Playing Pepper 2017: New York Mets

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

New York Mets
87-75, second in NL East, lost in Wild Card Game
Last year’s Pepper

While it’s not like their heyday in the mid-’80s, the last couple of years haven’t been too bad for the Mets faithful.  They won the National League and were very close to a championship in 2015 and then last year they again reached the playoffs, albeit very briefly.  The Nationals are still the powerhouse in the East, but the Mets have to like their chances to be quite competitive overall.

To that end, we have a slew of New York bloggers to give us all the information about the Metropolitans.  Check out their sites, follow them on Twitter, and then settle in for a lot of Mets talk!  (You can also find Matthew’s answers here, beautifully illustrated with some current Mets baseball cards.)

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

MM: The offseason is still in play.

If you ask 100 Mets fans how the offseason has gone, 95 would tell you that the Mets have done nothing to improve the team, but, at the same time, they signed one of the top five ‘bats’ in the game, that also was a free agent… outfielder Yoenes Cespedes.  Cespedes opted out of his deal with the Mets and was on the free agent market, but Sandy Alderson knew that he would have no chance to return to the World Series without this guy.

The problem with the off-season is the inability to trade outfielder Jay Bruce so they can clear this salary. The trade was also supposed to target receiving either a quality reliever or a couple of blue chip prospect.  Nobody seems to want Bruce and reports now out of the Mets camp is that he will start the season as the rightfielder.

MP: This offseason was very interesting, only because it was fairly uneventful. The only major transactions that were made were re-signings. (Cespedes, Neil Walker, Jerry Blevins, Rene Rivera, Fernando Salas, etc.) And, for the most part, I believe they did what was necessary. There are no gaping holes in the roster, and there is a good amount of depth. I am a little worried, however, that players like Jay Bruce that come with a hefty price tag and little production in Queens will hold up the development of younger players like Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto

FFF: Resigning Yoenis Cespedes was most of what they needed to do and they did that at the end of November. Once they did that, there was nothing
to complain about, an odd situation for a Mets fan in winter. Really what had to happen, besides Cespedes, was recovery from injuries for those who missed significant time in 2016. Other than David Wright experiencing a shoulder impingement, thus far everybody seems to be on his way back, knock wood, cross fingers, don’t experience stiffness crossing fingers or get splinters knocking wood.

PRBS: The Mets had a solid offseason. They kept the core of a team that went to the playoffs together, and they should be in very good shape if they can keep their starting rotation off the DL. I would have liked to see them rework the outfield and acquire a better defensive centerfielder than Curtis Granderson, but upgrading the outfield defense might not have resulted in a stronger overall team.

CTM: The Mets basically brought back a team that made it to the postseason after a ton of injuries, so all they really need to do is get healthy. The jury’s still out on that one. Getting rid of Jay Bruce is the obvious move they didn’t make, but there were some little things they could have done to improve like bringing back Kelly Johnson (who will be on the team by August regardless…) and improving the bullpen. It’s a good starting point though, we’ll just have to wait and see how things go wrong from here.

MPR: If I had to describe the Mets offseason this year, I would use the term reassuring. Yoenis Cespedes professed his love for New York by signing a four-year deal to stay in Queens, GM Sandy Alderson shored up the bullpen by resigning lefty Jerry Blevins and by bringing back right-hander Fernando Salas, and youngsters Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud are slowly gaining confidence as they try to live up to their expectations.  

SS: The main thing the Mets needed to do was to bring Yoenis Cespedes back and they re-signed Cespedes to a four-year deal. They also needed to bring back Jerry Blevins or find another lefthanded reliever and they brought back Blevins. With Neil Walker becoming a free agent, the Mets needed to replace the player who had the second-highest OPS (.823) after Cespedes among Mets regulars last year, and Walker ended up accepting the Mets’ qualifying offer.

The Mets, however, failed in their attempt to trade Jay Bruce. Bruce hit just .219 in 50 games as a Met, though he at least finished strong, hitting .500 in the last week of the season with 3 HR and 7 RBI. So Bruce could end up being more valuable to the Mets than generally expected, meaning that they were wise not to trade him if it just would have been a salary dump. But keeping Bruce means that Michael Conforto could be the odd man out in the crowded outfield. Conforto, who had such a promising debut in 2015 before a lost season last year, is off to a good start this spring and needs to be in the lineup.

