How do the Mets stack up in the NL East?

We’ve been so busy picking apart the Mets roster this off-season, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a broader look at our division rivals to see how we measure up. Unlike other divisions, the NL East does not have a doormat team. The Marlins might not be a playoff favorite, but they’ve got more talent than any other projected fifth place finisher in either league. And, as you’ll see, they’re the least of our concerns. Here’s your annual NL East preview.

Atlanta Braves

Strengths: A strong middle-of-the-order with emerging star Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP/Mets crusher Freddie Freeman, and masher Marcel Ozuna. A strong rotation led by young guns Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson, and a deep bullpen topped by flamethrower A.J. Minter are both bolstered by a collection of carefully assembled veterans.

Weaknesses: The bottom of the lineup is potentially weak as the team is waiting for Austin Riley to establish himself at third and crosses its fingers that the young speedster Christian Pache can take over for the light-hitting Ender Inciarte in center field. Speaking of crossing fingers, as of this writing, the team does not have a proven catcher to back up the ever fragile Travis d’Arnaud. Ozuna can hit, but is a liability in the field and there’s no DH this year.

Best Player: Freeman

Wildcard: Pache

Best Case: Pache and Riley breakout, giving the Braves are strong lineup to support their pitching and they win a fourth consecutive division title.

Worst Case: Ozuna makes errors, d’Arnaud gets hurt, Riley is a bust, Pache isn’t ready and the pitching isn’t good enough to carry them beyond .500.

Prediction: Wild Card

Miami Marlins

Strengths: Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez lead a new wave of young rotation arms that are developing faster than expected. With so many great third basemen, you don’t hear much about Brian Anderson, but he’s a good ball player. Speedy, young outfielders will track down balls in the gap. Starling Marte is still on this team.

Weaknesses: The bullpen is largely unproven and the lineup lacks a real threat.

Best Player: Alcantara

Wildcard: Magneuris Sierra

Best Case: Some of the other young arms like Pablo Lopez, Nick Neidert and Elieser Hernandez develop and the team fights and scratches to a .500 record.

Worst Case: The Marllins get off to a slow start in a competitive division and trade away Marte at the deadline before sinking to last place.

Prediction: 5th place

New York Mets

Strengths: The strongest lineup this team has had since 2006 features power, speed, contact and balance. Adding a dynamic offensive player like Francisco Lindor to an already good lineup is scary for other teams. Jacob deGrom is without question the best pitcher in the game. A solid and versatile bench and some extra rotation arms should help the Mets overcome the usual injuries. They’ll get a jolt in early June when Noah Syndergaard returns.

Weaknesses: Outfield defense. Starting the season with three of our best pitchers on the IL. A poor fielding third baseman. Question marks in middle relief.

Best Player: deGrom

Wildcard: Syndergaard

Best Case: Those three pitchers return to health and the Mets find another reliable bullpen arm or two among who’s currently on the roster or available at mid-season. With this high octane offense, the pitching doesn’t need to be great, just good and reliable for them to make the playoffs. If Syndergaard comes back strong, this team could win the division and advance in the playoffs.

Worst Case: Syndergaard, Seth Lugo and Carlos Carrasco don’t all make it back and the pitching staff struggles.

Prediction: 1st place

Philadelphia Phillies

Strengths: A good lineup with six of their regulars capable of hitting 20+ homers. A strong top of the rotation.

Weaknesses: The bullpen was terrible last year and Archie Bradley won’t be enough to fix it. The backend of the rotation looks like a problem.

Best Player: Bryce Harper

Wildcard: Spencer Howard

Best Case: Howard has a big rookie year to give the Phillies four capable starters and the lineup stays healthy and keeps the team above .500 til the trade deadline when they bring in some reinforcements for the bullpen.

Worst Case: Zack Wheeler or Aaron Nola gets injured or Zack Efflin comes back to earth and the pitching proves too thin for this team to be competitive.

Prediction: 3rd place

Washington Nationals

Strengths: Rotation is one of the best with 3-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Veteran Jon Lester is first in line to fill out the backend with Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross competing for starts. The addition of Brad Hand should strengthen what should be a solid bullpen. Juan Soto is an absolute monster and Trea Turner is an All Star at shortstop.

