Zack Wheeler to pen makes sense

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Former New York Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa quietly floated an idea that could breathe a little change into a franchise that needs to earn back good will after a poor 2017 just before the new year.

The now TV analyst pondered about bumping Zack Wheeler out of the starting rotation and 400 feet away into the bullpen. It’s a fair point, and, honestly, probably a smart move.

Drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2009, Wheeler came to New York two years later as slugger Carlos Beltran headed for the west coast. He arrived with hype and fanfare – the young flamethrower would become a mainstay for a team historically bolstered by pitching. Blue chip prospect Matt Harvey was waiting in the wings for a call-up in 2012 – the same year R.A. Dickey tossed a pair of one-hitters and Johan Santana threw the Mets’ first no-hitter.

Sadly, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Dickey was traded after that season for, among others, super prospect Noah Syndergaard. Affectionately known as Thor by fans, the hulking righty added excessive strength training before the 2017 campaign and tore a muscle that required all season to repair. Harvey has sprinkled elite appearances with injuries, awful performances on the mound and questionable decisions off it, at one point requiring the team conduct a welfare check when he failed to show at Citi Field. Jacob deGrom underwent the knife in 2016 to move a nerve; the surgery was a complete success and the starter was one of the few 2017 highlights. Last season was a complete disaster for kid starter Steven Matz after showing serious signs of promise his first two seasons. The southpaw ended 2016 with surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, began 2017 with a two-month DL stint for an elbow strain, poor pitching performances and an August date with a surgeon for the same procedure deGrom underwent.

Citi Field was billed as the home of the Four Horsemen, a moniker that did not include Wheeler as the southpaw spent more time recovering from injuries than competing. It started with Tommy John surgery early in 2015 and recovery that consumed much of 2016 and ended with a trio of DL stints in the following season and a half. He wasn’t winning accolades with his limited performances either, finishing last year with a 5.21 ERA and the highest home run rates allowed in his career.

But maybe, just maybe, removing Wheeler from the stress of throwing 200 innings can finally reverse the injury trend. After all, he does have a pitch repertoire that can excel as a reliever. Wheeler’s bread-and-butter pitch when he’s on is a 96-mph four-fingered fastball with good movement. His common secondary offerings are a sinker that’s faster than average at 95 mph, an 89-mph slider that’s become a 12-to-6 offering and a 79-mph curveball that lacked horizontal and vertical movement last year. On rare occasion, an 88-mph changeup crosses the plate with poor movement in 2017. As a reliever, Wheeler could reinvent himself as a two- or three-pitch pitcher that boasts a plus fastball. New manager Mickey Calloway is an ardent fan of the curveball, not unlike former pitching coach Dan Warthen and the slider, so it seems likely that would remain. A younger Wheeler boasted a wipeout slider to lefty batters and could add a horizontal option to his pitch selection.

Calling the southpaw out of the bullpen could also prevent exposing him to lineups and limit damage. Despite the 5.60 ERA, Wheeler allowed the lowest batting average and on-base percentage just once through the lineup in 2017. That’s been the case throughout his career as well – compare his .675 on-base plus slugging percentage the first time through and his .776 percentage the third time through. He’s also not going to strike out more than a single batter an inning after the second time through the lineup, nor limit his walks as the game goes along.

Obviously all of this history and analysis does little to evaluate the free agent market and Mets current roster. There is a shortage of affordable, quality starting pitching, especially compared to their relief counterparts, which could be an argument against the plan. But if summoning Wheeler out of the bullpen rebuilds his value even to the point he’s a moderate trade piece come July, then it’s clearly worth trying something different this year.

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Duda more valuable to Mets as trade chip

It’s 2017, the year that will make a decade of suffering and terrible baseball a fair trade. The only catch is nobody told fate and instead the New York Mets are injury-ravaged and playing scrappy baseball to stay alive. Eventually some health will return and the breaks will fall more in their favor, but it’s a season to pull the trigger on winning this year.

It’s time to pull the trigger on moving Lucas Duda out of town.

Duda tends to be a polarizing topic – especially here at Mets360. One crowd raves about his power, ability to take a walk and adequate defense at first, while another screams about his one-dimensional game. This isn’t the time to argue the homegrown Met’s merits; it’s time to argue his value on and off this ballclub.

At the age of 31, Duda has a track record of smashing the hide off the ball. In his last two full seasons – 2014 and 2015 – he hit a combined 57 home runs and sported a .483 slugging percentage. That put him in the company of serious power hitters like Chris Davis, Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton. On top of that, Duda routinely trots to first via base on balls and sports an on-base percentage 100 points higher than his batting average. In those two full seasons, he averaged 67 walks a year. He’s even managed to play a competent first base after a few miserable years in left field.

The other side of the former farmhand’s game is that it fits significantly better on an American League team. He may have the thump and a good eye, but Duda also plays right into the stereotype. His career batting average lives in the .240s and in each of 2014 and 2015 he struck out twice as many times as he walked. In fact, the first baseman tends to be an all-or-nothing hitter. His 4.2 percent of career hits being home runs is higher than the 2.6 percent league average, but his career strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and at-bats per strikeout are all below average. A ball hit off Duda’s bat is also far more likely to go up than down as his ground out-to-air out ratio is almost half the league average. And with almost no speed to speak of, he’s limited to 5 career steals and wearing a first baseman’s mitt.

In summary, Lucas Duda, 31, is a guy who hits lots of fly balls – plenty going over the wall – and will both walk and strikeout often.

Meanwhile, the Mets have been sporting a few different options since hyper-extending his elbow in mid-April. Right fielder Jay Bruce surprised many Mets fans by donning a New York uniform on Opening Day, and he surprised them again by donning a first baseman’s glove immediately after Duda hit the DL. He played six games at first and largely held his own, despite leaving the outfield for a grand total of three games prior in his career. At the plate, Bruce, 30, is similar to the incumbent first baseman, although Bruce hits for a slightly higher average, walks less often and isn’t quite as reliant on fly balls.

