Are the Mets Better Off Than They Were Entering 2015?
So much can change in three months! Consider the Mets in July 2015, and then again after October 2015. In July, the same trends that had been vexing Mets fans for four-plus years showed no signs of changing. The Alderson-era Mets: penny-pinching owners, hit-and-miss player acquisitions, some pleasant surprises from the minors but also some disappointments, lots of spin and hype and hype and spin, and a team battling for .500. Four-plus years of that, preceded by four years of other types of disappointment, and fans were actually buying billboard space to demand new owners. Three months later? The Mets enter the World Series amidst congratulations, alternately on sticking with their plan and on striking gold with a trade deadline rental.
That trade deadline was one for the ages. Whether it was due to money freed up by Wright’s injury insurance and Mejia’s suspension, or due to pressure from irate or absent fans, or due to a strategic decision that a golden opportunity to strike had arrived, we’ll probably never know. What we do know is that the Wilpons offered up the dollars, and Alderson offered up the prospects, to import Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard, Yoenis Cespedes, and eventually Addison Reed. These players made major contributions, Conforto arrived from AA, d’Arnaud and Wright got healthy, Murphy got hot, the starters didn’t run out of gas, and the Mets became a juggernaut.
After watching deGrom, Harvey and Sydergaard storm into the World Series, most fans and pundits expect the domination to continue. The golden rental player, Cespedes, re-upped for a team-friendly contract, with the team increasing its budget to near pre-Alderson levels to sign him. That .500 team from last July is a distant memory.
Would people think differently if Murphy hadn’t gone on his postseason tear, and the Mets had lost to the Dodgers in the first round? Or if Cespedes hadn’t gone on the hottest tear of his career shortly after joining the team? Or if the Mets had completed their first-choice trade (Wheeler and Flores for Carlos Gomez, who instead went to the Astros and was awful) or their second-choice trade (Wheeler for Jay Bruce, who instead stayed with the Reds and was awful)? Or if the Nationals, still the superior team on paper by some projection models, hadn’t made themselves a punch line by choking the division away?
How far has this team really come? The Mets took a big jump forward in 2014, led by deGrom, Mejia, Familia, Duda and Lagares, beating their 74-win projection by 5 and out-scoring the opposition by 11 runs. That improvement, plus the return of Matt Harvey, led the projections to jump up 7 wins heading into 2015, to 81. Did the Mets make comparably sustainable gains in 2015, in the course of winning 90? Let’s go position by position and see what has changed.
Travis d’Arnaud – stock: unchanged
In 2013, d’Arnaud showed he could catch, but maybe not hit or stay healthy. In 2014, d’Arnaud showed he could hit and stay healthy, but maybe not catch. In 2015, d’Arnaud showed he could hit and more or less catch, but maybe not stay healthy. He’s capable of being an outstanding player – ripping liners, crushing homers, blocking pitches and throwing out runners with average skill, and framing pitches with the league’s better receivers. But his swing can get slow, and his release can get slow, leaving him streaky on both sides of the ball. And an awkward attempted tag cost him months of time, once again bringing his durability into question.
Kevin Plawecki – stock: up
This bat-first minor leaguer showed he could catch and throw and run a major league pitching staff. He has a weak arm, but does everything else well, including a quick release that makes him a nearly average thrower against base-stealers. This was the good news. The bad news was that this contact hitter struck out a lot against MLB pitching, leaving questions over whether the bat will actually play. For now, optimism seems warranted, as he had a ton on his plate in 2015, including a bout with vertigo.
Lucas Duda – stock: unchanged
Duda solidified his gains from 2014, putting up a similar year overall. He had a much worse prolonged cold stretch, but also more red-hot stretches. He hit lefties better than in 2014 at some points, but not at others. He had more trouble with righty offspeed stuff than in the past, but murdered fastballs. He continues to get the most out of his talent in the field, making up for subpar athleticism by giving maximum effort.
