Are the Mets better off than they were entering 2016?
The story so far…
After providing fans with an exquisite array of heartbreak, disappointment, frustration and disgust from 2007-2013, the Mets finally reversed course in 2014. Despite a 79-83 record, the 2014 season saw a big jump forward thanks to Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom and 6th-runner-ups Travis d’Arnaud and Jeurys Familia. Add in the emergence of Juan Lagares and Lucas Duda, and the progress of several top prospects, and the future finally looked bright. In 2015, that future arrived in late July, when acquisitions to bolster a weak supporting cast allowed the team’s exceptional starting pitching to carry the Mets all the way to game five of the World Series. Entering 2016, the New York baseball headlines eagerly questioned whether the Nationals had a realistic shot at the Mets, and whether the Mets had a realistic shot at “Best Rotation Ever.”
So what actually happened in 2016?
Well, the short answer is that the team finished 8 games behind the Nationals but won 87 games and made it to the Wild Card game, where a bad outing from Jeurys Familia was all Madison Bumgarner needed to send the Mets home for the winter.
The long answer is much more complicated. Very little went exactly as planned. There were a lot of disappointments, but also a lot of pleasant surprises. The pitching staff did excel, but that was less about Matt Harvey and more about minor leaguers stepping up and a career year for the team’s 8th inning guy. The Mets’ corner infield bats got hurt, but the middle infielders suddenly morphed into sluggers. Prospects backslid, and aging veterans turned it on late. Given their position in mid-August, playing past Game 162 was a triumph, and the 2016 team deserves as much credit for clutch play and intangibles as any Mets squad in recent memory.
I’m not sure where all that leaves us going forward. Should Mets fans be optimistic based on two consecutive playoff appearances? Or should we be pessimistic based on the team’s worsening injury history, the projections which all favor the Nationals, and the fact that 2016’s path to success doesn’t exactly look repeatable? Should 2016 be viewed as this team’s toughest trial, or as the kind of grind they’ll need to endure every year if they hope to play in upcoming Octobers?
Let’s examine how the Mets’ roster has progressed since this time last year. I’ll focus on future takeaways, but also give some nods to 2016’s developments in the never-ending soap opera that is Mets fandom.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Travis d’Arnaud – stock: down
From 2013-2015, d’Arnaud juggled health, offense, and defense. He never put all three together at once, but seemed to be trending upward overall. That came to a halt in 2016, when he combined injury with poor play on both sides of the ball. The missed time and the ugly throwing would have been much easier to tolerate if he’d repeated his .485 slugging percentage from 2015; unfortunately, he cratered at .323 instead. Age 28 isn’t necessarily all that late in a catcher’s development, so d’Arnaud retains some of his ceiling, but he’s shown that his floor is way too low for a contending team’s comfort.
Kevin Plawecki – stock: down
Plawecki showed some pop in AAA Las Vegas but missed time with injuries and somehow hit even worse against MLB pitching than in 2015. A much better game-caller and more effective thrower than d’Arnaud, Plawecki discovered that neither is a big league ticket with guys like Rene Rivera waiting on the scrap heap.
Rene Rivera – stock: unchanged
His strong arm and veteran confidence make up for the OBP hole he provides at the bottom of the order. His overall value probably isn’t far from what we could have expected from Plawecki at this stage.
Lucas Duda – stock: down
At age 30, Duda looked to have settled in as a player, with his above-average bat carrying his first base-only glove and subpar wheels. Unfortunately, he missed over 100 games with a stress fracture in his back. That isn’t the sort of injury that tends to ever just leave professional athletes alone. Duda looked slim and locked in at the plate this spring, but the team is still working hard on back-up plans.
Wilmer Flores – stock: up
Wilmer didn’t hit righties well at all in 2016 (.232/.289/.353), and was a butcher at all four infield positions (though some of that’s understandable as he was learning them on the fly, often without warning). He also missed the team’s big stretch drive with a wrist injury. On the plus side, he emerged as one of the better lefty-mashers in the league, putting up a spectacular .340/.383/.710 line in 100 ABs. Going forward, he could form an excellent platoon with Duda, while giving the team flexibility as a pinch-hitter and defensive sub at several positions. At age 25, there’s still room for growth.
