Another year, another set of major question marks for the New York Mets. Just two years after a miracle run that ended with a classic Mets blowup in the 2015 World Series (they led in all 5 games of the series, in case you forgot), the team hasn’t changed a whole lot. The starting rotation is just about the same, the bullpen has most of the same pieces, and the lineup is relatively unchanged.

Indeed, it seems like the Mets just cycle through these characters, always ending up with the same type of team that can vary wildly in outcomes despite never actually changing a whole lot. Don’t get me wrong, these days are far better than the Mike Pelfrey, Ike Davis and Jason Bay days, but there remains the typical Mets uncertainty that leaves this team hovering on the edge of the playoff picture. With that in mind, let’s see if we can’t fit the players on this 2017 Mets team into some categories of Mets players past.

The Studs

I guess we can start on a positive note. The Mets’ most recent high-profile signing has worked out quite well (so far), as Yoenis Céspedes has been good for 5.2 bWAR over a year and a half with the team. The Mets rewarded him with the biggest contract in club history, and now it’s on La Potencia to back up the Mets’ confidence. The man is a physical freak as evidenced by his alleged 1000lb. bear squats, and has been working hard to avoid the leg injuries that plagued him last season. If he stays healthy, he should continue to be the best hitter the Mets have had since peak David Wright.

On the pitching side, there is one obvious stud to point out here and, sadly, it isn’t Bartolo Colón. Instead, it’s a 6’6” righty from Texas who managed to add quite a bit of muscle this offseason (even if it isn’t actually the 17 pounds that was widely reported). Nowadays, Noah Syndergaard even more closely resembles his superhero namesake, and he’s looking to use that extra beef to pump in fastballs even harder than he did in 2016. Considering that his fastball averaged 97.9 mph last season, the best mark among starters, the thought of a harder-throwing Thor is genuinely terrifying. He also modified his changeup grip over the offseason and used that pitch very effectively in his first preseason start. Throw in the fact that his stats from last season indicate that he actually underperformed (.334 BABIP and 2.29 FIP), and Syndergaard looks poised for a monster season. While perhaps a bit lofty, something resembling Doc Gooden’s early years with the Mets is certainly within reach.

The Can’t-Miss Outfield Prospect

Alex Escobar. Lastings Milledge. Fernando Martinez. Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Cesar Puello. The list of esteemed Mets top 10 outfield prospects goes on and on. Even the ones who work out, like Carlos Gomez, haven’t amounted to very much. So far, Michael Conforto has done as much as he can to prove that he isn’t the typical Mets OF prospect. He hit two home runs in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series, had a strong start to the 2016 season before being sent down, then absolutely tore up the PCL with a .422/.483/.727 slash line. The guy has nothing left to prove at AAA and, frankly, needs to play every day in the major league lineup. ZiPS has him projected at the joint-second highest WAR for a Mets position player, but Terry Collins needs to see the light and make Conforto the starting right fielder in order for that to happen. Otherwise… well… Lastings Milledge played in Japan for a while, right?

The Guy Who My Dad Can’t Stand to Watch

My dad used to dread the moment when Armando Benitez came in to close a game, and he was always positive that Benitez would lose the lead. The funny part is, Benitez was pretty good for the Mets, saving 160 games and compiling almost 10 bWAR over 5 seasons. Unfortunately, he blew some high profile games and was pretty widely distrusted among Mets fans. The story is pretty similar for Jeurys Familia; he has been pretty darn good for the Mets as a whole, but giving up a game-tying homer to Alex Gordon in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series, blowing two more saves in games 4 and 5 (though he didn’t enter either game in a good situation) and serving up a 3-run homer to Conor Gillaspie in the Wild Card Game hasn’t helped his case much. There is also the matter of his suspension, which has yet to be announced but will certainly have an impact on his season. When he’s around, he should continue to provide a relatively steady arm at the end of games. When he’s not…

A Decent Bullpen?
Yes, the Mets still have some very Mets-esque relievers around. There are some plus pitches here and there (Hansel Robles’ fastball and Seth Lugo’s curveball), but the guys in the middle aren’t much to write home about. Thankfully, the return of Jerry Blevins and the steady presence of Addison Reed should give the Mets some stability at the back end of the ‘pen. Reed has been outstanding in his year and a quarter with the Mets (3.5 bWAR in 93 innings), and should be a more than suitable replacement for Familia during his suspension. Blevins is a reliable veteran lefty who is even tougher on righties than lefties in recent years. Could this be the rare dependable Mets bullpen? They certainly have the potential and will hopefully resemble the 2006 duo of Pedro Feliciano and Billy Wagner more than Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco in 2012.

