Playing Pepper 2015: New York Mets

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

New York Mets
79-83, tied for second in the NL East

If it’s not one thing, it’s another with the Mets.  After spending a few seasons trying to get out from the shadow of the Bernie Madoff scandal and what that meant for team finances, they looked to contend in 2014, only to have Matt Harvey go down with Tommy John surgery.  And yet, even with that, they put up their best win total since 2010 and their highest finish in the division since 2008.  Which could only mean one thing: The Curse of Yadier Molina is a powerful one, y’all.

One of the great things about the New York teams is that there’s no shortage of folks that would like to talk about them.  Today, for instance, we have six different Mets bloggers to give us their insights on the blue and orange.  We’ll start off with Michael of The Daily Stache.  Michael’s actually going to do a similar project to Pepper during the season and I’m looking forward to our exchanges when the Cards and Mets get together.  Michael’s on Twitter @MikeGanci and the blog’s account is @dailystache.  Following him is Greg from Faith and Fear in Flushing.  Greg made his Pepper debut last year and is back for more.  He’s on Twitter @greg_prince.  After Greg, it’s our friend Paul from Paul’s Random Baseball Stuff.  You can find him on the Tweet box @Paul_Hadsall. (Paul’s also another big Star Wars fan, which is a plus in these parts.)

The second half of our lineup is just as strong.  Jon from Subway Squawkers has been playing Pepper from the beginning, I think.  Follow him and his blog partner Lisa (who we’ll talk with tomorrow with the Yankees) @SubwaySquawkers.  Coming up next is Matthew from Collect The Mets.  As he usually does, he’s got his answers illustrated with various baseball cards over at his site, so be sure to check that out as well.  He’s on Twitter @CollectTheMets.  Last but certainly not least is AC from Mets Public Record.  AC does more podcasting than blogging, having a regular show on Blog Talk Radio that he’s been gracious enough to have me guest on a few times.  It’s always a good time when I get to visit with him and hope we’ll do it again this season.  His Twitter handle is @publicrecord.

(A note: All of these responses were gathered before the news this week that Zack Wheeler was going to need Tommy John surgery, so take that into consideration.)

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

DS: Honestly, I am not as upset with the Mets’ off-season as many others are. They addressed a need with a righty bat by picking up Michael Cuddyer, but that was only the third biggest move of the off-season. Number two was bringing in Kevin Long, which hopefully gets Curtis Granderson figured out, and first is the return of Matt Harvey, who has the ability to single-handedly win games, even despite the lack of run support. I understand the wait-and-see approach, but if push comes to shove, they may need to make another move or two.

FFF: The Mets needed an outfielder who could hit. They got an outfielder who has hit in Michael Cuddyer. The hope is that he can hit again after missing time with non-recurring injuries. They might have done a little more with the bench, acquiring only John Mayberry to shore up a no-name unit. They kind of let it ride when it came to the bullpen, bringing in only an assortment of used lefties, which could come back to haunt them with Josh Edgin feeling some “discomfort” this spring. They never figured out how to convert a surfeit of starting pitching into a more offensively threatening lineup. They didn’t go hard for an experienced shortstop. So, no, they didn’t exactly do all they needed to do — yet for a team that finished relatively strong and is welcoming back its ace, the feeling is there wasn’t a much to do as what I’ve just listed. We’ll see if feelings carry the day over fact.

RBS: The New York Mets got off to a good start this winter, adding free agent Michael Cuddyer to upgrade a corner outfield spot and give Terry Collins an alternative to playing Lucas Duda at first base against lefties. Unfortunately, they only added two other players to the major league roster: outfielder John Mayberry Jr. and Rule 5 draft pick Sean Gilmartin, a lefty reliever.

The Mets chose not to do anything to upgrade at shortstop or in the bullpen, and were unable to acquire an impact player who could really transform their lineup. I was disappointed by their relative inactivity – sure, impact players aren’t available every day… but there were plenty of relievers out there who could have helped in a relatively inexperienced Mets bullpen.