Bruce returned to his native right field after a week, replaced by a player from a very different mold. T.J. Rivera, 28, grew up in the Bronx and was undrafted after college. Signed to the Mets franchise as a free agent in 2011, Rivera quietly went about making lots of contact with a touch of power at the plate and playing around the infield. That culminated with a PCL batting title – he finished a single point over teammate Brandon Nimmo – and a .333 batting average in 33 games with New York last season. Rivera isn’t quite as likely to hit a home run as Duda or Bruce with a 2.2 percent career home run rate, but his strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and at-bats per strikeout are polar opposites from Duda. Simply put, Rivera is more likely to put the ball in play and provides defensive versatility.

The other option at first who’s more often found his way across the diamond is Wilmer Flores. A shortstop in the minors, Flores evolved into a bat-first utility infielder who captivated fans’ hearts two years ago. The 25-year-old has seen time on the DL every season since breaking camp with the Mets in 2015, although he has played in a combined 240 games the last two seasons. As a player, Flores is an amalgamation of Rivera and the power bats of Duda and Bruce. He clubbed 16 home runs each of the past two seasons, sports a career home run rate half a point higher than the league average and averages a fraction of a strikeout per walk more than the league. The utility man also strikes out significantly less often and has more at-bats per strikeout than the average major leaguer and sports a slightly higher batting average at the expense of walks.

Something has to give, perhaps imminently. Reports published earlier this week suggested Duda would return before this weekend. Superstar left fielder Yoenis Cespedes could return in a few weeks. And eventually catcher Travis d’Arnaud, pitchers Steven Matz and Seth Lugo, and probably Nimmo will also join the 25-man roster. This will require shuffling the roster.

Michael Conforto cannot be sent down. Team management decided to yield the young outfielder’s natural position to Cespedes and let Curtis Granderson patrol center field, with a little help from Juan Lagares. Fortunately for fans, Conforto has responded in a huge way with a .337 batting average and 1.082 on-base plus slugging percentage. The 24-year-old boasts the versatility to play the entire outfield, but there are just too many cooks in the kitchen once they’re all healthy.

Rivera poses another conundrum to the front office. The infielder has been a dynamo with the parent club in 2017, but serious questions need to be answered. He’s made a career of making contact and sporting a batting average on balls in play above average, but can he continue to maintain his 2017 figure that’s again substantially higher than the league average? Can the Mets survive with a high-average and doubles power from a stereotypical power position?

And speaking of power, what about Bruce?

There’s one solution to each issue – trade Duda to an American League team. Despite coming off an injury he still holds value as a patient, power threat who can realistically bounce between first base and Designated Hitter. Meanwhile, the Mets can continue to ride the red-hot Rivera and sprinkle in Bruce and/or Flores as needed. The franchise also has top prospect Dominic Smith likely to visit Queens this season. There are proven in-house options while Duda could be flipped for solid bullpen help or a sturdier catcher.

Trade Duda now before he steals playing time away from Rivera and leaves talent sitting on the bench while other positions languish under injuries.

Mets batters’ Brutus to pitchers’ Caesar

Finding a prognosticator, analyst, fan or soothsayer who didn’t have the New York Mets in the postseason dance was probably more difficult to find than a colleague who picked them to return to the World Series. Years of rebuilding, two consecutive playoff appearances and a roster full of both talented youth and veterans fueled the dreams.

But 19 games into the season, those dreams threaten to mutate into nightmares, courtesy of a dagger to the back. The Mets offense has betrayed the club’s pitching staff, which has somehow kept New York within striking distance of almost every single game. Only two games – back-to-back 7-2 and 8-1 losses to the Miami Marlins earlier this month – ever had the Mets more than four runs behind.

Sometimes it’s a matter of relievers giving up a crooked number – like Fernando Salas blowing a 3-2 lead on April 15 – and other times it’s a matter of starters yielding a few too many runs – as Jacob deGrom did in a 3-1 loss on April 22.

As a whole, New York pitchers are allowing 4.32 runs a game, which includes four extra-inning affairs and 23 runs in just three games against the Marlins.

The offense is averaging 4.2 runs a game, a figure heavily-buoyed by one anomaly – a 14-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Striking that game results in an uglier 3.6 runs a game; even that’s generous considering the Mets haven’t scored more than five runs in a game in nine consecutive games.

Examining the statistics is a dreadful task. They’re no. 30 in stolen bases; no. 30 in batting average on balls in play; no. 29 of 30 in batting average; no. 27 in on-base percentage; and no. 21 in slugging. Even the stats where they fare better aren’t inspiring – no. 20 in strikeouts; no. 19 in total bases; no. 17 in runs scored; no. 16 in RBI; and no. 9 in walks drawn. The only statistic they excel at is home runs, boasting the second- most in the majors.

General Manager Sandy Alderson said during Spring Training that he wanted “less reliance on the home run, better with men in scoring position, a little higher on-base percentage.”

Nineteen games into the 2017 campaign, New York is averaging 1.5 home runs a game compared to 1.3 home runs a game last season. And for added measure, round-trippers make up 21 percent of all Met hits this season, compared to 16.24 percent in 2016.

Don’t be tempted by the seemingly innocuous runners in scoring position numbers. After all, the club is no. 8 in batting average and no. 7 in on-base plus slugging in these situations. The mask is bared by the team’s number of at-bats in these situations – 95, easily dead-last with as the only 2017 club not to have at least 100 and way below the MLB average of 146.

And for added measure, this year’s Mets team is no. 27 in on-base percentage at .288, compared to the still-disappointing .316 figure that earned last year’s club a tie for no. 21.

The New York Mets offense generally can’t get on base, advance on the base paths or cross home plate – unless it involves cracking one over the fence. This coming from an offense featuring power-first threats like Lucas Duda, Neil Walker, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson. Adding an already-banged up Asdrubal Cabrera, an infected Wilmer Flores and an atrocious Jose Reyes concocts the stuff of nightmares.

Et tu, Brute?

Our two Mikes give two views on Lucas Duda

Editor’s Note – With multiple people contributing to the blog, one of the pitfalls is when two guys write on the same topic. And this time we actually had three guys write about the same guy within a few days of each other. Dalton got his in first, so his take was already published. The other two are combined here. Mike K. won the coin toss so his piece comes first and Mike R. comes in second.

Lucas DudaThere is no shortage of unanswered questions surrounding the Mets this off-season, some touching on first base.

