Mets Need More Than Kelly Johnson

News Flash: The New York Mets have traded relief pitcher Akeel Morris to the Atlanta Braves for IF-OF Kelly Johnson. This is KJ’s second go-round with the club and the second time he was traded from Atlanta to the Mets. The first time was last July 24, when he arrived in a deal along with Juan Uribe for a pair of minor league pitchers.

Has Mets GM Sandy Alderson opened a storefront in Panic City? The 34-year old Johnson is slashing a paltry 215/279/289 for the Braves. Better at least than the player (Eric Campbell) that he is replacing, but still a far cry from the proverbial shot in the arm the Mets putrid offense needs. For the record, Campbell is hitting 159/270/222 as a Met this year.

I think the plan coming into this year was to plug in the veterans for another year-plus until the next wave of bats arrived from the farm in the form of Dilson Herrera, Dominic Smith, Amed Rosario and Wuilmer Becerra; meanwhile relying on the Mets greatest strength, their starting pitching, to keep them atop the division. The quartet of youngsters has done their part: all of them are putting up some good offensive numbers in the minors and with the exception of Smith, look ready to move up a level. The Mets rotation, despite a hiccup here or there has proven to be one of the best and deepest in the National League. The bullpen, once feared as the team’s Achilles heel, has actually performed well, although a few cracks are showing.

It’s that bridge of veteran bats in the lineup that have almost totally collapsed, leaving the Mets a season-high 3.5 games behind the very formidable Washington Nationals. The Mets rank dead last in the NL in hits (432), 14 in team BA (.230) and 11th in OBP (.307). They hit homers (77, tying them for the league lead with Washington), but that’s about it. They have struck out 523 times and trail the rest of the NL with only 12 steals in 21 attempts. Essentially, if they don’t hit a solo homer, they don’t score.They don’t play small ball well either, not drawing many walks nor doing much in the way of sacrificing. Thanks in part to injuries, their bench is surprisingly weak, as Met pinch hitters have tallied on 13 pinch hits in 74 ABs, a .174 average. Travis d’Arnaud, David Wright and Lucas Duda have been sidelined for weeks with injuries. Wright and Duda could very well be lost of the season and Wright’s career may be ending. Their replacements have performed poorly offensively, although the jury may still be out on James Loney, who is Duda’s replacement. Curtis Granderson is absolutely killing the team right now. It’s a lot of bad news that portends to a long and disappointing summer if they don’t turn it around.

Based on the evidence, I don’t think KJ is even part of the answer and it could be argued that a red chip like Morris could have been better utilized. Ideally, the Mets need to add both a speedy outfielder and an infielder who can drive the ball (or vice versa). I am not exactly sure they could get although I did some speculation here. How they bring this talent over is the bigger question. Here are a few possible ways, listed in order of probability:

• They trade a few “red chips” for some offensive help. This is by far the most likely scenario, as they still have Rafael Montero, Brandon Nimmo, Gavin Cechinni, Josh Smoker and a few other interesting names left in their system. One or more could be packaged together to bring in veterans as they did last year in the deals for Johnson and Tyler Clippard. Their trade partners would probably come from the Minnesota/Oakland/Atlanta/Cincinnati/San Diego/Milwaukee pool of teams, clubs far away from contention that need to fill multiple holes. What any of those teams have to offer the Mets in return is open to debate.

• They trade a veteran. Here the probability meter starts to tilt towards improbable. A veteran for a veteran? Who does that? I doubt any NL contenders would want to help the Mets out, or vice versa. Perhaps an American League team is in need of an arm later this summer and bids for Bartolo Colon. As I mentioned here, I think the way to go is to trade Neil Walker and bring up Herrera, but that might be a roll of the dice no one in the Mets Front Office wants to take. Walker’s value is very high right now, however.

• They trade a “blue chip,” someone like Herrera or Rosario. I know Matthew mentioned moving Dilson, but as I stated earlier, I believe the plan is to plug those guys into the lineup, where they produce while making the big-league minimum, freeing money to extend the starting pitchers. I don’t know for sure who Sandy considers a red chip vs a blue chip, but he does have a plan and as we saw last year, he won’t back down from it.

• They trade one of the Fab Five. This just isn’t happening. There is a better chance of someone they draft today being in the majors by August than there is of them trading one of their golden arms.

So to answer my earlier question, I don’t think Alderson has moved into Panic City…yet. For his sake and ours however, here’s hoping he can scrape together enough loose change to buy something more useful than just Kelly Johnson.

