No winners, losers yet in 2015 trade season

**This was originally written before the trade deadline passed. It’s been slightly tweaked since, but much of it remains intact. After all, how else am I supposed to transition into a gaffe like Jeopardy made. Enjoy.**

GlassBallIt’s over. The craziest time of year that’s not related to religion, food or a certain other sporting event has come and gone. The annual MLB non-waiver trade deadline arrives precisely at 4 p.m. every July 31 like a deranged Santa Claus, leaving gifts for some at the expense of others all half a year in advance.

By this point, every reporter, analyst, GM, fan and your grandmother has analyzed these trades. They’ve told you exactly who won and who lost, why this was the best shot to reach the playoffs and how this will set the franchise back to the Stone Age.

But nobody actually has a crystal ball. Trades aren’t won or lost on Aug. 1, 2 or 3. Sometimes they’re won in October, although it usually takes some time to see the true cost of a move. Was an increased chance at winning the World Series worth taking on overpriced veterans and giving up much-ballyhooed prospects – see Phillies, Philadelphia – or giving up on the season and trading away everything for the future – see Reds, Cincinnati.

Everybody knew the Phillies would trade Cole Hamels. It was just a matter of to where and for what. The bigger surprise is that a day before the deadline he joined a Texas Rangers club unlikely to earn a ticket to the dance with a sub-.500 record. The 32-year-old star moved south with a bullpen arm for veteran Matt Harrison, a trio of top prospects and a pair of quadruple-A pitchers.

Nobody expected the Rockies and Blue Jays Troy deal earlier in the week. Troy Tulowitzki’s name has been bandied about seemingly as long as a Bush and Clinton have been connected to national politics. Mets GM Sandy Alderson kicked the tires on Tulowitzki, but was told the Rockies probably wouldn’t trade him. News to the contrary broke in the wee hours of the Tuesday prior, when Toronto agreed to swap Jose Reyes, with ageless reliever LaTroy Hawkins leaving Colorado and a package of pitching prospects leaving the Toronto farm system.

That was the weirdest part of the 2015 deadline, at least until the Mets and Brewers danced the Lambada that is Carlos Gomez. Pushing hard for an outfielder, word spread less than 48 hours before zero hour that the clubs would trade Gomez for Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler. News hit Citi Field as New York hosted the Padres on the wrong side of a blowout. Without warning, the crowd offered Flores a standing ovation in the seventh inning as he grounded out. He returned to the clubhouse to learn he’d been traded, tears forming in his eyes. Manager Terry Collins sent him back out for the eighth, fuming he hadn’t been told. Flores finally left the game in the ninth inning, long enough for pundits to criticize the Mets. But the story took another left turn immediately after the game when Alderson reported the deal was not happening after all. Some reports cite medical concerns about Gomez’ hip, while others contend the Mets wanted money from Milwaukee. The centerfielder was traded with starter Mike Fiers to the Houston Astros the very next day for two outfield prospects, two pitching prospects and the 76th international signing slot. Of course the Mets saved face by trading for the power bat of Yoenis Cespedes ,sending prospect Michael Fulmer and another minor league pitcher to Detroit.

Will the Mets regret not bringing on Gomez, especially as news of serious injury concerns about Juan Lagares and Michael Cuddyer broke on deadline day? Was renting Cespedes for a few months worth the price in prospects? Did Houston give up major pieces for a star who will crash to the DL next year? Does swapping star shortstops Tulowitzki and Reyes actually do anything? How will Hamels help the Rangers succeed in the next few years?

Reply hazy, try again.

Mets’ bad bats stall second-half start

Reverse LogoThe weekend is over but the road trip continues.

Just in case you missed it, forgivable with almost a week off for the All-Star break, the second half of the season kicked off with a wasted opportunity in St. Louis. The Mets dropped the first two games of a three-game set against the Major League-best Cardinals. They flew into Washington – albeit later than anticipated – having gained no ground on the first place Nationals.

So what happened? The short answer is offense.

The series-opener went St. Louis’ way with a 3-2 final Friday, but this contest was gift-wrapped for New York. Curtis Granderson appeared to set the tone with a 472-foot bomb to deep right, while rookie starter Noah Syndergaard kept the Cardinals’ bats silent through five innings. Syndergaard and three members of the relief corps allowed seven hits and three runs in eight innings.

Meanwhile, the Mets recorded just three hits between Granderson’s home run and the eight inning. Cardinals’ closer Trevor Rosenthal looked shaky with public comments about overuse emerged in the Gateway City. Daniel Murphy led off flying out to right, but Lucas Duda singled through the shift into right and Kevin Plawecki was gifted a single on a flare to shallow right that should not have fallen.

A rally suddenly beginning, bench player Eric Campbell pinch ran for Plawecki. Kirk Nieuwenhuis struck out swinging for the second out, but the magic was still alive. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch and Ruben Tejada guided a groundball beyond Rosenthal for an infield single to score Duda. John Mayberry Jr. stepped into the box looking to plate the trying run 90 feet away, but struck out swinging.

Saturday was a disaster all the way around, the Mets falling 12-2. Veteran starter Bartolo Colon allowed seven runs to score without escaping the fifth inning and the bullpen yielded five more runs in three innings of work. Meanwhile New York batters collected 12 hits, but left 11 on base, including five in scoring position.

The Mets staved off a sweep Sunday with a 3-1 win, but it took two full games in the stifling heat to do it. Neither starter, Jon Niese for New York or Tim Cooney for St. Louis, allowed a run, but neither mattered beyond that. Bullpens were heavily taxed as the game continued scoreless into extra innings.

Signs of life came in the 13th inning when Granderson smacked a base hit to left center he stretched into a double. Plawecki laced the ball into right, Granderson scoring the game’s first run on aggressive baserunning. Tejada singled to right, and now the Mets had nobody out, runners on the corners and, most importantly, the lead. But the magic disappeared suddenly, as a Campbell fly out, Juan Lagares pop up and Johnny Monell pop up. Making matters worse, Kolten Wong rudely greeted Jeurys Familia with a lead-off bomb in the bottom half. The game, still tied, continued on into the 14th inning.

