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.

If 2020 season is canceled, which players would be hurt the most?

Miguel Cabrera
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Last week, I went over a few teams that stood to be hurt most if there were to be no 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Today, we will look at some players who may be adversely effected by a lost year.

Milestones

Players chasing milestones, especially those towards the end of their careers, would be stymied by a lost season. Tigers DH and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is the first one that comes to mind. He is 23 home runs short of joining the 500 home run club. Though he hasn’t hit more than 16 in a year since 2016, he would likely have at least hit a few this year and would have had an easier time getting there in 2021. He turns 37 years old in 10 days. Cabrera may be under contract through 2023, but it is not clear that his age and his health would allow him to play regularly such that he would be able to reach 500 home runs if the 2020 season were to be canceled. (Cabrera is also 185 hits shy of 3,000 for his career.)

Mike Trout has 285 home runs for his career. It’s almost a given that he would get to 300 and beyond in 2020. He is currently one of only 13 players with at least 250 home runs through his age-27 season. The only players with more: Álex Rodríguez (345), Jimmie Foxx (302), Eddie Mathews (299), and Ken Griffey Jr. (294). Trout likely would have also reached 1,000 runs for his career, as he is currently at 903. Losing a full season could really make a difference where he winds up on the all-time leaderboards at the end of his career.

Veteran catcher Yadier Molina will be a free agent at season’s end, though he and the Cardinals have expressed interest in a contract extension. He turns 38 this summer and is 37 hits shy of 2,000 for his career. Even if this season never happens, Molina will likely join the 2,000 hit club in 2021 whether or not he signs a multi-year extension. Molina is also 84 RBI shy of 1,000 and 21 doubles shy of 400.

Free Agents

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts and Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto headline the free agent class heading into the 2021 season. Even if there eventually is a 2020 season, or something resembling it, teams are losing money across the board and that will result in stinginess in the free agent market. Make no mistake, Betts and Realmuto, as well as Trevor Bauer, Marcus Semien, and Marcus Stroman will still get paid handsomely, but they likely won’t get as much as they would following a typical year. The players that really stand to get hurt are the mid-tier free agents, whose cost won’t match their relative upside — players like James McCann, Howie Kendrick, Yuli Gurriel, DJ LeMahieu, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Turner, Michael Grantley, Marcell Ozuna, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jay Bruce, and Josh Reddick.

2020-21 Draftees and International Free Agents

At the end of March, MLB and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement on a deal covering issues including service time, pay during the pandemic, and the amateur draft. In exchange for players on active rosters getting credit for a full year of service time whether or not there is a 2020 season, the league got the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and the 2021 draft to 20 rounds. The league also gained the right to delay the start of the 2020 and 2021-22 international signing periods.

The MLBPA effectively sold out what will be their future union members. A shortened draft this year and/or next year would mean that players who would otherwise have been drafted this year will go undrafted and thus will either become unsigned free agents or return to the draft next year as part of a crowded pool of players. Likewise, pushing back the international signing period will add more players to the market at the same time. This, obviously, benefits ownership as a surplus of labor diminishes those laborers’ leverage.

Bounce-back Candidates

Players coming off of injuries or otherwise down years in 2019 were hoping to use 2020 to bounce back, reestablishing themselves in the league. Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani didn’t pitch at all last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery and was hopeful to rejoin the starting rotation at some point in the first half of a normal 2020 season. We learned yesterday that Ohtani is expected to throw off a mound “soon.” If a 2020 season does happen, it likely wouldn’t begin for another couple of months at minimum, which should afford him enough time to get into pitching shape.

Ohtani’s teammate and perennial Gold Glove Award candidate Andrelton Simmons played in only 103 games last season due to an ankle injury. He mustered a meager .673 OPS as well, compiling just 1.9 WAR, his lowest total in any season since debuting in 2012. In 2017, he peaked at 7.8 WAR and put up 6.3 the following season. Simmons will become a free agent after the 2020 season, so he most certainly needed a healthy and productive 2020 to maximize his leverage on the market.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto, now 36 years old, is coming off of the worst offensive season of his career. He hit .261/.357/.411 with 15 home runs and 47 RBI in 608 plate appearances, continuing a downward trend. He registered a 167 adjusted OPS as recently as 2017, but that declined to 126 in ’18 and 98 last year. The Reds, back to being competitive, were definitely banking on a bounce-back year from Votto. (Votto, by the way, is also 56 RBI short of the 1,000 milestone for his career.)