Without a doubt GM Sandy Alderson is moving on from veteran James Loney, who started his New York career with a bang and ended with a whimper in both facets of the game. And until the club solves their overloaded outfield conundrum, talk of shifting Jay Bruce or Michael Conforto into the infield won’t stop.

Of course all of this would be a moot point if New York had an entrenched first baseman. Lucas Duda has worn the mantle of starter through the 2014 season – after having suffered through several years of outfield experimentation. Duda’s overall game was solid in 2014, bashing 30 home runs, accumulating an .830 OPS and earning enough MVP votes to finish no. 22. He was even acceptable at first base by most defensive statistics.

That, however, is the catch. Duda is not a strong defensive player, and that’s the best that can be said for a professional ballplayer turning 31 early next month.

His numbers at first base have been merely adequate. Metrics frequently grade his range as the weakest part of his defensive game. Duda sports an 8.85 Range Factor per Game compared to a league factor 9.28 Range Factor per Game. His 0.4 UZR/150 through 403 games at first is the definition of average, but that includes a negative Range Runs Above Average in five of six seasons and a positive Error Runs Above Average in four of six seasons.

Duda’s 2016 campaign was shortened to 47 games with a bad back. His defensive numbers at first still fell well within the average category – a 1.1 UZR/150 and 8.54 RF/G compared to 9.05 league average RF/G. His RngR was negative and his ErrR was positive. He put up similar numbers through 135 games in 2015, including 129 at first base. Duda sported a –0.4 UZR/150 with more weak numbers in RngR and better numbers in ErrR. And once again, his RF/G fell below the league average: 8.91 to 9.30.

First base is often an offense-dominated position used to hide weaker defenders with powerful bats. Dalton Allison examined Duda’s work at the plate not long ago, but suffice it to say he’s a streaky slugger who relies on On-Base Percentage over Batting Average. There’s an argument to be had about the 30-year-old’s bat and how it plays into the future of the New York Mets’ lineup.

However, statistics surrounding Duda’s defensive game offer clues that he could be better served with an American League team capable of a first base-designated hitter split. Through his prime, Duda has been as middle-of-the-road fielder with shaky range. How long does it take before age robs enough range to keep him from making all but basic plays? Keeping his legs fresh and limiting his exposure in the field via the DH route can probably extend his career if his offensive game can stay alive.

First base options for the New York Mets

By: Mike Ryan

In the upcoming season the New York Mets will have a few different options to look at for first base. Lucas Duda holds the position despite missing the majority of last season due to a stress fracture in his back. James Loney filled in for Duda last season compiling a fairly decent season of 9 home runs 34 RBI while hitting .265. This season the Mets should be looking to get some more production out of the first base position.

Duda will get every opportunity to be the starting first baseman, as he should. When healthy Duda has been a very productive offensive player with 64 home runs 188 RBI in 235 games since taking over as the full time first baseman in 2014. While these are impressive stats, Duda has been a very streaky player and is a significant health risk. Perhaps in 2017 the team can look in a different direction.

Former 2013 first round draft pick (11th overall) Dominic Smith poses a very intriguing option for the Mets at first base. The young first baseman had a very productive season with 14 home runs 91 RBI while hitting .302 at Double A Binghamton. The big knock on Smith prior to this season was his lack of power, but he put those worries to rest with his production last season. Smith is also known as an above average defensive first baseman which places him favorably in comparison to Duda.

There are some concerns about putting Smith on the big league club, including his age and his ability to adjust to major league pitching. Entering his age 22 season and his fourth professional year he may need some more seasoning in the minors. Like all young hitters he may not be able to adjust to major league pitching right away though spring training could be a good gauge on his ability to do so.

Yet another interesting option for the Mets that could alleviate a log jam in another position on the team would be for Michael Conforto to play some first base for them in the upcoming season. Conforto had an off year last season but will be looking to rebound big time in 2017. Playing first base could help to increase his at bats and he is a good enough athlete to adjust to the position with few hang ups. It would give the Mets another way to get his bat into the lineup on a more frequent basis as well as giving Terry Collins more late inning options with defensive replacements.

A great deal of what the team decides to do in the upcoming season at first base of course depends upon the health of Duda. Recall that Duda did return from injury at the end of the season and did not put up great numbers though he may not have had enough plate appearances to get into a good rhythm. Management has seemed cool on the idea of playing Conforto at first base, though it seems like a good idea to at least try him there during spring training. Smith may start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas but any injury or prolonged slump from Duda may lead to a quick call up which could be very exciting development for the Mets.

Is Yoenis Cespedes the Mets’ best outfielder?

Yoenis CespedesThe short answer is probably yes, but the truth is a lot more surprising.

Yoenis Cespedes enjoyed a career year in 2015, minus the playoffs. He was traded to the New York Mets for a surprise postseason run, flourished to post gaudy offensive numbers and was a part of the changes in Flushing that sent New York to the World Series.

But perhaps, just perhaps, Cespedes isn’t the best Mets outfielder.

Curtis Granderson has enjoyed a very strong career and 2015 seemed to be part of a very slow swan song. He’s not quite the dynamic centerfielder he once was in Comerica Park and Yankee Stadium, but Granderson opened a lot of eyes in Citi Field last season.

Cespedes finished no. 13 overall in the 2015 NL MVP voting behind runaway winner Bryce Harper. Earning $10.5 million, he finished the regular season with 35 home runs, 7 home runs and a .297/.328/.542 slash, all powered by a .323 BABIP. Fangraphs pegged him at 6.7 Wins Above Replacement and valued the Cuban slugger at $53.9 million.

Meanwhile, Granderson finished no. 18 in the NL MVP voting. Pulling in $16 million, the aging veteran slashed .259/.364/.457 with 26 home runs, 11 stolen bases and a .305 BABIP. FanGraphs valued Granderson at $41 million and 5.1 WAR.

Those offensive numbers are also a bit skewed in favor of Cespedes. He enjoyed a career year, something Mets fans will ever see again. His numbers were also slightly inflated by his BABIP – over the .300 benchmark average and over his .304 career average. In addition, Cespedes’ annual average WAR is 3.4, well below his 6.7 figure from last year. Granderson’s 2015 BABIP, however, was more in line with his .301 BABIP and his 2015 WAR was a little closer to his career average WAR of 3.45.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely not saying Granderson will have a better year than Cespedes this season. After a dozen years at the majors, Granderson turns 34 in March and clearly doesn’t have the same speed or power he once did. Previously a regular in center field, he doesn’t figure to be in the Mets’ mix. Almost four years younger, Cespedes has the raw ability Granderson lost and about 800 fewer games of wear and tear throughout his pro-ball career.