The Mets finally scored again in the top of the 18th. Wilmer Flores singled to left and Granderson singled to right. Plawecki also reached base when reliever Carlos Martinez failed to properly field a sacrifice bunt. The bases juiced, Tejada punched a sacrifice fly to right that scored Flores. Campbell earned an RBI with a squeeze bunt plating Granderson. Carlos Torres tossed a 1-2-3 18th inning for his second inning of work and the victory.

These are the important numbers from the weekend.
2-1, games St. Louis won to take the series
16-7, Mets were outscored in all three games
35, Mets total hits
2 for 37, batting with runners in scoring position
42, Mets left on base
17 and 33, total walks and strikeouts
0/3, Mayberry batting
3/9, Nieuwenhuis batting

The most obvious takeaway from this series is how badly Mayberry needs to go. The front office shouldn’t waste any time trying to find a trade partner to save a few pennies, this guy is an offensive black hole with a career-worst .608 OPS and miserable .208/.269/.458 slash against lefties before going 0-for-2 with a walk on Sunday. The second item of note is how much more aggressive the Mets have become since the break. We previously looked at how overly-patient New York was, but they nearly doubled up strikeouts to walks. Similarly, the Mets are actually getting base hits; they just can’t do it when someone is on second or third base. This could be a temporary trend, it could remedy if they make smart personnel decisions before the trade deadline or it could return to very minimal hits with bad batters and the patient approach.

Sitting at 48-44 late on Sunday, the second-place Mets missed an opportunity to pick up half a game on the 49-41 Nationals. Seventy games remain in the 2015 regular season, but it’s never too early to fight back in it and build a healthy lead. Ask the 2007 Mets what can happen if you don’t.

Jon Niese leads list of most likely Mets trade chips

NieseChristmas, Hanukah and Kwanza are still waiting for us months from now in frigid December, but baseball fans may find new gifts in sweltering July as the trade deadline draws nigh.

Technically known as Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline, July 31 at 4 p.m. marks the cutoff for all 32 teams to report wheeling and dealing to new Commissioner Rob Manfred. Trades happen later in the summer, but expose players to other teams and limit postseason eligibility.

As the All-Star Game – the unofficial celebration of the first half – appears on the horizon for July 14, the Mets are in a position to make some noise at the deadline. New York is a few games over .500 in a division that’s far weaker than expected with a pitching staff that’s better than expected. Popular belief calls on the Mets to trade for hitting, although they could deal bad contracts away or outright sell veterans for yet another rebuilding year.

Regardless of GM Sandy Alderson’s super-secret plans, these are some of the most likely players currently in the franchise to be wearing a different uniform by Aug. 1.

Jon Niese
Head to the local bookie and place a healthy bet on Niese being the only Met traded. Maybe he won’t be the only one, but it’d be startling if he wasn’t out of blue and orange very soon. The 28-year-old southpaw is quietly having a solid year with a 3.58 ERA in 98 innings, although concerns about injuries and questionable stats like a 1.418 WHIP has knocked down his trade value. Financially he’s been worth his five-year/$25 million salary beginning the 2012 campaign, and is likely to be a value for his career-high $9 million guaranteed in 2016.

Bartolo Colon
Colon was the most popular trade deadline candidate back in the off-season. Then the regular season happened and the ageless 42-year-old is possibly on the trade block. A hot start of four consecutive wins has been eclipsed by a mundane 4.46 ERA, although he’s only allowed two earned runs in the last 13 innings. Colon is an innings-eater and a steady veteran presence in a rotation full of youth limited by pitch counts. His assortment of fastballs, rubber arm and solid value for his $11 million walk year make him an attractive addition to the back of a playoff rotation.

Dilson Herrera
His name hasn’t been splashed everywhere, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Herrera dealt. The 21-year-old second baseman came to New York from Pittsburgh two years ago in the Marlon Byrd and John Buck trade. He profiled as an offensive infielder with a high average, gap power, some speed and adequate defense. Instead, Herrera slashed .195/.290/.317 in 82 at-bats before his demotion. The kid is still very young and shows plenty of potential in the minors, but could be blocked by a Wilmer Flores rejuvenated by a shift to second. Don’t expect Hererra to get dealt, but don’t be surprised either.

Gabriel Ynoa
Ynoa is a young arm, part of the next class of pitching prospects lost in the shadows of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. At age 22, he’s been in the minors for a while – five seasons, along with a mediocre arsenal and a 4.06 ERA in Double-A Binghamton. That said, Ynoa is attracting a lot of attention with strong control and limited walks. Another team could gamble on him developing his change and sliders into stronger pitches that accent a low-90s fastball.

Brandon Nimmo
I really don’t like this move as it’s counterproductive, but it’s hard to argue with the buzz going about; Nimmo could get traded as part of a deal this month. At 21-years-old, the centerfielder is hitting for a good average and low power in his second stint with Double-A Binghamton. Power is a concern with the toolsy, yet raw outfielder; he hit 12 doubles, four triples and six home runs in 240 at-bats in Double-A last season. In the field, he has plenty of range but struggles on getting behind some throws. A pessimistic New York squad could move Nimmo to an optimistic team in a deal for Major League hitting.

Rafael Montero
Now the wildcard, Montero was a lock to be traded by the deadline before the season began. Instead, the 24-year-old threw just 10 innings as the swing man before rotator cuff inflammation sidelined him on the DL on April 30. Since then, the meticulously-precise righty remains out of action with unknown symptoms. Montero is known for control and a dominant fastball, and a strong minor league campaign suggests he could refine his secondary pitches enough to be a serviceable Major League pitcher somewhere.

Are the Mets being too patient at the plate?

Generic_Mets_Logo_2Old fish, skunks and wet dog. These putrid stenches somehow reek less than the 2015 Mets offense. There’s just no other way a baseball team with that type of pitching is hovering around .500.

