Mets Worst in NL East at Every Position?

New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has a message for the team’s beleaguered fan base:

We’re not that far away. The outfield is a weakness. Bullpens change year to year. But our rotation is a strength, and our infield is a strength. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of moves to contend. And we’re now in a position to make those moves. (Paraphrased from here and subsequent SNY interviews.)

Does he really believe this? And/or does he expect Mets fans to buy it?

I believe Sandy likes the rotation and the infield. But I have to wonder, what’s his definition of a “strength”? The most obvious definition in this context, it seems to me, would have to be “an advantage over the competition”. The Mets don’t play games against some theoretical standard of what a good shortstop looks like. They play games against other teams. And no matter how good a Mets player may be, that’s not any sort of competitive advantage if the other team’s guy is better.

So, how do the Mets stack up, right now, against the teams they play most often, the competitors in the NL East (that is, the Nats, Braves and Phillies)? Are the Mets better than those teams at several positions, and merely need to bridge a gap in the outfield to be on equal or better footing? Is the Mets’ position as Alderson has portrayed it?

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the reality is much less promising. If you count out the Marlins, who aren’t even pretending to try to compete, it could be argued that the Mets have the worst player in the NL East at every single position except third base.

So let’s take this investigative trip around the diamond, shall we?

CATCHER

Brian McCann is the best-hitting catcher in the league when healthy. Age 29 is a little young to believe his decline is permanent. Carlos Ruiz hits in the clutch, draws walks, defends well, and is possibly the most highly-regarded handler of pitchers in the game. Wilson Ramos has immense talent, is already above average in most respects, and has ample room to grow.

The odds are against Travis d’Arnaud ever having McCann’s bat or Ruiz’s glove, much less in his first two seasons. As for Ramos, Wilson broke in at a younger age so has a head start at the very least. Yes, d’Arnaud’s eventual upside is great, but we’re not talking about what a player might do in 3-4 years. We’re talking about Alderson’s contention that the Mets are ready to contend soon.

FIRST BASE

Adam LaRoche is durable, an excellent defender, hits homeruns and takes walks. Ryan Howard is one of the most intimidating players in the game, impacts the whole lineup, and drives in tons of runs whenever he’s healthy. He’s no longer an MVP threat, and the holes in his game are huge, but he still brings a lot to the table. Freddie Freeman just turned 23, is coming off consecutive .800 OPS seasons, and is a huge breakout candidate.

Ike Davis isn’t bad. If Freeman doesn’t improve, if Howard continues to ail and decline, if LaRoche falls back a bit from his career year in 2012, then Ike could leapfrog the pack if he takes a few steps forward. But that’s a lot of “ifs”. If you project all four players with the same degree of optimism or pessimism, it’s not hard to argue that Ike’s last in the pack for the next year or two.

SECOND BASE

Chase Utley is still one of the best players in the league when he can take the field. He may never hit .300 with 30 HRs and world class range again, but he’s still a terrific blend of power, patience, baserunning and defense. One could say the same about Danny Espinosa, if you replace the patience with a ridiculous number of strikeouts. He’ll never hit for a high average, but his other skills make him quite valuable. Then there’s Dan Uggla, a poor fielder who had a career-worst year with the bat… and still put up a better OPS than Mets second basemen.

Daniel Murphy may be better than Uggla with the glove, or he may not. He may be better than Espinosa with the bat, or he may not. He may play more games than Utley. Who knows? Although Murphy’s easily the best contact hitter of the group, it’ll take a lot of singles to make up the competition’s lead in just about every other category.

THIRD BASE

Chris Johnson is a crap shoot, and Michael Young is basically Daniel Murphy but less awkward-looking in the field. Ryan Zimmerman used to be a great defender, but now has a shoulder problem that may not go away. His bat is excellent, but usually a shade below Wright.

David Wright is clearly the best hitter of the group, and will also be the best overall player unless Zimmerman regains his defensive edge and Wright regresses back to 2011.

SHORTSTOP

Ian Desmond didn’t look great in 2011, but his 2012 was fantastic. Despite his poor control of the strike zone, it doesn’t seem quite fair to expect 25 HRs and a .511 SLG to just disappear at age 27. Speaking of age, defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons took huge strides with the bat in his age-22 season. As long as he avoids severe regression, with his glove, it’s more than enough. Then there’s our old buddy Jimmy Rollins. Rollins had a bad 2010, has lost a little speed, and has never been a great OBP guy. Still, a 20-HR 30-SB guy who makes all the plays at SS ain’t bad.

Ruben Tejada is decent at a young age, but doesn’t have the tools to project massive improvement. With only small steps forward, I don’t see him matching the overall contributions of any of the guys above.

So that’s one of the Mets’ supposed strengths. Now let’s move from the infield to the rotation…

#1 STARTER

Pick a Phillie, any Phillie. I’ll go with Cliff Lee, just due to Halladay’s poor 2012 and the fact that the Mets tend to hit Hamels. Lee’s combo of stuff, command, control, and smarts may be the best in the game (unless Halladay’s healthy). Then there’s Stephen Strasburg, who has the best stuff in the game and also doesn’t walk many. The Braves’ #1 is less inspiring. Kris Medlen can’t possibly be as good as he was last year, but his command of his change and curve still make him special.

