Bill Baer

New York Mets' Alejandro De Aza, left, and Kevin Plawecki, center, are congratulated by teammate Curtis Granderson after scoring on a two-run double by T.J. Rivera during the fifth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The New York Mets. 

The Mets were so close to Opening Day with nothing bad happening. Then, on Monday, it was announced that Matt Harvey was scratched from his scheduled start on Tuesday and his Opening Day start is in doubt as well. Harvey, of course, looked dominant last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, finishing with a 2.71 ERA and a 188/37 K/BB ratio over 189 1/3 innings. Though the Mets are stacked with pitching, losing Harvey is a big deal. It could be much ado about nothing, we don’t know yet.

Elsewhere, the Mets appear to be improved over last year’s squad which reached the World Series, losing in five games to the Royals. The club acquired second baseman Neil Walker from the Pirates to replace Daniel Murphy, who went to the Nationals. Asdrubal Cabrera joined the team on a two-year, $18.5 million contract to handle everyday duties at shortstop. GM Sandy Alderson bolstered the bullpen, signing Antonio Bastardo for two years and $12 million, and Jerry Blevins for a year and $4 million. Bartolo Colon returned at $7.25 million for the 2016 season, Alejandro De Aza joined to add depth on a one-year, $5.75 million pact, and – most importantly – outfielder Yoenis Cespedes re-upped with the Mets for three-years and $75 million with an opt out clause after the first year.

As  D.J. Short mentioned on Twitter, The Mets once relied on a bullpen that consisted of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jose Valverde, and Kyle Farnsworth. Now it has a dominant Jeurys Familia followed by Addison Reed, Bastardo, Blevins, and Hansel Robles. And shortstop was manned by Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada. The club’s two biggest nagging problems have been addressed.

Everything will depend on the Mets’ rotation living up to the hype once again. Behind Harvey, 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Jacob deGrom is coming off of a season in which he finished with a 2.54 ERA and a 205/38 K/BB ratio over 191 innings, finishing seventh in NL Cy Young Award balloting. In many rotations, he would be an ace; instead, he’s one of the game’s scariest number two pitchers. deGrom pairs great swing-and-miss stuff with pinpoint command – he averaged 5.39 strikeouts for every one walk, the seventh-highest ratio among all qualified starters.

Then there’s Noah Syndergaard, who can hit 100 MPH with his fastball. Like deGrom, he averaged better than a strikeout per inning and 5.35 strikeouts for every one walk. As a 22-year-old, Syndergaard finished with a 3.24 ERA over 150 innings. And he may be years from his prime! Scary. In the number four slot, Steven Matz will look to build upon six strong regular season starts last year, finishing with a 2.27 ERA and a 34/10 K/BB ratio in 35 2/3 innings. The lefty was even solid in three postseason starts, yielding six runs in just under 15 innings. Given the star power ahead of him, it’s easy to overlook Matz, but he has the potential to be just as good as any of them.

Colon looks like a grandpa compared to his rotation mates. The veteran turns 43 years old in May and will assume the number five spot in the rotation until Zack Wheeler is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Then, Colon likely moves to the bullpen to serve in a mop-up role. Considering he pitched 194 2/3 innings at the age of 42 last year, the Mets are confident in counting on him for six-plus innings every start.

Offensively, no one doubts the Mets’ propensity for power. Cespedes, Lucas Duda, and Curtis Granderson each could reasonably surpass the 30-homer threshold. In a full-season, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Conforto could cross 20 homers as well. The Mets, though, aren’t likely to hit for a high average as a team, which could make them prone to some offensive slumps when everybody isn’t rolling at the same time. In the second half last season, the Mets averaged 5.11 runs per game, greatly outpacing their 3.48 first half average. That second half figure is closer to what we should expect from them in 2016.

