Saturday, March 24, 2012

Searching for Optimism Part 1: New York Mets

Breathe, Mets fans, breathe.
The 2012 baseball season is at least a week away from opening, but my three favorite teams---the Mets, A's, and Padres---have already been written off entirely.

While a bunch of teams (the Reds, Angels, Marlins, Tigers) loaded up for a run at the newly expanded gates into the postseason, my three favorite teams have stayed put for the most part. As a result, they aren't being talked about as anything except cellar-dwelling losers biding their time until prospects are ripe.

The Padres, with the best farm system in baseball, are supposed to be building up for a competitive run in 2013 or 2014. If the A's get to escape their dumpy stadium, they'll start to compete by 2014 or so. The Mets are their usual bumbling selves having lost their best player to a division rival and now suffering a bunch of injuries already this spring.

Frankly, all three teams are supposed to suck this year. That's what the experts (and sane, reasoned, objective baseball fans) say, at least. For the purposes of this series, though, we shall reach for some semblance of optimism for the 2012 season. There must be something we can root for as fans of these crappy teams. After all, each year it is inevitable that one or two teams completely blows away its preseason predictions led by surprise (if flukey) performances from a player or three. Why not the Mets? Why not the Padres? As for the A's, well..... why not the Mets!

So let's take a look at each team through the eyes of an incorrigible optimist doing his best to stay objective. We will use the 2012 projections generated by both Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport (as they appeared on March 23rd) and try to find where each of these teams might be able to best the system and squeeze out a few more wins. We need something to hope for after all. I'm far too hyped up for this baseball season to just give up on my team(s) already.

New York Mets
PECOTA projection: 78 wins
Davenport projection: 75 wins

As you can see from a look at the overall projected standings, all three of the teams we're looking at are pretty close in their projections. Basically, any one of them will be lucky to sniff 80 wins. Last place is a very real possibility for all three. Pretty pathetic actually, but that's just what we've got to deal with when it comes to these pesky cold-hearted computer projections.

Aside from losing their best player, the big problem for the Mets this year is that their division is loaded. Every single team, with the exception of the Metropolitans, has improved their roster in hopes of a playoff run. So even if the favored Phillies and Braves fall down to earth a bit, the new-look Marlins and Washington Nationals will be ready to pounce while the Mets will presumably be stuck chasing their own tail.

Looking over the current makeup of the New York roster, the absolute ceiling (the very height of hopeful outcomes) appears to be something like 85 wins. That won't get them anywhere near the playoffs, not in this division, but it would at least make them a fun team to watch. So, how might they approach 85 wins?

First thing to consider: the Mets were not that horrible last year. Despite a neverending parade of injuries that at one point led to David Wright having to fill in at shortstop, as well as a horrific bullpen that frequently blew leads late in games,* and a weak starting rotation, they somehow managed to hover around .500 for most of the year. With all the injuries they were fielding a lineup filled with Triple-A call-ups for a good chunk of the season and still remained competitive. As late as September 7th they were 70-71 and sitting in third place. From that point on, they played terribly (the departure of Carlos Beltran's hot bat certainly played a role) and finished with 77 wins, albeit with the run-differential of a 79-win team.

*Many of these were quite painful to witness for Mets fans, especially August 1st when Lucas Duda hit perhaps the most exciting homerun of the last 3 years for the Mets franchise: a game-tying two-run bomb to dead center while down to their final out in a 3-1 game against the Marlins. The gloriously loud homer from Duda became an afterthought when the bullpen immediately faltered in the next half inning. Interestingly, the two main Florida Marlin culprits in that memorable game (Leo Nuñez, who surrendered the Duda bomb, and Mike Stanton, who immediately responded with a louder and more monstrous grand slam to win the game) have had their names changed (to Juan Oviedo and Giancarlo Stanton, respectively) along with the metamorphosis of the franchise from dumpy Dolphin Stadium residents to garish Miami Marlins.

Health is always a huge factor for a baseball team's success. It's tough to compete with your best players out of the lineup because of injuries. With all the problems the Mets had last year keeping players on the field, they still posted the 2nd-best on-base percentage in the National League (behind only the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals).

They did lose their best player from last year, Jose Reyes, along with Carlos Beltran and yet the team might very well improve upon last year's performance. A number of things will have to go right for them but hoping for such serendipitous developments is what rooting for a baseball team is all about. Here is what the 2012 Mets can pin their hopes on:

The Dynamic Duo of Duda & Davis
When the Mets brought up outfielder Lucas Duda last year, the notably diffident giant initially struggled badly. It was as though he was too shy to display his prodigious power for all the world to see. Through his first 100 at-bats he hit zero homeruns and put up a very quiet .229/.276/.344 batting line (that's AVG/OBP/SLG). Once he adjusted to life as a famous professional baseball player, he began to destroy the baseball, crushing loud linedrives all over the field. For the second half of the year Duda hit a searing .322/.411/.546. For comparison's sake, Albert Pujols hit .319/.375/.584 in the second half last year. I'm expecting very big things for The Duda this year as he'll be turning 26 years old, doesn't falter when facing lefties, and should get plenty of at-bats as the team's starting right-fielder.