Neil Walker – stock: unchanged
Amid the MLB-wide 2016 power boom, a lot of Walker’s doubles from years past turned into homeruns. He had his cold stretches, but came up huge at the plate from late July to late August when the Mets began to turn their season around. He slashed .440/.490/.725 over his final 30 games before back injuries shelved him. Those injuries, plus Walker’s age and lack of great range to begin with, have me very worried about his defensive contributions in 2017, but at least he’s a safe bet to out-slug most men at his position.
T.J. Rivera – stock: up
If Walker’s back lands him on the disabled list, at least the Mets have a back-up option who’s shown he can hit major league pitching. Rivera’s eye and power stroke are both works in progress, and no one knows just yet whether he’s a better overall player than the Mets’ other minor league options at the position, but at least T.J. makes contact and hits line drives. With second base possibly being Flores’ best position, and with Gavin Cecchini hitting well in AAA, the Mets have solid depth behind Walker.
Jose Reyes – stock: unchanged
After playing poorly in 2015 and assaulting his wife in the offseason, Jose Reyes was released by the Rockies and went unclaimed by the other 29 major league teams. The Mets eventually signed him, and after unsuccessfully cycling through Wilmer Flores and Ty Kelly at third base, they gave Jose a shot at the hot corner. The results were mixed. Reyes started some rallies and brought back great memories of “Reyes runs” from a decade ago, but only stole 9 bases while posting a .326 OBP. He showed his quick hands and feet at third, but made a ton of misplays due to his lack of experience at the position. His surprising power (more than he showed in Toronto’s bandbox or the thin air of Colorado) and ability to sub in at shortstop made him a useful addition in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be an asset at third base in 2017. At least his teammates seemed to appreciate the Energizer Bunny aspect he brought to the dugout and clubhouse, and his floor is probably higher than 2016’s Plan B at third, Wilmer Flores.
David Wright – stock: down
Any realist knew Wright’s career might be over after 2015. He gave the Mets a few good ABs in 2016, plus a bunch of innings where he rated as the worst defensive third baseman in the game. At this point I think most Mets fans are hoping Wright finds a way to go out with dignity. It’s not impossible that he contributes on the field at some point, but with a bad neck, back and shoulder, the odds are stacked against him.
Asdrubal Cabrera – stock: up
I don’t know how Asdrubal Cabrera was Asdrubal Cabrera at the plate for 8 years and then posted career highs in slugging and OPS in 2016, including a .366/.427/.687 tear from mid-August through late September to carry the Mets to a playoff spot. It’d probably be silly for us to expect anything like that again. Still, now at least we know he has it in him… His fielding was largely as advertised: great hands, but not enough range for shortstop. The clock is ticking for Amed Rosario’s arrival.
Yoenis Cespedes – stock: unchanged
Even if he didn’t replicate 2015 at the plate, Cespedes proved he could anchor a lineup, slugging near .600 for much of the season, driving in runs, and probably putting more fear into opponents than any Met since Carlos Delgado. Unfortunately, he suffered a leg injury early on which the Mets never gave him DL time to heal, leaving him compromised in the field and on the bases for much of the year. He proved inflexible in the outfield, refusing to play right field, where the Mets need him most, and eventually begging off center field in favor of 35-year-old Curtis Granderson. Maybe Cespedes will rediscover his Gold Glove form in left, but watching him slowly chug around the field for all of spring training makes me nervous.