Comparing the Mets to 29 other Major League teams, their 276 runs scored is only better than three other teams. Stellar pitching continues to outweigh suspect defense for a 24.1 dWAR, but a –39.4 oWAR – sixth worse in the league – brings their total WAR down to 7.7

Identifying and eliminating the source of the stank has been troublesome, especially lately. New York scored 22 runs in the last 10 games, including Sunday’s 7-run anomaly. They don’t hit for power, get clutch hits or put bunts down.

Some of it has to come from a lack of talent. It’s all but impossible to score runs fielding a team of Eric Campbell, Darrell Ceciliani, John Mayberry Jr. and sadly Michael Cuddyer. Poor decisions have been made in talent acquisition and minor league call-ups, and there aren’t many remedies mid-season.

Bad luck, as skipper Terry Collins and hitting coach Kevin Long claimed, is also a part of the offensive offense. There have been some well-struck balls that find the webbing of a defender’s glove or the wrong side of a foul pole. Using BABIP, the Mets are not only well under the typical .300, but at .280, they have the third weakest Batting Average on Balls In Play. Even last year’s BABIP wasn’t that bad.

“When you’re going through it, it always seems like it’s the worst ever, but we’ll come through it. We’ll be fine. We just need to stay together and keep fighting,” Long said.

But another component of their woes may actually be the hitting coach’s fault. The team mantra is to wait for their pitch and unload. What’s actually happening is the Mets are walking less than the Major League average, striking out more than the average and just all around failing compared to the average.

Part of that comes from too much patience and a lack of aggression at the dish. Sabremetrics reveal the Mets are very good at not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, not swinging through a pitch and making contact on pitches in the strike zone. They see an average amount of first pitch strikes, but more total strikes than 22 other teams. New York, however, is one of the least likely to swing at a strike and are worse at making contact with pitches out of the strike zone. The Z-Swing metric measures swings at strikes compared to all pitches within the strike zone. As of mid-day Monday, the Mets were no. 20 with a 65.9 percent in a range of 61.5-71 percent.

This passive approach may be stifling young hitters like Dilson Herrera and Wilmer Flores. Through the minors, Herrera showed promise of hitting 20+ doubles and 10+ home runs every season. A .302/.367/.464 minor league slash, along with an average of 28 walks and 63 strikeouts, suggested his bat may have that pop. Instead, the 21-year-old second baseman boasts a weak .195/.290/.390 slash with just a pair each of doubles and home runs to go along with 9 walks and 22 strikeouts in 25 games. Formerly known as the heir apparent shortstop, Flores is sporting a .238/.270/.395 slash with 10 each of doubles and home runs to go along with 9 walks and 35 strikeouts in 71 games. As a farmhand, the 23-year-old slashed .292/.334/.440 and averaged 25 walks and 59 strikeouts a season.

Both players hit for high averages, power, few walks and a reasonable amount of strikeouts before they arrived in Queens. Maybe it’s not just ironic their numbers tanked since they joined a club so focused on waiting and taking pitches.

Rumored Baez for Niese deal could work for Mets

Jonathon NieseBear with me for a moment, but let’s imagine the Mets are not in a deep freefall with no end in sight. Let’s assume they didn’t cough up an 11-0 streak and could hit their way out of a paper bag. Pretend the New York Mets are legitimate playoff contenders this season.

Better isn’t it? Unfortunately, we’ve still got a quandary on our hands. The Mets have way too much starting pitching, even with Rafael Montero rehabbing, Zack Wheeler recovering from Tommy John surgery, Steven Matz obliterating Las Vegas and a surprisingly ineffective Dillon Gee demoted to Triple-A.

Both Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom are proving to be young dynamos, with Noah Syndergaard quietly proving to be more boom than bust. Bartolo Colon not only drinks daily from the Fountain of Youth, but apparently he found the Fountain of Hitting too. Jonathon Niese has been the weakest link of the five, but even he’s rattled of four consecutive quality starts without a win.

Ownership and management promised Mets fans a rebuilt club that would continually sell tickets for October games. The tradeoff for no revenge for 2006-2008 was excellent pitching and a home-grown team that would make the NL East quake. The pitching finally arrived, but now comes the tricky part – saying good-bye. Baseball teams improve themselves by dealing from a strength to shore up a weakness.

The Mets must trade a starting pitcher away for a position player.

News outlets began picking up a story Tuesday about the Chicago Cubs seriously investigating major league pitching options. They’re rumored to be inquiring everywhere, but the Mets were specifically listed. There’s also writing on the wall the Cubbies were considering dealing Javier Baez to New York before breaking a ring finger on June 7 and earning a trip to the DL for up to eight weeks.

Does Baez do anything for the Mets? Is he worth a package fronted by Niese? The short answer is probably.

Here’s a quick scouting report for ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Baez is incredibly aggressive at the plate with high strikeouts, plus-plus power and a healthy batting average anywhere not Wrigley Field. His average speed translates to low double-digit stolen bases and questionable range at shortstop; a solid arm means a transition to third base is likely in his career. He was excelling at Triple-A Iowa after a miserable showing through 52 games with Chicago last year.

Javier has reportedly somewhat fallen out of favor in Chicago, which could be a boon to whomever acquires his services. Throughout his career, Baez has shown a strong batting average, great power and decent speed at almost every level of the minors. A .188/.244/.400 slash through 23 games at High-A in 2013 turned into a .274/.338/.535 slash through 76 games in 2014. And considering Iowa has the strongest offensive Park Factor at 101 through the Cubs farm system – 100 is neutral, these numbers are legitimate and it’d be more of an anomaly for him not to break out in the bigs. Throw in the fact he’s under team control through 2017 and wouldn’t be free agent eligible until 2021, and Baez becomes even more attractive.