Eric Campbell – stock: unchanged
Campbell hit a bunch of live drives right at outfielders. His luck can only improve, but still, he failed to provide many reasons for optimism that he can translate his AAA success to MLB.
Neil Walker – stock: unchanged
In 2015, Daniel Murphy was Daniel Murphy. Then he started pulling for power in September, went on a historic tear in mid-October, and cooled off in late October. Now he’s gone, leaving 8 years of Met memories, good and bad. From what I can gather, Neil Walker is a slightly better overall player due to being average defensively instead of distinctly subpar, but we’ll see how Walker’s higher-strikeout bat plays in the Mets lineup.
David Wright – stock: way down
Wright followed up a bad 2014 with an “is his career over?” beginning to 2015. He eventually pulled off an amazing return from a serious spinal condition to participate in the pennant race and postseason, but no one knows how durable and effective he can be going forward. Given how he hit in 2014, and given how he fielded late in 2015, and given his age and back, I’d say that expecting any semblance of the old David Wright would be incredibly optimistic.
Wilmer Flores – stock: down
In 2014, Flores didn’t impress with his range, eye, or bat speed, but it was his first real exposure to MLB, and at age 22, we all cut him some slack, figuring the minor league line-drive machine would show up eventually. Well, 2015 was not that year. He slugged 10 HRs in the season’s first 11 weeks, but had a lot of trouble at shortstop. Later in the season, his fielding became more reliable (though still not up to middle infielder standards for range), but his slugging declined. Not a starter in the playoffs, he was forced into action by injury and slugged .293. The Mets’ 2015 starting shortstop enters 2016 as a back-up player (albeit a beloved one, thanks to some on-field tears at the trade deadline).
Asdrubal Cabrera – stock: up
Cabrera is not a great player, and it’s arguable whether he’s even a good one, but he should probably be seen as an upgrade at shortstop over how the Mets entered 2015 at the position. Only mild optimists thought Flores would hit, and only extreme optimists thought he would field. Cabrera should at least be non-terrible at both.
Michael Conforto – stock: way up
Being reasonable and cautious, one shouldn’t expect anything different from Conforto in 2016 than what the Mets expected from Cuddyer in 2015. It was assumed that Cuddyer could hit, maybe even hit very well, and be passable in the field. Conforto has much higher upside, but enters 2016 with only 425 plate appearances above A ball, so expecting him to fulfill it immediately seems unfair. Ignoring Cuddyer’s actual performance (mostly awful) and instead referring to expectations, one could rate this as only a slight upgrade to LF for the Mets. For Conforto himself, though, 2015 was an amazing leap forward, from A ball to arguably being the Mets’ best hitter in the World Series.
Alejandro De Aza versus Kirk Nieuwenhuis – stock: unchanged
Kirk’s 2015 started out with awful luck, included some hot hitting in the middle, and ended with a lot of inactivity. Now a member of the Brewers and still a good all-around player with major strikeout issues, Nieuwenhuis been replaced by De Aza, a worse all-around player with a more consistent track record of hitting righties.
Yoenis Cespedes – stock: up
The biggest Mets signing since Jason Bay, Cespedes returns to the city he dominated in 2015’s pennant drive. Even though he shouldn’t be expected to match that hot stretch, he’s an exciting talent whose combo of speed, throwing, and power brings more to the Mets than Lagares’s glove. His game has a lot of holes – rarely walks, often chases, can’t hit the high pitch or the righty slider, awkward reads and routes in CF, doesn’t always bust it in the OF – so disappointment isn’t impossible. But he also has a chance to be a serious difference-maker.
Juan Lagares – stock: way down
The most disappointing Met of 2015. At ages 24-25 he did a ton to leave his non-prospect status in the dust, but at 26 he may have showed where that status came from. His hitting regressed to its 2013 levels, and some combo of fear, poor positioning, and decreasing speed rendered his extraordinary range ordinary. His arm never returned to its former strength, and in fact became a liability as teams took extra bases on him at will. The 2014 NL Gold Glove winner in CF enters 2016 as a bench player.
