Springtime storylines: Will the Mets look the same in September?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Sandy Alderson-led New York Mets.

The Big Question: Will the Mets look the same in September?

There are many questions facing the Mets this season, but this is probably the most relevant one. In addition to the tenuous ownership situation and the pending Madoff lawsuit — more on that later — the Mets have a number of players who may find themselves in different uniforms before the end of the season.

Jose Reyes, now the longest-tenured Met, is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career this winter. New GM Sandy Alderson has repeatedly said that he would like to see how the shortstop performs before discussing a potential contract extension, but there is some risk attached to a bounceback season. Reyes doesn’t turn 28 until June, so taking into account his dynamic ability at the shortstop position, he could find $100 million on the open market, potentially pricing the Mets out of the bidding.

If the Mets are out of things this summer, Alderson may seriously have to consider trading Reyes before the deadline. While it would be a bold and polarizing move — in fact, it would probably define Alderson’s tenure as general manager in New York — many projected contenders (Red Sox, Reds, Twins, Athletics, Giants) would likely have interest.

And now we move to Carlos Beltran, who is also in the final year of his contact. This is a pretty simple one to understand. If his knees hold up with the move to right field, he’ll be an attractive piece for a contender, especially in the American League, where he could be used at DH. The no-trade clause could allow him to decide his destination, but I think he’s more likely to go than Reyes.

Perhaps the most interesting situation to watch is how the Mets will handle Francisco Rodriguez, whose $17.5 million option for 2012 becomes guaranteed if he finishes 55 games. While the Mets would be wise to limit his appearances to just save opportunities, you can bet that the MLBPA will be watching their every move. K-Rod can block deals to 10 clubs, but the best solution might be to trade him to a situation where he will not be saving games, thus ensuring that his new team will not be on the hook for 2012.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Mets can hang around in the standings. Expectations are pretty low right now, but if Reyes and Beltran stay healthy and Jason Bay can return to form, new manager Terry Collins will field one of the better lineups in the National League. Reyes, Pagan, Wright, Beltran, Bay, Davis. That’s a pretty good top six. Remember, on-base blackholes Jeff Francoeur, Rod Barajas, Gary Matthews Jr. and Alex Cora combined for 966 plate appearances last season, so it might not take much for them to be better, at least offensively.

So what else is going on?

  • Oh yeah, the starting rotation. That might not be as good. Johan Santana hasn’t even pitched off a mound yet and the best-case scenario is that he’ll return somewhere around the All-Star break. That leaves Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Chris Young and Chris Capuano holding things down for the foreseeable future. While offseason additions Young and Capuano have looked pretty good this spring, it’s hard to rely on them given their past injury issues. Dickey has quickly become a fan favorite, but there are questions about whether he’ll be able to repeat his success from last season. Do they have the potential to surprise? Yes. But this staff is no match for the Phillies and Braves or even the Marlins.
  • Following the release of Luis Castillo, the Mets appear poised to give the second base job to Rule 5 pick Brad Emaus, someone who has never played in a major league game. He put up some solid numbers with Triple-A Las Vegas last season, but played his home games in Cashman Field, a place that is known to inflate offense. The options aren’t great if Emaus falls flat on his face — Daniel Murphy, Chin-lung Hu and Justin Turner, among others  — but it’s a nice change of pace to see the Mets take a chance on a young, cheap asset as opposed to repeating past mistakes.
  • The new front office let Type-B free agent Pedro Feliciano walk over the winter, which netted them a supplemental draft pick in June’s First-Year Player Draft. While it will be darn near impossible to replace Feliciano’s durability in the bullpen, his exit was met with overwhelming approval from a fanbase that would like to see the Mets build through the draft. Alderson has indicated a willingness to go overslot in order to sign draft picks — a strategy used by many other clubs — so it will be interesting to see how they spend, especially given the current ownership situation.
  • Did you hear the Wilpons are having some cash flow issues and are trying to sell a minority part of the team? OK, cool. Thought you may have missed it. I don’t want to speak for too many Mets fans, because I’m sure there are those who obsess over it, but I can tell you there’s already some Madoff fatigue going on here. I have no idea where this situation is headed — the Wilpons might have to sell the team completely before long — but the games will be a welcome distraction, at least for a little while.

So how are they going to do?

If all goes well with the big “ifs” — Reyes, Beltran, Bay and Santana — the Mets could be in the conversation for the Wild Card. That probably won’t happen, though. I tend to think they’ll be right around .500, finishing ahead of the Nationals, but only good enough for a third straight fourth place finish.

The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.