Weaknesses: Soto will get walked 150 times as his only protection is Josh Bell. The rest of the lineup besides those two and Turner is hardly imposing. This team hasn’t replaced the departed Harper and Anthony Rendon and can’t consistently score runs. They have too many players than can field but not hit and vice versa.

Best Player: Soto

Wildcard: Carter Kieboom

Best Case: Kieboom develops, Victor Robles starts hitting, and Kyle Schwarber stays healthy and adds thump to the lineup. The key pitchers avoid the IL and this team can battle for a wild card.

Worst Case:  Too many errors in the field, too many runners stranded on base and not enough health among an aging pitching staff.

Prediction: 4th place

Josh Harrison fits like a glove

It’s funny how one roster move begets another. What may not have made sense a few moves prior, suddenly seems like a no-brainer. The resigning of Jay Bruce plugged a lot of holes for the Mets. In one move they provide lineup protection for Yoenis Cespedes, solidify the outfield, give themselves insurance at first base and provide some clubhouse leadership. No, Bruce is probably not a 2018 MVP front runner, but he was the right man for the job. Similarly, as the Mets consider how they might round out their infield, there’s one player available in trade who checks all the right boxes – the Pirates’ Josh Harrison.

The 30-year-old right hander is coming off an All-Star season in which he slashed .272/.339/.432 with 16 home runs and 12 steals. Again, not MVP stuff, but better than replacement level with a 2.5 WAR. And those numbers all would have been higher had Harrison’s season not been cut short by a now healed broken hand. Now factor in his defense, versatility, and team friendly contract ($10.5 million for 2018 with reasonable team options for 2019 and 2020) and you have a pretty good fit. Plus, word on the street is that the payroll cutting Pirates are interested in Brandon Nimmo. No offense to Nimmo who’s a nice kid who can get on base, but his ceiling is that of a replacement level fourth outfielder. If we could get a two-time All Star second baseman for him, that’s an easy call.

Harrison is an above average defensive second baseman (career .985 fielding percentage) who’s seen time at third base and corner outfield as well. Earlier in his career, he also played some shortstop. Harrison has made his share of errors at third, but looks smooth at the keystone where he was second among National League second baseman in range factor the past two seasons. Over the past two seasons, he’s also been among the top five in fielding percentage, assists, putouts, and double plays turned. Harrison has been described as a high motor player who makes a lot of highlight plays in the field and often aggressively takes an extra bag on the base paths.

While there are certainly other infield options out there, you could make the argument that none fit the bill as well as Harrison. Third baseman Mike Moustakas will likely be too expensive, not to mention risky coming off an outlying career year. Todd Frazier would be a nice addition but he’d push Asdrubal Cabrera over to second base and still leave a sizable hole atop the lineup as he is better suited to bat fifth or sixth than first or second. Potential trade candidates Jason Kipnis and Cesar Hernandez seem to either be off the market or else out of our reach. Former Mets Neil Walker (back issues) and Jose Reyes (better suited to a utility role) are less than ideal fits. Eduardo Nunez, an available free agent, provides similar versatility, better speed and wouldn’t require us to surrender and then replace Nimmo, however his defense is not nearly as good.

While he’s no Rickey Henderson, with a career OBP of .321 and an average of 16 steals per season, Harrison is better suited to bat leadoff than any other Met currently on the roster. And frankly, other than Lorenzo Cain, for whom there is neither the budget nor obvious open position, is there a better available option? The only downside to the potential Harrison deal is that it would require a follow-up move to replace Nimmo with a center fielder who could platoon with Juan Lagares until Michael Conforto is ready. We’d need an affordable lefty depth outfielder, ideally one with speed. As luck would have it, there’s such a player available that checks every box – Jarrod Dyson.

Would that then complete the lineup and bench? Not quite. With T.J. Rivera expected to begin the season on the disabled list and Wilmer Flores expected to get most of his at bats platooning at first base, the Mets could still use another versatile backup infielder. Preferably one who comes cheap, can play shortstop if needed, has some speed, and really wants to play for the Mets. Sound like anyone we know?

