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.