Michael Conforto – stock: down
A .220/.310/.414 line is nothing short of a disaster given how high fans’ hopes got for the sweet-swinging sophomore. For a kid who started 2015 in A-ball, however, it can reasonably be seen as growing pains. Conforto utterly destroyed AAA pitching when demoted, lending credence to the hopes that MLB success is only a matter of time. Unfortunately for Michael, the Mets are prioritizing other things over his development, and few young players excel when used as subs, platoon partners, emergency call-ups, or any of the other roles Conforto faced late in 2016 and is likely to face again in 2017. We may have to wait until 2018 to see what he can really do. To be fair to the Mets, Conforto did whiff his way out of the lineup in 2016, posting 150 ABs of putrid .148/.217/.303 production after getting embarrassed by Madison Bumgarner and then hurting his wrist.
Curtis Granderson – stock: unchanged
Granderson’s 2016 was a weak, flailing shadow of his brilliant 2015. He was among the team’s biggest problems for the first 4+ months of the season, failing to get on base at the top of the order, and not getting to many balls in right field. It was unrealistic to expect a complete repeat of 2015, but the diminished batting eye / plate discipline combo was a major disappointment. Fortunately, Curtis redeemed his season in the last 6 weeks, moving over to play a capable center field after the Mets exhausted five other options, and hitting many of his homeruns in extremely clutch spots. Most projection systems assume that, having just turned 36, Grandy is a safe bet to decline, but his physique and skill set both look largely unchanged to my eyes. If the Mets don’t burn him out with too many innings in center field, I expect his broad base of skills to pan out in one way or another.
Juan Lagares – stock: unchanged
Lagares didn’t bounce back to his 2013-2014 glory, but he did stem the tide of decline from 2015. Extreme positioning continued to take certain plays away from him, but a few lost pounds and a healthier arm returned him to the ranks of the defensive elite. At the plate he continued to struggle with righties and hold his own against lefties. It’s hard not to see more offensive upside in his powerful frame, but the smart money says that Juan is who he is at this point in his career. Whether the Mets would be better off giving more time to Juan’s glove or to a lesser fielder’s bat remains to be seen.
Jay Bruce – stock: down
Bruce may have upped his personal stock a bit with a hot first half in 2016, but he’s certainly a less inspiring player than any of the starters in the Mets’ 2016 outfield. A solid but not top-shelf power hitter with no other skills, Bruce found his $13 million salary completely untradeable over the winter, no matter how hard the Mets tried to move him after re-signing Cespedes. At least he seems like a stand-up guy. I’ll be rooting for a hot start, but after that I’ll be rooting for a trade. I just don’t have any faith in a guy with a .309 OBP and -3.7 defensive WAR over his last five years.
Noah Syndergaard – stock: way up
Making it through 190 innings with the highest velocity in the game is no small feat! Neither is leading the league in FIP (the verison of ERA based solely on walks, strikeouts, and homeruns). Thor brought some of the mightiest raw stuff ever seen on a major league mound, highlighted by a fastball that reached 101 mph and a slider that reached 95. He finished 8th in the Cy Young vote, and could do better in the future as he learns to change speeds and locations more. Other areas for improvement including holding runners (he allowed the most steals in MLB by a mile) and easing his motion to take some of the strain off his elbow, where a developing bone spur has me nervously crossing my fingers.
Jacob deGrom – stock: down
When deGrom’s elbow nerve isn’t paining him, the man can pitch: before his last three injured starts, he sported a better ERA and WHIP than the mighty Thor. Unfortunately injuries were a major factor in 2016, adding deGrom to the Mets’ list of hard-throwing question marks. Here’s hoping that surgery to move a nerve and an offseason of rest for a strained lat are all he needs to beat 2016’s 148 innings.
