Are the Mets better off than they were entering 2017?
This is the fifth annual article on this topic.
The story so far…
The Mets breathed hope into a long-suffering fan base with their late charge in 2015, a World Series run that had pundits questioning whether the 2016 Mets rotation would be among the best ever. Did the Nationals even have a realistic shot at the team that had so thoroughly pummeled them in the previous year’s pennant race?
Then Matt Harvey fell apart, Steven Matz got hurt, Zack Wheeler endured setbacks, and only a clutch rally by plans C, D, E and F propelled the Mets to the 2016 wild card game, where they unfortunately got Bumgarnered.
Coming into 2017, most expectations of Met dominance were gone, but many still expected the Mets to be one of the better teams in the game and not too far behind the Nats. Their young aces were expected to rebound, at least somewhat, and many prognosticators foresaw better contributions from Lucas Duda (injured in 2016), Michael Conforto (awful in 2016), or Travis d’Arnaud (injured and awful in 2016). Yoenis Cespedes was expected to contribute more in the field and on the bases, having recovered from the leg injuries he played through in 2016.
Most of those hopes didn’t survive April.
Duda and Conforto did improve, but the pitching completely fell apart in 2017, en route to the second-worst ERA in franchise history.
The Mets’ pitching staffs of 2015-2016 did not walk people. They all threw strikes, from the dominators like Jacob deGrom to the fringe guys like Sean Gilmartin. In 2016, the Mets issued 439 free passes, best in the National League.
In 2017, that number jumped to 593, the third worst total in the N.L.
I have heard no theories as to why this happened, so here’s mine: it was the departure of Bartolo Colon. With his unimpressive velocity and physique, Colon spent 2014-2016 relentlessly throwing strike after strike, never perturbed when a hitter would square one up. That confidence had to inspire his young, chiseled, rocket-armed teammates, didn’t it? Or at least make them ashamed to nibble?
Alas, the Mets let Bart sign with the Braves for 2017, and that didn’t end well for anyone — not for the Mets’ suddenly-skittish pitchers, nor for Bartolo in the Braves’ new launching pad stadium.
Bad pitching wasn’t the 2017 Mets’ only major problem, though. The infield defense was awful, by far the worst in baseball according to the Defensive Runs Saved metric. The Mets’ lack of speed meant they couldn’t manufacture runs, and often relied solely on the homerun. Many of the team’s injury-prone players got injured again, leading players and management alike to lament the season’s run of bad luck.
By early June, the Mets seemed out of the hunt, with the Nationals well on their way to winning 97 games (despite major injuries of their own). By July, the Mets were in full-on sell mode, waving goodbye to Lucas Duda, Neil Walker, Addison Reed, Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson, in exchange for a big bag of nothing. I mean relief prospects. No, wait, I already said that.
After the trade deadline, the Mets went 22-37; the top prospects brought up to provide excitement and improvement did neither; and reports surfaced of “the inmates running the asylum” and the players being “all miserable”.
After concluding their 70-92 season, the Mets said goodbye to longtime manager Terry Collins, bringing on first-time skipper Mickey Callaway. Callaway and new pitching coach Dave Eiland immediately gushed about the talented arms in the Mets rotation, continuing the long-running story that this is a team built on starting pitching.
A lot went wrong in 2017. A few things also went right. Let’s give it all a thorough look-over, and see if we can make sense of what it means for 2018.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Travis d’Arnaud – stock: unchanged
2017 was largely an awful year for d’Arnaud. Blessed with better health than in past seasons, he hit and threw so poorly in the early going that when the Mets really needed a win, scrap-heap pickup Rene Rivera took the field. Coming off a 2016 season in which he rated as below replacement level, Travis did little to raise his stock in 2017, unless you find meaning in a September power surge after the Mets were far removed from contention. Bringing d’Arnaud back in 2018 (while watching the A’s sign Jonathan Lucroy for $6.5M) is a big gamble on a playoff-hopeful team.
Kevin Plawecki – stock: up
Plawecki continued to hit in AAA, and finally translated that success to MLB in his second 2017 call-up. His weak arm and lack of pop limit his ceiling, but he showed enough contact and on-base ability to suggest that he can be an average back-up catcher at least.