My only point is that Granderson could surprise some folks again in 2016, and Yoenis Cespedes may disappoint some.

DH strikes out with NL clubs

National LeagueThat which separates the National League from the American League threatened to evaporate last week. Fortunately, that has not happened.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed changes to improve offense are likely coming after adjustments for pace-of-game issues. He’s considering serious changes like outlawing shifts, lowering pitching mounds and tweaking the ball to make it fly further.

He also suggested forcing the designated hitter (DH) upon the National League.

A brief history of America’s pastime – baseball as we know it took form in the mid-19th century under New York-style rules. The Cincinnati Red Stockings became America’s first professional baseball team in 1869, prompting creation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA) two years later to handle allegations of fixed games. The NA collapsed in 1875 with games left unplayed, league mismanagement and continued allegations of cheating. In 1876, a Chicago businessman at the helm of an NA team organized a meeting in New York City to create a more stable successor. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was born.

The National League had rather strict rules as a result of the previous shenanigans. Teams were forced to play their whole schedule even if they couldn’t make the championship game, players were restricted from moving between clubs and suspicions of cheating continued. Multiple competitor leagues formed, the most successful being the American Association in 1882. Both leagues merged to form a 12-team NL in 1892 before eight formed an American League in 1901.

Back then, pitchers in both leagues batted. The concept of a DH was first introduced in 1906, but found little momentum until the late 1960s. Attendance was way down in AL games, with nine of the 12 teams drawing fewer than a million customers in 1972. The DH was approved for a three-year trial the following year. Meanwhile, a NL vote on the DH in 1980 ended up failing 4-5 with three abstentions because Philadelphia Phillies management couldn’t contact ownership about their vote. St. Louis fired their general manager – the leading proponent for the change – five days later and the measure has never since been considered.

The argument to institute the designated hitter across both leagues is the same now as it was then – pitchers looking pathetic at the plate. The average hitter in 2015 sported a .721 OPS, with pitchers earning a paltry .329 OPS. Perhaps it’s due to small sample size, but seven of the 15 teams with highest on-base plus slugging came from the American League. Small sample size, however, is not an issue with the comparison between team and pitcher OPS. Those figures have been very similar even going back into the steroid era at the turn of the millennium. Where was the clamoring for pitchers not to hit back when offense was king and everyone wanted a roided-out bopper to hit 70 home runs?

I’ve also heard the argument that a DH-led American League clobbers the National League weaklings. It is true the AL won nearly 56 percent of the 300 interleague games last season. What’s also interesting is how the senior circuit had fewer than 1.5 percent less wins than their junior counterparts, revealing how little impact the interleague series actually have on a full season.

It’s not like the designated hitter is powering AL teams to title after title either. In all 113 years since the first World Series was held in 1903, the American League has won 64, or almost 58 percent, of World Series. However, the DH was not implemented until the 1973. Counting from that season on, the junior league has only won 23 titles compared to the senior circuit’s 19. The argument could be made that adding a tenth hitter in one league has actually led to parity between the leagues, although it holds just as much water as claiming the AL’s DH is a disadvantage for the NL. It’s worth noting both sets of numbers include the New York Yankees league-leading 27 series wins, significantly skewing the figures.

Attendance was the other argument in favor of forcing the DH upon the NL. Supposedly fans are so disinterested in watching pitchers bat it’s damaging the game. But the funny thing is the facts don’t seem to support that. Nine of the 15 MLB teams with the highest total attendance figures for 2015 were National League clubs. Some familiar faces like St. Louis, Detroit and Boston are high on the list, but the lowly Colorado Rockies sit at no. 14 with 2.5 million paid attendance compared to playoff-bound Houston Astros at no. 22 with 2.15 million. Speaking of postseason play, all five National League teams to punch their ticket for the dance finished in the top 15 in total attendance, but the AL West winning Texas Rangers finished at no. 16 with 2.49 and their Houston counterparts even further below.

Perhaps the most damning argument against pushing the DH into the National League are the overall offensive numbers from last season. League A finished with an average slash of .253/.316/.397 and a 284.8 WAR. League B finished with an average slash of .255/.318/.412 and a 285 WAR. The numbers are close, so close I won’t reveal which is which.

We’ve reviewed how the designated hitter is a johnny-come-lately in a sport with a rich history; pitchers aren’t hitting any worse lately; the American League’s World Series dominance is eroding; National League teams saw larger crowds at the ballpark last season; and comparing 2015 offensive stats between both leagues is a waste of time. I’ve yet to see a pro-DH argument that isn’t just that.

How the Mets should replace Yoenis Cespedes

Yoenis CespedesYoenis Cespedes is a beast. Physicists examine the explosion of ball off his bat for the Big Bang Theory. His home runs make fireworks look like pop caps. He runs so fast he makes Speedy Gonzalez look like regular Gonzalez. He is, the most interesting man in baseball.

Cespedes joined the New York Mets for the playoff run and not only did they reach the postseason, they were playing in the World Series. For a fan base in the largest market tired of fielding mediocre talent and losing, the surprise success was a shot in the arm – and not the steroid kind. Clearly resigning the outfielder is essential for a repeat performance in 2016, right?

Actually, no.

There’s no denying the Cuban native has outrageous raw talent. He can hit for power – 35 home runs in 2015, run blazingly fast – stealing third base in 2.92 seconds, and unleash his cannon of a right arm to home – like how he nailed Starlin Castro trying to score from second on a single to left. But as we examined Cespedes’ strengths earlier this month, we also revealed a substantial lack of polish.

I’m not going to rehash that story, but I suggest skimming through it because it makes the rest of this argument stronger.

GM Sandy Alderson traded for the left fielder/center fielder just moments before the non-waiver trade deadline expired on July 31. Coming into town from Detroit with a .293/.323/.506 slash, Cespedes first donned a New York uniform for the Mets 3-2 win over Washington on Aug. 1. Fans excitedly clamored about how their new offensive weapon would compliment a dazzling pitching staff and punch a ticket to the playoffs.