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Batting Order for the Post-Wright Era

So, I read this post in another blog and I thought “y’know, this is a really well-thought out piece, I wonder if anyone in the Mets organization might read it.” Then it hit me: they might not read his blog, but they do read this blog! We’ve called a few things right here. Both Wilpons took our advice to just shut up.

Like most of us, I am taking the news of David Wright‘s impending demise somewhat in stride. It is a real shame to watch his body betray him like this, but from a pure results on the field perspective, he hasn’t been “David Wright” for several years now. I’ll always root for David, but I find myself hoping that he packs it in after this latest news. It would be a shame to see him tarnish his legacy by trying to stretch out his career any further. Maybe his buddy Michael Cuddyer can counsel him on this.

Meanwhile back to the lead and to the task at hand for the Mets, which is the defense of their NL crown. Building on my fellow blogger’s ideas a bit, here is a batting order proposal for our heroes. Terry and Sandy, take note:

1. Asdrubal Cabrera and his .335 OBP get the nod here. A few years ago, the Mets made a play for then-Astro Jonathan Vilar, who is playing well right now for Milwaukee. Vilar is somewhat of a Jose Reyes-lite player, who if he is available at the deadline, the Mets should inquire about–providing he is still producing that is.
2. James Loney. Right now it’s a bit of a man crush due to his career 285/338/410 slash line. I do have a feeling however, that we will find out why two sub-500 teams dumped him.
3. Michael Conforto. Anybody else concerned about his “Scooter” nickname? Having lived through the Gregg Jefferies era, I am. It’s a cute name for a 3-year old but not for your #3 hitter. Maybe I am reading too much into this.
4. Yoenis Cespedes: Wright’s impending retirement means there will be money to sign him. We will see this offseason if he really loves New York more than a long-term deal elsewhere. I’m betting the latter, but I’ve been surprised before when it comes to this guy.
5. Neil Walker: Interesting scenario developing here. As expected, Walker is having a good season on his expiring contract. Meanwhile his heir apparent Dilson Herrera, who is probably the last major-league ready prospect coming for a while from the Mets system, is hitting 288/328/492 in AAA. He also has six steals, twice as many as any current Met. Would the Mets actually consider moving Walker while his value is so high (and whom they viewed as a stopgap anyway), for help elsewhere ? They could plug Herrera into his spot. It’s an unlikely scenario, but I wonder if GM Sandy Alderson doesn’t at least have a few feelers out on this one.
6. Curtis Granderson: He’s my wife’s favorite Met (and I know for sure that she reads this blog), but he is just killing the team right now. It’s very hard to know what Grandy will do next. He appeared to have re-invented himself last year, only to have reverted to his 2014 form this year. I’d rather have Juan Lagares in the lineup everyday instead of Granderson. It may be time to try to find a taker for this contract. Sorry love, we’ll always have 2015.
7. Wilmer Flores: Counting June 3, there are 52 games to play between now and the trade deadline. Wilmer should be in line to get 175-200 at-bats, sufficient time for a team in the Mets position to decide on whether or not he is a viable solution. No less than Gary Cohen speculated (on the air) that former Yankee, current Padre Yangervis Solarte would be a perfect fit here should they need to look. Small sample size, but Solarte is slashing 339/426/593 with the Friars right now. Like Vilar, the Mets may have missed the train on this one. The other and perhaps more likely option, should Flores fail, is to move either Cabrera or Walker over to third and find a replacement for them at their incumbent positions.
8. Catcher. This has suddenly become a gaping black hole. Hopefully the impending return of Travis d’Arnaud eases the situation somewhat. I really like Travis, but enough with the injuries already.

Not a murder’s row by any means and it will probably require some tinkering as the season progresses. The Mets are all about the starting pitching anyway. Plus Daniel Murphy can’t hit .400 the entire season, right?

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Let’s leave safety up to the players (even Utley)

I much prefer when there’s an explicit agreement between players, umps, and MLB that players police the game themselves.

In that circumstance, most players choose to act with integrity, and those who don’t are punished as per the culture of their time. Chase Utley absolutely violated the unspoken rules about how one is supposed to go about taking out a DP pivot man, hitting the ground way too late in pursuit of Ruben Tejada. The culture of the game that Utley grew up in says that he should get drilled in the ribs and yelled at as a result. That would be both “old school” and efficient.

Instead, MLB has decided (and the umps have clearly followed their lead) that everything worth caring about in baseball must have a rule attached. This leads the players (as it has in every other sport) to abandon any subjective notions of right and wrong and simply do whatever they can get away with. With cameras everywhere, “what they can get away with” is very little, and if replay expands enough, one day it will get down to “nothing”, where A.J. Ellis will no longer be able to fool the umpire by firing away a foul tip as if he’d caught it for strike three, as he did on Sunday night. With a good set of rules and the right penalties for infractions, this is probably the surest way to make baseball safe… and slow.

