubs on TBS and WGN. Since my conversion, the Mets have rewarded me with...three playoff appearances in twenty-six years? And those three appearances ended with Kenny Rogers walking in the series-winning run against the hated Braves, an excruciating World Series loss to the crosstown Yankees in which three of the five games were decided by one run (and the other two by two runs)*, and Carlos Beltran getting frozen by an Adam Wainwright curve over the middle of the plate in the exact situation that literally every baseball-loving child dreams about (Game Seven, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, full count)? Hold on while I pour myself a stiff drink.

*A tip of the hat to Mr. Tom Parker, English teacher, assistant baseball coach, and my senior year dorm master at Woodberry Forest, who looked the other way when I stayed up past lights out to watch all of the games.

For the first time since 2008, however (right after our hearts were ripped out by the gut-wrenching free fall of September 2007), there is cause for optimism in Flushing. Third baseman David Wright, the best position player in franchise history, is reportedly healthy after a shoulder injury severely limited him (especially his power) last year. First baseman Lucas Duda had a breakout 2014, catcher Travis d'Arnaud finally took over as the starter at that position, Juan Lagares may be the best defensive outfielder in baseball...wait, what? The Mets handed over $21 million over two years, not to mention a first-round pick in this year's amateur draft, for a 36-year-old Michael Cuddyer, who's played 150 games three times in fourteen years and can't handle a glove anywhere in the field? God, the Wilpons are dumb.

As the fourth-highest-paid player on this year's team (after Wright, Curtis Granderson, and the ageless Bartolo Colon), the Mets have to stick Cuddyer somewhere in order to justify both overpaying him and surrendering a valuable draft pick for the privilege of doing so. With Duda locked in at first base, that leaves an outfield corner, probably right field since Granderson has a noodle arm and couldn't hit third base on the fly with one of those Chuckits people use to throw tennis balls to their dogs. Lagares better be prepared to run down everything in the gaps, at least until Cuddyer inevitably gets hurt and manager Terry Collins has to turn to one of the replacement-level guys on the bench (pick one of John Mayberry, Eric Campbell, Matt den Dekker, or Kirk Nieuwenhuis - they're all basically the same).

Oof, that went from optimistic to pessimistic in a hurry. Also, the Mets don't have a major league-quality shortstop, but Dilson Herrera should be ready to take over from Daniel Murphy on the other side of the keystone this season, and if they want a shortstop better than Wilmer Flores or Ruben Tejada (both middling defenders with weak bats), they do have a surplus of what every team wants; pitching.

Herein lies the Mets' greatest strength; last year's rotation of Colon, Jon Niese, Zack Wheeler, National League Rookie of the Year Jacob de Grom (the Mets are apparently trying to corner the market on Dutch players), and Dillon Gee was perfectly respectable, and only Colon is older than 29 this year. Add to that top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard (seriously, what is it with the Dutch guys?), who struck out 145 batters in 133 innings at AAA Las Vegas last year as a 21-year-old, and they look positively good. But the biggest cause for optimism, of course, is the return from Tommy John surgery of Matt Harvey, who was putting together a challenge to Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball before tearing his UCL in August 2013.

Harvey was having an incredible season up to the point where he got injured, leading the league in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.01) and striking out 191 batters in 178 innings while only walking 31. He was a deserving starter for the National League at his home park in the All-Star Game, and thanks to the timing of his injury, he's had a much longer recovery time than your average TJ recovery case, and will be ready to start Opening Day; the Mets theorize that if healthy he could give them 180-190 innings this season.

So what happens now? While it would make sense to keep one extra starter around in case of injury/emergency, they don't need two, and they do need a shortstop and help in the outfield, either of which is worth springing for because the Braves and Phillies look really bad this year (which makes me really happy), and the Marlins have enough question marks that the Mets could certainly be the second-best team in the division after the Nationals. But if they're going to trade a pitcher, which one should it be?

Harvey is untouchable; there would be rioting in the streets if the Mets sent him away. So is Syndergaard; 21-year-olds who strike out better than a batter an inning at extreme hitters' parks in AAA don't exactly grow on trees. Colon probably doesn't have a lot of value, unless a starter that another team is counting on goes down with a serious injury this spring. Gee is solid but uninspiring; league average righties typically don't net a whole lot in return. That leaves deGrom, Niese, and Wheeler. Niese offers more value than Gee largely because he's a southpaw who's under contract for four more years and $37 million (counting team options for '17 and '18), but as a pitcher he's been only marginally better in his career. Wheeler still struggles with his control (79 walks a year ago), and deGrom had an unexpected breakout year, but both of them offer lots of talent (a tick over a strikeout an inning last season for each) at a young age (Wheeler turns 25 in May, deGrom 27 in June) and several years of team control (five for Wheeler, six for deGrom). The bet here is that one of them goes to a team that a) has surplus quality middle infielders to offer and b) needs a rotation upgrade at a minimal cost. That sounds like the Cubs, Orioles, or Rangers to me.

The team may not make a trade before Opening Day; it's a safe bet that they'll leave Syndergaard in the minors for at least the first couple weeks of the season in order to delay his eventual free agency by a year, and someone could always get hurt before then. But even though this is probably the second-best team in the NL East, this lineup is not what one would call "threatening" (all slash lines courtesy of ZiPS):

CF   Juan Lagares (.264/.305/.370)
2B   Daniel Murphy (.286/.323/.404)
3B   David Wright (.275/.346/.422)
1B   Lucas Duda (.260/.354/.479)
RF   Michael Cuddyer (.271/.325/.450)
LF   Curtis Granderson (.231/.319/.424)
C     Travis d'Arnaud (.255/.313/.436)
SS   Wilmer Flores (.266/.300/.428)

Take away Lagares and maybe Wright and the gloves are equally uninspiring, which means that maybe the team should hold onto deGrom and Wheeler and their ability to miss bats. Herrera's eventual promotion to full-time duty (probably in late April or May) will ease the burden on the pitching staff, but a shortstop is definitely a big need for this team. Think the Cubs could be persuaded to part with Javier Baez or Starlin Castro for a pitcher?

Whatever winds up happening with the starting pitchers, this Mets outfit has most of the pieces together to finish above .500 for the first time in seven years and possibly (if the Braves and Phillies turn out to be as bad as expected - writing that phrase a second time just makes me happy) make a charge at one of the wild card slots. Their rotation and bullpen are both very good, and they have a number of young players who have either just had breakthroughs or appear to be on the cusp of one (Duda, deGrom, Wheeler, Lagares, d'Arnaud, Harvey, Syndergaard). They might need a little luck to play in October, but the Mets should be relevant all season long.