AA: To some Mets fans, this offseason wasn’t good enough, even though the team made one of its biggest moves in recent history when it brought back Yoenis Cespedes on a four-year deal. That was the anchor of the offseason for sure, and bringing back Neil Walker on the qualifying offer that he accepted should prove to be a good move, too. Bartolo Colon will be missed, but my biggest wish from the offseason was that they bring in more help for the bullpen. With a Jeurys Familia suspension looming, things look a bit shaky after you get past Addison Reed out in the bullpen.

DS: I am very happy with the team as currently constituted, although I would have been a bit more aggressive at addressing the bullpen. Bringing Yoenis Cespedes back was obviously huge, and retaining Neil Walker, Jerry Blevins and Fernando Salas was important, but I would’ve liked another arm. The Nationals got Joe Blanton for cheap. He was a guy I wish the Mets were in on.

C70: What are the expectations for Matt Harvey, both in when he will return and how effective he’ll be when he does?

MM: I don’t think the average Mets fan has much expectations for him right now.  Harvey has caught a lot of flak for his attitude, the fact that he has Scott Boras for an agent, and the average Mets fan just know in their heart that this guy is just playing the string out until free agency rolls around.

I believe he will be effective because he always has been. With all the ups and downs, he has a 2.94/1.08, 9.09-K/9 stat line in the four seasons he has been a Met.  My guess is the Mets brain trust will start the season off with a 6-man rotation and limit the innings for Harvey and the other pitchers coming off surgery (Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler).

The hope here is that Harvey stays healthy and puts up killer numbers before the All-Star break so the Mets can put together a deal for 2/3 quality players/prospects for his service.

MP: I’ve never been a huge Matt Harvey fan. I believe his persona isn’t a perfect match with the Mets, and I’ve said the best thing about him is his trade value. Unfortunately, with his injury and lack of production last year, he will need to put up some numbers this year to improve that value. I think Harvey will put up decent numbers, but won’t come in handy as much as Noah Syndergaard or even Jacob deGrom will. 

FFF: Matt Harvey is operating not exactly below radar but out of the primary glare of the spotlight. Because Noah Syndergaard has so
blossomed, Harvey is being allowed, to a certain extent, to forge his comeback in a safe and sane manner. Expectations that he will pitch at
his 2013 All-Star level have diminished. If he exceeds 2016, he will make a lot of people happy, I among them.

PRBS: I expect Matt Harvey to start the year in the rotation for the Mets, but I don’t know how effective he will be. The good news is that Harvey doesn’t have to be the Mets’ ace. Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have both shown they can handle that role. If Harvey is even up to the standards he set in 2015, the Mets will have one of the best rotations in baseball.

CTM: What did I say two years ago? That. We’ve been down this road before, move along…

MPR: As Harvey works his way back from another offseason mired in major surgery, Mets fans will be asked to muster up their enthusiasm when and if he takes the mound. Assuming he’s ready for Opening Day, fans are hoping to experience more Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne. Matt has a lot riding on this season as he looks to get his baseball life back on track and become the dominant figure Mets fans witnessed early in his career.  

SS: After a largely successful return from Tommy John surgery in 2015, Harvey had a disastrous 2016, going 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings pitched. In his three previous seasons, his highest ERA was 2.73. Harvey’s season ended in July when he underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

Coming back from Tommy John surgery is hard enough (just ask Zack Wheeler), but many pitchers have successfully done so. However, the track record is not as good for pitchers returning from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, which often involves removing a rib. Harvey, now 28, struggled in his first spring start, topping out at 94 MPH (in his first game back from Tommy John surgery, his fastball hit 99 MPH) and complaining of a sore neck. He did better in his second start, but his velocity remained lower.

The hope is that Harvey can stay healthy and be productive, but a return to his Dark Knight heyday may be wishful thinking.

AA: Every indication has been that Harvey will begin the season on time. We’ll see how things go for him as he ramps up for his return, but nothing has happened thus far that wouldn’t have him taking a turn in the Mets’ first time through the rotation. Given the history of pitchers returning from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, I’d say expectations are a bit lower than they would be for him otherwise, but don’t be shocked if he turns out better than people expect.

DS: That’s the million dollar question. Harvey has consistently sat around 92-93 MPH during his spring starts, and that may be the new normal for him. Can he win like that? For sure. But you don’t get as many mistakes to get away with when you’re not throwing 97-98. Harvey may have to find a new way to get guys out, because the old Matt Harvey may be an idea of the past. For the Mets and my fantasy team’s sake, I sure hope I’m wrong.

C70: What’s the biggest weakness for this team?