Meanwhile, the Mets would hand a mid-rotation starter a plane ticket to another city after seven years with the organization that drafted him in the seventh round in 2005. Niese owns a 3.89 ERA, 1.365 WHIP and averages just 170 innings a season the last five years. Simply put, he’s a decent option for a no. 3 or 4 starter with the occasional gem. Signing a five-year/$25 million deal before the 2012 campaign, Niese’s contract also includes a $10 million and $11 million team option in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Earning a tick over 2 Wins Above Replacement the previous five years, the southpaw is still something of a value with a win costing $6 million each last season.

Mets management – remember, we’re still imagining they’re mildly competent – is unlikely to replace defensively-challenged shortstop Wilmer Flores with another, so Baez would likely slide over to the hot corner. That could work well with All-Star David Wright inactive until pigs fly, but veteran Daniel Murphy has earned first crack at the starting job when he returns very soon from the DL as rookie sensation Dilson Herrera tries to prove his worth at second base.

Barring another trip to the minors for Baez, New York could shuffle players around to create an infield with the Cub import at third and Flores at short. Both young Latinos seemingly have a lot of growing to do, but Met fans could suffer through serious growing pains along the way. Baez’ questionable range is better masked at third, but New Yorkers have long been spoiled by the glovework of Wright. The Mets should also sandwich Flores’ poor range with plus fielders at second and third, not more of the same. Neither young player has the patience to take many walks, while Flores hits into a lot of double plays and Baez whiffs, both killing rallies.

Evaluating the trade purely from a one-on-one perspective would be a gain for New York. The promise is there for a Major League bat at a time when offense is at a premium and young pitching is replacing veterans in Queens. From an organizational point of view, Baez would best be served by gaining at-bats in Double-A Binghamton since Vegas favors hitters so until he forces his way back up. Once he’s on the 25-man roster, the Mets will have to make a decision with Wright, Murphy, Flores and Herrera.

My open letter to David Wright

David WrightHey, David Wright. Yeah, I’m talking to you.

This was supposed to be the year the Mets finally emerged from the cellar and made some noise. This was supposed to be the year New York kept playing baseball after game no. 162.

“I fully expect us to be in the playoffs,” Wright told the New York Post.

Your teammates listened to you and skipper Terry Collins; they believed in the buzz. The season started off well, including an 11-0 run. But then you got hurt, and then you got seriously hurt.

The balky left shoulder that cost last season is gone, but a strained hamstring landed you back on the DL before a full season of play. It was supposed to be a mild case with you returning in May. Instead, that led to back issues, which led to the diagnosis of spinal stenosis.

Nobody without an MD after their name knew what that was and everybody, you included, put their Internet medical license to use. We learned it meant an abnormal narrowing of the spine and can stop average Joes from walking. That was it, time to wave the white flag on el capitán’s career – beginning with so much hope and lingering through so much misery.

But suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel. First came word that team ownership purchased insurance on your eight-year contract. And then what everyone not named Wilpon or Katz wanted to hear: David Wright wouldn’t have to retire from professional baseball.

We’ve been left in limbo for the last week. Your career isn’t over, but the Flushing Faithful aren’t expecting to see no. 5 any time soon. Supposedly physical torture, I mean therapy, will alleviate some of the symptoms. And some days will be better than others, with the bad gradually overtaking the good well after your playing days end.

Your teammates had to be thrilled to see you in Cali, even if that Padres series was a bust. The fans are always happy to see our captain, although we prefer it when your uniform is dirty and your bat is smoking line drives to all fields. Just in case you haven’t kept up with the team since your injury, let me fill you in. The guys won 11 straight in April, but haven’t played particularly well since. They swept a two-game series against the Orioles and keep clobbering the Phils, but they’ve dropped seven of the next 12 series.

God only knows where New York would be in the standings if you, Travis d’Arnaud, Vic Black, Jerry Blevins, Buddy Carlyle, Josh Edgin, Dilson Herrera, Jenrry Mejia, Rafael Montero, Bobby Parnell and Zack Wheeler were on the team. Hell, the offense probably could have shown more life and won a few games if you and Cricket were playing. No offense to Kevin Plawecki – there are Boilermakers in my family tree too, but it’s hard to top proven major league talent. And with your buddy Michael Cuddyer not exactly lighting it up, it’s nigh impossible for over-exposed bench players and kids to pick up all the slack.

The positive karma this team accumulated earlier in the season is spent and we’re Mets fans, we’ve been trained to expect the worst. Something needs to happen if the fans, and probably the players, are to buy into this team again.

Now I completely understand this is a serious condition that will remain the rest of your life. Not completely insensitive to that. What I would like is to hear the Mets captain is helping his teammates learn and prepare off the field, and then maybe some optimistic public comments we can all buy into. It would also help to have more concrete news about your progress and expected return date.

And if you wouldn’t mind, could you talk a little sense into Terry? Have him shift Daniel Murphy to third while you’re gone, slide Wilmer Flores to second and either use Ruben Tejada at short or get Sandy Alderson to pick up someone better. I don’t think Seattle’s Chris Taylor is going to need much more minor league grooming before his career takes off.

Thanks for hearing me out. We Met fans can get a little irritated (can you really blame us), but we’re also the most passionate and devoted fan base you’ll find in Major League Baseball.

After all, ya gotta believe!

Dillon Gee is pitching for his job

Dillon GeeThe company line coming from Flushing is that Dillon Gee’s job is not in jeopardy. Don’t believe that.

Gee, who turned 29 on Tuesday, is absolutely pitching for his job, whether it’s to protect his current role with the Mets or build a strong case for the Texas Rangers or somebody else to stick him in their rotation.

Sandy Alderson and his team spent all off-season trying to find a trade partner for Gee, and did little to hide it. Unfortunately for both team and pitcher, the market for a mediocre righty was limited and the return wasn’t enough for Alderson to pull the trigger.

Gee was a Met by default. And he was a good trooper, telling the New York Post in early March how he wanted to be a part of the Mets as much as he wanted to be a starter.

“I just want to pitch. I like it here and I think they are going to have a great year and to be a part of it would be cool, because I want to be part of a winning team here. At the same time, I want to be a starter, too, and if that happens elsewhere I will be happy there, too,” he said.