If I were a player, maybe I’d take that trade-off.

As a fan, I hate it. The occasional injury is worth having a game that moves along at a decent pace with a lot of personality and room for individual accountability. The “did the catcher give the runner a sliding lane?” replay is too high a price to pay for the fact that Buster Posey pivoted incorrectly when Scott Cousins came to wreck him. Baseball is entertainment, and thrives on contrast and emergent narratives — a version of baseball which forces Chase Utley and Manny Ramirez to play the same way doesn’t make for many interesting stories.

If Utley were on my team, and he and I and everyone else agreed that the penalty for a late slide was a fastball to the ribs and some angry words, and he chose to pay that price to win a playoff game, then I would be all in favor of that choice, and question the dedication of any player who didn’t make the same choice (as some certainly wouldn’t).

But there’s no agreement at all.

Some players interpret the unwritten rules as, “Don’t do dangerous plays, even if they would win a playoff game.” Some umpires interpret via precedent, others by the rulebook (which has always included ample provisions for calling Utley for obstruction on the Tejada play; they’ve just never been enforced). There’s a similar split among fans. So instead of being clearly identified as a determined but dangerous player (which he is) and getting drilled (which he can take), Chase Utley has been called everything from an old-school hero to a violent, cheating thug. It’s madness, and lots and lots of sour grapes.

I respect Noah Syndergaard for trying to handle things the way they used to be handled, and I respect Utley for not having a problem with that. The guy I can’t stand is umpire Adam Hamari, or whatever boss or supervisor encouraged him to act like that (perhaps discipline czar Joe Torre?). But maybe theirs is the way of the future, and I’m thinking like a caveman, and one day baseball will be completely free from injury and subjectivity and dramatic physical contests of any sort.

Here’s a novel idea: let’s leave it up to players who are actually risking injury.

If Alex Torres doesn’t want to get drilled by comebackers, he can wear the padded hat. If John Olerud doesn’t want to expose his surgically repaired skull, he can wear a helmet in the field. If Barry Bonds wants to hang his front elbow an inch from home plate, he can wrap it in armor. If Ruben Tejada wants to turn DPs where he can’t see the runner because of a horrible feed, he can wrap his legs in enough padding to look like the Michelin Man. If Buster Posey wants to spin into the path of a runner with his feet underneath him, let him coat his feet in lubricant so they slide instead of sticking. Let these men do whatever they want to protect themselves — and then, when they don’t, accept that as their choice.

If pitchers would rather risk brain damage than wear a silly-looking hat, then it’s not the rules that need fixing the next time a liner finds a guy’s head. If hitters eschew hand and elbow guards, then no one gets to moan about pitchers throwing inside the next time someone breaks an arm. If Tejada wants to wear his regular pants in a big spot wherein he’d attempt a blind play, then baseball is still baseball if it doesn’t work out for him.

Again, if I were a player, maybe I’d feel differently. Maybe “risk your body for the fans’ entertainment” is no more appealing on the field than it is at the steroid “clinic”. Maybe all those players telling the media “I don’t need to be coddled” are just trying to sound tough and would secretly love to be coddled. I don’t know. I’m just a fan. And as a fan, I say to Adam Hamari and Joe Torre and every other quick-trigger reactionary authority in MLB: please butt out.

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Utley Gets Hit Today?

Okay, now it’s just getting annoying. After nearly a decade of torturing Met pitchers (and their fans) while wearing a Phillies uniform, Chase Utley then moves to LA-LA land where he has a vicious encounter with the Mets only real shortstop at a key moment in a playoff game. Adding insult to injury, the play is reviewed and Utley is called safe. Given what’s at stake, the Mets really can’t retaliate for this, but they gain a measure of revenge by winning the series. The sentiment is that they will settle accounts with Chase in 2016.

But…Ruben Tejada, the broken-legged victim of Utley’s psychotic version of “old-school” baseball (enough with this old-school crap, corporal punishment of children, cigarette ads on TV during Prime Time and the use of leeches to treat diseases where all once considered good ideas too) was cut in Spring Training. So, the Mets no longer have a reason, so the story goes, to exact revenge. See ya Ruben.

Until last night that is. ICYMI, in a classic Terry Collins move, he brought in his closer, Jeurys Familia to lock down a 5-1 Met win. This move had “trouble” written all over it from the moment that #27 walked out of the bullpen. For some odd reason, Familia is one of those closers who can’t deliver without the game on the line. He loaded the bases and then walked in a run. With two outs, up to the plate strode Utley. One pitch later, the game was tied and Utley stood on third, struggling to suppress a smirk.