Jenrry Mejia getting the short end in rotation battle

Even without Matt Harvey, the New York Mets have themselves a fine rotation with Zack Wheeler, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and free-agent newcomer Bartolo Colon set to anchor the staff. However, one question mark that remains is who will grab hold of the fifth spot?

Terry Collins has publicly stated that he would like to have a veteran presence for the fifth spot and is leaning toward tabbing either Daisuke Matsuzaka or John Lannan for the spot. It’s not a terrible line of thinking, considering when healthy, Matsuzaka and Lannan have made for dependable arms in the past.

However, the thinking here should be that Jenrry Mejia is ready to blossom and he should be given every chance to claim the spot. But for whatever reason, he is not.

Mejia’s potential for success could prove to be the x-factor for the Mets this year. After starting five games last season and doing well (compiling a 2.30 ERA and fanning 27 batters in 27 1/3 innings) in his time in the rotation last year, Mejia had to be shutdown with elbow soreness. He would go on to get surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow.

It looks like Mejia is healthy now, though, and has done well in spring training thus far.  He has pitched four innings while giving up only one unearned run on one hit and two walks. Seeing as though you should want the best pitcher to win the spot, he should be the one to get the most consideration.

With the way he ended 2013, Mejia should be given the chance to earn this role. He earned that much. I mean, what if he continues to dazzle during the spring while Matsuzaka and Lannan struggle? What then? Will Collins’ opinion be swayed on wanting a veteran no matter what?

One would hope he is not that stubborn.

Simply put, putting Mejia in the bullpen is a mistake. The Mets put him there back in 2010 and it was disastrous. Mejia has starter stuff and it would be a waste if they shuttle him to the back end of the bullpen.

While one can appreciate the veteran services of Matsuzaka and Lannan, most Mets’ fans want to truly see what they have in Mejia. Between his years with debilitating injuries, being jettisoned between the rotation and the bullpen and being shuttled back in forth in the minors, it’s time we give Mejia his chance at starter. If not now, then when?

With the likes of Niese, Wheeler, Colon and Gee ahead of him, Mejia will not feel any undue pressure and he can go about his business in a normal-like fashion. This way, even if he does succeed it would only enhance his value and with the Mets having a young, stable of crops of reinforcements (Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Jacob deGrom, etc.) only a call away, Mejia could be a great bargaining chip.  And with Harvey presumably back next year, the time is ripe to showcase Mejia. 

If Mejia goes to the bullpen, at this point it should be for good. And that inherently is the problem. With Mejia still in prime position to make an impact in the rotation you should give him every chance to lock down the fifth spot. If he goes to the bullpen that may be the end of him as a starter, at least with the Mets.

And that’s too bad.

Bay resurgence critical to Mets 2011 success

Back in the winter of 2004, Carlos Beltran signed a lucrative seven-year $119 million deal with the New York Mets. Beltran was immediately expected to lead the Mets to great heights and live up to his lofty contract.

Beltran was coming off a marvelous 2004 post-season run with the Houston Astros in which he hit a record eight home runs to propel his team to the National League Championship.

For the most part Beltran has had a good run with the Mets. But sometimes the best laid plans often go awry, and Beltran struggled in his first season in Flushing. In 2005, (his first with the Mets) Beltran posted modest numbers with a .266 avg., 16 HR’s and 78 RBI’s and the Mets struggled to stay above .500. The Mets finished 83-79 that year and ended up tied for third in the N.L. East, 7.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves.

Beltran eventually would recapture his stroke and put up a MVP-type season in 2006. Beltran led the Mets to the N.L. East Championship after producing a .274 avg./41-HR/116 RBI stat line.

Now fast forward to the winter of 2009.

After the Mets finished a dreadful 2009 season 22.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies in an injury-ravaged year, the team needed to sign a big power bat to compete in the N. L. East. The team looked to Jason Bay for his great pull-hitting capabilities (even bypassing on Matt Holliday) and signed him to a four-year $66 million contract. After all, Bay was coming off a fantastic season with the Boston Red Sox in which he hit .267, but more importantly slugged 36 HR’s and drove in an impressive 119 RBI’s.

But much like Beltran, Bay struggled mightily in his first season with the Mets. Bay’s season was defined, and cut short, by a nasty concussion and he would wind up only hitting six home runs and driving in a measly 47 RBI’s in 348 AB’s. As such, the Mets continued to struggle and finished 79-83 and 12 games back of the Phillies.

