2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The New York Mets.

The Big Question: Can the Mets end years of futility to contend for the NL Wild Card in 2015?

The Mets’ fortunes in 2015 will rest in the hands of one person: Matt Harvey. All eyes will be on the soon-to-be 26-year-old right-hander as he returns to the starting rotation after missing all of the 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. Harvey set the baseball world on fire in 2013, finishing with a 2.27 ERA and a 191/31 K/BB ratio in 178 1/3 innings, earning him a fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young balloting. If he can return to his former elite level, the Mets will be in good shape to make some noise in the NL East, a few laps behind the Washington Nationals.

Despite a quiet offseason, the Mets are arguably a contender for the NL Wild Card this season and they’re the most competitive they’ve been since 2008, having averaged fewer than 76 wins over the last six seasons. Outfielder Michael Cuddyer was their biggest signing, as they inked the 2013 NL batting champ to a two-year, $21 million deal. Aside from a low-key signing of John Mayberry, Jr., the team the Mets had last year is largely the team they’ll bring into 2015.

The Mets unfortunately lost Zack Wheeler to Tommy John surgery, but their starting rotation is still quite solid. It includes veteran Bartolo Colon (their Opening Day starter), youngster Jacob DeGrom, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee. DeGrom was superb in his rookie season in 2014, finishing with a 2.69 ERA and a 144/43 K/BB ratio in 140 1/3 innings, earning him NL Rookie of the Year honors. If he can reprise his performance, the Mets would have two ace-caliber pitchers at the top of their rotation.

As far as offense goes, they’ll be relying on some young players to take the next step up. Catching Travis d’Arnaud started off slow last season, but caught fire in June following a brief demotion to Triple-A. From June 24 through the end of the season, d’Arnaud posted an .805 OPS with 10 home runs and 32 RBI in 276 plate appearances. The 26-year-old has the potential to become a top-ten catcher this season.

23-year-old Wilmer Flores will be starting everyday over Ruben Tejada after a long winter of speculation. Tejada has failed to live up to expectations over parts of five seasons with the Mets, posting a .645 OPS over 1,778 plate appearances. Flores posted similarly weak offensive numbers last season and is a worse defender, but he’s a couple years younger and has a bit more power potential. The Mets had a great deal of interest in acquiring a shortstop from outside the organization during the winter – including Jimmy Rollins – but nothing ever materialized, so they’ll be expecting Flores to man the position over the course of the season.

The Mets will also be relying on Juan Lagares in center field. He is arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball but he leaves a bit to be desired at the plate. Last season, though, he posted an above-average adjusted OPS of 102 (100 is average). In 452 plate appearances, Lagares showed gap power with 24 doubles and three triples along with only four home runs, and he stole 13 bases as well.

What else is going on?

  • Third baseman David Wright is hoping to bounce back from the worst season of his career. He batted .269/.324/.374 with eight home runs and 63 RBI in 586 plate appearances. He was hampered by shoulder problems throughout much of the second half. Wright is now 32 years old and the expectations aren’t nearly as high as they once were. But for the Mets to seriously contend, they need him to return to a .290-ish average with 20-plus homers in the middle of the lineup.
  • Lost in the Harvey hoopla is the fact that Bobby Parnell is returning from Tommy John surgery himself. The right-hander missed just about the entirety of the 2014 season after emerging as a reliable late-inning option for the Mets the year prior, saving 22 games with a 2.16 ERA and a 44/12 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. He threw 20 pitches in a minor league game on Saturday, which is the next step towards his eventual return. Parnell will likely be out until May. Unless Jenrry Mejia struggles in the closer’s role, Parnell should end up in a set-up role.
  • The Mets chose to give Bartolo Colon the honor of pitching on Opening Day in Washington against the Nationals and Jacob deGrom the honor of pitching the Mets’ home opener against the Phillies. It’s a bit surprising that they didn’t give Harvey either honor as he’s both the Mets’ best pitcher and their most popular player. Though an expected home sellout regardless of who’s pitching may have given the Mets’ brass reason to create an incentive (Harvey) to show up for the second home game of the season.
  • Manager Terry Collins said that he won’t platoon first baseman Lucas Duda against left-handed pitchers to begin the season. Duda is the Mets’ biggest power threat, as he blasted 30 homers with 92 RBI last season in 596 plate appearances. However, he did show a severe platoon split, with a .915 OPS against right-handers and .516 against lefties. That’s not too far away from his career averages of .847 and .610, respectively. Reserve 1B/OF John Mayberry, Jr. would make a nice platoon partner, as Mayberry has a career .857 OPS against lefties.
  • Second baseman Daniel Murphy, currently nursing a hamstring injury, is entering what could be his final year with the Mets as he is eligible for free agency after the season. The Mets are not expected to offer him a contract extension, which means that there’s a strong possibility they trade Murphy by the July 31 deadline. Murphy, who turns 30 on April 1, made his first All-Star team last season, finishing with a .289/.332/.403 slash line along with nine home runs, 57 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 642 plate appearances.

Prediction: The Mets remain in contention for the NL Wild Card for most of the season, but eventually fall behind the Miami Marlins for a third-place finish in the NL East with an 80-82 record.

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”