Thursday, September 26, 2013

Finding Glimmers of Hope in Another Lost NY Mets Season

All hail Lagares, the biggest bright spot on another losing team.
Another New York Mets season is about to be put in the books and with it a few negative streaks are extended. It's the team's seventh straight season missing the playoffs, their fifth straight season with a losing record, and the third consecutive losing finish under the promising, stats-savvy front office led by general manager Sandy Alderson.
While it's become an overdone cliché to mock the misery of the Mets franchise, this hapless 70-something win season offered glimpses of realistic hope for the near future and was actually quite entertaining to follow throughout the year as a devoted fan. I watched nearly every game of theirs throughout the spring and summer, only losing touch with the team as they fell into a late summer funk which coincided with an injury to the team's best hitter, David Wright.

Eclipsing any other story about this year's team was the ascent of Matt Harvey to superstardom. The 24-year-old starter spent a large chunk of the season pitching as well as anyone in baseball and even got to start the All Star Game in Queens but succumbed to an elbow injury in late August, sending Mets fans into a deep depression.

Beyond Harvey's five-month flirtation with the Cy Young award, there are still reasons to see this Mets season as a step forward for the franchise.

The optimism all seems to come on the run prevention side. Suddenly next year's Mets team looks to have the makings of a solid rotation. The timetable for Harvey's return is currently a soft polymorphous Dali clock, he might be back early next year or he might miss the entire season. On the other hand, Dillon Gee and Jonathan Niese both bounced back from slow starts to prove they can be relied upon regularly, Zack Wheeler showed flashes of brilliance at age 23 and should only improve, and fellow 23-year-old righty Jenrry Mejia looked spectacular over 5 starts before being shut down with an injury. Unfortunately, the big breakthrough year for righthander Jeremy Hefner ended with Tommy John surgery which will keep him out for at least a full calendar year.

Regardless of who's on the mound, this team can finally field a defense that can catch the ball. After a few years of finishing at the very bottom of the league in defensive stats, the Mets defense climbed up to respectability by fielding a speedy outfield led by breakout superstar centerfielder Juan Lagares. While Lagares can't hit a lick, his defense was so valuable it made him one of the most productive players on the team. He finished among the top 3 center fielders in the major leagues in most defensive stats despite not even getting the full time gig until a few months into the season.

The addition of Eric Young, Jr. to patrol left field also changed the look of this team. With his speed, Young provided great defense while also leading the Mets' newfound penchant for smart baserunning. That was another major bright spot for the Mets, they excelled on the base paths, not just in stealing bases but in advancing on hits or fly balls, far outpacing the National League in extra bases taken while making fewer outs on the bases than any other team.

Continuing to apply the principles promoted by their new management, this Mets team is also 4th in the league in walks, always taking lots of pitches and grinding out at-bats. For an offense without much firepower at all, this is meaningful. I think it's also meaningful that this team, with injuries to David Wright and Lucas Duda and a total collapse by Ike Davis, managed to patch their holes well enough to be in the running for third place in the division. If there's one thing the Sandy Alderson regime has excelled at, it's been plugging in the holes with adequate fill-ins when players get hurt (or are ineffective). The 2011 Mets spent long periods with a Triple-A lineup yet hung in there for a while just as this year's Mets team depended on guys like Omar Quintanilla and Andrew Brown and Josh Satin to keep from sinking completely.

(Quintanilla was probably my favorite player this year. A 31-year-old journeyman utility infielder, he filled in for the injured starter Ruben Tejada for the second year in a row and showed up to play everyday, playing good defense and grinding out lengthy at-bats with a very respectable .311 OBP for a shortstop off the scrap heap. Plus, he went to college just up the road from me at the University of Texas.)

The big weaknesses for this year's team were both blatantly obvious: they couldn't score runs and the bullpen sucked. The latter shouldn't be all that difficult to fix and yet this is the third year in a row the Mets have one of the very worst relief corps in the league. Nothing saps a fan's morale more than spending 2 hours of your time watching your team play a competitive game only to have the bullpen let it all slip away in the end.

The weak offense can be forgiven somewhat because so much went wrong for this team right from the start. Ike Davis was being depended on to provide power and get on base, instead he completely collapsed over the first three months and was sent down to the minors to get his act straight. Ruben Tejada similarly tanked and then got injured. John Buck had a good first month, then completely fell in the toilet before eventually being traded. His expected replacement, Travis d'Arnaud got injured, took a while to make it up to the majors, and hasn't hit much since. Lucas Duda rediscovered his power stroke and drew plenty of walks but his days as a National League player are numbered; he's far too huge of a liability in the field to garner a lineup spot. Only David Wright, Daniel Murphy, and the surprising Marlon Byrd (now a Pittsburgh Pirate) kept the Mets offense in games this year. That doesn't exactly bode well for the future.

So, what about that future?

As mentioned earlier, the run prevention side of things looks very strong. Going forward, the Mets look to have a nice batch of starters (Gee, Wheeler, Niese, Mejia, maybe Harvey) plus some highly-touted arms developing in the minors (Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero to name a couple). Churning out homegrown pitching talent is a great place to start when attempting to lift a franchise back to respectability. Putting those young pitchers in a position to succeed with an outfield patrolled by the likes of Juan Lagares will only accelerate the transition.

It's the offense that needs figuring out. David Wright remains the franchise cornerstone and will likely finish his career as the best Mets player of all time. Daniel Murphy is a fun player to watch but he's just an okay hitter with a very weak grip on the future second base job. Other than that, everything else is up in the air. This team has a strange pile of half-useful players, misfit toys you might call them, all homegrown hitters with lots of question marks. Can Ike Davis and Ruben Tejada be relied upon to ever find their way at the plate again? Where can you hide Lucas Duda's clanky iron glove out in the field? What the hell to do with good-hitting position-less guys like Josh Satin and Wilmer Flores?

All considered (and especially compared with the Mets of recent vintage) these are good problems to have. They've certainly assembled a nice bunch of talented players, it's just a matter of properly organizing it all, making the right trades to achieve the balanced roster of a winning baseball team. With sharp minds in the front office, it only makes this team more intriguing to follow. Mark my words: I'll be surprised if they aren't approaching the cusp of playoff contention next year.

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