Did they do what they needed to this winter? Maybe. Wilmer Flores might be fine at shortstop, hitting well enough to overcome any defensive shortcomings. Bobby Parnell (returning from Tommy John surgery) might be the only addition that the bullpen needs. David Wright and Curtis Granderson could both rebound from disappointing years, while Lucas Duda, Travis d’Arnaud and Juan Lagares continue to improve and the lineup could be fine.

But lefty reliever Josh Edgin’s early-spring injury highlights the problem with this approach – the Mets don’t have a good backup plan in place to cover injuries at key positions or players who don’t perform up to best-case expectations.

SS: The Mets only made one major move, and it was a dubious one. Michael Cuddyer turns 36 this month and only played 49 games last season. Cuddyer hit over .330 the last two seasons as a Rockie, but was a career .272 hitter in 11 seasons in Minnesota. (Note to Mets: Citi Field is not Coors Field.) And after four years of the Sandy Alderson regime emphasizing building through the draft, the Mets gave up their 2015 number one pick (fifteenth overall) to sign Cuddyer.

The Mets needed to upgrade at shortstop and failed to do so. They needed to add lefthanded relievers and decided to go with Josh Edgin. Now Edgin may need Tommy John surgery. Not good.

CTM: Oh boy… Barring a blockbuster trade, the Mets were in the market for a corner outfielder, a right-handed bench bat, a shortstop, and maybe a veteran lefty reliever in case they broke another one from overuse (about that…). They wasted no time, signing Michael Cuddyer for the outfield and John Mayberry Jr. for the bench and then picking up lefty Sean Gilmartin in the Rule 5 draft (so much for the “veteran” part…). As for shortstop, there was a lot of talk but no action and Wilmer Flores (if healthy) will be your Opening Day Mets shortstop. Try not to get too excited.

With Sandy Alderson cracking jokes about his shortstop search at jury duty, it’s a bit disappointing to see the Mets going with a guy they wouldn’t even play at that position at the end of last season when there was nothing on the line. Flores has yet to truly be tested defensively, so we don’t really know what to expect. Still, the alternatives weren’t very appealing. The free agent market had no clear upgrades over Flores and the trade market never really heated up. And so Flores it is.

As for what else the Mets didn’t do, there are a few issues remaining to be resolved. Dillon Gee looks to be headed for the bullpen, which isn’t really in anyone’s best interests. He should be starting somewhere, but that somewhere won’t be for the Mets in 2015 until the first injuries hit. The lefty reliever situation is looking worse every day and the Mets forgot to stockpile cheap options on minor league deals. Oops. And then there’s Cesar Puello, who is as out of options as the Mets’ outfield is out of available spots. If everyone ahead of him stays healthy, Puello will have to be exposed to waivers before Opening Day. He looked like he finally put it all together in 2013, but now his days with the Mets could be numbered.

One thing the Mets did do is increase payroll. They’re still projected to be under $100 million, but at least this year they don’t have to use creative accounting to claim to be spending more. They won’t be spending much on the draft this year though; the Cuddyer signing puts them dead last in draft bonus pools with their first pick at number 53. No draft day excitement for Mets fans this year.

MPR: Michael Cuddyer minus Eric Young, Jr. should equal a more balanced lineup. John Mayberry, Jr. minus Chris Young, if anything, means more money to spend elsewhere. But elsewhere never came and GM Sandy Alderson failed to move right-hander Dillon Gee for a left-handed reliever. And instead of trading from their strength which is their young pitching to pick up a marquee shortstop, Mets fans were left putting their stock in the unproven, Wilmer Flores, at short.

For what it’s worth, the Mets did bring in former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, to help with the offense, specifically Curtis Granderson. Let’s face it, the Mets offense could use any help they can get.

C70: What are the expectations for Matt Harvey this season?

