Ah, the innocence of April. There I was, sitting on my couch, allowing myself to believe for even a moment that the 2017 New York Mets season would be free of the various issues that had plagued the team for years. They had just narrowly beaten the Nationals the previous night on a miraculous 1-2-3 double play and were on the verge of a sweep. Best of all, the Mets’ very own God of Thunder was ready to unleash his fury on the Washington lineup. Then, just 38 pitches into his fifth start of the season, Noah Syndergaard winced in pain and clutched at his back, and the hopes of a fan base began their slow melt toward nothingness.
Unfortunately for the Mets, the narrative surrounding the team for the past decade has been focused on their seemingly endless bad injury luck. The team has become synonymous with misfortune and medical woes, despite not actually being the unluckiest in that department. Still, after a year in which (almost) everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, it seems fitting to steer into the skid. Let’s discuss the upcoming season within the framework of the Mets’ seemingly unending list of injuries and see how players with similar injuries have faired in the past.
There is little doubt that Noah Syndergaard is one of the most talented pitchers in baseball. The man throws over 100 and has a filthy slider that has at times looked unhittable. He was on his way to another monster season when he suffered a grade 2 strain of his right lat, an accelerator muscle in the upper back that assists in generating velocity. Though the injury kept him out for nearly the whole season, the track record of pitchers recovering from similar injuries is cause for optimism. According to mlb.com, pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw and Sonny Gray suffered from similar injuries and did not regress upon their return. Jake Peavy suffered an even more serious version of the same injury and returned to post an All-Star season in 2012. The outlook for Syndergaard therefore seems to be the same as always; he will likely be his same old dominant self, but his incredible velocity and strength will always put him at risk for injury.
Matt Harvey’s case is much murkier. His troubles with thoracic outlet syndrome have been well documented, as have the struggles of virtually all the pitchers who were treated for the same condition. TOS is a painful condition where nerves, veins and/or arteries between the neck and armpit are compressed, resulting in weakness, muscle loss and severe pain. Chris Carpenter’s career was ended by this injury, and Josh Beckett’s return proved fruitless. Jaime Garcia seems to be the only real TOS success story, but his mediocre career does not paint a pretty picture for Harvey’s potential future. Harvey also suffered a stress injury in his scapula, a relatively minor injury compared to TOS. Michael Wacha’s success upon returning from a similar injury suggests that the risk posed by this particular injury pales in comparison to the plethora of other issues Harvey is dealing with. It will probably be a tough season for the Dark Knight as he tries to regain his former glory in a contract year.
For the two pitchers who recently struggled with ulnar nerve problems, the future could not look more different. Jacob DeGrom’s 2016 season ended with ulnar nerve transposition surgery to ease pressure and discomfort in his elbow and fingers. He then returned in 2017 to pitch over 200 innings in a brilliant season and finished 8th in the NL Cy Young voting. Despite losing his signature locks in the offseason, DeGrom looks to be free of the nerve issues that ended his 2016 season and ready for another stellar year behind Thor. Unfortunately, the outlook for Steven Matz is not as rosy. Matz underwent the same ulnar nerve relocation surgery as DeGrom at the end of the 2017 season after posting a dismal 6.08 ERA through 13 starts. Though DeGrom’s precedent should be cause for optimism for the young Long Island native, Matz’s previous injury history clouds his future. He underwent Tommy John surgery early in his career, and has suffered from bone spurs and a flexor strain in his pitching elbow. Though all three injuries are relatively common among pitchers, it is hard to suggest that Matz will recover similarly to other pitchers, as all the injuries have piled up and cost him significant time in his young career. One wonders if the time is approaching for Matz to go the way of Andrew Miller and try his hand in the bullpen.