Adrian Gonzalez – stock: down
Lucas Duda was a pleasant surprise in 2017, showing no ill effects from the back injury that kept him out for most of 2016. In 2018, the Mets are betting on another back injury victim, but one who’s five years older and looked done when he did play last year. After the Dodgers traded Gonzalez and the Braves released him, A-Gon did nothing in spring training with the Mets to indicate that he’s back to his old self.
Dominic Smith – stock: down
With a good 2017 MLB cameo, Smith would have staked his claim to the Mets’ first base job. Even without that, he might have seized the position with a spectacular spring training in 2018. Sadly, Dom hit under .200 with no range in 2017, and injured himself after one at bat this spring. On the plus side, he got in much better shape this offseason, and his 2017 cameo did include a few impressive homeruns.
Wilmer Flores – stock: up
Wilmer didn’t destroy lefties in 2017 the way he did in 2016, but he began punishing mistakes from righties with more consistency than ever before. Something must have improved in his stance or stride, because he fell over the plate much less often than in the past. He also stayed relatively healthy until fouling a ball off his face on September 2. Overall, he looked more and more like a truly dangerous part-time power bat. His awful fielding and complete lack of patience failed to improve, though, leaving an everyday role unlikely.
Asdrubal Cabrera – stock: unchanged
Of course Cabrera didn’t replicate his clutch, power-packed 2016, but I doubt many expected him to. In 2017, he showed he could play an excellent third base (after Reyes failed at the position), but now Asdrubal is being moved to second, where his lack of range will again be a major problem. At least he makes all the plays on balls hit right to him, knows what he’s doing around the bag, and is a roughly average hitter in most respects. He represents a definite drop-off from Neil Walker at the plate, but offers less risk in the fielding and injury departments.
Jose Reyes – stock: unchanged
In 2017, Reyes was terrible at the plate in the first half and great in the second half. He showed insufficient range at shortstop, but still looked the part, with his agility and strong arm. I’m not sure if he deserves to take playing time away from the Mets’ other infielders, but he’s an excellent insurance policy. T.J. Rivera might be a more consistent hitter, but Reyes’ multi-faceted game probably makes him the better choice as the team’s primary utility infielder.
Todd Frazier – stock: up
For most of his career, Frazier’s been the sort of player who’s currently a dime a dozen in the free agent bin: a high-strikeout corner guy with power and a low batting average. Todd has two things going for him beyond that, though: he’s a quality defender at third base, and last year he started drawing a lot of walks. We may be looking at a Lucas Duda who can man the hot corner.
David Wright – stock: unchanged
After 2016, it didn’t look like David would make it back, and he hasn’t. Although he has yet to officially retire, it would shock no one if that news arrived tomorrow.
Amed Rosario – stock: unchanged
How do you evaluate a prospect who some scouts called the best in the sport? Is he a disappointment because he didn’t do anything special after his call-up, or is he right on schedule because he’s managed to stick in MLB at age 22? In 2017, Rosario displayed more power and speed than many expected, but his game also showed some major holes. His long swing couldn’t catch up to good fastballs, he couldn’t distinguish a ball from a strike at all, and although he got his glove on a decent number of ground balls, he didn’t convert more than an average number into outs. If the Mets had a useful AAA hitting environment, I’d want Rosario back there honing his craft. As Las Vegas doesn’t qualify, however, I guess we’ll see how Amed develops in the New York spotlight. It seems unlikely that he can provide average offense in 2018, but if his defense is enough of an upgrade over the ineffective 2017 corps, we could be talking about a wash, or even a slight improvement, at the shortstop position.