DS: Matt Harvey is coming back from a surgery that used to be hit-or-miss, but as technology has advanced, so has the success rate. It’s about 90 percent at the moment, and seeing Harvey early in camp, it looks like he’s pumped to get going. I am not expecting a Cy Young season, especially since he’ll be restricted at times. Most importantly, I want him to remain healthy and I want the Mets to proceed with caution. He’s darn good, and could be one of the best pitchers, if not the best, when all is said and done. As for a record, I think 15 wins is reachable, but people need to temper their expectations.

FFF: Going into Spring Training, come along slowly, preserve his innings, accept that there might be some speed bumps, that it’s a long road ahead. After his electrifying first St. Lucie outing, I’d say expectations are now 32-0, 0.08 ERA (and that’s only because of a controversial scoring decision — the fraction of a run should have been unearned) — and the hiring of Clayton Kershaw to dust his plethora of awards. The truth? Probably somewhere in between. The first sight of Harvey this spring really did change the equation, but Tommy John surgery is still Tommy John surgery. I’ll settle for injury-free progress.

RBS: I don’t have any expectations for Matt Harvey, I have hopes. I hope he is able to return from Tommy John surgery and pitch like he did in 2013 before he got hurt. I hope he is able to stay healthy and pitch around 180 innings. I hope he can be the star that brings fans to the ballpark that the Mets haven’t had in years.

The reality is that we don’t know what to expect. Not all pitchers come back from Tommy John surgery, and those who do often struggle in their first season after having it. Harvey wants to be the Mets’ ace and a New York superstar, but he may not be ready to do that it 2015.

For all the talk about Matt Harvey this spring, David Wright’s ability to bounce back from the worst season of his career is going to be a bigger key to the 2015 Mets success. And it’s too early to tell whether he’s going to be an All-Star candidate or an aging star in decline.

SS: The Mets appear to be treating Harvey’s return as their major offseason move. Harvey hit 99 MPH in his first spring appearance. On opening day, he will be 17 months removed from his Tommy John surgery, so he has not been rushed back. But it can take a few months to return to top form, and Harvey’s second outing did not go as well as his first. Still, even if Harvey is not quite back to his 2013 level, he brings much-needed star power back to the Mets and an energized Citi Field on the days he is pitching.

CTM: Realistically, all we can expect is for Harvey to make his starts without his arm falling off. He’s far enough removed from Tommy John surgery that he should be able to put in 200 quality innings without much risk. 2015 should be about staying healthy.

But did you see his first spring training start? 96mph first pitch, fastball topping off at 99… I think we can safely throw reason out the window. The sky’s the limit for Harvey, at least where newspaper sales or blog hits are concerned.

MPR: Cy Young? Staying healthy is obviously paramount for the Mets ace to excel this season. I would expect nothing less than what he accomplished in 2013 before he went down with his elbow injury (20 quality starts – 191 K/178.1 IP – 2.27 ERA). Double-digit wins would be nice.

C70: Can David Wright rebound?

DS: The curious case that is David Wright sure is interesting. Many go back to the Matt Cain incident, where Wright was beaned in the head, and say he hasn’t been the same since, but I go back to the home run derby. Wright put on a show, but ever since then, he’s had an upper cut that rivals Mo Vaughn. Okay, that may have been a little over the top. The bottom line? Wright’s at-bats used to begin with two strikes. Now, he’s sure to chase that low and away breaking ball in the dirt. I think his best years are surely behind him, but hitting .280 with 20 homers and 85 RBI shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities, as long as the shoulder stays healthy.

FFF: Wright can definitely rebound. I expect him to. He’s swinging freely and the fences have been brought in. I sense David has one true renaissance year in him before he begins in earnest — to borrow from Virginia Madsen’s monologue on wine in “Sideways” — his steady, inevitable decline. David’s 32. He won’t be the Wright from when he was 24, but he’s not done yet.

RBS: Wright is showing a new determination this spring and is embracing his role as captain – just ask Noah Syndergaard. But he is 32 years old and is definitely nearing the end of his prime if he’s not already in the decline stage of his career. The Mets need Wright to bounce back, so I’m going to choose to believe that he can… at least until it becomes clear that’s not going to happen.

