There’s been some talk lately about the moves made in the NL East, and how this impacts the Mets’ chances in the division. Does the Heyward trade tell us that the Braves are rebuilding? Does the Marlins’ signing of Stanton signal a sustained push on their part? This got me thinking about the gap between the Mets and Marlins – how big is it, in whose favor, and what would it take to bridge it? To that end, here’s a positional comparison of the two teams going into opening day:
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Many news outlets have listed their top Mets questions, many of them focusing on the team’s best players. Will Matt Harvey pick up where he left off? Will David Wright and Curtis Granderson return to form? Can Lucas Duda repeat? I agree that these are vital concerns, but I don’t see as much uncertainty surrounding them as many pundits do. The statistical projections for all these players seem quite logical to me — Harvey will be excellent though not Cy-worthy, Wright and Duda will split the difference between 2013 and 2014, and Granderson will continue to be the low-AVG, high-K guy he’s been for 4 of the past 5 years. I’d see any significant deviation from these projections as the sort of fluke every team goes through, and wondering about them makes no more sense to me than wondering about Robinson Cano‘s health as a key to the Mariners’ season. Anything can happen, but there’s no particular reason to foresee an injury there.
Accordingly, the biggest questions I’m looking at for the Mets are areas of true uncertainty, where a given player or position is a significant unknown, and could be either a big help or a major problem for the team. Here’s my list:
I was watching the Mets-Marlins game last week when retiring commissioner Bud Selig stopped by the Mets’ broadcast booth to chat about the state of the game and, briefly, the state of the Mets. Bud basically repeated his standard spiel about how the game has thrived under his stewardship, how competitive balance is bringing hope to more fans than ever before, and how he has total confidence in his buddies the Wilpons. I’d heard it all before, but in this new context, hearing it while watching the small-budget Mets pitch and hit, it finally dawned on me: Bud is right. By not acting in the best interests of their own fans, the Mets ARE acting in the best interests of Baseball.
It is the Mets and Cubs who allow fans of small market teams to have hope. Not everyone can just buy their way to a title. The Yankees and now the Dodgers get to be the loathed over-spending juggernauts that make even other big spenders look out-classed, and Rays fans won’t grumble about the payroll advantage of the Orioles and Blue Jays.
If ALL the big market teams bought themselves all-star lineups, fans in Miami and Milwaukee might not buy their owners’ promises of contention. Look how attendance declined in Baltimore when Ripken retired and the Yankees and Red Sox were leading the game in payroll dollars and wins every year. But in 2012 the O’s did a few smart things, caught a ton of breaks, were incredibly clutch, and all the fans came back to watch them make the playoffs. All without the team breaking the budget.
This is Selig’s plan for the Wilpons:
Like just about everyone else, I have been impressed with how Curtis Granderson handles himself. His charitable work, his inclusiveness with teammates young and old, his generosity with the media, his high energy, quick smile, upbeat tone — as a fan, it’s hard not to like the guy. One thing that particularly stands out in his interviews is his ability to mix personality with politics. Most players either avoid controversy by being steadfastly dull and obvious, or provide quality entertainment at the cost of some feather-ruffling. Since signing with the Mets, Granderson has seemed able to, at the very least, deliver the usual cliches with his own verbose flair, and occasionally he’s gone further to actually say something interesting, all without causing any stirs.
Until Thursday night.
THIS IS A POST BY DAVE BERG, so address your comments to him. Enjoy – Joe
It’s been a long wait, hasn’t it? When Sandy Alderson & Co. took over, Mets fans were already itching to get back in the playoff hunt. 2009 was the year that woke us all up to the fact that the dominant team from 2006 was dead and buried. However, we still had enough stars that a quick fix seemed plausible. We began 2010 with some hope that Jason Bay would put us back on track, and although he struggled, the team was 10 games over .500 and 2 games out of first place as late as July 6. After the collapses of 2007 and 2008 and the disappointment of 2009, Mets fans had learned to fear, but not to despair. Could the team actually over-achieve for once, replacing the entitlement and choking of 2007 and 2008 with a plucky underdog success story in 2010? Nope. The team took a nosedive and finished under .500. It was time for a change.
Alderson took over with a message of sustainable building while also competing. Some fans thought “competing” meant “for the playoffs” and have been sorely disappointed. Others knew it was just spin for “we won’t act like the Marlins and Astros,” and settled in patiently for a subpar team during a hopefully brief rebuilding process. If a true rebuild means drafting a player out of high school in Year 1 and then having him make a difference in the majors in Year 7, then we’re still a ways away. But Alderson knew from day one that a seven-year wait was not acceptable to the fan base, and he seems to have gotten the message that our patience is up. 2014 is the first year that he’s publicly said, “Now competing is more important than building.” He didn’t promise a playoff appearance, but I think he knows that fans need to see a clear path from here to October as soon as possible. He spent some Wilpon dollars on free agents, and you can bet that spring training will be filled with optimism for 2014 and “when we get Harvey back” for 2015.
So here’s the burning question: what sort of progress have the Mets actually made?
NOTE: this is a post by David Berg
With the Mets lagging behind the competition in every department except High-End Starting Pitching Prospects, there’s a pressing need for either creativity or dollars to make up that gap. Seeing as how the dollars don’t appear to be flowing, let’s get creative!
Every team knows that free agent stars are costly and home-grown talent is the lifeblood of a roster, but when it’s time to fill out a team by importing bullpen and bench players, organizations take many different approaches. Some look for platoon splits, others look for tools like velocity and power, and a few even follow less measured quantities like high-effort ferocity and grinding out at-bats. In each case, the goal is to find some aptitude that hasn’t yet been maximized by the player’s previous organization. This doesn’t work out all that often, as most teams value similar things, but when it does happen, the results are dramatic. See the
2012-2013 Oakland A’s, plus at least one or two key Rays players every year.