Yoenis Cespedes – stock: down
One of the most disappointing developments of 2017 was the play of Cespedes. His legs were never right, leaving him a liability in the field and on the bases, and there were a few moments where he literally stood still to watch a ball fall in for a hit and then slowly walked over to pick it up. At the plate, he hit some mammoth homeruns in blowouts, but was otherwise an easy out, especially in the clutch. An .892 OPS looks great, but a 0.4 Win Probability Added figure is incredibly poor. Yoenis didn’t wave through the high pitch as much as in the past, but he consistently fished for balls in the dirt and sliders in the opposite batter’s box. Cespedes did get red hot toward the end of August, but his legs gave out for good shortly thereafter. All this from the man who had wowed us with his offseason workouts and created MVP buzz in spring training. Hopefully 2017 was an aberration. The Mets still need Cespedes, now 32, to anchor their lineup and be at least average in left field.
Michael Conforto – stock: up
From a hitter who ended 2016 with his MLB future in doubt, the Mets could not have expected anything more than Conforto’s .279/.384/.555 slash line in 2017. Michael did the majority of his damage early in the season, but he also proved for the first time that he could battle out of a slump. Even when not red-hot, he proved capable of hitting the ball out of the park, and he continued to be aggressive in the field and to make the most of his limited speed on the bases. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he suffered a torn shoulder capsule, the sort of injury that ends hitters’ careers, and that he can’t play an adequate center field, where the Mets are planning to shoehorn him in. Here’s hoping that Conforto makes a miraculous recovery, and that saner heads eventually prevail and give him a home in right field.
Juan Lagares – stock: unchanged
Lagares basically repeated his 2016 in 2017. He batted irregularly and never found a groove, he missed a good chunk of time due to injury, and he remained one of the better defensive outfielders in the game.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: up
After missing time in July with a collapsed lung, Nimmo saw his playing time increase through August, and he carried a .400 OBP into the season’s final fortnight. Batting everywhere in the lineup, he began to look like a future table-setter, seeing 4.41 pitches per plate appearance, not far behind MLB leaders Curtis Granderson and Matt Carpenter. In the field, Nimmo showed a weak arm, but enough range to be solid in a corner and possibly passable as a part-timer in center. FanGraphs’ win projections like the Mets’ chances better with Conforto in right and a Lagares/Nimmo platoon in center, as opposed to Bruce in right and Conforto in center.
Jay Bruce – stock: unchanged
After the rest of MLB showed no interest in Bruce at $13 million for one year, the Mets shipped him away for nothing at the 2017 trade deadline… and then brought him back at $13 million per year, for three years. Although I can’t understand what Bruce is doing back on this team, I do appreciate what he gave the Mets in 2017: a good number of homeruns, solid clutch hitting, and several excellent catches at the edge of his limited range. Of those, I expect the homeruns to continue. It’s also possible that Bruce will help stabilize the clubhouse and team culture. Apparently things got ugly in 2017 after he, Granderson and Walker were traded away.
Noah Syndergaard – stock: down
In 2018, Thor again begins a season with arguably the most impressive stuff in baseball. Unfortunately, the only thing he did with it in 2017 was to prove the doubters right. Which doubters? The doubters who worried that a young starting pitcher throwing 100 mph was going to hurt himself. The sky remains the limit for Noah, but only if a bone spur and a torn lat aren’t the beginning of the end.
Jacob deGrom – stock: unchanged
In 2017, deGrom proved that he could take the ball. Without a stomach ailment costing him his last start of the year, he most likely would have led the National League in innings pitched! The downside of that fortitude was diminishing effectiveness, as Jacob posted a 4.50 ERA over his last 8 starts, and looked gassed for much of August. He also got away from his trademark imperturbable demeanor on the mound, letting all the defensive ineptitude behind him get to him at times. This was the first time since his rookie year when deGrom wasn’t involved in a pennant race, so that may have contributed to a decrease in focus. His homerun rate was alarming at 1.3 per game, but the strikeout rate was spectacular at 10.7. Add it all up, and he still looks like a second-tier ace.
Jason Vargas – stock: up
Compared to all the potential the Mets’ rotation boasted in 2017, a low-upside guy like Vargas is an underwhelming replacement to take into 2018. He’s safer, and quite possibly better, than the current alternatives on the roster, but he’s nowhere near the pitcher the Mets hoped they had in Harvey, Matz, Wheeler, or possibly even Gsellman. Whether those hopes were ever realistic is another matter. If nothing else, Vargas adds valuable stability and depth.