Looking at those throwback uniforms the Mets were wearing and seeing that Dodger Blue, I immediately flashed back to Game Four of the 1988 NLCS. But before I could call my therapist to schedule another appointment, Curtis Granderson alleviated my PTSD with a walk off homer.

Back to Utley. The Mets are sending Noah Syndergaard to the mound tonight. He was the only starter to stand up to the Royals in the World Series last year, brushing back their leadoff hitter and telling the Royals that he is is only 60 feet six inches away if they wanted to do something about it. BTW, that was the only game the Mets won in that all too brief encounter. So if Dodger manager Dave Roberts is crazy enough to pencil Utley in the lineup again tonight, Syndergaard needs to take aim at his (Utley’s) ribs at his earliest opportunity. Again, I am not “old school,” but enough is enough.

It’s early, but I don’t think that the Mets and LA will be hooking up again this postseason.The Giants look really good again and the Mets, Washington and Pittsburgh look to be lining up for one divisional crown and two wildcard spots between them, so I sense this is the year that LA ends up on the outside looking in. I get the fact that the Mets couldn’t retaliate during the playoffs and that the issue appeared to be over when they visited LA earlier this month. So, it’s time to settle this once and for all.

Did Utley re-ignite the fire? There is only one way to find out.

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Biggest Surprises of the first Quarter

Now that the Mets are one quarter of the way through their 2016 schedule, what have we learned? Who has been better than expected? Who has disappointed? Here are my top 15 surprises so far. Chime in to the comments and let us know what’s surprised you!

The good:

Hitting homeruns

The Mets lead the National League with 60 HRs!

Asdrubal Cabrera‘s defense

I didn’t figure a shortstop with limited range could be that much of an asset. Cabrera’s been stellar on every slow-developing play, though, and his reliability (up until Thursday night) is a truly stark contrast to the Mets’ previous options at the position.

Michael Conforto seizing the #3 spot

Conforto allowed us to dream of an MVP candidate before proving himself to be as vulnerable to slumps as the next guy. Even with some inconsistency, he looks prepared for a spectacular sophomore season, hitting third for a contender. It’s still to be determined whether he can hit MLB lefties, however.

Yoenis Cespedes‘s patience

Ever since the Mets’ first homestand, Cespedes has been chasing fewer really bad pitches than in the past. With plenty of respectable hitters behind him, even a fair walk rate will help score the team some extra runs.

Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz

Thor’s stayed healthy and added weapons, while Matz has been tough for batters to square up despite inconsistent secondary stuff. It’s not a surprise that both youngsters continue to improve, but their rate of improvement has to be seen as great news.

Antonio Bastardo

After looking awful in March, and despite diminished velocity, Bastardo has been fantastic in most of his outings, getting back to his bread and butter: a fastball with the most vertical rise in MLB.

Addison Reed

94 mph and a decent-to-good slider is nothing special in today’s relief pitching. Yet Reed has racked up a ton of whiffs and gotten a bunch of late-inning leads to Familia.

Stellar relief pitching in general

Out of a group like Reed, Bastardo, Robles, Blevins, Henderson and Verrett, you expect some ups and downs. At any given moment, some will be hot, and some will be cold. Well, not so to begin 2016! In addition to Familia’s expected effectiveness, every single member of his supporting cast has been good, giving the Mets the deepest ‘pen in the league.

The bad:

Not hitting except for homeruns

The Mets are hitting .235, tied for second-worst in the NL. Their hitting with runners in scoring position is dead last at .208, and their Clutch WPA stat is 35% worse than any other team in baseball outside of Houston. We’ve seen a high number of HRs, an average number of walks, and a whole lot of choking.

Matt Harvey

Except for 6 innings against the Padres and his first 2 innings against the Reds, the guy wearing the Matt Harvey jersey has shown nothing in common with the guy who wore it in 2013 and 2015. Velocity down, command erratic, and no idea where the ball is going in the strike zone. We didn’t know it was even possible for him to be this bad with his right arm still attached.

Jacob deGrom

He’s gone from elite at 95 to merely effective at 92. This team might need him to be elite.

Wilmer Flores

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a young player playing sporadically would struggle, but .180 with 2 RBI and bad defense is bad enough to make me wonder if he’s better off developing in the minors.

Alejandro De Aza

With that little playing time, I guess even veteran bench guys can struggle.