Gee was the fifth starter when the team broke camp, but the young competition, Rafael Montero, also made the major league team. Montero was shifted into the bullpen to get experience as much as stabilizing the relief corps. The position battle was over, except maybe it wasn’t.

Gee’s numbers have been fairly mundane, typical for a back of the rotation pitcher. Through four games his ERA sits at 4.26 and WHIP at 1.184, plenty fine for the last guy to take the ball. He has given up a career high 9.6 hits per nine innings and his strikeouts per nine innings are down a full strikeout from the last two years, but he’s also walking a very uncharacteristically low 1.1 batters per nine innings. It’s also evaluating a player on a very small sample size.

But it does reveal something very important.

For weeks Gee towed the company line and did what was asked of him. But two weeks ago, the pitcher forced a meeting with his skipper. Admitting his coping skill was to bottle issues up, he admitted to Terry Collins how he’s been frustrated through the last six months as his name frequently popped up in trade rumors and the team bounced him between the starting rotation and bullpen. He watched Montero moved back to Triple-A under the belief he’d return from last night’s Marlins game to take Gee’s job.

Something happened at that meeting. Maybe it was Collins instilling confidence in his pitcher he would continue to be a part of the best team in baseball, or maybe it was confidence in himself wherever he ended up and using a grudge against New York to fuel his resurgence.

Either way, the difference is noticeable. Gee couldn’t pitch his way out of the sixth inning in the first two starts and sported a 7.59 ERA. In the two starts since, he’s pitched into the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, and to a combined 1.84 ERA. Coincidentally, he pitched both well and poorly to the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins. The amount of baserunners allowed was relatively unchanged, but the dominant Gee is inducing substantially more ground balls – 23 in first two games and 30 in second two games – and flyballs – 11 in first two games and 20 in second two games.

Gee has never been a steady source of ground balls. His 1.65 ground ball to fly ball ratio and 2.33 ground out to air out ratio are double his career average.

The question is, what’s driving him to succeed?

Strong pitching helping the 2015 Mets ‘believe’

*Author’s note:
This was originally written and is accurate as of Thursday afternoon.

The plan was to run this story before the Mets bested the Marlins 7-5 that evening. That game exemplified almost everything written in this story, which did not run in time.

New York came back twice in the game, even after yielding a bases-loaded walk in a tie game and an error to that re-tied the game with an unearned run. Four different Mets scored a teammate, twice with two outs. They grounded into a double play, but stole a base. They made a throwing error, but turned a double play.

The starting pitcher wasn’t one of the young guns and gave up too many runs, but pushed into the sixth inning. The bullpen surrendered the unearned run after the error, but allowed no further scoring in 3.1 innings of relief. Hell, this hodgepodge collection of pitchers struck out 4 and allowed 3 total base runners.

Through 10 games, the New York Mets are alone atop the NL East with a 7-3 record.

Last night’s game almost makes my story gratuitous, keyword almost.

-MK

YouGottaBelieveMaybe there was something in the Port St. Lucie water, but this Mets team has some fight in them.

Small size warnings abound, through nine games the 2015 Mets are a scrappy bunch. They’re 6-3 record has been an interesting tale of adversity and spunk.

All spring the buzz around Mets camp was their swagger; they bought into a genuine playoff hunt. Perhaps some was artificially produced by management after failed promises in 2014, but not all. Matt Harvey is one of the best young arms in the game and he knows it. The laid back Zack Wheeler may be gone for the year, but uber-competitive Jacob deGrom offers a little more chutzpah. He may be resting a strained hammy for a bit, but el capitán David Wright has turned the corner as the clubhouse boss with support from childhood friend and respected veteran Michael Cuddyer. Even Juan Lagares’ flashy personality has reportedly emerged.

Winning is the ultimate cure all. The 1986 Mets were cocky troublemakers who liked to party, but nobody cared so long as they humiliated their opponents. The 2006 Mets had young and hungry stars in Wright and Jose Reyes, wise veterans in Carlos Delgado and Pedro Martinez, and the always-underrated Carlos Beltran. But when the franchise slid into the basement the years following, not only did they become losers, but they became boring. Skipper Willie Randolph wanted to be a serious Yankee and Jerry Manuel’s sage approach looked foolish on a losing club; Reyes was shipped out of town in 2011; and ownership continuously refused to spend money on talent.

The franchise finally showed signs of life in 2013 when Harvey hit the scene and used a strong second half to jump into a distant second behind the Braves last season. Fans were promised young talent would some day arrive in Queens and bring New York to the promised lands, even if that didn’t happen in 2014 as planned.

But the 2015 Mets may get there. They’re tied for the second best record this early in the season – the 2006 squad started 8-1 – and there’s no shortage of confidence amid injuries and suspensions.

Mets faithful were shocked to learn MLB suspended Jenrry Mejia 80 games for drug use. The bullpen was supposed to be a strength, but with hard-throwing Vic Black and 2013 closer Bobby Parnell still on the mend, doubts begin to arise. And yet, they’ve cobbled the remaining pieces into a surprisingly strong relief corps. Setup man Jeurys Familia has a 3.86 ERA but hasn’t blown a save in 3 chances. Former swingman Carlos Torres has 3 holds to show for his new role as setup man and starting pitching hopeful Rafael Montero is finding big league innings late in games.

Unsurprisingly, pitching is the theme of this team. Fans knew it coming into the season, analysts knew it, even opposing teams feared New York’s pitching. And even without Wheeler, Mejia, Parnell or Black, they’ve been dominant. The pitching staff is fifth in all of baseball with both a 2.65 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Their 7 quality starts is second in baseball, just one behind San Diego – who’s played a tenth game, consistently giving hitters a chance to grab the lead. Their 4 saves is tied with Kansas City for fifth best in baseball and alludes to the lack of rallies against the bullpen. A ridiculously low walks per game – 4.18 for no. 4 – makes the club’s just above average strikeouts per 9 innings stand out; Harvey and four relievers each have double-digit K/9 ratios.

