Playing Pepper 2014: New York Mets

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

New York Mets
74-88, third in the NL East

To be a Mets fan is a worrying thing.  If it’s not trouble on the field, it’s trouble off the field.  A rising star brings hope, but then goes under the knife.  A new stadium’s luster wears quickly with sub-.500 teams filling it.

And yet, for all of that, Mets bloggers are some of the most prolific on the internet.  They take the good with the bad and roll with the punches.  Today, we’ll hear from:

This is going to be a doozy, so let’s jump right in!

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

CM: It’s hard to go much higher than a B considering that the team still has some big holes and big questions, but the moves the team made should be at least enough for a B, so… It’s another year in a holding pattern, so a B it is. The outfield needed an overhaul, which it got in the form of Curtis Granderson and, to a lesser extent, the other Chris Young. The rotation needed a veteran and some Mejia insurance, which Bartolo Colon, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and John Lannan should provide. The bullpen has a few cheap new options, which is probably the best that could be expected. First base is still unresolved and shortstop… No shortstop solution equals a B.
In a different light though, this offseason earned an A for filling some of the Mets’ most glaring holes: All-Star memorabilia. Since All-Star workout jerseys started getting sold into tiny cardboard prisons in 2000, the Mets have had a representative from each AL All-Star team no later than the following spring each year. Sometimes it was a former player stepping up with a new team (Jason Isringhausen ’00, Melvin Mora ’05, Ty Wigginton ’10), other times it was a big-name offseason acquisition (Johan Santana ’07, Francisco Rodriguez ’08, Jason Bay ’09). This ended with the start of the Alderson regime. With no big free agent signings and an emphasis on building the farm system, there were no former or future Mets to be found on the AL All-Star Roster. It looked like 2013 would turn things around with both Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey in Toronto, but that didn’t quite work out.

That all changed with this past offseason. In the span of a few days, Sandy Alderson checked off the 2011 (Curtis Granderson), 2012 (also CG), and 2013 (Bartolo Colon) AL All-Star teams and threw in the first Met from the 2005 Futures Game USA team (Chris Young) for good measure. Later, the signing of Jose Valverde to a minor league deal added a possible second 2011 AL All-Star. A bounceback season from Reyes and/or Dickey could put us back on track to have a Met on every AL All-Star team.

FFF: B-, if we’re doing actual grades. Two potentially solid pickups in Granderson and Colon, though mostly they replace Byrd and Harvey (the latter for the short term). Seems the job is not complete until they do something about shortstop.

MHC: Meh. The Mets are located in NYC, a known baseball town and in competition with the Yankees. The payroll is something like 89 million. What do you think?

MMO: Compared to Sandy Alderson’s first three offseasons this one looks like an A, but on its own I’d say it was a C+. That grade can improve if Curtis Granderson can return to his 2011 form and Chris Young can prove he can hit righthanded pitching. The big issue with this offseason is that we solved neither the first base or shortstop positions – or what Sandy called his two top priorities in September. Additionally, they still haven’t had a leadoff hitter since Reyes went to Miami.

MPR: The important thing during this latest offseason for the Mets is not the quality of player but the fact that the Mets can actually spend some legitimate mullah.

Mets fans were screaming bloody murder when Sandy Alderson signed a .235 career hitter in OF Chris Young and not Nelson Cruz. ‘Why would he give a fourth outfielder $7M?’ they asked. I guess Alderson is hoping that Young will be this year’s Marlon Byrd.

Outfielder Curtis Granderson who will give the Mets some legitimate pop and journeyman right-hander Bartolo Colon who will be asked to anchor the back of their young rotation were both good signings in my opinion. In terms of bullpen help, veteran right-handers Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth, who both signed minor-league deals, are hoping for one more bolt of lightning in their bottles.

In terms of a grade, I would have to say, (emo-con – slightly pleased)

PRB: C+ The Mets were more active in the free agent market this winter than they have been in recent off-seasons, but it feels like they were just patching holes instead of making improvements.

Curtis Granderson should replace Marlon Byrd’s 2013 production. Bartolo Colon is being asked to fill the innings Matt Harvey would have pitched if he was healthy. Chris Young… will be better than Rick Ankiel and Collin Cowgill, but I’m still trying to figure out why Sandy Alderson chose to spend a significant portion of his limited resources on a high strikeout/low on base percentage hitter.