And the then 29-year-old did enjoy offensive success with the Mets. In 57 regular season games, Cespedes slashed .287/.337/.604, adding 17 home runs and 44 RBI. He performed well in August, hitting 8 home runs and sporting an .872 OPS, but it was his ridiculous end to the regular season that grabbed headlines. He finished September and October with a 1.017 OPS and 20 extra base hits – including nine home runs. He had at least a base hit in the first eight games of the month and finished the first 13 games with nine homers and 21 total hits. It was ludicrous.

Meanwhile, the organization’s strength was their starting pitching and occasionally the bullpen. Just enough offense bolstered the pitchers to an 11-0 streak during a 15-8 April, the team’s second most successful month. Clinching the NL East division in Cincinnati on Sept. 26 remains a red-letter day, but that wasn’t when they played their best. New York finished August 20-8, relegating their 16-14 September/October to third on the list.

So Cespedes looked good (still a .275/.331/.542 slash) during the team’s best month and great in one of their passable months. Some of that gets lost in the off-season clamoring to hand him a massive contract to the tune of six years/$150 million. What may not have been completely forgotten is how he disappeared in the playoffs, but that’s better discussed in our other article.

There are some other key facts that tend to get lost in the haze of the post-World Series/pre-winter period – the New York Mets also made several other personnel moves before punching their postseason ticket.

Captain David Wright played just eight April games before a hamstring strain sent him to the disabled list. While sidelined, doctors diagnosed the 32-year-old with spinal stenosis – a permanent narrowing of the back that could prematurely end his career with five more years on his contract.

Weeks and months passed as fans clamored for Wright’s return and sports reporters were left with vague answers from team officials. Finally, on Aug. 24, he came back, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and helping the Mets knock off Philly with two hits and a walk. But as the summer turned into fall, it became clear the third baseman traded power for patience. He finished the regular season slashing .289/.379/.434 with only 5 home runs but a stronger BB:K ratio than his career average.

Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer left western America in his rear-view mirror last winter after 14 seasons with the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies, ready to be a leader and offensive threat for a resurgent New York club. Unfortunately, the now left fielder’s offensive numbers drastically declined, his defense recessed and he ended up injured. Team management was expected to replace the outfielder with a washed up or never-was veteran, but Alderson’s group made the gutsy decision to call up rookie sensation Michael Conforto.

Scouts raved about the 22-year-old’s polished collegiate bat and lampooned his shoddy defense, but Conforto surprised many in 2015. Not only did he survive Cuddyer’s return on Aug. 11, but he laid claim to the starting job. While his numbers against southpaws need improvement, the young left fielder slashed .270/.335/.506 with 14 doubles and nine home runs in 56 games. His best month of both the regular season and playoffs was – drum roll please – August. He finished with a .317/.405/.603 slash and 1.009 OPS, although some of that was likely powered by unsustainably high .356 BABIP and opposing pitchers’ lack of experience against the kid. He was mediocre in September/October and generally poor in the playoffs, although he did sport at .333/.313/.733 slash in the World Series when most Mets bats went quiet.

On the same day the rookie left fielder was called up, Alderson pulled the trigger on a deal with the division rival Atlanta Braves to solidify manager Terry Collins’ bench. Veteran utility players Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe replaced John Mayberry Jr. and Danny Muno, instantly transforming the bench from weakness to strength just in time for a playoff run.

Johnson, 33, played primarily second base for the Mets, but he did see at least nine innings at first, third, shortstop, left field and right field without making a fool of himself. At the plate he struggled in the playoffs, but slashed .250/.304/.414 in 49 games with New York. With the franchise paying a portion of his $1.5 million contract for his 10th major league season, he was an affordable security blanket.

Uribe, 36, served more in a mentorship role as a former starter at the tail end of his career. Finishing his 15th year in the major leagues, Uribe handled second base, third base and designated hitter for New York. Despite a decent eye and very powerful swing, the veteran only slashed .219/.301/.430 with six home runs in 44 regular season games. He injured his chest diving for a ground ball, spending the last few weeks of the regular season and nearly all of the postseason on the DL. Uribe did record an RBI single in his only World Series plate appearance. He was earning $6.5 million this past season.

The short version of all of that is Cespedes did help the offense, but there it wasn’t just him; injured players, callups and veteran backups played a major role. And considering he wasn’t at his best when the club was, there’s a substantial argument to be made against paying him a huge contract in favor of smaller, smarter deals. Center field, for example, is an issue entering 2016 with Juan Lagares battling injury and struggling against lefties. Denard Span disappointed in 2015, but could be a great signing on a short, team-friendly deal to prove his worth. Jason Heyward will end up signing a mega-contract, but at age 26 with a solid mix of speed, defense, power and on-base skills, he would make more sense than the power-focused Cespedes for the Mets. Wilmer Flores  showed some ability to play  shortstop with Ruben Tejada sidelined for the playoffs, but signing a solid defender with an average bat like Alexei Ramirez to a reasonable deal could bolster the infield behind the team’s stellar pitching.

Yoenis Cespedes isn’t worth a mega deal

Yoenis CespedesBefore the tragedy that was game four transpired Saturday night, the buzz around baseball was that the New York Mets would not bring back outfielder Yoenis Cespedes next year.

And after playing a trick on a packed Citi Field with a Halloween base-running gaffe to give the Kansas City Royals a commanding 3-1 lead in the 2015 World Series, I can comfortably say he was never worth the dollars to which he’s been linked.

The 30-year-old Cuban native did have some incredible success as a Met. He posted a .287/.337/.604 slash in 57 games with New York, smashing 17 home runs. That’s the most prodigious power in his four-year, four-team career. There have a few nice plays in the field too, like this shoestring grab against the Colorado Rockies.

Cespedes was a major part of the Mets second-half revival. Of course, so were Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed, David Wright and Michael Conforto, but the outfielder was the splashy name and continues to receive most of the credit.