Jeurys Familia’s 2017 season was interrupted by a blood clot in his right shoulder that required surgery. He returned for some late-season work at the end of August, but his results were not particularly inspiring. There is a long history of similar injuries in pitchers, and an SNY exploration into the issue in 2012 revealed a wide range of outcomes. David Cone experienced a late career surge, including appearances on All-Star teams and Cy Young voting, despite a four-month recovery from a blood clot in 1996. On the flip side, several pitchers suffered career-ending blood clots, or returned after lengthy absences only to pitch ineffectively. Familia is still young and seems to largely have his stuff intact, so he should return to his status as an above-average closer in 2018. However, shoulder clots often lead to further medical problems, so he is no lock to pitch the entirety of the season.
Rounding out the injury report are Jason Vargas and Zack Wheeler. Before throwing a single regular-season pitch for the Mets, newcomer Jason Vargas managed to fracture the hamate bone in his right (non-throwing) hand on a comebacker. The injury should not affect his pitching much, and there have been several pitchers, including the aforementioned Andrew Miller, who pitched through similar injuries with no issues. Vargas may miss the first few weeks of the season, but should be good for solid middle of the rotation numbers upon his return.
In his stead, Wheeler will try to right the ship and return to his 2014 form. The 27-year-old missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery and various complications, only to return in 2017 and turn in a sub-par 5.21 ERA in just 17 starts. He was shut down in July with what the Mets called a “stress reaction” in his right arm. It’s hard to say exactly what that means, but his two-year absence and his rocky season make it hard to predict anything more than another average season with a high potential for injury. His struggles in Spring Training did not do him any favors, and the much-maligned Wheeler will start the season in AAA. Seth Lugo, whose high-spin curveball has long been admired by the sabermetric community, will stand in for a couple turns in the rotation in Vargas’ stead. The team’s rotation depth will more likely than not be heavily tested this season.
The health of the Mets hitters is also a major concern heading into the season. Last year’s breakout star Michael Conforto suffered a bizarre injury in late August, dislocating his shoulder and tearing his posterior capsule on a swing. He elected to have surgery to repair the tear and, as he is still rehabbing, will likely miss a few weeks to begin the 2018 season. His numbers before the injury were impressive, and suggested that the Mets’ lone 2017 all-Star was coming into his own as a hitter. How this injury will affect his play remains an open question; there is little precedent for this type of injury in position players. Conforto dislocated his rear batting shoulder, while most players who dislocate their shoulders on swings suffer the injury in their lead shoulder. But few players suffer this sort of injury at all, regardless of the specifics, so the Mets and Conforto are in somewhat uncharted territory. Conforto’s work in minor league camp so far this spring is encouraging, as is, for what it’s worth, the chatter surrounding his recovery. All of the signs call for cautious optimism that Conforto can continue the upward trajectory that he began in 2017.
In his two-plus seasons with the Mets, Yoenis Cespedes has proven that he is both a very productive player and a lock to miss at least 20 or so games every year. His most recent and perhaps most concerning ailment is the right hamstring strain that popped up in April and then again in August to end his season. Hamstring issues are not uncommon in baseball. As an article on mlb.com explains, the largely sedentary nature of the game can cause problems when muscles are suddenly asked to provide explosive speed and power. Unfortunately for Cespedes, strained hamstrings are among the more persistent injuries for athletes, and tend to recur with some regularity. To try and prevent this, Cespedes worked on flexibility and endurance in the offseason, and has given up golf after being heavily criticized for playing while on the DL. His production when healthy is a near guarantee, but it is hard to imagine Cespedes playing more than 140 games in 2018.
Newcomer Adrian Gonzalez comes with relatively little risk salary-wise, as the Mets are paying him the major league minimum. Yet his recent back problems represent major risk for his ability on the field. Gonzalez missed a large portion of the 2017 season with back troubles, and his paltry 69 OPS+ in the 75 games he managed to play suggests that Gonzalez is a shell of the hitter he once was. At his age, back injuries have the ability to ruin even the best of hitters, as evidenced by Miguel Cabrera’s struggles in 2017 amid back problems. If the legendary Miggy can’t battle back injuries to turn in a productive season, it’s hard to imagine Gonzalez providing much value at first base. A-Gon is just one season removed from a respectable 111 OPS+ and two seasons removed from an All-Star campaign, so there may be some life left in his bat, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.