Despite a lot of talk about wanting to upgrade at first base and shortstop, the Mets will probably open the season with the same infield they had last year. I wanted to see some bold moves this winter, and they just didn’t happen.

SS: The Mets get a C because they are currently expected to have the seventh-lowest payroll in MLB, which is unacceptable for a team that plays in the largest market. There has been too much praise of the Mets finally opening their pursestrings this offseason with the signings of Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, as well as Chris Young, but they have actually cut payroll from 2013 with Johan Santana and Jason Bay coming off the books.

Considering the Mets’ budget constraints, the Granderson and Colon signings fill needs at what today are reasonable prices. But signing Young for $7.25 million looks less good in retrospect now that the Orioles signed Nelson Cruz for $8 million.

The Mets also get downgraded for mishandling the Ike Davis situation, appearing so eager to trade him that they could not get good value, leaving them with an even bigger mess at first base.

The grade goes to B if the Mets end up with Stephen Drew, but only if it is for no more than two years. The Mets did not want to invest in Jose Reyes due to his injury history, and Reyes, who is younger than Drew, has played in 379 games the last three seasons compared to Drew’s 289.

C70: Can Zack Wheeler step up and fill the gap left by Matt Harvey’s surgery?

CM: Yeah, about that… Over the years (well, two of them at least), I have identified two predictors of doom that can be found in cardboard. From 2010 to 2013, only one player each year appeared with the Mets and had a Mets pinstripe jersey card released in the same year. None of the first three played a game with the Mets in the following year. The fourth is Zack Wheeler. In 2013, I noticed that a lot of Mets pitchers who signed a lot of autographs that year suffered from arm injuries. Zack Wheeler was one of the few who has, so far, remained injury free. Does this mean Zack Wheeler is now cursed and has no chance of throwing a pitch in 2014? Of course not. But with the run of injuries Mets pitchers suffered in 2013, nothing is certain.

Seriously though, you can’t really look at it is having a gap to be filled. With or without Harvey, the rotation needs five pitchers to start with and some depth to fill in as needed. The Colon signing added a much-needed veteran and 200 innings from Wheeler would certainly help, as would strong seasons from Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. That just leaves the #5 spot, which has some decent (and cheap) options that could also provide depth later in the season. Add in possible appearances by Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, and/or Jacob deGrom in the second half and the Mets might just have a legitimate group of starting pitchers to work with while Harvey rehabs.

FFF: Everybody will have to pitch in, no pun intended, but a more relaxed Wheeler should be a more consistent, in-command Wheeler. He doesn’t worry me.

MHC: Of course he can – if he gets his stuff in order. Harvey was electric out of the gate last year and was the only reason to watch Mets baseball every fifth day. Asking Wheeler to do the same is a lot to ask for a newbie in the show. We’ll just have to wait and see.

MMO: Very unlikely, as Harvey was having a historic season. Wheeler has to improve his consistency with his command and minimize his frequent bouts with wildness. I would think that Bartolo Colon will come closer to helping the Mets replace Harvey than Wheeler, and the Mets are betting $20 million dollars that he can too.

MPR: He’ll definitely fulfill the anticipation factor that Harvey brought every fifth start. Wheeler’s rookie season consisted of seventeen starts (7-5, 3.42 ERA, 84 K in 100 IP) was a learning experience. I’ll be the first to say it, “I‘ll make sure to catch every one of Wheeler’s starts this season.”

PRB: If you look at it from a wins-loss record perspective, sure. Harvey won 9 games in 2013 and Wheeler won 7… it’s not hard to believe Wheeler could win 16 by himself this year if he gets enough run support. But I don’t think that Wheeler will be able to replace Harvey’s star power, at least not right away. That’s ok. The Mets just need him to help them win games and continue to improve.

SS: Wheeler had a 3.42 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 in 17 starts as a rookie in 2013. It would be a breakout for Wheeler to match Harvey’s 2012 rookie numbers (2.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 10.6 K/9), so it’s asking a lot for Wheeler to replace Harvey’s sensational 2013.

But Wheeler had a 2.32 road ERA, almost half a run better than Harvey’s 2013 road ERA of 2.76. Wheeler should be able to improve his 4.73 ERA at pitcher-friendly Citi Field. But let’s see if Wheeler can cut his BB/9 (4.1) the way Harvey did (3.9 in 2012 to 1.6 in 2013).