Curtis Granderson – stock: way up
After being bad at most facets of the game in 2014 at age 33, Granderson leapt forward on every front at age 34. From April 6 through November 1, Granderson was the most consistent Met, grinding out ABs, getting on base, mixing in a solid number of line drives, and running the bases adequately or better. Leading off all year, he led MLB in pitches faced, a major boon to his teammates. He was also the Mets’ most consistent clutch hitter, racking up the team’s highest total of Win Probability Added. He continued to awkwardly circle around the ball in the outfield, but contributed a number of nice catches, and even improved his throwing as the year went on. A look at Granderson’s stats over the last several years indicates that his 2015 hitting was a fluke, but watching him every day told a different story. With his high K rate, I do expect his .259 AVG to drop, but I see no reason why he can’t continue to be a significant asset at leadoff, which is far more than anyone could reasonably have expected after 2014.
Matt Harvey – stock: up
Some of the 2015 numbers – the ERA, the walk rate, the healthy innings – were nothing short of spectacular for a first year back from Tommy John surgery. Other elements were not so spectacular, though: the decreased Ks, increased HRs, ineffective change-up, and moments of “24 and 1” distraction. On balance, this was about what could have been expected, in the form of one of baseball’s best pitchers (that guy we saw in 2013) not quite back up to the top of his game. Perhaps the biggest question was whether he could get through the year healthy, and he answered that with a resounding affirmative.
Jacob deGrom – stock: way up
2014 wasn’t a fluke. DeGrom’s fastball was even nastier in 2015, at times competing for honors of best heater in the game with its combination of velocity, late jump, and location to all quadrants of the plate. His poise, impressive from his first day in the majors, grew to legendary status in beating Clayton Kershaw in the Mets’ first playoff game in 9 years, followed by beating Zack Greinke in a winner-take-all Game 5 which he trailed after 1, lacking his best stuff. Striking out the side in the All-Star Game on 10 pitches was pretty cool too. If deGrom, soon to be 28, has already maxed out, there’s nothing wrong with that. He finished 7th in the NL Cy Young voting and Carlos Gonzalez called him the best pitcher in the league.
Noah Syndergaard – stock: way up
2014 slowed Noah’s roll a bit, and he didn’t initially take it too well, publicly griping about a lack of a call-up. He did a lot of maturing between October and May, though, eventually arriving in the big leagues after 5 dominant starts in AAA. His first few MLB starts showed great velocity and good location but he still looked like a significant work in progress. However, the speed of his improvement from then on was incredible. Syndergaard finished with a K rate of 10.0 and a BB rate of 1.9, stats which would put him among the league leaders in any year, a truly phenomenal achievement for a 22-year-old rookie. His last 3 appearances of 2015: a shutdown 7th inning in relief to hold a 1-run lead in a winner-take-all playoff game; 9 Ks over 5.2 innings to shut down the 97-win Cubs; and an intimidating World Series win against a red-hot Royals team. His huge 2014-2015 innings jump and slightly short-arm motion provide causes for injury concern, but Syndergaard maintained his command deeper into his pitch counts than any other Met. If there’s anyone in the organization who can regularly throw 120 pitches, Thor is probably the guy.
Steven Matz – stock: up
Jon Niese’s 6th and final year as a Mets staple was a weird one, including some excellent starts in the middle of the year, some excellent relief at the end, and a lot of inconsistency before and between. In to replace him is Matz, who struck out a lot of opponents and kept the HRs down in pitcher-devouring Las Vegas before giving the Mets 9 uneven starts wrapped around an injury. Though his personal stock has to be way up, finishing 2015 in the World Series after finishing 2014 in AA, how much he’ll improve the rotation is an open question. Many scouts see a #3, and many projections peg him for an ERA near the 3.49 Niese sported from 2012 to 2014.