Powered by pitching, the team is finding ways to win with a mediocre offense – no. 17 in runs scored throughout the league. Once again, New York is focused more on getting on base than trying to take multiple bases. The Mets are no. 12 in batting average and no. 10 in on-base percentage, but no. 23 in slugging. Compared to the average National League team, they’re on par in total at-bats and runs, boast a significantly higher OBP and have a significantly lower total bases, SLG and on-base plus slugging. The trend is even starker from the seventh inning and beyond; their .200 batting average and .271 slugging percentage are worse than most of baseball but a .314 OBP is in the top half. All but one of their five stolen bases have also come late in games. They’re slightly better than average in swiping bases, although the Mets are one of four teams yet to be thrown out.

Offense takes precedent in several position battles and led to a second-rate defense. Both Wilmer Flores and Daniel Murphy have limited range manning the middle of the infield, despite Lagares’ gold glove play in centerfield. Among all 30 clubs, the Mets are no. 19 in fielding percentage with .982, albeit in a very limited range of .997-.971. They don’t turn a ton of double plays, although they did turn four against the Phillies. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud doesn’t have a passed ball for his framing efforts, although he’s caught just one of four base runners – putting him in the middle of the pack for combined defense.

Despite having mediocre bats and gloves to go with their great pitching, the Mets are finding ways to win. They scored 6 unearned runs on Ian Desmond’s three errors to beat the vaulted Nationals. They have a winning record, 2-1, in one-run games and have yet to lose a game by more than 2 runs. They’re tied for first in the NL East despite missing an all-star third baseman, emerging top-of the rotation pitcher, two closers and a late-inning arm. They’re not great at pinch-hitting, tied for no. 21 with St. Louis with a .100 average, but they’re a tick above other National League teams at scoring per hit. There is some evidence the offense will improve. The team’s .239 batting average, .279 BABIP and -1.61 OWAR are all spot on with the MLB average, offering room to grow with the right moves. And even if no player transactions don’t occur and nobody has an epiphany about hitting baseballs, last year’s numbers suggest the average is too low. Comparing all 30 teams in 2014, the average BABIP was .300, batting average was .250 and OWAR was -26.05 – the Mets’ -54 was significantly higher than both the average and -40.1 median.

It is just nine (and sometimes 10) games into the season, but there are signs New York is overachieving and could improve as the dog days of summer arrive. With all of the cockiness this spring and hype surrounding the youth influx in recent years, Mets management should brace themselves for a disappointed fan base if a playoff hunt doesn’t materialize.

Is the Mets ‘spending spree’ for real?

spendingThe Mets budget has been inflated within the past 72 hours, but it’s still more akin to a week-old helium balloon than Harold the Baseball Player.

Yes, Fred Wilpon was sighted blowing the dust off of his checkbook and cracking it open for the first time since signing John Mayberry, Jr. back in December. He added almost $2 million to the 2015 payroll, and more could be coming very soon.

The first move swapped a share of older potential for a younger share with little impact on the bottom line. New York shipped Cory Mazzoni and a player to be named later to the San Diego Padres for Alex Torres. The 25-year-old Mazzoni has a solid fastball, slider and changeup, but the former second round pick seems more like a career minor leaguer. Torres, 27, is the guy who wears the Great Gazoo helmet on the mound. He’s also a lefty reliever who doesn’t throw more than 25 pitches per appearance but is effective against all hitters. He’s making the league minimum and won’t be eligible for arbitration until after 2016.

The second move, taking place mere hours later, tacked on a few bucks. The Mets moved 27-year-old Matt den Dekker to the Washington Nationals for Jerry Blevins. den Dekker rivals Juan Lagares – more about him later – in the field, but his high strikeouts translated better at the majors than his power or speed. Blevins, 31, is a lefty specialist who gets groundballs and strikeouts with four pitches thrown for strikes, not high speeds. He finished 2014 2-3 with a 4.87 ERA, but lefties hit just .160 and struck out six times for each walk. den Dekker will also make the league minimum in 2015, but Blevins will earn $2.4 million before hitting free agency.

Meanwhile, Lagares, who stole den Dekker’s job in 2013 when the latter broke his wrist in Spring Training, is on the verge of signing a four-year/$23 million extension for 2016-2019. The 26-year-old Gold Glove center fielder is known for tremendous range and arm strength, but looked less anemic at the plate last season with a .281/.321/.703 slash and 13 stolen bases. He’s not a prototypical leadoff hitter as much as they put him in that role, but his 7.0 WAR over the past two years proves he’s worth every penny, even for the $9.5 million option in 2020. He’ll still make just over the league minimum in 2015.

At the same time, the Mets are negotiating with first baseman Lucas Duda. Mets360 recently considered if an extension is warranted for the 29-year-old, but word on the streets is talks are still preliminary but won’t end until Opening Day. Duda took hold of the starting job after Ike Davis was shipped off to Pittsburgh early in 2014. He rewarded them with 30 home runs and a .253/.349/.481 slash. The Mets avoided arbitration for 2015 with a $4.2 million deal, but Duda could be worth the rumored four-year/$31 million extension if he proves his power is legitimate and continues to improve at first.

I can’t lie; these moves are a refreshing change of pace. GM Sandy Alderson sent out two Quadruple-A pieces plus a PTNBL – fingers crossed it’s a nobody – to bolster the bullpen, even if it was already a strength. But the Mets are still a team in the biggest city in the world and a payroll like a small town. As of Thursday morning, the Mets will dole out $106.2 million this year, including payments to Bobby Bonilla, Bret Saberhagen and Carlos Beltran. That ranks them no. 19 and just barely above the 10 teams paying less than $100 million. The other team in the city has a payroll more than double the Mets, Boston is sporting a $186 million roster and renewed hopes of continuing their success and the defending World Series champion Giants are fifth with a $173.8 million payroll.