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

CM: I’m not really intrigued by it, but the one everyone seems to be interested in is who will be batting leadoff. “Leadoff Hitter” isn’t really a position, but you wouldn’t know that from the reporting these days. Eric Young Jr., the reigning NL stolen base champ, is the favorite for the job, but he’s a 4th outfielder at best. Do the Mets demote Juan Lagares to give EY a starting job to put him (and his mediocre OBP) at the top of the order? Or do they keep EY as a potent weapon off the bench and pick a leadoff hitter from the remaining options? This is the classic case of logic (EY’s value is highest as a bench player) vs. emotion (stolen bases!).

FFF: Roster battles by nature are sad. They imply a situation left unresolved clear to February, now March. In that sad spirit, Davis vs. Duda for 1B…not so much intriguing as mysterious. Why is either being relied on at this point?

MHC: I’m going to go with the outfield. You want Juan Lagares in center field, but his bat was pretty dormant last season. But apparently he was killing the ball down in the Dominican Winter Leagues, enough to win Rookie of the Year honors in fact, so you never know. Curtis Granderson is in, and Chris Young will make it if he hits, but there’s always Eric Young Jr. and the Mets need him in that lineup. Finally, there’s always the chance of Lucas Duda if Ike Davis gets the first base job, but that another story.

MMO: Definitely first base, although no matter who wins, it’s quite likely that the Mets lose. The NL is stacked with great first basemen and it’s going to take a breakthrough season by either Davis or Duda to keep the Mets from having another season of below league average production.

MPR: Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it seems that the Mets have a variety of roster battles. Most notably, the first base position. It’s pretty funny when a right-handed-hitting platoon player, Josh Satin, has already received a green light from his manager that he’ll make the big club come Opening Day backing up either Lucas Duda or Ike Davis, who both face a stint at Triple-A if they’re not chosen to participate on March 31st.

PRB: Right now, the two main ones appear to be for the first base and fifth starter jobs. Neither seems especially exciting, except to the participants. Shortstop could be intriguing, though.

The Mets have been talking about giving Wilmer Flores a chance to play shortstop this spring. Although that was his original position in the minors, he’s played second and third base for the past two years. Flores looks like he’s in much better shape this spring after attending a voluntary fitness camp over the winter… maybe he can play well enough defensively to steal the position from Ruben Tejada, or at least give Terry Collins enough confidence to keep him as the backup instead of a light-hitting player like Omar Quintanilla or Wilfredo Tovar.

SS: First base: IDavis hit .165 with a .505 OPS in the first half of 2013, following a .201 BA and .659 OPS in the first half of 2012. Yet he’s the one that most Met fans figure to be rooting for in the first base battle with Lucas Duda. Davis hit 20 homers in the second half of 2012 and 32 for the season, then had a .954 OPS in his final 40 games in 2013. The Mets’ eagerness to trade Davis conjures up the all-too-familiar scenario of an ex-Met finally reaching his potential with another team.

As for Duda, he failed to hit above .224 in any month after April last year. He can’t hit lefties (not that Davis can) and Davis is a much better fielder.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

CM: That would be Travis d’Arnaud. Wilmer Flores will probably start the season in AAA and there’s little chance of seeing any of the big pitching prospects until late June or July. That puts d’Arnaud in the rare position of spending a full season with Rookie eligibility. He has already shown that he is ready behind the plate, but he didn’t impress much with the bat in his brief stint in the majors last year. If his bat comes around (and if he can put injury questions to rest), he could provide significant value at a position that hasn’t produced much for the Mets in recent years.

FFF: Not sure if d’Arnaud is still technically a rookie, but it’s his first full year and he has to settle in as catcher. Play the position, don’t stress over hitting. If he’s who he’s supposed to be, it’ll come. Not to get hung up on precedent, but Jerry Grote didn’t have to hit to be a significant part of the emerging 1969 team.

MHC: If he comes up, I’m going to say Noah Syndergaard. If he does what we’re all hoping he does, it will definitely lift us into next season with Harvey back in the lineup. 2015 Mets rotation has the potential of being the best in the Majors, and that’s really exciting.