If Only They Were Healthy…

This is clearly the big one. The story always seems to be the same for the Mets: they build a solid core of players only to be decimated by injuries and fall short. Enough injury questions have popped up even before the 2017 season has started that we could well be on track to see yet another iteration of the classic Mets story.

For starters, David Wright has been hit with yet another blow, as a shoulder impingement has halted his rehab and will certainly keep him out of the lineup for an extended period of time. While it may be a hard blow to the heart for most Mets fans, this isn’t totally unexpected and the Mets have made contingency plans in the form of Jose Reyes. Reyes isn’t what he used to be, but he should at least provide slightly above-average offense at the top of the lineup. The defensive metrics don’t love him, but another year in the hot corner should leave him better adjusted.

A potentially more impactful injury concern is the much-maligned back of second baseman Neil Walker, who was having one of the best years of his career (2.4 bWAR in just 113 games) before back problems ended his season prematurely. He presented reporters with a typical “best I’ve felt in years” story upon arriving at spring training, but who knows how the 31-year-old will feel once the games start piling up. If healthy, he should be good for league-average defense at second as well as 20-homer production in the middle of the Mets lineup.

Another ailing back that will be of relevance to the Mets is the one belonging to Lucas Duda, who put up two quality years from 2014-2015 (6.6 total bWAR) before an injury-plagued 2016 sent him tumbling back to earth. He complained of stiffness in his back even before Grapefruit League games had started this year, which does not bode well for his chances of playing a full, effective season in 2017. After seeing Ike Davis’ career blossom and crumble after a series of injuries, Mets fans are not eager to see another slugging first baseman slip away. The contingency plan at first base isn’t too bad, however, as Jay Bruce appears to be slated to shift over to first should Duda miss time. This would presumably mean that Conforto would take over the starting right field job, which is precisely what most Mets fans are yearning for.

Of course, the area with the most uncertainty is the much-revered but oft-injured starting rotation.

The early news on Jacob deGrom looks good despite some concern that his season-ending procedure to reposition his ulnar nerve would cause him to regress. His fastball was up to 97 mph in his first spring training starts and his control looked sharp as well. It was certainly an encouraging sign from a guy who was struggling to hit 92 at the end of last season, and deGrom has claimed that tweaking his mechanics allowed him to regain his best stuff, including a changeup that dominated in 2014/15. Then again, nothing that happens this early in the season is a great indicator of how the rest of the year will go, so all eyes will be on deGrom as he looks to reclaim his All-Star form behind Syndergaard in the Mets’ rotation.

The point of biggest concern for Mets fans this year is right arm of Gotham’s very own Dark Knight, Matt Harvey. A resurgent 2015 season and an electric start in Game 5 of the World Series restored faith in Harvey after season-ending Tommy John surgery in 2013, but the positivity didn’t last. Harvey imploded in 2016 to the tune of a 4.86 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, at which point the injury bug once again reared its ugly head. Harvey was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and opted for season-ending surgery. He has certainly been working hard to return to top form, but his first spring training start didn’t go very well. He was clearly struggling with his fastball and could barely get it up to 94 (his first start after coming back from Tommy John saw him touch 99). Harvey chalked his mediocre performance up to a stiff neck, but there is still a great deal of concern that he will never regain his top form. If he starts to ramp up his velocity over the course of his next couple of spring training starts, that would do a lot to put the minds of many Mets fans at ease. If not, Harvey might be heading the way of Johan Santana, who dazzled for the Mets before injury issues effectively ended his once-dominant career.

Steven Matz is yet another question mark in the Mets rotation after various shoulder and elbow ailments cut short his 2016 campaign. The Mets are no strangers to top southpaw prospects with injury concerns, as Scott Kazmir was in a similar position in the early 2000s. Hopefully the Mets hold on Matz long enough to at least see how he turns out, but if Kazmir’s injury-ridden career is any indication, Matz could be in for some tough years ahead. The Kazmir comparison is certainly a positive one in terms of performance when healthy; Matz has been very solid in his first two seasons, and should continue to trend upward as long as he can stay on the mound. A 4+ WAR season is definitely a possibility for the young lefty.