Nobody in their right mind can say paying expensive contracts is the recipe for success in Major League Baseball. The Yankees built their dynasty on the backs of homegrown players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettite before taking on Alex Rodriguez‘ mammoth contract. The Giants did have a $149 million payroll last year, but Pablo Sandoval was only earning $8.25 million and Bay Area fans must regret handing out a two-year/$35 million extension to Tim Lincecum who has been very underwhelming the past three years after five years of domination.

But at the end of the day, a New York City team should have a New York City payroll, not a bottom half of the league payroll. Alderson and team ownership deny the Bernie Madoff scandal sank the ship, but the Mets finished the past three seasons with 40-man payrolls in the bottom half of the league, including no. 27 in 2014. New Commissioner Rob Manfred picked up where Bud Selig left over, saying publicly on Tuesday that criticism of Fred Wilpon is unfair and he is ‘satisfied’ they’re trying to be successful on the field and have the resources to be successful.

And yet, when New York needed a shortstop after 2013, they lowballed Jhonny Peralta with a two-year deal before the Cardinals surprised everyone with a four-year/$60 million contract. They didn’t appeal a decision by MLB after 2012 to protect their first-round pick when Pittsburgh failed to sign theirs and bumped them out, also bumping them out of the Michael Bourn contest. The Scott Boras client hasn’t lived up to his four-year/$48 million deal with the Indians, but a New York City team with a major payroll and a minor league outfield has to take that gamble. And this is without the Jose Reyes debacle after the 2011 campaign. Alderson recently said in biography “Baseball Maverick” he was prepared to offer the franchise shortstop $100 million before he signed a six-year/$102 million deal with Miami, and was promptly traded to Toronto. But Alderson publicly said he would not offer any $100 million contracts after the 2013 season and in the new biography said keeping Reyes would have been “maintaining the status quo.”

Reyes has been hurt and hasn’t hit quite as well as he did in Flushing, but his value hasn’t been terribly off the mark three years into the deal and for a rebuilding franchise in New York City with two beloved star players, it’s inappropriate not to keep both.

Bartolo Colon is not the problem Opening Day

Bartolo ColonNew York and national media is up in arms over annexation of Matt Harvey’s rightful duty to start Opening Day.

Instead of yielding to the Dark Knight, GM Sandy Alderson and Manager Terry Collins have the unmitigated audacity to announce they will pit Bartolo Colon against Nationals ace Max Scherzer at Nationals Park April 6.

And there’s no problem with that.

Opening Day at it’s core is just one game of 162. It does carry a certain amount of symbolic importance, but winning on April 6 doesn’t count twice or bestow a playoff berth.

Handing the ball to Harvey against the Washington Nationals would give New York a strong chance to take one from a very strong rival, but it would also put him inline to start the third and final game of a set in Atlanta before their home opener against Philadelphia on April 13. That starter would take on Miami and Atlanta at home, but miss the Yankees April 24-27.

That’s a much better schedule for someone the franchise isn’t spending untold resources developing and growing. Colon may not be the sexiest option when Major League Baseball will see Scherzer and other aces throwing, but it makes sense in the following weeks.

The Mets are known to pick their Opening Day starter based on the prior season and veteran status. Harvey was recovering from Tommy John surgery while Colon threw more than 200 innings in a disappointing 2014 campaign. deGrom earned some cred with 140 innings and a Rookie of the Year award, but is likely too green to be trusted with that much pressure. Unfortunately for the front office, fans and media, obvious choice Zack Wheeler is unavailable at the moment. Jon Niese and Dillon Gee – Opening Day starters from 2013 and 2014, respectively – could take the ball but neither had a tremendous 2014, nor are whom fans are shelling hard-earned cash to see.

Money is another valid reason not to push Harvey onto Opening Day. Any game he takes the mound automatically becomes #HarveyDay, a celebration all it’s own. Why waste Opening Day or the home opener, games when the ballpark will fill on its own?

The mistake is not Colon starting game 1. It’s having deGrom ahead of Harvey in the rotation.

deGrom is scheduled to start the second game in Washington, the home opener and the April series in Yankee Stadium. Harvey will likely pitch the Washington series finale, the first evening game at Citi Field and the Saturday Yankees game. The Mets may not want the home opener to be a #HarveyDay, but the Dark Knight isn’t the brash, star just so he can play second fiddle to another pitching hopeful. And so long as 2014 wasn’t a complete aberration, deGrom should have a career of opportunities to pitch in big games.

No, the Mets should take heed and bestow that mantle to its royalty.

The time to trade Daniel Murphy is now

Daniel MurphyUnless there’s some sneaky underlying scheming occurring, Sandy Alderson just put the Mets in hot water about Daniel Murphy.

Word broke Thursday morning that Murphy has yet to speak with Alderson and co. about extending his contract. The beloved second baseman will pull in $8 million this season as a 30-year-old with six prior seasons wearing orange and blue.

He shouldn’t finish the seventh at Citi Field.

Back in January, I said the Mets needed to trade Murphy as a shift to Wilmer Flores at second and acquiring a solid shortstop. It seemed like the best option for the club in both the short-term and long-term. And as expected, my opinions encountered a bit of resistance from fans.

I was concerned about what arbitration would yield after $5.7 million for a mediocre 2014 campaign that included an All-Star appearance by default. He finished the season with a respectable .289/.332/.403 slash, 9 home runs and 13 stolen bases. In the field, he finished with a .974 fielding percentage at second and a range factor just under league average. Tallying both sets of numbers yields a 2.8 WAR, translating to $15.3 million at the 2014 exchange rate.

So a team in New York City has a second baseman out-producing his contract and a fan-favorite. Logic says it’s no problem locking him up to a big deal.

Unfortunately, we live in Bizarro world where the Mets ownership is dirt-cheap and ballplayers are being paid obscene sums to entertain us. And that’s only the business side of the equation.