MM: In my opinion, the pen.  As of today, there are only three quality relievers under contract. One (Jenrry Mejia) is serving out his second lifetime ban for drugs and won’t be available until (baseball’s definition of “lifetime”) the 2018 season.  The second is all-star closer Jeurys Familia, who will start the season on the suspension list after smacking his wife around.  And the last is Addison Reed, who can’t do everything.

Familia will probably be back by the end of April, and future star Hansel Robles is expected to step into the 7th inning role, but one more ++ reliever would sure make a difference on this team.

MP: The biggest variable that will prevent the Mets from getting back to the Postseason will be their health. The Mets always seem to have issues with injuries, and keeping the rotation on the field throughout the year will be the key. Unfortunately, seeing players drop like flies the last few years has not given me much confidence, and has spotlighted the importance in having depth at each position. 

FFF: Until proven otherwise, catching. A year ago, I’m pretty sure I told you Travis d’Arnaud was going to be an All-Star. What I think I meant
was he might watch the All-Stars on TV. He has looked very good in spring games thus far, but he has never fully avoided the DL or, as a
result, spent an entire season on the active major league roster. René Rivera is a dynamite defensive catcher but barely hits. Kevin Plawecki
has been a quiet disappointment in several phases of the game. Best I can say for the catching is they can’t be much worse as a unit than
they were last year, and they made the playoffs anyway.

PRBS: Defense. With Curtis Granderson projected as the regular centerfielder and Jay Bruce likely to start the season in right, there will be a lot of balls that fall in because no one was able to get to them. Good defensive positioning may be able to overcome lack of range in both the infield and the outfield to some degree, but the decision to prioritize offense will let opponents put some extra runs on the board.

CTM: Development of young non-pitching talent at the major league level. We’ve seen it before with Juan Lagares and Wilmer Flores, but Michael Conforto may be the most talented position player yet to be blocked from regular playing time with the Mets (most recently by “star” Jay Bruce). Everyone seems to agree that he needs to be playing just about every day, and yet that doesn’t seem to happen. This is especially troubling when you consider that the next two big prospects to debut will be position players. They’ve gotten helping pitchers make that last big step down to a science, hopefully they start to recognize a need for a similar approach with position players.

MPR: You could say that having a rotation where four-fifths of the starters are returning from either rehab, or surgery, or a combination of both, is a weakness. However, if the ‘Fab Five’ of Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and the all-powerful Noah Syndergaard remain upright for the majority of the season, it could be seen as their biggest strength. The Mets were hampered last season with a dreadful batting average with runners in scoring position, so the offense needs to do more in that department to keep their young starters from pitching in too many high-pressured situations.  

SS: The Mets have trouble scoring runs without hitting homers. They hit a franchise-record 218 longballs in 2016, fifth-best in MLB. But their 671 runs scored tied for 25th best. The Mets finished 25th in batting average and 28th in steals.

The Mets did finish 10th in runs after the All-Star break, and it was probably not a coincidence that they had Jose Reyes back as their leadoff hitter for much of the second half. His 60-steal seasons may be well in the past, but the Mets went 35-25 in games started by Reyes, and 52-50 in their other games.  But Reyes, injury-prone as a younger player, turns 34 in June. In his brief stint with the Mets last season, he managed to find his way to the disabled list yet again.

The Mets have only two starters under 31 – the inconsistent and injury-prone Travis d’Arnaud (28) and Bruce (29). A younger lineup could conceivably be better able to manufacture runs without the home run, making it that much more frustrating if the 24-year-old Conforto starts the season on the bench or in the minors.

AA: Right now, it’s the bullpen. The starting pitching depth behind the excellent major league rotation would be suspect if there’s a need to rely on it heavily. The lineup looks pretty solid at every position, but it’s the fifth, sixth, and seventh guys in the bullpen that concern me most at the moment.

DS: Catcher, but I can’t wait for Travis D’Arnaud to shut us all up. I was very surprised the Mets didn’t at least bring a guy in to compete, but this is a make-or-break year for him. Despite what Kevin Long says, Spring Training only means so much. He needs a strong start for his confidence. I may be in the minority, but I’d give Derek Norris a minor league deal as insurance, although he’ll most definitely get a better offer than that elsewhere.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

MM: This season, no.  There are three ‘nobodies’ that should continue to carry their weight on this team… SPs Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, and utility infielder T.J. Rivera, but the ‘A’ rated prospects won’t begin to arrive until September when the minors shut down.

One long shot… watch for pitcher P.J. Conlon, who was the Mets minor league player of the year and had the lowest ERA last season in all of minor league baseball. Word is the lefty may be converted from a starter and fast tracked from AA-Binghamton to the Mets pen in Queens.