Few blinked an eye when reports surfaced his agent sought a six-year contract worth $20 million or more annually. Mets fans and New York media bantered back and forth about signing such a deal as player and team agreed in September to remove a barrier limiting his current club from re-signing him. Some hoped that would open the door to an expensive three-year deal, while others called for a cheaper, long-term deal and some demanded Mets top brass simply pay the man. He’s currently earning $10.5 million this year and someone may still double his salary.

Back when the Mets were surging in September, powered by Cespedes, there were concerns in the back of my mind it was too risky to tie up so much of the franchise’s future in this one player, and he’s proving it with this postseason performance.

As gaudy as his numbers are, the Cuban native does have some chinks in the armor. Throughout the outfielder’s career, he’s proven to do more damage earlier against junkballers. Cespedes’ batting average dips below .250 and his OPS drops to .731 in the final three innings throughout his career. His .289 batting average against starters is significantly higher than his .237 career batting average against relievers. A prolific strikeout machine, Cespedes sports just a .532 OPS career-long when hitting with two strikes. He also sees finesse pitchers better than power pitchers, accumulating a .903 OPS to a .724 OPS.

Some of this has come to life again in 2015, although his overall offensive numbers for the World Series are absolutely disgusting with a mere .297 OPS. Cespedes is hitting better throughout the game this season than his career average, but a .990 OPS proves he still favors innings 4-6. His long-time success against finesse pitching is still prevalent, although he’s also hitting power pitching significantly better this year. And although the Cuban is still whiffing frequently, his OPS after two strikes has climbed to a still-disappointing .645.

Cespedes has had some clutch hits against both the soft-tossing sort and the Guy Montag-fireballers. Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke can get plenty of strikeouts and groundballs with a wide variety of pitches like a 92 mph fourseam fastball, 89 mph changeup and 87 mph slider, but the Mets outfielder took him deep. Cubs reliever Justin Grimm throws relatively hard with a 96 mph fourseam fastball and an 84 mph curve, but Cespedes punched an RBI single off Grimm.

But little of that matters compared to the bigger picture. The 30-year-old has more strikeouts than hits this postseason (11 hits and 13 strikeouts), and many of his eight RBI have not come against elite caliber opposition. He did hit a solo bomb against Greinke, but he also hit a three-run homer off Alex Wood, a young, mediocre reliever. Against the Cubs, Cespedes tagged unusually-hittable ace Jake Arrieta for an RBI single and middle-of-the-rotation starter Kyle Hendricks for a two-RBI double. His last RBI came on a sacrifice fly against reliever Franklin Morales, a journeyman enjoying a career year with the Royals. While teammate Daniel Murphy was spanking home runs against the like of Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Arrieta and Jon Lester, the expensive slugger is wearing out a path to the bench.

And then there’s everything else. Cespedes reportedly injured his shoulder doing pushups in the hotel room, he dropped a fly ball for an inside-the-bark job in the first World Series game and was then tagged off first to end game four. I still haven’t figured out where he was running because even if Murphy wasn’t clogging the base paths at second, he stole seven bases in 2015, including one in this postseason.

Yoenis Cespedes has incredible raw power and speed, but that’s as far as he seemingly goes. The outfielder could be on the level of Mike Trout if he polished those natural instincts with experience in the game. Instead, his bat sometimes runs into the ball with that pure talent but it comes with more than 143 strikeouts and just 42 walks a season.

The Mets ownership would be better of spending that $20 million divvying it up among current players and free agents, especially with fans fighting to keep Murphy as super utility player backing up Wright and manning second.

Hurt or selfish, Matt Harvey still isn’t right

Brooksbaseball-ChartThe state of affairs surrounding Matt Harvey remains as lucid as mud.

He will pitch. He won’t pitch. He may pitch. He may not pitch. Harvey and agent Scott Boras caught everyone off guard last week with a hard 180-inning limit, and he’s already at 166.1 innings. That includes the playoffs too, leaving Mets fans with nightmares of Stephen Strasburg in 2012.

Public opinion of both pitcher and agent took a nose dive over the weekend. Harvey went from the Dark Knight and beloved source of #HarveyDay to Two Face and a selfish pariah that needs to be traded in the off-season. And most of that is coming directly from the reporters and columnists who cover the Mets.

“Go ahead. Be mad. Be furious. Boil all of your venom and aim it all at Matt Harvey, who’s got it coming. Harvey has proven to be the worst kind of sporting phony — the fake tough guy, a fugazi in full, all talk and no action. Rip away,” a colorful Mike Vaccaro wrote for the New York Post.

Fans cheered Harvey on as he flipped off the camera after Tommy John surgery, promising to return sooner than expected. Fans cheered when Harvey won his first game back and the opening series against Washington. Fans cheered as he publicly criticized the six-man rotation and skipping his rotation. But without provocation, and led by the greed-fueled Boras, Harvey promptly turned about face, showing his back to loyal fans.

The damage control began late Sunday. Harvey pledged in a public essay to pitch in the playoffs should the team earn a berth. The pitcher also said he, doctors and team officials would craft a plan for the remaining games – 26 as of Monday morning. A six-man rotation will be back in the fold for those games, as of Monday, with Logan Verrett picking up any slack from Harvey. And then word broke Harvey may start in fewer than four more regular season games, including Tuesday’s game in Washington and at home against the Nationals in the final series.

But what if all of this is a strawman? What if this is a smokescreen. What if there’s another, more imperative question?

Can he pitch?

There are more than a few New Yorkers and baseball folks wondering if Harvey is hurting. Obviously he hasn’t said anything publicly, but the timing for Boras’ provocative comments is curious. Dr. James Andrew performed Tommy John surgery in October 2013, an operation with a 12-15-month recovery period for Major League pitchers. Andrews also contributed to a Tommy John FAQ hosted by MLB, pointing to a recent study that finds 19 percent of patients will have another elbow surgery and 25 percent will have shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright said he needed another full year to get back to full-strength, relying solely on his curveball in 2012.

