Most New York Mets fans by now probably thought they would be dealing with another disastrous season: clubhouse turmoil, a new manager, and what many want – a new GM. But thanks to an overachieving starting rotation, great years from David Wright and unheralded Angel Pagan, and now with the imminent return of Carlos Beltran, the Mets find themselves in the thick of the National League playoff picture – four games behind the Atlanta Braves in the East Division.
The Braves have a solid rotation and just picked up shortstop Alex Gonzalez from the Toronto Blue Jays for enigmatic Yunell Escobar. The Phillies will be looking to add somebody behind Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and await the return to health of Chase Utley and Placido Polanco. The Mets will also need to make some changes and improve in areas to stay in contention.
Below are five areas New York needs to address to find itself in the playoffs come October.
1. Find a starting pitcher
During New York’s best stretch of the season from May 21-June 18 the club went 19-6 and the starters compiled a 2.58 ERA and averaged 6 2/3 innings per outing. Since then the Mets have gone 9-12 and the starters have posted a 4.46 ERA in just over six innings an outing.
Johan Santana has been solid despite the fourth lowest run support in the NL and is a strong second half pitcher (61-19, 2.73 ERA after the break). But after a 9-1 start, Mike Pelfrey finished the first half by becoming the first Met ever to allow more than eight hits in less than five innings for three consecutive starts (13.1 IP, 33 H, 15 R). That’s a reason to be concerned.
Jon Niese has been superb, going 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA and .623 OPS in his last seven starts, and the 23-year-old is looking like the youngest double-digit winning Met since Dwight Gooden notched 18 in 1988. However, the lefthander pitched just 125 innings last season and is sitting on 90 already this campaign. Plus, he hasn’t been through a pennant race before.
R.A. Dickey has saved the rotation, going 6-0 with a 2.33 ERA in his first seven starts since May 19, but how much longer can his run last. The 35-year-old entered this season 22-28 with a 5.43 ERA and 1.572 WHIP and it can turn the other way fast for a knuckleballer! Just ask Tim Wakefield. The 192-game winner has gone at least five consecutive starts without a win 13 times in his career, including streaks of 13 and 11 starts.
Hisanori Takahasi has also provided the Mets with a lift, but has been tagged for 15 runs and 22 hits in 14 2/3 innings over his last three starts. And the 35-year-old had tossed more than 150 innings just three times in 10 seasons with Yomiuri in the Japanese League.
This does not bode well for the second half. John Maine is close to returning and could help, but he hasn’t been close to the 2006-07 versions for three years now. Oliver Perez should not throw another pitch for the Mets. That leaves the trade market, and Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren, Ted Lilly, Ben Sheets and Kevin Millwood are the likely available targets Minaya will try to pry loose.
2. Keep the second basemen out of the No. 2 hole
The Mets’ No.2 hitters – mostly Luis Castillo and Alex Cora – rank last in the league with a .646 OPS and one home run. Castillo’s ability to walk is a plus, but his lack of pop and stealing makes him a detriment in this spot.
Pagan has posted a .882 OPS in 89 plate appearances hitting second, but Cora has a .540 OPS and Ruben Tejada is 1-for-17. Cora has had a knack for the big hit however, going 10-for-27 with 16 RBI with runners in scoring position since May 11, and his 18.69 percent of baserunners driven in ranks third on the Mets, behind only Wright and Pagan, and 29th in the league.
3. Play Beltran in center field and move Pagan to right on full-time basis
The Mets definitely need Beltran’s bat in the middle of the lineup, however they should play Pagan in right every day rather than platooning him with Jeff Francoeur as Manuel has indicated. Among the 11 right fielders in the NL who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Francoeur ranks last in OBP (.302), SLG (.392) and runs (34). He is hitting .183 overall since June 17.
Pagan has had an outstanding year, ranking only behind San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez among NL position players in WAR (4.0), and among the top six in batting (.315), triples (6), steals (19) and batting with runners in scoring position (.391). The 29-year-old also ranks first among all NL fielders in total zone runs (16) and is second in assists (6).
Francoeur is a terrific outfielder in his own right with an outstanding arm (league-leading eight assists) and is batting .348 against lefthanders (.302 in career compared to .252 for Pagan), but Pagan gives the Mets an ideal No. 2 hitter behind a healthy Reyes and Manuel needs to let it ride. If anything, a rotation of all four outfielders seems likely, especially early on to provide Beltran a break, and later to sit Bay if he continues to struggle.
4. More timely hitting
The Mets have hit .307 with runners in scoring position since May 22 – tops in the majors – and .275 for the season, although Pagan (.391) and Wright (.316) are the only regulars hitting over .300. New York, however is 24th in the majors with 138 two-out runs; batting just .227 with runners in scoring position and two outs; 208 with the bases loaded; and .200 with runners in scoring position after the seventh inning. The middle of the order has been horrendous in games defined late and close. Wright and Bay have combined to hit .196 in those situations with no homers in 102 at-bats. Ike Davis is batting .175 and Francoeur just .130.
5. Need Parnell to take over the eighth inning role
New York’s bullpen has posted a 3.54 ERA – fifth best in the National League – but has walked the third most batters (131 in 271.2 IP) and has struggled some in July.
Since joining the club in June, Bobby Parnell has shown a dominant fastball and breaking ball and looks to be poised to take over the eighth inning. The 25-year-old has not allowed a run in 10 of 12 appearances, is throwing strikes and has shown an ability to get out both right and lefthanders.
Parnell’s emergence will free up Pedro Feliciano, who has struggled this month and against righthanders all season, to match up against tough lefthanders more often and get more rest.