Matt Harvey – stock: down
What? Removing a rib didn’t fix Harvey’s command, mental issues on the mound, and devotion to his teammates? Shocking. In 2017, Matt continued his pitching patterns from 2016, falling apart with men on base or when facing hitters a second or third time. He also added in a new wrinkle: lots of walks. The resulting 6.70 ERA was the worst ever for a Met with that many innings (92). Harvey also got suspended for not showing up to the park one day, embroiled himself in controversy over a poorly-managed moved-up start, and missed all of July and August with shoulder weakness. After every awful outing, he tried to tell the media how he felt he was making progress, but toward the end of the season he admitted that 2017 was just an awful year and he was looking forward to it being over. This spring, his command has looked better, but he’s shown no hint of the stuff that made him the pitcher he was in 2012-2015.
Steven Matz – stock: way down
Matz was never healthy in 2017. He’s denied that he was pressured into pitching hurt, and has claimed that he simply tried too hard to pitch through pain, but the truth came out earlier, that the team was fed up with his hard-to-prove ailments. In the end, Matz threw 66 innings with a 6.08 ERA. My only hope for him at this point is that the new pitching gurus on the team can change his damaging delivery. He spoke in spring training about their attempts to prevent his arm from being “late”, so perhaps that’s a good sign. Like Harvey, he’s an enormous risk as a rotation piece.
Zack Wheeler – stock: down
After missing 2015 with elbow surgery and missing 2016 with failed attempts to return from that elbow surgery, Wheeler missed half of 2017 with a stress reaction in his shoulder. When he did take the mound, he had very little idea where the ball was going, and he continued his high pitch-count / short-outing ways from before his surgery. The inconsistent breaking balls also returned, as well as the fastball that occasionally looked so nasty as to make the kid hard to give up on. That 5.21 ERA doesn’t lie, though. Wheeler starts 2018 in the minors, behind Vargas, Harvey, Matz, Lugo, and maybe more.
Seth Lugo – stock: unchanged
Injuries to other players afforded Lugo 18 major league starts in 2017. When he wasn’t saving his best pitches (especially his curve) for a “later” that never came, he routinely pitched brilliantly for 5 innings, until getting destroyed for a 13.50 ERA in the 6th. He missed significant time due to a partially torn elbow ligament, originally injured while nearly pitching Puerto Rico to the World Baseball Classic title in March. One can see causes for optimism in his moving fastball, tight-spinning curveball, low walk rate, and poise on the big stage, but at age 28 his future role remains unclear.
Robert Gsellman – stock: down
In 2017, Gsellman did none of the things that made him successful in 2016. He didn’t locate, and his sinker tended to have lazy run rather than late sink. At least he maintained his velocity, and his arm stayed healthy (though not his hamstring), and he still has youth on his side.
Jeurys Familia – stock: down
Familia’s 2017 season began with domestic violence issues, overuse, blood clots, and emergency surgery. When he returned, he was inconsistent, reminding us of his worst days from 2014 and 2016, and not his domination from 2015. There’s no reason to think his elite velocity and elite sinker have left him, though, so he remains a nice bullpen weapon.
Anthony Swarzak – stock: down
He might turn out to be great, but as a replacement for Addison Reed, he has to be seen as a big step down. Reed was fantastic for the Mets in both 2016 and 2017, and as the best reliever available at the 2017 trade deadline, I don’t know why he brought back nothing in return, as opposed to the mammoth hauls teams gave up for top relievers in 2016. Reed’s success was based on durability, a deceptive motion, and limiting free passes. Swarzak has been mostly ineffective or injured in his career, but did post a ton of strikeouts in 2017.
Jerry Blevins – stock: unchanged
Blevins was effective all year, except when facing too many righties or throwing too many fastballs. Wait, did I write that last year? Huh. I have little to add, except that he re-emphasized his curveball in 2017, throwing it much more to lefties, to the extent that a few of them actually timed it and hit it hard. Overall, though, he remained death to portsiders, allowing them one extra-base hit all year (a double), for a .205 SLG. Righties, on the other hand, slugged .545 off him.