SS: David Wright may have been the “face of baseball” in 2014, but he has certainly not been the body of baseball in recent years. Wright has missed 144 games over the past four seasons. (During the same period, Jose Reyes has missed 126 games.) Wright elected to rehab his injured shoulder rather than undergo surgery and appears healthy so far. If Wright’s shoulder is truly healed, he could also benefit from the Mets again moving in some fences.

CTM: David Wright is finally coming to terms with an opponent he can’t play his way past – age. His 2014 season is a perfect example of what happens when you try to keep going when your body tells you to slow down. He seems to have learned his lesson though, so I don’t see any reason why 2015 won’t be better. It can’t get much worse…

MPR: At 32 years of age and $107 million left on his contract, David Wright MUST rebound. If not this season then when? The Mets decided to bring in the outfield fences again, this time in right-center, Wright’s sweet spot for dingers. Hampered by injuries for three of the previous four seasons, Mets fans hope that 2015 will be more like 2012, Wright’s best offensive year at Citi Field. During that campaign, Wright played in 156 games, batted .306 with 21 homers and 93 runs batted in. He was also able to limit his strikeouts to 112 while walking 81 times which aided a .390 on-base percentage. Wright’s WAR (wins-above-replacement) that year was a robust 6.7.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

DS: This is a big year for Travis d’Arnaud. He’s got to take the next step from bonafide prospect into above average catcher. The bat is there, and I think we can all see that, but he needs to be more consistent overall, and that includes his defense. He needs to work tirelessly to improve, and having a solid backup like Anthony Recker should help. Initially, d’Arnaud is slated to start the year down in the lineup, but that could change. If he has another up-and-down year, the Mets could be ready to take a serious look at Kevin Plawecki.

FFF: If he stays healthy, I’m saying Juan Lagares. He was all-world defensively in 2014, I think he can be a genuine offensive force in 2015. They’re trying to mold him into the leadoff hitter the Mets have lacked since Jose Reyes. I tend to believe Lagares can be anything he sets his mind to.

RBS: I think that Travis d’Arnaud will have a big improvement in his stat line this year. After being handed the starting catching job last season, d’Arnaud struggled so badly he was demoted to Triple-A in June. He looked like a different player when he returned to the majors in July.

d’Arnaud’s first half numbers: .217/.292/.354
d’Arnaud’s second half numbers: .265/.313/.474

It’s possible that luck played a role in d’Arnaud’s improvement last year – his batting average on balls in play jumped from .241 in the first half to .274 in the second half. But I’d argue that he was making better contact – d’Arnaud’s line drive percentage went up three points over the second half and his isolated power went from .138 to .209.

Catcher is the most challenging of the eight positions on the field, so it stands to reason that catchers would take longer to develop to their full potential. I expect d’Arnaud to play like he did in the second half over the full season in 2015, which would be a big help to the Mets’ chances.

SS: Up to now, catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s main claim to fame is being a key piece in trades for two different Cy Young winners (Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey) before making it to the majors. d’Arnaud hit just .202 in 99 AB as a rookie in 2013, then had trouble crossing the Mendoza line in the first half of 2014 and briefly ended up back in the minors. But d’Arnaud hit .265 with 7 HR in 196 AB in the second half, including a .313 September with a .903 OPS.

The last two Met pennant winners featured a power-hitting catcher acquired via a big trade. But d’Arnaud doesn’t have to be the next Gary Carter or Mike Piazza to make an impact – his 13 HR last season were third-best on the weak-hitting Mets.

CTM: After getting back on track last year, this should be a big year for Travis d’Arnaud. He still has some things to work on, but he finished 2014 strong and should be able to build on that moving forward. And with Kevin Plawecki breathing down his neck, he’ll probably have to if he wants to hang on to his current role in 2016.