MP: I was genuinely impressed with T.J Rivera last summer, and while he will probably start the season at Triple-A or on the Major League bench, I think he might surprise a lot of people during the 2017 campaign. 

FFF: I harbor an unhealthy adoration of former Cardinal farmhand Ty Kelly, who was dropped from the 40-man roster, but I’m convinced he’ll be
back and contributing off the bench before long. T.J. Rivera showed a very lively bat last year when he filled in for an injured Neil Walker
and I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits his way into playing more than currently projected.

PRBS: I think Jerry Blevins could transition from the lefty specialist role he’s been used in during his first two seasons with the Mets to become a key late-inning reliever. If Major League Baseball suspends Jeurys Familia and Addison Reed is forced into the closer’s role, Blevins could take over the eighth inning. While he’s been great against left-handed batters, Blevins is also effective against righties. He limited them to a .243 / .332 /.387 line during his career.

CTM: No. We’re at the point where we’re wondering whether most of these guys can return to form and/or realize their full potential. We know what they all could be, so it’s hard to call any of them unheralded. You would have to dig down into the minors to dredge up any names that would fit here, probably guys like Paul Sewald and Tomas Nido who will open the season in the upper minors and could be called on if there’s an opening for a backup role at some point down the road.

MPR: Tim Tebow? He’s as unheralded in terms of baseball acumen as they come. Seriously though, names you’ll want to keep in your back pocket; outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who has shown patience at the plate, and could land himself a spot on the bench and pitcher Rafael Montero. Although he’s been a disappointment in the past, the right-hander has been generating some buzz lately in Mets camp with better command of his pitches.

SS: In 2014, Jacob deGrom came up during the season as an unheralded injury replacement and ended up as the National League Rookie of the Year. Last season, Robert Gsellman came up in August as an unheralded injury replacement. In eight games, Gsellman had a 2.42 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings. In six September starts, Gsellman’s ERA was 2.06.

With Zack Wheeler likely to begin the season in extended spring training, Gsellman could break camp as the fifth starter, and with so many injury questions surrounding the Met rotation, the 23-year-old has the chance to stick around for a while and give the Mets yet another long-haired starter.

AA: Travis d’Arnaud isn’t exactly unheralded in general, but he was awful at the plate last year. People seem to have lost confidence in him, but if he can stay healthy—a challenge thus far in his career—and hit nearly as well as he did in 2015, he’d be a major asset to this team. I’m expecting good things.

DS: Lucas Duda. It’s hard to point out a guy who’s hit more than 25 homers twice, but he’s the guy. For some reason, a lot of Mets’ fans are down on him, and I think he’s got a lot left to prove and a lot left in the tank. Although he’s streaky, his power bat makes the Mets’ lineup that much deeper. If he struggles, he’ll lose at bats, as he may already do so to Wilmer Flores against tough lefties.

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

MM: If everyone stays healthy (especially the rotation) I see 86-76 as a target, but Washington will easily win the division and Atlanta has done loads to improve their team.  My prediction: Third place behind the Nats and Braves.

MP: If the Mets stay healthy, and play to their ability, they are definitely the best team in the National League East. However, like I said before, it’s one of those things that’s easier said than done. If I had to guess today, which I never really like to do, I’d guess 92 wins and a NL East Championship, but a lot of things will have to be done to get to that point, so there is a huge asterisk next to that prediction. 

FFF: The Nationals will scare me until they don’t. One among the Phillies, Braves and Marlins are is bound to step up and surprise a little. That
said, the Mets are a very sound club and I can see them winning the East or at least pushing Washington. Let me say they’ll make the postseason one way or the other and exceed their 87 wins from 2016.

PRBS: I expect the Mets to finish right around 90 wins, which might not be enough to win the division but should give them a shot at the title as well as a wild card spot. 

CTM: Last year I said 89-73 and second place, so let’s go with that. Theoretically, they should be able to pad their record a bit with all those games against the non-Nationals segment of the division, but that didn’t work out so well last year.

MPR: I have high expectations for this season and wouldn’t be surprised if the Mets gave the Nationals a run for their money and win the NL East. With a combination of a top tier starting rotation, a strong veteran bullpen, and an offense with a high propensity to hit the ball out of the ballpark, there’s no reason why the Mets shouldn’t be expected to make a deep run in the postseason.  

SS: 89-73 2nd place to Washington.  The Mets won 87 games last year while being wracked with injuries and are bringing back largely the same team (alas, no Bartolo Colon, who actually led the team in wins last year with 15). But enough health concerns remain that it’s hard to project them to do too much better than they did in 2016.