Optimistic Mets faithful hope Bay can have a similar-type rebound season Beltran had in 2006. I realize this isn’t an apples to apples comparison, but Bay’s pedigree and history suggest he can’t be this bad. At age 32, it’s not like Bay is over the hill.

In his three previous years with the Red Sox and Pirates, Bay averaged 30 HR’s and 101 RBI’s. What gives? I know Citi Field is no haven for power hitters, but eventually Bay will and should get used to it.

Another hopeful comparison to look at is David Wright’s first season at Citi Field.

Wright’s 2009 (first season at Citi Field) power slump has been well documented. Wright, who also averaged nearly 30 HR’s prior to begin playing at Citi Field, hit 10 HR’s (five at home) to go with 72 RBI’s in 2009. But in 2010, Wright got used to his surroundings and rebounded with a solid 29 HR’s (12 at home) and 110 RBI’s. If Bay can come close to those numbers, than his 2010 season can be forgiven.

So, the bottom line thinking is with his first year out of the way, and with him returning to full health, Bay will feel relaxed and get back to what he does doing best: hitting hit home runs and driving in runs.

Bay has said he does not suffer any more headaches and is looking to put the past behind him. In fact, Bay is considering attending mini-camp in January to get a jump on things.

If Bay is healthy, and by all accounts it looks like he is, he should be in for a course correction. If Bay in fact does get back to his 30 HR, 100+ RBI ways, the Mets could possibly make a playoff push.

A lot has to go right for the Mets to make the playoffs, but at the top of that list is the return to prominence by Bay.

Rewind: August 9

Here’s what happened on this day in New York Mets history:

1975: Davey Lopes of the Los Angeles Dodgers stole his 32nd consecutive base without being caught in a 2-0 victory over the New York Mets, breaking Max Carey’s 1922 record. Lopes tacked on six more steals before being caught on Aug. 24.

1988: The Chicago Cubs won the first official night game at Wrigley Field by beating the New York Mets 6-4.

Stop worrying and love Jason Bay

No, this is not a black comedy. Instead it is a reminder that Jason Bay is a pretty good player and one that the fan base should be happy to see in the middle of the Mets lineup. It’s official – Jason Bay is a Met. This was not my first choice (John Lackey) or my second (Matt Holliday) but I still think this is a good signing. It is not what I would have done but I think it is a move that will help the team. What surprises me is the amount of negativity surrounding this signing. For months, fans and media outlets were screaming for Omar Minaya and the Mets to do something big to give hope for the 2010 season. Now that he has, it is met with some combination of indifference and regret.

You hear and read complaints about Bay’s defense, that the contract was too long and for too many dollars and how Bay didn’t want to go to the Mets and ended up on the team because they were the only ones willing to meet his contract demands. It’s possible that there is truth in each of these statements. But they miss the point of what Bay will bring to the offense.

The New York Rangers once passed on Mike Bossy because he was weak on defense. Bossy went on to score 573 goals, added 553 assists and became a member of Hockey’s Hall of Fame. Because the Rangers focused on what Bossy couldn’t do, they lost out on an impact talent. No, Bay is not going to end up in the Hall of Fame. But by focusing on his defense (which is bad and why Holliday would have been a better choice), people are missing out that he is the bat to replace Carlos Delgado and that should help the offense.

We all want to forget the train wreck that was the 2009 season. But before the injuries got out of hand, when Delgado was in the lineup, the Mets were in good shape in the NL East. Delgado played his last game on May 10th, the 30th game of the season and the 26th that he played. After that game, the Mets were 17-13 (.567) and in first place in the division. By contrast, the Yankees were 15-16 (.484) and in third place, 5.5 games behind the Blue Jays.

Delgado finished 2009 with a .298/.393/.521 line. As I’m sure you know, Delgado is a poor defensive player. UZR has him in negative numbers in six of the past seven seasons. The Dewan Defensive Runs Saved metric shows him in negative numbers four of the past five seasons. But that big bat in the middle of the lineup made a difference the first 30 games of the season.

