Does the Mets’ 2018 season seem eerily familiar to you? Are you reminded of the beginning of the Alderson era, when the Mets failed to properly rebuild in the name of “maybe we can contend” every year? For those who’ve since managed to forget, this summed up the Mets from 2011-2013, and only the unexpected brilliance of rookies Jacob deGrom and Jeurys Familia carried the team closer to .500 in 2014.
Personally, when I look at the 2018 squad, I see a lot of 2012. Let’s indulge in a wistful reminiscence of that knuckleball-filled season, and see if it provides any takeaways for the Mets’ current roster.
The cast of characters
The Cy Young candidate
With all hopes of contention gone before the end of July, 2012 Mets fans had one reason to tune in every five days: the brilliance of R.A. Dickey. Some historic feats early in the season (back-to-back one-hitters in June!) put him on the map as one of the best stories of the year, and he charged into August and September pursuing 20 wins and a Cy Young award.
When he had his A+ knuckleball he was a strikeout machine, and when he didn’t, Dickey got by on guts and determination. Whenever he was in trouble, he seemed to find a way to dot the corner with a surprise fastball, or induce a chopper for a double play. R.A. seemed to single-handedly will the team to victory on the days he started; rarely has a Mets pitcher fielded his position with more gusto or run harder to first base than the 37-year-old journeyman with the thick beard.
Of course, all those wins weren’t really single-handed. The team still had to score a few runs, catch some deep fly balls, and close the door in the 8th and 9th. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it, Jacob deGrom?
The blossoming #2 starter
Jon Niese had teased the Mets for years with various combinations of a nasty cutter, a nasty curve, and elite velocity for a lefty starter. In 2012, he improved his control and went on his first sustained run of excellence.
We can see some parallels in the Mets tenure of Zack Wheeler, though Zack’s 2018 turnaround has been far more dramatic.
The young catcher playing himself into a back-up role
Josh Thole and Kevin Plawecki were both supposed to hit for high enough averages to make up for their mediocre arms. Nope.
The slugging first baseman with contact issues
Back in 2012, most teams still valued a guy who could hit 30 homers and not do much else. Ike Davis was viewed as a probable cornerstone of the Mets’ lineup, despite his whiff rate. Now, in 2018, with such players often available in the free agent bargain bin, poor Peter Alonso can’t even get a call-up.
(In case this is news to anyone, Alonso struck out 77 times in 65 games for Las Vegas.)
The contact-hitting second baseman
It’s still early for Jeff McNeil, but he shows all the signs of becoming a Mets-era Daniel Murphy: great contact ability, occasional pop, few walks, not exactly a natural at second base. Hopefully McNeil can avoid the injury bug that bit the Mets’ last Murphy clone, T.J. Rivera.
The really, really young shortstop
In 2010, Ruben Tejada blew our minds by showing himself to be a capable MLB shortstop at the age of 20. Despite his lack of exceptional tools, he showed enough quickness, contact ability, and intelligence both in the field and at the plate, to raise hopes very high indeed. In 2012, Ruben hit .320 into mid-August while rating as an average defender at short. Terry Collins named him as the team’s cornerstone player to build around heading into the future.
From there it was all down hill.
Amed Rosario likewise impressed onlookers at an early age, though in a very different way, flashing tools in AAA rather than poise in MLB. Handed the Mets’ starting shortstop job at age 22, Rosario is still viewed by some as a future cornerstone, but his lackluster results are beginning to dim those hopes.
The future middle of the order hitter, or maybe not
Lucas Duda absolutely destroyed the minors in 2010 and 2011, but his early days in MLB were mixed. Showing the quickest bat and most natural power on the team, Duda alternated between great at bats and terrible ones. When hot, he was very selective, drawing walks and murdering the pitches he got to hit. When cold, he’d consistently wave through anything sinking below the knees, with little ability to read change-ups and breaking balls. He was also toast against lefties.
Michael Conforto has been much the same so far in his major league career, but with more prolonged slumps and more prolonged streaks. With a torrid first half of 2017, Conforto had everyone dreaming of a perennial All-Star hitter, but that hitter hasn’t shown himself once in 2018.
The toolsy outfielder on the rise
The 2012 Mets featured an athletic outfielder who had recently put together a very impressive minor league season, and instantly showed a decent combination of pop and patience in the majors. His name was Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and scouts were torn on whether he’d be a future regular or future fringe player.
Brandon Nimmo entered 2018 in much the same position. Like Kirk, he got off to a good start. Unlike Kirk, he’s kept it up. Look out, though. That whiff rate that proved to be Nieuwenhuis’s undoing? Nimmo’s is nearly identical.
The part-time masher
Scott Hairston was the 2012 Mets’ second-best hitter after David Wright. Scott never provided enough consistency or defensive value to be a regular, but he could certainly hit rockets when he was on.
While Hairston was a two-year free agent, his modern counterpart, Wilmer Flores, is one of the longest-tenured Mets and a fan favorite.
The giant pile of wasted money
Johan Santana gave the Mets one great season and a few good ones before his body betrayed him. Jason Bay fell apart very quickly after donning the orange and blue. In 2012, the pair contributed a combined -0.9 WAR for $40M.
Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce have provided -0.1 WAR for their $40M salary in 2018.
After 2012, the Mets continued to sputter along until everything converged late in 2015. Of the 2012 players mentioned above, only Murphy and Duda were regulars, with Tejada and Niese useful in part-time roles. Dickey was traded for a serviceable catcher and a hard-throwing kid who took off in the Mets’ system. Santana and Bay were gone, with Nieuwenhuis a 25th man, on and off the roster.
Will history repeat itself?
Can you imagine this Mets team reaching the 2021 World Series?
• A red-hot Jeff McNeil, coming off a merely decent season, anchoring the playoff lineup from the #3 spot with lots of tough at bats and surprising pop.
• Michael Conforto batting 5th against righties, with enough easy whiffs to frustrate, but enough walks and homers to be useful.
• Amed Rosario as a part-time shortstop, allowing the Mets to switch and pinch-hit for another mediocre option at the position.
• Zack Wheeler bumped from the rotation due to health and consistency issues, but contributing out of the bullpen.
• Nimmo subbing in to hit the occasional triple or make the occasional diving catch.
• Bruce and Cespedes a distant memory.
• Some emerging ace and catcher stepping into the spotlight after being acquired for deGrom in 2018.
That team is still missing most of the key components that would make it a winner. However, way back in 2012, we didn’t see deGrom, Familia, and Cespedes on the horizon either.
Now, if only we had a young Matt Harvey bursting onto the scene and a David Wright still playing like a star when healthy…