The Mets' other left-handed slugger, first baseman Ike Davis, is actually younger than Duda. Davis turned 24 last year and started off with a bang, crushing at a rate of .302/.383/.543 over the first 36 games before suffering what seemed like a non-serious injury. It ended up costing him the whole season. There was much laughter at the Mets' expense a few weeks ago when reports surfaced that Davis had contracted Valley Fever, an infection of the lung that has already stalled the career of one first baseman, but that appears to be a false alarm as Davis is playing just fine in Spring Training and is expected to be in the lineup on Opening Day. If Davis can manage to get back on the upward-moving track he was on last year, the Duda-Davis Duo will be a potent force in the middle of the Mets lineup. Most projection systems predict both hitters to be in the .340 range of on-base percentage and .450 slugging, but I think they are both likely to exceed those numbers particularly on the slugging side. There's plenty of upside here (Davis had 72 walks and 53 extra-base hits in his first full season and hasn't had a chance to have a second one yet)---if healthy over a full season, they might easily combine for 60 homers. (With the caveat that it's only Spring Training, it must be mentioned that Duda whacked an opposite field homer the other day against the eminently unhittable Stephen Strasburg.)

Improved Pitching
By most statistical measures, the Mets pitching was among the very worst in the NL last year, even while they played half their games in a pitcher-friendly park. A very poor fielding performance certainly played a role but, besides R.A. Dickey and Jonathan Niese, nobody on that pitching staff was really any good. Their bullpen was among the worst in the major leagues.

The Mets' savvy front office made it their goal to completely revamp the bullpen this offseason and it looks like they accomplished that goal handily, although expensively. Whereas manager Terry Collins was left to sift through a collection of inconsistent or low quality relievers in big situations last summer, now he's got a brand new trio of experienced arms ready to handle high leverage situations. New closer Frank Francisco is a strikeout machine (averaging 10.5 Ks per 9 innings the last four years) with good control for such a hard thrower (his K/BB ratio is consistently around 3/1); the 6'10" behemoth Jon Rauch is getting up there in age but he's had success as both a closer and setup man; and Ramon Ramirez has been a main part of the Giants' elite bullpen these last couple years, relying on his mean slider to get that low-scoring team out of late inning jams. Adding those three guys at the top of the bullpen depth chart pushes the unproven Bobby Parnell into a less demanding role in which he might hopefully overcome his jitters on the mound. The 27-year-old Parnell throws as hard as anyone in the major leagues and racks up plenty of strikeouts but he's got a tendency to lose his control and suddenly walk the ballpark. Maybe he'll finally blossom into an important piece without so much pressure resting on his shoulders.

In the starting rotation, Johan Santana has returned from shoulder surgery and excelled thus far in Spring Training. He's certainly not a sure thing and the Mets will probably put a limit on how much he pitches this year with that sewn up shoulder but adding him to the top of the rotation makes this pitching staff look much better than it did last year. Even if his stuff is depleted (and even before the surgery he had shown signs of decline, losing some velocity and fooling hitters less often---though he still maintained a 130 ERA+), he's still the best pitcher on this staff. Seeing the images of his return to the mound in Spring Training certainly gives one confidence as he looks like a man who's seeking revenge on the league that stepped all over his team in the ace's absence. It's notable that in his last Spring Training start he faced the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals (who fielded a lineup featuring most of their starters) and blew them away. The always intensely poised, short-armed lefty Santana has always been among my favorite pitchers to watch and I'm both hopeful and excited to see him and his changeup on the mound for the Mets this year.

Behind Johan the Mets do have two pretty decent hurlers in R.A. Dickey and Jonathon Niese. Dickey has become a Mets sensation with his knuckleball, Mt. Kiliminjaro, and everything else (yeah, that about sums up R.A. Dickey). Niese is a 25-year-old lefty on the rise. His strikeout and walk rates have been improving each year since he started in the majors at 21 years old and many people predict big things from him this year. He's even got a new and improved nose that ought to help his breathing and stamina. Behind the top 3 of Santana, Dickey, and Niese there's trouble. Nevertheless, the pitching staff looks much improved.

It is very likely that the team will gain enough of an advantage in the pitching department to make up for the loss of Reyes who was worth about 6 wins last year. A healthy Santana would be worth at least 3 wins with the trio of new relievers probably chipping in about 1 win each. (These win numbers are based on WAR or WARP or whatever people want to call it these days---it stands for Wins Above Replacement Player.)

The Wild Card: Jason Bay
There are a number of players on this Mets team whose expected performance is extremely volatile, starting with the post-surgery Santana, occasionally amazing third baseman David Wright and, especially, the sad sack Jason Bay. Two years ago the Mets signed Bay to a monster contract after he'd been one of the best hitters in baseball for a chunk of time. He got off to a slow start before running face first into a wall at Dodger Stadium and suffering a concussion that seemed to permanently knock him off the good-hitter path. After seven years of slugging an OPS around 900 (superstar level), he's flopped to a 700ish mark as a Met thus far.

Despite being an absolutely atrocious fielder (one of the worst I've ever seen), it's hard not to like the guy. He's Canadian, seems like a nice person, obviously is trying very hard to be a good player, and yet he just plain old sucks. The thing is---there still remains a glimmering sliver of possibility, albeit a slim one, that he might awaken his slumbering slugging and become a beast for the Mets. He's now almost two full years removed from the concussion and, for what it's worth, he managed to put up huge numbers in the final month of last season (.313./.392/.563). He also crushed lefties last year, hitting .300/.418/.500 against them which basically matched his career numbers versus southpaws. The newly structured fences at his home ballpark will surely provide some benefit to Bay as well (although, admittedly, he was already a decent hitter at home last year while an atrocious one on the road).

Bay is now 33 years old and considered to be done by most analysts but if he can manage to make the adjustments necessary to hit righties again, this suddenly looks like a much more dangerous Mets team instead of one fighting to stay out of last place. That is, of course, a big if and the Mets franchise has been more prone to comically flop and trip over their own shoelaces through much of its 50-year history. But at least we have something to hope for.

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