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2014 Preview: New York Mets

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The New York Mets.

The Big Question: Can the Mets finish with 80 or more wins for the first time since 2008? 

After abstaining from the free agent market last off-season, the Mets jumped in and signed Curtis Granderson to a four-year, $60 million deal to patrol the outfield at Citi Field. The Mets had some newfound financial flexibility with Johan Santana and Jason Bay’s contracts off the books. They also added starter Bartolo Colon with a two-year, $20 million deal – their answer to losing Matt Harvey to Tommy John surgery.

However, the Mets didn’t do a whole lot aside from signing Granderson and Colon. They signed Chris Young to a one-year deal worth $7.25 million. He’ll play opposite Granderson in right field.

The Mets will be relying on a lot of young players, including top prospect Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate. In his first taste of the big leagues last season, d’Arnaud struggled, posting a .548 OPS in 112 plate appearances.

The bullpen is another area of youth. Bobby Parnell is expected to be the closer after recovering from a neck injury during the second half of the 2013 season. Parnell has been quite reliable, averaging at least three strikeouts for every one walk and posting a sub-3.00 ERA in three out of the last four seasons. Behind Parnell, Scott Rice and Kyle Farnsworth may be the only members born prior to 1986.

What else is going on?  

  • The Mets are reluctantly going with Ruben Tejada at shortstop to start the season.  Many expected them to wind up with Stephen Drew, who is still a free agent. Tejada posted a .519 OPS last season and the team wasn’t thrilled with his conditioning. Something will give between now and the trade deadline; it’s unlikely the Mets stick with him at shortstop, especially if they are competitive in the first half.
  • Lucas Duda and Ike Davis are battling it out for the job at first base. The loser will wind up on the bench and likely traded. Duda posted a .767 OPS in 384 plate appearances last season, spending a majority of his playing time in left field. Davis had a nightmare season, posting an even .500 OPS before a demotion to Triple-A Las Vegas in mid-June. When he returned to the Mets on July 5, he was much improved. He didn’t rediscover his power stroke, but he cut down on the strikeouts and drew more walks. From July 5 through the end of the season, Davis drew 38 walks and struck out 35 times in 170 plate appearances.
  • The Mets have another positional battle in center field. Juan Lagares was great there defensively last season, but left a lot to be desired with the bat. The Mets lack a lead-off hitter as well, and that could spur them to give Eric Young, Jr. a shot. In the event Young beats out Lagares, Lagares could start at Triple-A. Young would start in left, Granderson would move to right, and Young would move to center.
  • The Mets are hoping Zack Wheeler can be to them in 2014 as Harvey was last season. Wheeler made 17 starts in 2013, finishing with a 3.42 ERA in an even 100 innings. He walked a few too many – 44 unintentionally – so he would have to improve his control. But he’s 23 years old and the sky is the limit for the right-hander 

Prediction: The Mets are better than they were last season, even without Matt Harvey. They could go back and forth with the Phillies between third and fourth place throughout the season, but I have them ultimately finishing ahead of the Phillies in third place in the NL East.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.