Matt Harvey – stock: way down
World Series regrets. Projections of dominance. Bladder infections. Petulance. Command issues. Troubles with men on base. Troubles the third time through the order. Back leg mechanical issues. Nerves. Tweaks. Rib removal. That was the sequence of Matt Harvey’s 2016. The end result was that he was torched to a .302/.345/.452 line, took 10 losses in 17 starts, and pitched past the 6th inning only twice. From my vantage point, it looked even worse than that – it looked like any time he faced any adversity on the field, he utterly melted down and single-handedly pitched the Mets out of the game. I suppose it’s possible that everything that hit the papers was a smokescreen and the real issue was feeling in his fingertips, and thoracic outlet surgery will restore that. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that forcing his way into coughing up the World Series in 2015 has scarred Harvey and made him too fragile and defensive (see the boycott of the press after a few bladder jokes) to handle the pressures and failures that come with the job of MLB pitcher. The saga continues…
Steven Matz – stock: down
Matz looked great early in 2016, showing improving breaking stuff and a fastball that hitters had trouble squaring up. Then he developed painful bone spurs in his elbow, pitched poorly, strained his shoulder, and was sent to the surgeon’s table. The Mets’ use of TrackMan to assist Matz in repeating the mechanics that were slowly shredding his arm clearly didn’t help, and being called a baby for reporting his discomfort probably hasn’t helped either. He starts 2017 on the DL.
Zack Wheeler – stock: down
Wheeler entered 2016 looking to finish his rehab around midseason, then use the second half of the year to find his groove, hopefully helping the Mets but at least getting back on track for a good 2017. None of that happened. After getting back on the mound, Wheeler suffered enough arm issues that he had to be shut down. Wheeler’s personal stock is merely down, but if you compare him to the ultra-reliable Bartolo Colon he replaces, this is a jump way down for the Mets.
Robert Gsellman – stock: way up
Who? That guy who struck out a pathetic 5.4 batters per 9 innings in single-A and double-A ball in 2015? The same guy who was barely on the radar as insurance for the insurance for the insurance policies on the rotation, behind guys like Rafael Montero and Logan Verrett? Maybe we shouldn’t make too much of 7 big league starts, but Gsellman certainly looked like a major leaguer down the stretch in 2016, getting grounders with solid command of a mid-90s sinker and hitting the edges of the zone with respectable breaking stuff.
Jeurys Familia – stock: unchanged
Familia entered 2016 as an elite closer, and saving 51 games in 56 opportunities certainly didn’t diminish that status. He did show a troubling pattern, though, having no idea where the ball was going to his first few batters before eventually getting a key strikeout or double play to wriggle out of a jam. It also remains to be determined whether his repeated October difficulties are mental, physical, or just a random blip.
Addison Reed – stock: up
Aside from a few very short bad stretches, Reed was an absolute rock in the 8th inning. He kept the ball down and hitters seemed to have trouble reading the movement on his fastball and slider. Perhaps 2016 was simply the sort of career year that most relievers never repeat, but it’s also not hard to imagine that Reed established a new level of consistency at age 27.
Hansel Robles – stock: unchanged
Robles’ offerings alternated between unhittable and meatballs for most of the year. Poor command to his glove side made him much tougher on lefties than righties.
Fernando Salas vs the field – stock: unchanged
Salas has been a roughly league-average pitcher over the course of his career as a short reliever. He brings less risk but also less upside than Jim Henderson and Erik Goeddel.
Jerry Blevins – stock: unchanged
Blevins was effective all year, except when facing too many righties or throwing too many fastballs.
Josh Edgin and Josh Smoker vs the field – stock: down
Edgin struggled to get healthy. Smoker made his MLB debut at age 27, showing a swing-and-miss fastball but little command. I’d rank that a step down from 2016’s plan of Antonio Bastardo, who’d had a good career until the Mets got him.
Seth Lugo and Rafael Montero vs the field – stock: unchanged
2015 swingman extraordinaire Logan Verrett contributed two nice starts in April 2016 before turning into a walk-and-homer machine for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, the Mets steadfastly refuse to convert Sean Gilmartin to the LOOGY job he was obviously suited for when the team acquired him, and MLB righties predictably beat him up in 2016 (1.073 OPS). This year’s multi-role replacement is Seth Lugo, who came out of nowhere during the 2016 stretch drive to keep the Mets’ injured rotation afloat with a combo of good pitching and good luck. After pitching Team Puerto Rico to the World Baseball Classic final, he’s now on the disabled list – either that best-rotation-in-baseball curveball or all those high-stress pitches in March clearly didn’t agree with his elbow. Replacing him is Rafael Montero, who was last good in 2013 but opened eyes in spring training.