Travis d’Arnaud

His body can’t even survive a routine thing like throwing? It’s looking more and more like he’s too fragile for this sport. It doesn’t help his stock that the Mets’ pitch-calling and basestealer-catching improved dramatically once Travis went down.

The impossible:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Bartolo Colon steps to the plate…

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What’s NOT Wrong with Matt Harvey and How To Fix What Is

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey pitching motion at max external rotation

Tonight Matt Harvey faces Stephen Strasburg. Normally that would be an exciting sentence for Mets fans, Nationals fans — heck, baseball fans in general. Instead, it’s a sentence that makes Mets fans cringe.

Why? Because Matt Harvey is a mess (at least, that’s how The New York Post describes it). And the headline is apt — Harvey admits

“I’m just not feeling comfortable throwing a baseball right now, so it’s frustrating.”

So what’s his problem? How can it be fixed?

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Most Important Mets of 2016: No. 3-1

After reading the replies to a recent article here on MetsToday (Who are 2016’s Ten Most Important Mets?), I’ve come up with final rankings for this exercise, which I’ll proceed through in countdown fashion. For each player, I’ll list my subjective predictions, based on watching nearly every inning and every plate appearance over the last few years. I’ll do my best to identify something that I think the national experts and pundits have missed.

First installment: Mets No. 10-7
Second installment: Mets No. 6-4

The table data below is pulled from FanGraphs. Steamer and ZiPS are two player projection systems with as good a track record as any.

 

Prelude

MetsToday voters overwhelmingly picked Yoenis Cespedes as the Mets’ most important position player, and five young arms as the team’s most important players overall. The feeling here in March seemed to be that the 2016 Mets would go as far as Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jeurys Familia would take them.

Here on May 18, the Mets are on a pace for 94 wins, but things haven’t exactly gone as planned. Familia hasn’t blown a save, but also hasn’t dominated the way he did for most of 2015. DeGrom hasn’t been sharp and hasn’t been able to throw hard, seeing his whiff rate cut nearly in half. Harvey’s been awful. The two pitchers with the least experience, Matz and Syndergaard, have been leading the way. Are they better than Harvey and deGrom? Are they just hot right now? Are some of the Mets’ ace hopefuls on the upswing of their careers, while others, still only in their 20s, are already on the downswing? Are Harvey and deGrom, purportedly healthy, going to find it tomorrow and return to their 2013 and 2015 selves, respectively? Or are Matz and Syndergaard destined to decline soon too, from throwing too hard for seasons that run too long?

To provide some perspective on these questions, I’d like to look back 18 years to one of the great untold stories of pitching greatness, and the decline thereof, during my time as a baseball fan. I’d like to talk about Greg Maddux.

Best Pitcher Ever?
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Darryl Strawberry: Career Counselor?

ICMYI Jose Reyes was suspended recently until May 31 for violating MLB’s domestic abuse policy. The ugly details of the “alleged” incident last Halloween involving Reyes and his wife (interestingly enough the same night the Mets hosted Game 4 of the World Series) are just a Google search away.

It was the latest in a steady downward spiral of his career path for Jose since he departed the Mets after the 2011 season. A path which has included two trades, several stints on the DL and a steep decline in both his slash lines and his WAR. He is likely on the move again, as the Rockies have a budding superstar at short and Reyes is owed a ton of money through next year. It is a sharp decline for the guy who less than a decade ago was one of the top five offensive players in team history.

And, there is another member of that somewhat diminutive club who predicted it.

Back in September of 2011, when Jose was trying to be the first Met to win an NL batting crown, Darryl Strawberry surfaced and warned Reyes to stay in New York. Darryl was uniquely qualified to give that advice has his nearly surefire hall of fame career went up in smoke (and probably his nose) after he departed Queens for his hometown of LA after the 1990 season. Instead of listening, Jose took a houseboat-sized load of cash from the new-look Miami Marlins, beginning an odyssey that has taken him from Miami to Toronto and now Denver and the suspended list.

Reyes was a mere sad shell of his former self during Colorado’s visit here last August. He has deteriorated since. It’s hard to say what might have happened if he stayed here, but as one of the more beloved figures in Met history, he might have at least been given some compassion and direction. Look at how the Mets have worked with David Wright as his injuries have curtailed his effectiveness and most likely, his career.

Reyes meant something to this town. Now, he is just another unwanted, over-the-hill mercenary with apparent behavioral issues. It’s just another precautionary tale about choosing money over a good situation, one that will no doubt be discounted by the next homegrown superstar in his walk year. **cough**cough**Matt Harvey.

And no, I am not advocating a trade back here.

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