One area in which the Mets have particularly struggled during the Alderson regime is relief pitching. While the Rays were getting stellar seasons out of journeymen, minor leaguers, and failed starters, the Mets were selling low on Angel Pagan to buy high on Ramon Ramirez, winning the Frank Francisco bidding, and making desperation promotions like Robert Carson. If the Mets want to catch up to the opposition, their bullpen track record has to change. Fortunately, there’s a way to do it that not everyone has caught onto yet: find failed starting pitchers who throw strikes.
Koji Uehara joined the Orioles as a starting pitcher. He was okay, but was a bit too hittable, giving up lots of hits and homeruns. The O’s converted him to relief, and he immediately became one of the top relievers in the game (when healthy). This probably defied everyone’s expectations, but looking back, it shouldn’t have: Uehara’s arc is virtually identical to the path of Dennis Eckersley. Both were successful starting pitchers, extreme strike-throwers whose hittability eventually caught up to them as they aged. Both took their “never walk anyone” ways to the bullpen, where they threw (a) fastballs and (b) a single secondary pitch that
greatly improved once they dropped the rest of their repertoire. Eck’s slider became death to righties in a way that it never was when he started. Uehara gradually moved from throwing half splitters and half change-ups to throwing only a split, which became nastier and nastier. Both pitchers were still a bit homer-prone
after switching to relief, but their ability to prevent baserunners more than made up for it.
If this seems counter-intuitive, in an era where throwing 97 with no control seems to make a pitcher a coveted reliever, then good. If no one else sees it, the team that does can gain an advantage. While other teams are trying to grow the next Billy Wagner, the Mets can grow the next Doug Jones. Laugh at your memory of slop-tossing Doug… and then look up his stats. Of retired pitchers with more than 1000 innings pitched, the all-time K/BB list reads Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Doug Jones. 303 saves isn’t too shabby either.
So, who out there is a candidate to take his finesse game from mediocre starting to top-notch relieving? Here’s my list of strike-throwing starters whose value may be low enough, now or shortly, for the Mets to acquire them on the cheap:
Many of these guys are still thought of as starters, and I’m listing them only because they either are free agents or may become cheaply available if their teams give up on them. Would it shock anyone to see Blanton cut in spring training? If he is, the Mets could probably get him for very little. Let’s skip those pitchers for now, though, and focus on my top 3 candidates:
Coming off Tommy John surgery, Baker threw only 45 innings last year and was pretty terrible. His career 2.1 BB/9 rate is good, but not at Eck or Uehara levels. On the plus side, he’s a free agent, should be cheap, and may be desperate enough to keep his career going that he won’t contest a move to relief.
Francis is also a free agent, and one has to think that his perceived value has dropped at he turns 33, so perhaps he’ll come cheaply. From 2010-2012, he average 1.9 BB per 9 innings as a starter. Last year, back in Colorado, his walks increased, and a move to long relief did not go well. His change-up, probably his
best pitch before 2009, hasn’t been effective in years, and his 4-seamer’s been lit up like crazy. So he’s a bit of a project. If he has a future as a precision 2-pitch short reliever, it’s probably with his sinker and curve.
The Indians still control Tomlin, who’s arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2014. After 2012 Tommy John surgery, who knows what the Indians think of him, but his performance before the surgery was exactly the sort of thing that got Eck and Uehara sent to the bullpen: way too many HRs. So I’m guessing he’ll be cheap. Why am I interested in a guy who’s allowed 1.4 HRs per game in his career? Well, it’s simple: of all the pitchers I looked at, Tomlin’s control is the best, with a 1.7 BB/9 career mark and 0 walks in his 27 minor league innings last year. His curveball, cutter and change-up have all been good at times (though never all at once), so the Mets would need to identify which one to focus on.
None of these guys are the accomplished pitchers that Eckersley and Uehara were before they transitioned to relief. Baker and Tomlin are younger, with more injuries in their past. Francis looks ready for a change, but simply may not be all that good. It’s an underwhelming selection at first glance, but then, Uehara looked
pretty underwhelming going into 2010. Since many bullpens are cobbled together by gathering a bunch of arms and hoping one sticks, the same methods could be employed here: bring in Baker, Francis and Tomlin, hoping one of them makes it. It may not be perfect, but it may just work out better than all those other teams betting on the likes of Matt Lindstrom, Jose Veras, or Kyle Farnsworth.
Usually innovative fan proposals have about as much chance of coming true as Justin Verlander learning a knuckleball, but if we want to look for signs of hope, the Mets do have a prime example right under their noses. Carlos Torres spent 2013 throwing a lot of strikes. As a starter, he gave up (surprise, surprise) too many hard hits and homers. But in relief? A 1.47 ERA, and opponents hit .203 / .232 / .316 off him. Find a few more performances like that, and the Mets could turn a weakness into a strength, all without breaking the bank.
What do you think? Is this just the type of “moneyball” initiative Mets fans have been waiting for since Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and J.P. Ricciardi took over? If so, who do you see as “next-Uehara” candidates? Sound off in the comments.
Mets Item of the Day
Have you done your holiday gift shopping? Then it’s time to start wrapping the gifts. You need the stuff that goes outside the box (see what I did there?). How cool would it be if the gifts were covered in New York Mets Wrapping Paper? This thick, high-quality paper is available from Amazon for less than ten bucks, and includes 150 square feet of wrapping. Follow the link or click on the image below.
Josh Satin has officially become interesting. On a team notable for offensive futility over the last few seasons, Satin’s hot streak since being called up already counts as one of the better three-week stretches we’ve seen from a Mets hitter this year. So now the question is, what do the Mets have here?
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?