A.J. Ramos – stock: up
Ramos came over late in 2017 and showed why the Marlins tired of him as their closer: too many walks. He also remained durable and very tough to hit. He constitutes an improvement over what Hansel Robles offered coming into 2017.
Paul Sewald and Jacob Rhame – stock: unchanged
Sewald went from a complete unknown to dominating righties in 2017, though his command went downhill dramatically with frequent use as the season wore on. Rhame appears to be a one-pitch pitcher who the Dodgers didn’t mind giving up when the Mets went to dump Curtis Granderson’s salary. The Mets decided to keep Rhame and others on the 40-man roster over Chasen Bradford, whose sinker made him arguably the team’s most reliable reliever late in 2017. Still, the current bullpen depth (Sewald, Rhame, Matt Purke, Jamie Callahan) probably isn’t any worse than what the Mets brought into 2017 (Fernando Salas, Josh Edgin, Josh Smoker, Rafael Montero).
Minor leaguers of note
They’re all in the majors now, aren’t they? Well, except for Smith and Gavin Cecchini, who were in the majors, and now they’re in AAA trying to fight their way back.
The Mets are one of three or four teams with zero prospects featured in most experts’ Top 100 lists. Hopefully 2018 will turn some of the farm system’s youngest members into players worth keeping on eye on, but as of now we’re still waiting.
Summing it up
Changes since a year ago
Stock way down: Steven Matz.
Stock down: Most of the rotation and rotation depth (Harvey, Syndergaard, Wheeler, Gsellman), the back end of the bullpen (Familia, replacing Reed with Swarzak), first base (Smith, A-Gon replacing Duda), the presumed 2017 MVP candidate (Cespedes).
Stock unchanged: Jacob deGrom, Jerry Blevins, Seth Lugo, the bullpen depth (Sewald, Rhame), Jay Bruce, and the mediocrity up the middle (d’Arnaud, Cabrera, Reyes, Lagares; Rosario learning on the job).
Stock up: Michael Conforto; part-timers Flores, Plawecki and Nimmo; and new additions Frazier, Vargas and Ramos.
Stock way up: Conforto would have qualified if not for his shoulder injury.
Harvey, Matz and Wheeler have continued to plunge, while Nimmo and Flores each improved for the second straight year. Conforto got back on track after a bad 2016, while Syndergaard, Rosario and Gsellman all followed huge 2016 leaps with various sorts of 2017 problems. Lagares and Reyes continued to be who they’ve been for a while now.
What it all means
The Mets entered 2017 as a postseason hopeful, well behind the Nationals, but in the thick of the wild card contenders.
Now, after a grueling 92-loss season, numerous departures and acquisitions, and dramatic changes to the coaching staff, the Mets enter 2018… as a postseason hopeful, well behind the Nationals, but in the thick of the wild card contenders.
After last season’s injuries and failures and departures, the Mets, overall, aren’t any worse off. After spending nearly $50 million on 2018 free agent contracts, they aren’t any better off, either.
If the Mets aren’t better or worse than they were entering 2017, what exactly has changed? Well, hopefully, they’re more informed. I see several signs that this might be the case. As much as the new coaching staff talked up the hard-throwing kids, they still wanted soft-tossing Jason Vargas on the team, and they chose Lugo’s results (he’s in the rotation to start the season) over Wheeler’s velocity and hype (he’s headed for AAA). New skipper Callaway has spoken of a closer committee, of resting players more regularly, and of pulling most starters before the third time through the opponent’s batting order. He’s acknowledged that Matz and Syndergaard present certain injury risks, and that Harvey isn’t Batman.
General manager Sandy Alderson may not have acquired any great players with all that Wilpon money he spent, but he certainly did acquire a lot of injury insurance. The 2018 Mets may not be any better than “pretty good”, but they should be able to take their share of hits and still be “pretty good”.
As a die-hard Mets fan who’s gritted my teeth through much of the last 11 years, this 2018 team is not what I’ve been hoping for… but it should be interesting.