AA: I’ll go with 93-69, National League East champions.

DS: I think this is the Mets’ year to win the NL East. I think they’ll make a mid-season trade for either a 3B or bullpen arm (or both if Jose Reyes gets hurt). I will go 90 wins. I think that’s enough to win the NL East. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Met and why?

MM: For me, this is an easy choice.  I grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and worshiped Gil Hodges.  I danced in the streets when he became a New York Met and I cried quietly in my bedroom when he passed.

Many would answer this question with the name Mike Piazza. Others would say it was ‘The Captain’, David Wright.  For me, it will always be Number 14.

MP: Considering I’m only 17 years old, I’ll limit myself to players I’ve actually watched play, and, while he’s currently an enemy, Daniel Murphy would be the guy that I would consider my favorite Met I watched. He was fun, enjoyable to watch (at times), great in the community and was a huge team player. Of course, David Wright possess all of those qualities as well, but the fact that Daniel Murphy did this without being the fan favorite like Wright has been is the reason I’ll pick Murphy. 

FFF: Tom Seaver was my first favorite Met when I was a kid and has yet to be unseated. He was Tom Terrific from the moment I discovered him and
never stopped being so. The excellence, the professionalism, the articulate nature of what he had to say, the perfect motion, never taking losing well…nobody has filled the role of “pitcher,” let alone “ace” the way Tom has in my eyes.

PRBS: Gary Carter. When the Mets traded for Carter, he was the last big piece they needed to turn a pretty good team with talented young players into a World Series champion. He was one of the best catchers to ever play the game, and he did it with a smile on his face.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Carter years later when he briefly managed the Long Island Ducks. He always made time to greet fans, take photos and sign autographs. While many players grow to resent autograph seekers over time, Carter found a way to use his fame to benefit a cause that mattered to him. He’d sign any Ducks merchandise for free, but he asked for a small donation in support of leukemia research.

CTM: There’s only about a thousand to choose from, so… There were lots of better and more popular players who spent time with the team, but every time I think about this I keep coming back to Ed Kranepool. Kranepool was a September call-up as a teenager in 1962 and played all of his 1853 games with the Mets. Though he played almost all of those games before my lifetime, he has been active in the Mets community throughout the decades since his retirement. I first met him in the early ’90s when he was doing signings at small card shows frequented by many of the ’69 Mets, back when I was a kid who knew next to nothing about that team or the pre-’80s Mets in general. More recently, I had the opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes and he still remembered the details of that show, right down to the location and the promoter’s name, more than 20 years later. He has been a great ambassador for the team, helping to link current fans to the team’s history in a much more personal way than the team’s afterthought of a museum at Citi Field ever could.

MPR: It’s pretty hard to pinpoint an all-time favorite. I have such affinity for that ’86 team, anyone of those players could be at the top of the list. But, if I had to choose, I would lean toward Doc Gooden. Now, I know, he’s had plenty of chances yet continues to battle his inner demons. But as a kid watching him pitch, seeing how downright electric he was — it’s just something you don’t forget quickly.  

SS: Decades after his retirement, Tom Seaver remains “The Franchise.” When Seaver joined the team in 1967, the Mets were a national joke. Two years later, Seaver won 25 games and the Cy Young Award and the Mets were one of the most unlikely World Series champions in baseball history.

Seaver won a total of three Cy Youngs as a Met and also helped lead the Mets to the 1973 World Series. Of his 311 career wins, 198 came as a Met.

Seaver is the only player in the baseball Hall of Fame who achieved most of his success as a Met. Before Mike Piazza last year, Seaver was the only player in the Hall of Fame with a Met cap on his plaque.

AA: It changes, and it’s tough not to say Carlos Beltran here. But at this point, it’s David Wright. He’s clearly the best position player in team history, and it’s been tough to watch him deal with major injuries that have sidelined him for the majority of the past two seasons. Watching him hit a home run in the World Series in person is a top-five Mets moment for me and probably always will be.

DS: Well it used to be Bobby Bonilla, and then Todd Hundley, but that’s all before Mike Piazza’s time. Nobody can touch Piazza, as far as I am concerned. I have been part of so many magical moments in Queens with him, and he forever will be my favorite player. From the first game after Sept. 11 to the 10-run eighth inning on Fireworks Night, Mike Piazza will always be my number one. 

Plenty of informative and interesting info here on the National League squad from the Big Apple.  Thanks to all of these guys for the insight!

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