Designation as a gritty player is both a blessing and a curse in baseball. It’s bestowed upon players who lack the skillset to be a typical starter but play with such heart and/or smarts they earn the fans’ affection. Murphy has long been able to make consistent contact – to the tune of a .290 career average, and strikes out significantly less than the average hitter. He doesn’t have great power, but does hit a ton of doubles and has solid ISO power for a second baseman. However, that power would be underwhelming compared to his native corner infield positions. And despite being improved, Murphy’s defense at second is average and likely to decline as he ages.

Murphy is likely to earn a substantial raise whether he stays or leaves New York. And unless assurances are made he’ll accept a massive hometown deal, Alderson should make a qualifying offer to ensure some type of return, even if it’s prospects. That, however, is a pricey proposition. The current price of qualifying offers is $15.3 million; that translates to a $16.65 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season.

The ballplayer’s $15.3 million value in 2014 was the highest in his career and tied for the second highest wins above replacement (WAR) in a season. Each WAR was worth $5.46 million that season, a 9.2 percent bump over the $5 million rate in 2013. Accounting for a similar increase, each 2015 win will be worth $5.96 million and each 2016 win will be worth a tick more than $6 million. Assuming Murphy doesn’t defy age and exceed his 3 WAR 2013 season as a 28-year-old, his days of outplaying his salary are coming to an abrupt end.

Meanwhile, New York has younger, cheaper options available. Dilson Herrera, the much-ballyhooed prospect from the Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade, hasn’t lost management’s faith as the long-term solution at the keystone position. He sported a .323/.379/.479 slash in A-Advanced and Double-A last year before batting .220/.303/.407 and 3 home runs during a cameo in Queens. Flores could also move left if Alderson signs or trades for a new shortstop, and minor league infielder Matt Reynolds may be a stop-gap solution.

With reporters picking up that Alderson failed to chat about an extension during arbitration talks, even with Murphy saying he wants to stay, it’s creating an appearance he’s not long for orange and blue. Even if Mets’ management did want to replace Murphy with Herrera after the 2015 All-Star break, they would have retained more leverage against future trade partners if they at least pretended to be interested. There is absolutely interest in Murphy as a solid offensive second baseman with teams willing to ignore the defense. Much like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota had nothing to gain by participating in the NFL Combine last week, Murphy is unlikely to build up his trade value substantially, and may actually damage it with poor performance or injury.

If Alderson and co. want the best return out of Murphy, the best course of action is to trade him now.

Who Comes After Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom?

Mets WheelSandy Koufax once called pitching the art of instilling fear. It’s reputed to win championships. And in New York, it’s one of the few strengths entering 2015.

Both the starting rotation and the bullpen have a number of powerful options and plenty of depth to keep the Mets among the best in baseball. But when it comes down to naming which options to play, especially in the five-man rotation, that gets a little tricky.

Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom are the three gimmes for the average 2015 rotation. Yes, Harvey has missed a full year and will likely miss a few more games early this season, but 24-year-old Cy Young candidates always get the benefit of the doubt. When he last pitched, Harvey’s 5.2 wins above replacement (WAR) were worth 70 times his $498,700 salary. But if the Mets sign him to an elite, long-term deal, he’ll need to maintain his ridiculously low walk rate – 1.6 BB per 9 innings pitched (IP) – and high strikeout rate – 9.6 K per 9 IP.

Wheeler and deGrom both could be considered for the No. 2 starter role, but experience trumps accolades in my mind. Wheeler is entering his second full-season, following a 2014 campaign where he shoved major improvement in the second half. His numbers last year aren’t impressive at a glance – 3.54 ERA, 1.327 WHIP and 0.9 WAR – but that includes a 2.23 ERA over 64.1 innings in July and August. Wheeler also improved his peripherals: 3.8 BB per 9 IP from 4.1; 9.1 K per 9 IP from 7.6; and 0.7 home runs per 9 IP from 0.9. If he can become more efficient, a 2015 campaign with an ERA around 3 and WHIP close to 1 is very possible from the 25-year-old righty.

The Mets first Rookie of the Year recipient since Dwight Gooden in 1984 is the third starter to automatically receive a full-time gig. Once an under-the-radar name in the Mets’ farm system, just a few years removed from playing shortstop in college, deGrom burst onto the scene in 2014. He consistently throws strikes and has plus power stuff to mix with breaking balls, leading to a 9.2 K per 9 IP rate and collecting 3.1 WAR at the league minimum salary. A sophomore slump is a real possibility as hitter’s see more than just 140.1 innings, but his ability to get strikes and groundballs should limit the damage in 2015.

So who holds down the remaining two rotation jobs for New York in 2015? Of the remaining options, Jon Niese makes the most sense and deserves playing time. As the only southpaw of the group, he sports one of the lowest OPS allowed by lefties. Niese competed in his fifth full major league season, showing hints of 2012 when he appeared to be more than just a late-inning option. If he can keep the walk rate closer to 2 per 9 innings pitched, it should go a long way towards another sub-3.50 ERA and sub-1.3 WHIP.

The fifth and final slot in the Mets’ rotation comes down to a gamble. Bartolo Colon has a lengthy track record of winning with a 2.5 WAR each year on average. But at the youthful age of 42 and earning $11 million this season after finishing with just half a win above replacement last year, his resurgence may be over. Dillon Gee doesn’t sport the same level of reward, but is a much lower risk. The former Mets farmhand only earned 0.7 WAR after 2.2 WAR in 2013, but his $3.63 million salary makes that and a 4.00 ERA in 2014 easier to swallow. Four full seasons at the big time suggest Gee is a good No. 5 pitcher with an ERA around 4 in 151 IP and mediocre peripherals. The front office will likely trade Gee – or convert him to the swing man in the pen – and start Colon since the former comes with a lower price tag and the latter is a much higher risk and reward this late in his career.

In theory, prospect Rafael Montero could be considered for a starting job in Queens, although that seems suspect for now. The 24-year-old lost his trademark control in four starts before the All-Star break, earning a demotion. He recovered enough in the second half to pick up his first win and a post-break 2.96 ERA. But with control still an issue, he needs either more time starting in Triple-A or pitching out of the bullpen in the majors.