Minor leaguers of note
Dilson Herrera – stock: down
Failing to continue his recent growth trend, Herrera was only okay in Las Vegas and was ultimately shipped to a Reds team looking to get whatever they could for Jay Bruce.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: up
Yeah, everyone hits in Las Vegas, but .352 is still pretty good! In his MLB cup of coffee, Nimmo showed decent range and battled his way to a .338 OBP.
Dominic Smith – stock: up
Showed more patience and power at AA than he had in A ball.
Gavin Cecchini – stock: unchanged
Duplicated his AA numbers in AAA, but doesn’t look like shortstop material.
Amed Rosario – stock: way up
Beginning 2016 as a toolsy kid to dream on, Rosario made huge strides across two levels, jumping toward the top of many gurus’ prospect lists. A good shortstop with a little speed and the ability to hit the ball hard, he now seems like a sure major leaguer, possibly even a star if he develops some power and patience.
Summing it up
Changes since a year ago
Stock way down: Matt Harvey, Logan Verrett.
Stock down: Most of the rotation (deGrom, Matz, Wheeler, losing Colon), three supposed lineup fixtures (d’Arnaud, Conforto, Duda), the previous pitching depth (Edgin, Gilmartin, Goeddel), David Wright, Kevin Plawecki, and the advent of Jay Bruce (and the Herrera he rode in on).
Stock unchanged: Lineup anchors Granderson, Walker and Cespedes, bullpen mainstays Familia, Robles and Blevins, key bench guys Lagares and Rene Rivera, plus the additions of Reyes and Salas. Also Montero and Cecchini if anyone cares.
Stock up: Asdrubal Cabrera, Addison Reed, and a bunch of back-ups (Flores, T.J. Rivera, Smoker, Lugo) and prospects (Nimmo, Smith).
Stock way up: Noah Syndergaard, Robert Gsellman, Amed Rosario.
Syndergaard is on a two-year streak straight up, while Wright is on a three-year streak straight down. Second base has been generally stable in recent years, as has middle relief for the last two. Asdrubal Cabrera has improved the team’s outlook at shortstop in two straight years, first by signing, and then by being better than expected.
Beyond these trends, there have been a lot of minor fluctuations, and a few dramatic reversals. It was nice to see Wilmer Flores and Brandon Nimmo get their careers headed back in the right direction after rocky 2015 seasons. On the other hand, Harvey, Matz, deGrom and Conforto all saw their ascents to stardom take a wrong turn in 2016.
And the verdict is…
The Mets entered 2016 fresh off a World Series appearance and without any specific health concerns for their marquee attraction, the starting rotation. Readers at MetsToday predicted them to win 88 to 101 games, with only two readers predicting less than 90.
I don’t anticipate such optimism this time around.
Noah Syndergaard has become quite the sensation, and the emergence of back-ups like Seth Lugo and T.J. Rivera should help the team weather some injuries, but there’s a lot more uncertainty around this team than there was back when Harvey had all the bones in his ribcage and Matz didn’t have an extra one in his elbow. Will those developments derail the Mets? How about Duda’s back or d’Arnaud’s shoulder? Or Conforto’s swing?
How much will Mets fans miss Bartolo Colon when Zack Wheeler is getting pulled after 4 or 5 innings with elevated pitch counts?
In my eyes, the steps taken by Thor and Reed and the bench and back-ups don’t quite make up for the injury and effectiveness questions now plaguing a half-dozen key players. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not predicting a return to the false hope, acrimony and embarrassment of Mets life before mid-2015; I do think the 2017 Mets will win many more games than they lose.
Would I bet on them winning enough to make the postseason, though?
Ask me again after we see how Matz, Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom, and even Syndergaard make it through April.