Reviewing the 2015 campaign through early September, Harvey has had a few blips on the radar. He threw six scoreless innings against Washington on April 9, but gave up seven earned runs in 12 innings to Philadelphia and Miami before holding the Yankees to a pair of runs over 8.2 innings to end the month. He yielded seven earned runs once in late May and again in early June. A 2-1 win over Washington on July 31 kept his ERA for the month from going over 3. Through 25 games, Harvey has given up no runs eight times and 11 times struck out at least seven batters. But there’s also been five times opposing teams scored at least four earned runs and July saw an uncharacteristic 14:29 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Evaluating the numbers behind Harvey’s pitches may or may not expose an injury or correlation to some of those crooked numbers, but it does reveal a pitcher trying to prevent future damage. Like most of his brethren, Harvey pitches off the four-seam fastball – throwing it 50-60 percent since 2012 at an average of 96 MPH. That story began features no Shyamalan-ian surprises, but his breaking pitches and off-speed stuff offer quite a twist.

Back in 2013 – his first full, healthy year, Harvey threw a breaking pitch 31.85 percent of the time and tossed an off-speed pitch 11.4 percent of the time. But outside of May, the post-Tommy John Harvey is less likely to throw a breaking pitch; and in the last few months he’s more likely to throw an off-speed pitch. Compared to an almost 24-point difference between the two in May, breaking pitches since August are less than 24 percent of Harvey’s offerings and off-speed stuff makes up almost 13.5 percent.

The speed of the ball coming out of his hand is also noticeably different in 2015. His fastball is close enough, maybe half a MPH slower than 2013. But both the breaking and off-speed pitches have changed radically. Harvey typically threw both at the same speed in 2012 and 2013 – around 86 MPH in the former and 88 MPH in the latter. This year, however, there’s quite a split. On average, his breaking stuff is almost 2 MPH slower than off-speed pitches – 87.13 MPH and 88.95 MPH, respectively. That includes a July and August about a mile-per-hour apart and wider gaps in May and September. Harvey is also throwing his off-speed stuff harder than ever, flirting with 90 MPH, and his breaking stuff at far less consistent speeds. Straight lines measuring those speeds in 2012 and 2013 were the norm, but the 2015 line is a roller coaster from 85 MPH to almost 89 MPH.

Does any of this pitch analysis reveal if Two-Face… the Dark Knight… Harvey is hurt? Not definitively, but it does reveal a pitcher who’s still not right. It also suggests he’s the most successful when he’s throwing more breaking pitches than off-speed stuff but they come out of his hand at the same speed.

More late-inning arms a must for playoff hunt

Bullpen82115Carlos Torres, the Mets reliever who continued the bullpen’s recent struggles allowing a walk-off home run against Baltimore Wednesday night, said location wasn’t a problem on Henry Urrutia’s first career home run.

“We called for a fastball up. I threw the fastball up. These guys, unfortunately, they’ve been seeing [Noah] Syndergaard and [Jacob] deGrom, so my fastball up probably didn’t seem like their fastball up,” Torres said.

Factually, he’s not wrong. Torres’ average fastball comes in almost 5 MPH slower than the Big Three he protects leads for. In professional baseball, a low-90’s fastball is significantly easier to hit than a high-90’s fastball darting around a bit more.

Too bad he’s still wrong.

Less than a day later, new teammate Tyler Clippard also touched on the relief corps. With New York flying into the hitter’s haven that is Coors Field, Clippard said he felt like everyone was throwing the ball well and it’s just how the games have been going.

He’s not exactly barking up the right tree.

As a fledgling idea in my head, this piece was focused on the amount of rest relievers were getting with the stellar starting pitching and how that triggered the post-All-Star bullpen woes.

Yeah, so much for me being right either.

The simple fact of the matter is the Mets have limited options late in games, a fact obscured by superb starting pitching and off-season expectations that haven’t happened. Jeurys Familia earned credibility as a setup man to 2014 closer Jenrry Mejia, who was expected to return from a PED suspension for the second-half. Mejia ended up earning a second, longer suspension, while former closer Bobby Parnell has struggled both at healing and pitching and young fireballer Vic Black languishes in the minors after aches and pains of his own. Even 24-year-old Rafael Montero saw just 10 innings of 2015 before mysterious shoulder pain locked him out of Citi Field.

What seemed like a bounty of options for the bullpen in March has morphed into a dearth of options in August.

Familia is human after all. There’s no indication the club will bump him from the closer role, but his 1.85 ERA and 1.011 WHIP include six earned runs two weeks after the Mid-Summer Classic. The fireballing righty settled down a little in August, but he’s allowed all three inherited runners to score this month compared to one of 16 earlier this season. Statistics agree Familia has little problem pitching on short rest.

If Familia hadn’t been so dominant in the spring, veteran Clippard would be a strong candidate to handle save chances now. Now in his ninth year of Major League Baseball, Clippard has a misleading 2.70 ERA and 1.140 WHIP through 50 innings in 49 games. A two-time All-Star and collector of 32 saves in a season, the 30-year-old wasn’t living quite up to expectations in Oakland. His numbers have improved since joining New York, especially his walk rate. Clippard also pitches frequently, rarely getting an extended break.

At age 32, Torres is something of a veteran amid the greener relief corps. Pitching in his Major League season, the right-hander sports a 3.83 ERA and 1.277 WHIP. Management isn’t reluctant to call his numbers, as Torres has thrown 50 innings in 49 games. He hasn’t been asked to pitch as swingman this season; he’s maxed out at three consecutive innings in 2015. He can pitch to both sides of the plate, although a .281 batting average and .738 OPS to right-handed batters hardly inspires fear. Torres’ results, however, are substantially better when pitching on no rest. Statistically, he profiles best this season pitching before the eighth inning – he’s yielded just a single earned run in 14.1 innings before the eighth and 15 earned runs in 23 innings after.

The best fireman for a high-pressure, late-inning situation with Clippard and Familia unavailable surprisingly could be a rookie. Wednesday night’s loss to Baltimore notwithstanding, Hansel Robles looks like a possible find for New York. The 25-year-old fireballer began the season with a gaudy 10.80 ERA, an ERA that dropped to an even 4 after Wednesday. Pitching 36 innings in 38 games, Robles is plenty capable of picking up a full inning or two, even if he’s seen limited action in back-to-back games. Considering he’s effective against both sides of the plate, although a .383 slugging percentage to righties is concerning, Robles better be ready for heavy use.