The Mets have a guy who used to be a #1 in Johan Santana. He still has the great competitive attitude and the tricky change-up. But unless he can fool hitters at an epic rate and Medlen falls off a cliff, Johan’s easily the worst in this group.

#2 STARTER

Cole Hamels is actually an ace too. Despite being obnoxious and letting the Mets kick him around, his numbers say he’s one of the most proven elite starters in baseball, in his prime, so I won’t argue. Then there’s 2012 Cy Young contender Gio Gonzalez, who may lack ace durability and control, but would be a #1 on many teams due to his dominant stuff. The Braves again take up the rear with gritty veteran groundball machine Tim Hudson.

One would like to think that Jonathon Niese will be better than a past-his-prime Hudson one of these years, but it hasn’t happened yet.

#3 STARTER

Even if something’s wrong with Roy Halladay, he still looks pretty good slotted in third, right? Though maybe not as good as 95-mph finesse machine Jordan Zimmermann. Mike Minor has shown flashes of greatness for the Braves but it remains to be seen if he can put it all together for an extended period.

Shaun Marcum tends to be good when he’s healthy. I’d probably take him over Minor in 2013, though going forward, who knows. Matt Harvey might look more exciting in this spot, but he’s still no bet to be better than Halladay and Zimmermann in the next two years.

#4 and #5 STARTERS

This is where the Phillies fall to the back of the pack. No one’s scared of Kyle Kendrick and we don’t even know if Lannan and Cloyd belong in the majors. The Braves have an upside guy in hard-throwing Julio Teheran, and a savvy veteran in Paul Maholm, but both have had their problems. As for the Nationals, Detwiler walks a fine line of too few Ks, and Haren’s back problems scared off his former team.

Harvey and Gee have question marks, but I think they’ve got a chance to be the best of this bunch. Maholm has a more established track record of poor pitching than Gee, and Teheran’s minor league success hasn’t translated as quickly as Harvey’s. That said, if Haren’s healthy, the Mets are shooting for second place.

So that’s it for the Mets’ supposed strengths. “Infield and rotation” really translates to “third base, plus the back of the rotation, but only if the front of the rotation is Santana, Niese and Marcum matching up against the league’s elite”. If Santana goes down, then our 4-5 becomes Gee-Hefner, and then that strength disappears too.

BULLPEN

What about the bullpen? The Mets are on even footing there, because relievers are unpredictable, right? Well, although that may be true in general, everybody knows there are some relievers who are elite year after year. Those are the handful of guys who get paid three times as much as everyone else. But the poor Mets couldn’t have the bad luck to match up against any of those rare talents, could they?

CLOSER

Oh, wait. Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon are two of those top-dollar closers who dominate every year. At least the Braves don’t have some long-time proven guy. All they’ve got is the consensus best reliever in the sport, Craig “whiffed 116 of 231 batters faced” Kimbrel.

Bobby Parnell and Frank Francisco might be qualified to fetch water for those guys.

SET-UP MAN

Hey, Tyler Clippard and Mike Adams are two more of those relievers who pitch well every year. If Alderson hadn’t told me that bullpens were a crapshoot, I might think this was, like, a strategy or something. At least the Braves couldn’t possibly grow two elite guys from within. Jonny Venters only throws a lefty sinker that comes in at 95 mph and drops two feet.

Dear mystery Met, it’s time for you to have that fluky career year! Brandon Lyon already did that in 2012 so he might not be eligible.

Is that it? Is that where the Mets stand?

I feel like something is missing…

Oh yes, the part of the team Alderson admits is a problem. The whipping boy outfield. I’ll make this short and sweet.

LEFT FIELD

Bryce Harper and Justin Upton look pretty good, but Duda may have a chance to outperform Delmon Young, Darin Ruf, and whoever else the Phillies throw out there.

CENTER FIELD

Denard Span and Ben Revere are elite defenders who get on base just enough to use their speed. B.J. Upton is a chronic underachiever but will still hit some homers and steal some bases while tracking down most fly balls. Kirk Nieuwenhuis (or Collin Cowgill, or Matt Den Dekker — take your pick) may or may not be a major leaguer.

RIGHT FIELD

Jason Heyward is excellent, Jayson Werth is good, and Domonic Brown and John Mayberry may or may not form a more effective platoon than Mike Baxter and Byrd/Brown/Cowgill.

In summation:

The Mets trail two or three teams in their own division at every key position on the roster except the one filled by David Wright. What exactly is it that the Mets are “not that far away” from? Because it sure isn’t competing for first or second place in the NL East.

Was I too hard on the Mets in any of these comparisons? Sound off in the comments!

2013 Spring Training

About the Author

David Berg has been following the Mets since 1990, and counts himself as a "die hard fan" -- the agonies have been numerous and arduous, but he's still watching every game he can, determined to "earn" the satisfaction when the Mets eventually win it all. In his non-spare time, David is a designer of graphics, web sites, and games. See his work at Shrike Design

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