Bartolo Colon – stock: unchanged
The guy from Oakland who avoided blow-up starts didn’t return, but neither did the guy who was prone to injury. For the second straight year, Colon led the Mets in innings but posted an ERA significantly worse than league average. He’ll be back to do it again in 2016.
Zack Wheeler – stock: unchanged
His velocity may well get back to the mid-90s, but command is often the last thing to return, and I’d hate to see what Wheeler’s command looks like with more factors working against it. I expect that whatever Zack does after his July return should be viewed as steps toward 2017 – assuming he completes his rehab without reinjury (just ask Jeremy Hefner whether that’s a guarantee).
Jeurys Familia – stock: way up
Improvements across the board. Better control, fewer walks, more Ks, less reliant on groundball luck, maintained effectiveness when pitching multiple innings or on consecutive days, never got rattled by tough spots. It only took him a few months to go from potential closer to elite closer.
Antonio Bastardo vs the field – stock: down
A new Met heading into 2016, Bastardo’s career has been inconsistent but generally above average. He’s the biggest name to replace the large collection of Mets relievers who crashed and burned in 2015. Jenrry Mejia and Carlos Torres had been solid to excellent. Vic Black had flashed promise. Alex Torres came over for Cory Mazzoni with a record of intermittent dominance. Tyler Clippard, arriving as a rental, brought the best track record of any reliever to pitch for the Mets since K-Rod. All of these men are now gone, due to suspension (Mejia), injury (Black & Parnell), ineffectiveness (Torres & Torres) or free agency (Clippard).
Addison Reed – stock: unchanged
Arriving in August 2015, Reed allowed nearly all his inherited runners to score, showed a short-breaking slider, and didn’t light up the radar gun. Still, he managed to throw his fastball by some hitters with a slightly funky delivery, and post a 1.17 ERA in August and September. News out of spring training is that Warthen’s changed his arm angle to get more downward plane. Reed’s recent years have been good and bad, so fingers crossed…
Hansel Robles – stock: up
Projected as a back-end starter or middle reliever, Robles showed flashes of more in his rookie season, with great velocity and sometimes great run on his fastball. He didn’t seem fazed by big situations, and while his slider wasn’t a wipeout pitch, he also avoided hanging it over the middle. Thanks to inconsistent location, Robles may settle in middle relief, but the fastball looks like enough of a weapon to dream of higher upside.
Erik Goeddel – stock: up
Goeddel showed that his splitter and curve can be major league out pitches. Poor fastball command and health are his major bugaboos.
Sean Gilmartin and Logan Verrett – stock: up
This Rule V pick (Gilmartin) and minor league starter (Verrett) both proved capable of short relief, long relief, and spot starts, helping the team’s versatility.
Jerry Blevins and Josh Edgin – stock: unchanged
Arriving in trade for Matt den Dekker, Blevins was death to lefties for a few weeks before breaking his arm. Edgin hasn’t had any setbacks in his return from Tommy John surgery.
MINOR LEAGUERS OF NOTE
Dilson Herrera – stock: unchanged
After his amazing 2014, Herrera more or less maintained in 2015. He didn’t hit big league pitching much in his limited chances, but did well at AAA and looks like he has a good shot to be the Mets’ everyday second baseman in 2017.
Rafael Montero – stock: way down
A mysterious shoulder injury cost him needed development time and he disappeared from prospect maps. His impressive 2013 is seeming further and further away.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: down
Nimmo didn’t improve on any of his weaknesses (tons of Ks, little power) in 2015, and got hurt to boot. He needs a breakout season at some point to avoid being a 4th outfielder.
Dominic Smith – stock: unchanged
Won his league’s MVP award by hitting .300 with plenty of doubles, but had troubles keeping his weight down and hasn’t yet hit for power.
Gavin Cecchini – stock: up
Cecchini’s high batting average and low strikeout totals against more advanced competition were good to see, though he made a ton of errors at shortstop.