MMO: Considering he’s still eligible as a rookie, I’d say Travis d’Arnaud hands down. At 25 it’s time for him to go from prospect to productive major league catcher.

MPR: My hope is that Travis D’Arnaud makes the biggest splash this season, however, young right-hander Noah Syndergaard is the one that’s on all Mets fans’ radar.

PRB: Juan Lagares came out of nowhere last year and had a bigger impact than the more highly anticipated prospects like Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud. Pitcher Noah Syndergaard is the name everyone is excited about this year, but I think d’Arnaud is going to be the most important rookie on the Mets. If he lives up to his potential, d’Arnaud could really stabilize the middle of the batting order. If he doesn’t take that step forward, the Mets may have to find another answer behind the plate until Kevin Plawecki is ready for his chance in late 2015 or 2016.

SS: Travis d’Arnaud has been a top prospect for several years. He has been a key piece in two different trades for Cy Young winners (R.A. Dickey and Roy Halladay). But d’Arnaud has already suffered several significant injuries. When he made his debut in 2013, d’Arnaud hit just .202 with only one HR in 99 AB.

If D’Arnaud can start living up to his potential in his first full season, the Mets will have another cornerstone piece for a future contender. But if d’Arnaud struggles or gets hurt again, the Mets could find themselves in the same situation at catcher as they are at first base and shortstop, where the struggles of a touted young player (Davis, Ruben Tejada) have left the Mets scrambling for a plan B.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

CM: I’ll go out on a limb and go with 80-82, 3rd place in the NL East. As with last year, this will depend more on how the other teams in the division perform than how the Mets perform. Will the Phillies continue to falter? Is the Marlins’ emergence still another year away? Did the Braves and Nationals make the right moves to stay at the top of the NL East? If everything breaks right, the Mets could stay relevant past the All-Star break. If not, well, pick any recent year to see the result. I’m not quite sold on 90 wins, but 80 is still in play. Of course, so is 70.

FFF: Overlooking the fact that I have only a 1 in 162 chance of being right about their record, I’ll say 78-84. They’re not improved enough to withstand the loss of Harvey. But I think it will be a better team poised for improvement, which will have to suffice. My sights are on 2015 for substantial progress. This year third place, I guess.

MHC: 80-82, 3rd place. We’ll win a few more games this year, but I don’t see a major upgrade from last year’s offense.

MMO: If everything breaks right, the Mets could win 85 games and have their first winning season since 2008. That should be good enough for third place in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.

MPR: Vegas has the Mets over-under at 72.5 games. Sandy Alderson has been feeling giddy lately and has projected his $87M Mets can win 90 games. So, I’ll just meet somewhere in the middle and say 81.25 games. Finishing up at .500 would be an improvement.

PRB: Sandy Alderson says the 2014 New York Mets can win 90 games. Las Vegas is predicting 74. I think the team’s final record is somewhere in between — 82-80, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for third place in the NL East.

SS: 79-83 The Mets have won 74 games in each of the last two seasons and now they won’t have Harvey. They also won’t have 117 games with an .848 OPS from Marlon Byrd. But the continued influx of young pitching, a full season from David Wright (who played just 112 games last year and the addition of Curtis Granderson can move the Mets up to 79 wins and another third-place finish.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

CM: Sigh. Will Matt Harvey’s rehab be televised?

FFF: Juan Lagares. I could watch him track fly balls from sunup to sundown.

MHC: David Wright. He’s the man. Period.

MMO: That’s tough one. I would say Daniel Murphy if I had to pick one. I love players who defy the scouts and experts and show that heart and passion can still play a role in a player’s production. Murphy led all NL second basemen in runs, hits, doubles and stolen bases all while still learning a new position.

MPR: I like Daniel Murphy because I know if there’s ducks on the pond and he’s up, there’s a chance that he’s going to come through in the clutch. Plus, he adds some comic relief with his mental lapses on the base paths and he lackluster, at times, defense at second base.

PRB: Juan Lagares – it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to watch a center fielder who covered as much ground as he does.

SS: Matt Harvey (sigh). For 2014, I look forward to watching Wheeler develop and seeing the Mets’ latest top pitching prospect, Nosh Syndergaard, make his debut at some point during the season.

Great stuff from all of these guys.  We’ll see if Sandy Alderson can continue to work some magic and get the Mets back on top!

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