Once the Mets bring a lead into the ninth inning, they will feel rather confident that Familia will close things out for the win. Familia finished a major league-high 65 games last year, saving 43 games with a 1.85 ERA and an 86/19 K/BB ratio. The performance didn’t come out of nowhere, as Familia was also dominant handling the seventh and eighth innings in 2014. While he isn’t in the echelon of closers with Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, Familia will make it tough for opposing teams to stage a comeback.

The NL East is not that scary for the Mets. The Nationals will be the toughest competition, while an improved (and healthy) Marlins roster could throw a wrench in the Mets’ plans. But the Phillies and Braves will provide plenty of free wins throughout the year, and as long as the Mets’ rotation doesn’t fall apart completely, they should be able to reclaim their throne atop the NL East.

Prediction: 92-70, first place in the NL East.

Carlos Quentin is likely to retire again

Minnesota Twins' Carlos Quentin rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Carlos Quentin retired in May last year shortly after signing a minor league deal with the Mariners. He decided to make a comeback, though, inking a minor league pact with the Twins last month.

Quentin had a solid spring showing, hitting .250/.333/.500 with a pair of home runs in 36 at-bats. On Saturday, however, he was among the handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Rather than accept the assignment, Quentin asked for and was granted his release from the Twins, LaVelle E. Neal reported for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Neal also reports that Quentin told GM Terry Ryan that he isn’t looking to sign with another team; rather, he is going home to be with his family. It’s sounding like Quentin is likely to retire again.

Quentin, 33, was a fearsome power hitter over parts of nine seasons in the majors, but injuries were always an issue. He played in 834 games, averaging less than 100 per year, but he hit 154 home runs with a career .831 OPS.

2016 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Ray's Logan Forsythe, center, greeted in the dugout after scoring on a single by Brandon Guyer (5) in the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Port Charlotte, Fla. (Will Vragovic/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)  TAMPA OUT; CITRUS COUNTY OUT; PORT CHARLOTTE OUT; BROOKSVILLE HERNANDO TODAY OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Will Vragovic/The Tampa Bay Times via AP
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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 2016 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays. 

By the Rays’ standards, their offseason was pretty exciting. With an Opening Day payroll projected to be just north of $60 million, the Rays made a couple of winter trades and some low-key free agent signings, incremental additions that could make headway on last year’s 80-82 record.

In November, the Rays sent Nate Karns, C.J. Riefenhauser, and minor leaguer Boog Powell to the Mariners for Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Danny Farquhar. Miller will open the season as the club’s starting shortstop, Morrison will start at first base (sometimes) or DH against right-handed pitching, and Farquhar is in the mix to close while Brad Boxberger is on the disabled list. Not a bad haul, though none of the three are household names.

Then, near the end of January, the Rays helped the Rockies thin out their surfeit of outfielders, acquiring Corey Dickerson and minor leaguer Kevin Padlo in exchange for Jake McGee and minor leaguer German Marquez. Dickerson isn’t a perfect player, as he has a severe platoon split and has performed much better at Coors Field than anywhere else, but he’s not yet 27 years old and still has room to grow.

The signings included Steve Pearce, who will share first base and DH duties with Morrison against left-handed pitching, and serve as outfield depth as well. The deal was relatively cheap, at one year and $4.75 million. The club also inked second baseman Logan Forsythe to a two-year, $10.25 million extension.

First baseman James Loney is now expendable with Morrison and Pearce in the fold. He’s owed $8 million, which the Rays would love to make someone else’s responsibility. For now, though, it appears he’ll be a part-time player.

The rest of the roster is pretty much the same. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier will look to reprise his role as baseball’s best defender at any position. He won a Gold Glove, with Baseball Reference crediting him with five Wins Above Replacement just on defense alone. Only Andrelton Simmons (5.4, 2013) has been better, unless you count two players from the early 1900’s which… I don’t know how one can figure out how good they were defensively.

The Rays really shine with their starting pitching. Chris Archer will have the honor of pitching on Opening Day after a terrific 2015 campaign in which he made 34 starts with a 3.23 ERA and a 252/66 K/BB ratio. Among qualified starting pitchers, only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Carlos Carrasco struck out hitters at a higher rate than Archer’s 29 percent.