Earlier in the offseason, Juan Lagares looked to be the Mets’ starting center fielder in 2018 in Conforto’s absence. However, his injury history paired with Brandon Nimmo’s stellar spring showing might cost him that distinction. Lagares has been dealing with thumb issues for the last two years, tearing a ligament in 2016 and then fracturing his left thumb in 2017. Mike Moustakas dealt with a more severe thumb fracture in 2016 and missed most of the season, but returned in 2017 to post a career year. Lagares has never produced nearly as well at the plate as Moustakas, but Moose’s precedent suggests that the injury shouldn’t much affect Lagares’ play. Lagares has been working on a reworked swing during the offseason to take advantage of the “fly ball revolution”. But Conforto seems to be on track for a quicker return than initially thought, and Brandon Nimmo has been clobbering the ball in spring training, so Lagares may not fit in the Mets’ 2018 plans much or at all. Still, he is an excellent defender who should provide good value off the bench.
The Healthy Ones (For Now)
The remainder of the Mets’ lineup looks to be healthy to start the season with no lingering issues. The catching duo of Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki have failed to live up to lofty expectations in their respective careers. However, d’Arnaud rates as a good framer with an average bat, and Plawecki looked to be putting it together at the plate toward the end of last season. They should combine to provide average value (and potentially more) behind the plate.
The left side of the infield will also provide decent value, largely due to good defense. Newcomer Todd Frazier has rated as an excellent defender at third (6.3 fielding runs above average last year according to FanGraphs) and is just one year removed from a 40-HR campaign. While last year’s power reduction was a little concerning, Frazier increased his walk rate by nearly 5%, reduced his K-rate by 3% and had a good batted ball profile (.350 xwOBA). Plus, Frazier has been extremely durable throughout his career, which will help put an end to the Mets’ recent, tumultuous history at third base. His teammate on the left side, Amed Rosario, is loaded with potential that was slightly obscured by his unimpressive debut. Rosario showed some pop at times and was lightning fast on the basepaths (5th fastest sprint speed according to Statcast), but struck out far too often and walked just three times in 170 PA. Rosario will be valuable no matter what due to his excellent defense, but will need to improve his plate discipline and on-base skills to reach the sky-high ceiling that launched him to the top of the prospect ranks.
The only other notable offseason addition (sort of) was Jay Bruce, who returned on a 3-year, $39 million deal. We know exactly what to expect from Jay Bruce at this point: a slugging-heavy OPS over .800 and 150 games, without much else. His defense in right field last year improved notably over his previous seasons, but a 30-year-old player with below-average career defensive numbers is unlikely to maintain such a jump. It is possible, however, that he ends up playing much of the season at first base, especially if Brandon Nimmo rakes in Conforto’s absence and Adrian Gonzalez struggles.
To round out the team, we have Asdrubal Cabrera, who should post his usual 110 wRC+ with decent defense at second base, Wilmer Flores, who will get plenty of looks at first base and against lefties, and Jose Reyes, who at this point in his career is nothing more than a utility guy who can occasionally swipe a bag. The bullpen looks to be decent, with Jerry Blevins and Anthony Swarzak holding down the back end.
At this point, it should be clear that the Mets are a high variance team. With some good injury luck and bounce-back seasons from a few players, the Mets will be right in the thick of the Wild Card race and could even challenge the Nationals in the NL East. Of course, they could also implode as they did in 2017 and lose over 90 games again, but the safest bet is somewhere in the middle. There will doubtless be a couple of injuries, but the precedents discussed above are cause for mild optimism (perhaps with the exception of the back of the rotation), and the Mets have decent contingency plans if something does go wrong.
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