Like his teammate, Logan Verrett is 25-years-old and a fireballer in the Mets pen. Despite taking an ill-fated detour in Arlington as a Rule V pick, Verrett has returned to the Mets organization and looks to be a mainstay. Capable of starting or relieving, Verrett’s pitched 22.1 innings in 11 games to the tune of a 2.82 ERA and 1.030 WHIP. Trapped in the minors for part of the season, Verrett has impressed during his tenure with New York, including a six-pitch inning in Wednesday’s loss. Batters on neither side of the plate seem to hit him well, but sample size is a consideration. He’s also pitched most effectively and most often with two days off, possibly limiting his use as a bullpen staple.

Sean Gilmartin also happens to be 25-years-old, but as a southpaw common logic would depict him as tough on left-handed batters. But with 32.2 innings in 37 games, along with a 2.45 ERA and 1.200 WHIP, Gilmartin is noticeably better against righties. Lefty batters are sporting a .653 OBP compared to .576 from the other side. And fortunately for New York, he has something of a resilient arm, showing the ability to pitch a full inning and return to action the following day with positive results. Leverage Index indicates Gilmartin is better in low- and medium-leverage situations.

The other lefty on the team joined the Mets just a few weeks ago. And unlike his colleague, veteran Eric O’Flaherty is absolutely a LOOGY. Oakland and New York seemed determined to throw him against multiple batters, despite the fact righties carry a whopping 1.124 OPS against him compared to a .594 OPS by left-handed hitters. If used more appropriately, his 6.93 ERA and 2.027 WHIP on the season should drop.

At the moment, that constitutes the Mets relief corps. Familiar faces like Erik Goeddel, Bobby Parnell and Alex Torres could join them when rosters expand Sept. 1, but only Goeddel has shown hints of being trustworthy late in games, and that’s an opinion based on just 23 innings. Black is another likely call up, despite walking six batters in 9.1 innings at Triple-A, and veteran LOOGYJerry Blevins is desperately trying to rehab a twice-broken arm in time for postseason play.

Knee jerk reactions are often wild overreactions fueled by emotion. Is the Mets’ bullpen really as bad as it was in Baltimore? Probably not. This may or may not have been why GM Sandy Alderson publicly said a trade is unlikely in a very “limited” market. But Alderson can’t really believe his team is ready for September baseball with a closer getting playoff jitters and raw, unproven arms the only insurance his starters don’t get the ball directly to Clippard or Familia. Something has to happen.

Ya Gotta Send Conforto, Not Campbell, Down

Eric CampbellWe baseball fans tend to be a passionate bunch. We lend more credence to our hearts than our minds, as much as we embrace sabremetrics. That’s why almost every Met fan is wrong about today’s Michael Cuddyer reinstatement.

GM Sandy Alderson announced Cuddyer would return Monday, but played coy about the corresponding move until well into the afternoon. Over the weekend he only said they would choose the best 25 players now with no plans for the future. The New York fan base has decided that means either beleaguered utility man Eric Campbell or rookie Michael Conforto are destined for Triple-A Las Vegas, and they’ve made their decision, which surprisingly is the same decision Alderson made.

Too bad they’re all wrong.

Assuming no unexpected roster moves are yet to be made, Alderson should have demoted Conforto. It’s nothing personal against the young outfielder; he shows a lot of promise and plays the right way. Don’t be surprised to see him as the left fielder in Citi Field for years to come. Just not now.

As the bare minimum, proper positioning requires Campbell to stick around. Cuddyer can play either corner outfield spot and first base; Campbell offers even more versatility while Conforto is strictly a left fielder. Kelly Johnson, Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Flores offer some versatility, but it is such a difference for skipper Terry Collins to have a reliable bench after that abomination in the first half.

Conforto actually holds the edge defensively in left field. Despite being advertised as a lumbering bat-first outfielder, the 22-year-old has shown above average range in his 11 games. Compare that to Cuddyer’s below league-average fielding in left, but above average fielding at first. In all of four games, Campbell has looked fine in left field, but only luke warm at the hot corner through 43 games.

But the 36-year-old Cuddyer is being paid $8.5 million and has an established track record, both indicators the Mets front office will tell Collins to start the veteran. Let’s not mince words, his 2015 numbers have been dreadful. Slashing .250/.303/.380 before hitting the DL, his .683 OPS is the worst in any of his 15 years, aside from 20 plate appearances in 2001. But he is hitting righties at a .257 clip with a .705 OPS; unfortunately his average against southpaws is a mere .226 with a poor .598 OPS.

Conforto has similar splits, albeit in just 11 games. His .226 average against right-handed pitching is weak, but that’s bolstered by a .744 OPS. That figure will likely come down some since he’s hit more extra-base hits than singles – three doubles and a home run in seven total hits, but it’s not unexpected to see him succeed. Against pitchers from the same side, he’s had just a single and a walk to produce a .200 average and .533 OPS.

Meanwhile, Campbell has served as the whipping boy for many underperforming Mets earlier this season. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve some of the blame, slashing.179/.301/.276 with a putrid .577 OPS, but he wasn’t alone. His splits for the season are terrible against both righties and lefties, with an under .200 average and .600 OPS against each. That said, there’s still hope of reviving his career. Campbell had a poor first month immediately filling in for the injured Wright, hitting .208 with a .654 OPS. But those numbers, and fans’ patience with the utility player, plummeted in May and June. He started 20 of 30 games and hit about .150. Those numbers trended upwards in July, finishing with a .208 average and .720 OPS with only 6 stats in 13 games; he’s also picked up a single and an RBI in three non-starting at-bats this month. What makes Campbell’s toxic offensive numbers a little less venomous are rank BABIPs. Among the four completed months, July easily had the highest BABIP at .267 BABIP . If the Mets have any hopes of using Campbell as a reserve piece in a playoff run – or Heaven forbid postseason play – they ought to figure him out now.

There is one other item of note with this decision. Whoever gets handed a ticket out of LaGuardia for McCarran will probably be back in New York before terribly long. Major League Baseball rules require active players to be on the 25-man roster by midnight Aug. 31 to be eligible for postseason play. The caveat is that each team’s 40-man roster is also eligible and available in every game from Sept. 1 until their season ends. Triple-A Las Vegas ends their regular season Sept. 7, and although they’re in first place and could possibly win the two best-of-five series for the Pacific League championship and the best-of-7 Triple-A National Championship series, Alderson has said the focus is in Flushing.