Once you get past Archer, it doesn’t get any easier. Jake Odorizzi slots in at number two after posting a 3.35 ERA with a 150/46 K/BB ratio over 169 1/3 innings last year. In this era of pitching and defense, along with the recent historically-great performances of Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Greinke, it’s easy to overlook a 3.35 ERA. But the league average last year was still 4.01 and Odorizzi’s ERA was still 23rd-best among qualified starters in baseball. Retrodictors like FIP and xFIP took away a bit of credit, painting him at 3.61 and 3.96 respectively, but he’s a pretty safe bet to put up another above-average season in 2016.

In the middle of the rotation, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore are question marks, but have the potential to put up quality seasons if they can stay healthy. When he wasn’t injured last year, Smyly made 12 starts, compiled a 3.11 ERA, and had a 77/20 K/BB ratio in 66 2/3 innings. Moore struggled in his 12 starts, showing a diminished ability to miss bats, but if he can recover it, he can certainly return to his 2013 form during which he earned an All-Star nomination. Erasmo Ramirez will handle the number five spot until Alex Cobb is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, which should be shortly after the All-Star break.

As mentioned, Brad Boxberger will begin the season on the disabled list. The right-hander, who led the league with 41 saves last year, underwent core muscle surgery earlier this month. That leaves Farquhar and Alex Colome fighting for the closer’s role. Colome made 13 starts and 30 relief appearances for the Rays last year, putting up a solid 3.94 ERA with an 88/31 K/BB ratio over 109 2/3 innings. Farquar struggled with the Mariners, showing diminished command and a reduced strikeout rate compared to a superb 2014 effort. As Farquhar has also been used for more than one inning in each of his last four spring outings, Colome appears to be the favorite to snag the role.

Talent-wise, it’s tough to see the Rays hanging with the Red Sox or Blue Jays all season, but they’ve done more with less in the past. The AL East is arguably the toughest division in baseball, so I think they’ll end up in fifth place with a relatively respectable record (for a fifth-place team, anyway).

Prediction: 78-84, fifth place in the AL East.

Mariners place Jesus Montero on waivers

Jesus Montero
Jason Miller/Getty Images
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Bob Dutton of The Tacoma News Tribune wrote earlier on Sunday an unconfirmed report that the Mariners placed first baseman Jesus Montero on waivers. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman later confirmed that report.

Montero, 26, was having a rough go of it in spring training, compiling a .237/.256/.289 triple-slash line with only seven singles and two doubles in 38 at-bats. This comes after last year’s mediocre regular season showing, when he hit .223 with five round-trippers in 38 games.

Montero was once a top prospect in the Yankees’ minor league system, peaking a #3 overall ranking going into the 2011 season. His poor defense behind the plate led to a position change in 2014 but he never could figure out major league pitching. Montero also had an incident in 2014 in which he went after a heckler (also a scout) who had ordered for him an ice cream sandwich (a dig at Montero’s weight). It’s been a rough road.

Still, Montero should draw interest from other teams, particularly after he clears waivers. He did show some promise at Triple-A Tacoma last year, batting .355/.398/.569 with 18 home runs and 85 RBI in 430 plate appearances.

Video: Jason Heyward attacked by bees during Sunday’s game

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Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward probably regrets signing with a team that plays its spring games in the Cactus League*. During the third inning of Sunday afternoon’s exhibition contest against the Mariners, Heyward was chased by a swarm of bees. He tried his darndest to escape, but they followed him. He ran all around center field, even hopping up on the fence to limit the bees’ angle of attack. No dice.

Per MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat, Heyward said he was stung over 10 times by the bees.

No matter how annoying bees get, though, always keep Royals manager Ned Yost in mind. Yost, earlier this month, explained how vital bees are to our ecosystem. He said, “They’re vital to the environment. To just arbitrarily kill a bunch of bees makes zero sense to me.”

*On second thought, $184 million can buy some good balm for those bee stings.