Matt Reynolds – stock: down
After a great 2014, Reynolds regressed mightily and is now further down the future depth chart.
Michael Fulmer, Casey Meisner, John Gant, Luis Cessa and Rob Whalen – stock: up
These players are no longer with the Mets organization, but all made gains during 2015 that made them tradeable for the pieces that fueled the 2015 Mets’ run. On the negative side, these trades combined with several promotions (and a lack of many pleasant minor league surprises) to leave the Mets’ farm system relatively weak (23rd of 30 by one forecaster).
SUMMING IT UP
So, what’s changed since a year ago?
Stock down: Flores, some AAA guys (Nimmo, Reynolds)
Stock unchanged: Duda, d’Arnaud, Colon, Wheeler, second base (Walker vs Murphy), bench (Tejada, Campbell, De Aza vs Nieuwenhuis), set-up relief (Reed and Bastardo vs Torres et al), LOOGYs (Blevins, Edgin), minor league infielders with upside (Herrera, Smith)
Stock up: Harvey, Matz, Plawecki, relief depth (Robles, Goeddel, Gilmartin, Verrett), center field (Cespedes), shortstop (Asdrubal Cabrera), shortstop in waiting (Cecchini)
Stock way up: deGrom, Syndergaard, Conforto, Granderson, Familia
Combined with last year’s list (see link at top), I see a few sad trends, a few more great ones, some major course-corrections, and not a lot of stability over the 2013-2015 span. Rising: Plawecki’s made small gains every year, Familia and deGrom have rocketed from B prospects to All-Stars, and Steven Matz has come a very long way in a very short time since getting healthy in A ball. Falling: In 2013, David Wright was still a star, Rafael Montero looked like he might become one, Bobby Parnell had finally grabbed the closer reins, and Dillon Gee seemed like a reliable #4. Two years of decline later, and now we have to wonder whether the future holds any significant MLB contributions for these four. Stable: Daniel Murphy was perhaps the most predictable Met, and his replacement looks to be about as good. Bartolo Colon is neither star nor scrub, and that doesn’t seem likely to ever change. Reversals: Curtis Granderson’s stellar 2015 completely redeemed his disappointing 2014. Noah Syndergaard’s growth exploded in 2015 after slowing in 2014. On the other end of the spectrum, Juan Lagares, Carlos Torres, and Matt Reynolds couldn’t sustain recent gains in performance, slipping badly in 2015. Jenrry Mejia finally looked ready to take off, then ‘roided himself out of baseball.
Although it’s sad to watch the decline of the best Met regular ever, I’d say that Wright’s fall and the other unpleasant surprises of 2015 were more than balanced out by positive developments. The Mets’ rotation went from promising to World Series headline and offseason “best ever?” fodder. The team solidified first base, found promise at catcher and left field, developed a stud closer, and imported upgrades for shortstop, center field, and the bullpen. This is a much-improved Mets team, and everyone is taking notice. Fans are turning out to watch exciting stars. Ownership is opening the purse strings. Elite free agent Yoenis Cespedes is returning on a short deal in part because he wants to be a Met. National writers are salivating over the upcoming matchups with Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg.
At this time last year, I expected that Granderson would repeat 2014, and that the decline of Wright and loss of Wheeler would spell short-term trouble for the Mets, with Syndergaard, Matz and other reinforcements still a ways off. “2014 did more for my hopes for 2016 and beyond than for my faith in 2015,” were my words then. Well, now it’s 2016, and with a positive 2014 followed by an even more positive 2015, I’m finally ready to say something I haven’t said since the Alderson regime began:
This isn’t a team that’s only capable of winning if everything breaks right – the 2016 Mets should win almost 90 games if everything breaks average.
I’m no longer worried about bad players and bad owners and front office spin – I’m worried about the Nats, and how many wins it will take to beat them for the NL East crown. It’s a nice feeling.
How did you feel about the changes the Mets went through in 2015? Please post your thoughts in the comments.