MPR: Hopefully, all of them. But if I had to choose, catcher Travis d’Arnaud would help the team immensely this season if he was able to take his game to the next level. Coming off of surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow, d’Arnaud hopes to build on a successful run he had last season after returning from a 15-day stint in Triple-A Las Vegas in June. From June 24th to September 23rd, sixty-nine games, d’Arnaud batted .272 smacked 10 home runs and drove in 32 RBI which contributed to a .486 slugging percentage during that stretch.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

DS: My heart says one thing and my head says another. While I think that the Mets are going to have the most fun team we’ve seen since 2006, I think they’re going to fall just short of a Wild Card spot. Now, if Sandy Alderson shocks the world and acquires a legitimate shortstop before the trading deadline, things could change. The only way I see that is if the Mets are in a race, and a shortstop is literally the final piece. I think management is enthralled with the idea of developing all their stars from within and then filling in the pieces, which is something the Yankees did well during their dynasty in the 1990s and 2000s.

FFF: This is the year to stop finishing under .500, to introduce Citi Field to a number that begins with an 8. I’ll say 84-78, give or take, and a competitive third on the heels of the Marlins. What makes me happy in saying that is a) I’ll be thrilled the day/night 82 wins is reached for the first time since 2008; and b) I always overestimate the Marlins, so things could go even better for our guys.

RBS: I expect the Mets to finish above .500 for the first time since they moved out of Shea Stadium, with around 82 or 83 wins. That’s probably good for third place in the NL East and should keep them on the edge of the chase for the second wild card, but I don’t see them as a playoff team.

SS: 84-78 and a battle for second place with the Miami Marlins.

CTM: I always overestimate the record and underestimate the division placing, so I’ll say 84-78 and second place in the NL East, which means they’ll win the division with an 82-80 record if the pattern holds. With the Phillies in dumpster fire mode and the Braves killing time until their new stadium is ready, it’s down to just the Nationals, Marlins, and Mets. The Nationals have everything going for them, so they’ll either perform as expected or implode. The Marlins are on the verge of breaking out, but they just spent an awful lot of money on one player, so anything could happen there. And the Mets are getting slightly better and hoping that’s enough to add on a few wins and get closer to contention. It’s far from a sure thing.

MPR: I’m expecting a winning season, five more wins than last year ought to do it, at 84-78, that should place them either in second or third place, depending on where the Marlins finish because we all know that the Nats will be atop the NL East come September into October.

C70: What do you like best about being a Mets fan?

DS: Nobody has more passion than Mets’ fans, that’s for sure. A lot of people see us as whiners, complainers or worse, but we just want a competitive product out on the field. While it’d be nice to have serious October baseball in Queens, we have to get to serious August baseball first. I think this is the year to do that, so the Mets have every reason to be optimistic.

FFF: Habit, custom, familiarity. I’ve been a Mets fan since I was six. I’m 52. I know how to do this. Spring Training reminds me how I’m a different person when there’s Mets baseball in the air, a more purposeful person. I suppose one can direct one’s energy against any endeavor and feel that way, but I get it from the Mets. I can question my productivity but not my passion.

RBS: That’s a question I ask myself at least a few times every year, and it’s not always easy to answer. There’s a strong sense of community among Mets loyalists – we don’t have the bandwagon fans at this stage (why would we, when the Mets haven’t been a relevant playoff contender since 2008?)

Everyone who identifies as a Mets fan in 2015 has a story to tell, and most of us are ready to share them at the slightest indication of interest. Rooting for a team that struggles but has occasional moments of greatness seems to bring people together more easily than being part of a fanbase that expects their team to be in the World Series every year.

So what do I like best about being a Mets fan? The friends I’ve made because of it.

SS: Not being a Yankees fan.

CTM: The fan community. The team might leave something to be desired and ownership is hard to tolerate, but the fans who have stuck around through it all have a diversity of opinions and a huge body of baseball knowledge, much of which has been on display at the Queens Baseball Convention the past two years. And while Citi Field may not be much more than half full on many days, you can expect to see a group of 1000+ Mets fans at several road games this year. No matter what your interest is, you can always find a great group of Mets fans to discuss it with.

MPR: That there’s an alternative to being a Yankees fan.

Some great work here by all of the Mets bloggers and I thank them so much for taking the time out to keep us informed about those National Leaguers from the Big Apple!

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