The last spot will be between Zack Wheeler, who hasn’t pitched in two years but looks decent in early starts, and Robert Gsellman, who was surprisingly good in his big league debut last year. The spot will likely be Gsellman’s while Wheeler continues his rehab, but it remains to be seen if the latter will reclaim his spot upon a full recovery.

The (Surprisingly) Good Defensive Catchers

Perhaps one of the most surprising things that came out of BP’s addition of framing value to overall catcher defensive value was the revelation that Mike Piazza maybe wasn’t that bad at defense. In fact, he was worth almost 60 fielding runs above average according to Baseball Prospectus, while Baseball Reference, which does not account for framing, has him at over 60 runs below average for his career. People fall on different sides of this issue, but clearly there is substantial value in a catcher who can get his pitchers extra strikes. Though he is not a Piazza-level player, Travis d’Arnaud falls into the same category of good-hitting catchers that provide good value by way of framing. TdA has accumulated over 25 FRAA over his four-year career largely due to his good framing, and though he regressed a bit at the plate in an injury-marred 2016 season, he should bounce back well enough on offense to provide yet another year of good value for the Mets. His work with Mets catching coach Glenn Sherlock should help his overall defense, and his increasing comfort with Noah Syndergaard is a good sign that d’Arnaud will be the Mets’ top option at catcher nearly every game. Behind d’Arnaud is Rene Rivera, Syndergaard’s preferred catcher (for now), who has produced around 45 FRAA over the last four years, again largely due to framing. While his bat isn’t much, he has shown a strong ability to get low strikes and provides enough value on defense to make him a very reliable backup.

The Clustered Outfield

If it isn’t clear already, Michael Conforto needs to play every day. Jay Bruce has decent “traditional” stats, but much of that could be due to hitting behind Joey Votto every day. He has 30-homer potential every season, but doesn’t provide a whole lot of offensive value beyond that. His defense in right is also working against him, as is his extremely streaky nature. Plus, anybody who profiles even remotely like Jason Bay isn’t going to capture the hearts of many Mets fans. However, Terry Collins seems committed to playing him every day and unfortunately, Michael Conforto is going to suffer. Curtis Granderson has been a solid presence at the top of the Mets lineup for three years now, but his powers are diminishing and the fact that he is going to be playing center field on a regular basis likely means that his defensive numbers are going to decline. He has been experimenting with a shallower starting position, but he simply doesn’t have the same range as he used to. Defensive whiz Juan Lagares will likely be seen in center at the end of a significant number of games this season. If any of the outfielders or even Lucas Duda misses a large section of time, the logjam will work itself out, but no Mets fan wants to root for that even if it is the only way that Conforto sees regular time. It may be an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side, something the Mets really haven’t had in a while in the outfield, but it doesn’t make it any easier to make all the pieces fit together.

Waiting in the Wings

The young guys have been raising some eyebrows in spring training and the pressure could be on for some major-league regulars. Amed Rosario has progressed quicker than expected and would be a welcome change from Asdrubal Cabrera’s limited range at shortstop. Dominic Smith has lost weight and his bat looks pretty close to major-league ready. His glovework has also been getting good reviews, so he could be in the mix pretty soon. Both guys will start the year in AAA and are likely one or two injuries to big leaguers away from getting their first taste of the show. The last few batches of top Mets infielders, including Ike Davis and Wilmer Flores, didn’t exactly pan out as expected, so it remains to be seen if these two can buck that trend.

My Prediction:

This team has World Series potential if healthy, but that’s a big IF. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that all five members of the starting rotation stay healthy and we will again be robbed of seeing a dominating rotation stick it out for a whole year. That being said, the Mets have good contingency plans at most positions and should at least be able to match last year’s results from a lesser group of replacements. They will very much be in play for a Wild Card spot and maybe the division if the Nationals begin to falter. Additionally, their rotation will make them very dangerous in any playoff series, maybe enough so to propel them to make another World Series run.

2017 Record: 88-74

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