Last year Bay put up a .267/.384/.537 line for the Red Sox. And while he did better at home (.936 OPS) than on the road (.904), he had a higher slugging percentage away from Fenway. In road games last year, Bay notched a .542 slugging percentage. Call me crazy, but I am excited about the prospects of the Mets adding a .900+ OPS bat to their lineup, one capable of compiling big numbers in both OBP and SLG.

One of the reasons the Mets preferred Bay over Holliday was because of his HR bat and also Bay’s pull tendencies. Hit Tracker Online shows that only five of Bay’s 36 HR went to RC or RF. Baseball-Reference.com shows Bay pulling 132 balls, hitting 190 up the middle and hitting only 47 to the opposite field. He hit 3X as may balls to LF as RF. With LF being slightly easier to hit HR at Citi Field, this could help Bay avoid the fate that befell David Wright, who uses more of the field.

But what about Bay’s defense?

When writing about Wally Backman, Bill James mentioned that before the arrival of Davey Johnson, the Mets kept Backman from meaningful playing time because they were concerned about his defense. Paraphrasing, James said words to the effect that you would think Backman was banned from McDonald’s from dropping his French fries too often – that’s how bad the Mets thought his hands were. By focusing on what Backman could not do (play great defense) they were missing out on the chance to help their team because he was such a superior offensive player to Brian Giles, Bob Bailor and the other mediocrities that the club used instead of Backman.

Defense is important; I am not trying to say otherwise. But everything needs to be put in context. UZR does not like Bay. It shows him as a double-digit negative the past three seasons. Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved does not like Bay, either. But it is not as extreme as UZR. Dewan’s method had Bay at -8 in both 2007 and 2008 and -1 last year. If Dewan’s numbers are closer to the truth, than the Mets can live with Bay in the OF and not have to move him to 1B (or the American League) as many have suggested.

And just as a reminder, Gary Sheffield played 46 games in LF for the Mets last year. His UZR in that time was -11.6, which extrapolates to a -35.4 UZR/150. Dewan had him at -7 in LF. Bay is likely to be a defensive upgrade from Sheffield.

Moving on to the contract, I don’t see how anyone expected to get Bay for fewer years than the Mets did. He got four guaranteed years and a vesting option that he will reach if healthy the final two seasons. Compare that to Holliday, who just signed a six-year deal. The money is significant, perhaps an overpay since it seems like Bay had no other serious suitors besides the Mets. But if Bay can avoid a significant drop in his offensive output, it hardly will be the disaster contract that people seem to think it is.

Finally, I don’t care if the Mets were not the first choice for Bay. If he had doubts about playing here, there is no way he signs what will likely be a five-year deal. I have no interest in having a player who doesn’t want to be on the team. Even 31 years later, the Richie Hebner memories are too strong. Now that’s a player who didn’t want to play for the Mets. Bay doesn’t have to love New York, he just has to show up and produce a .900+ OPS the next four-to-five years.

So, I think the negativity is misplaced in regards to Bay. If he turns out to be a butcher in the field, his contract becomes an albatross and he openly gripes about New York, then by all means let’s boo him. But right now that is an awful lot of conjecture. Because of his previous offensive output, Bay deserves the benefit of the doubt before the fans turn on him.

And maybe the Fighting Whities of Bay, Jeff Francoeur, Daniel Murphy and Wright can lead the Mets back to the playoffs. Wouldn’t that be something for Minaya and Los Mets.

Why the Mets should avoid Washburn

A look at Jarrod Washburn, a free agent the Mets have been linked to this offseason. Mets general manager Omar Minaya is slow-playing the free agent market this year. This strategy gives us hope that Bengie Molina will not end up on the roster – it’s January and he’s still not signed, woo-hoo! – and also gives rise to a bunch of rumors. The latest one comes courtesy of SI.com writer Jon Heyman, who notes that Jarrod Washburn “is drawing interest from the Mets.”

Earlier, I stated how I wanted no piece of Joel Pineiro on the Mets. Well, somehow we have a pitcher I would want even less. But let’s start off talking about the good things Washburn brings to the table.

Positives

He was having the best year of his career last year before a late-season trade to the Tigers. In his first 20 games of the season, Washburn had a 2.64 ERA and a 1.188 WHIP. He had 15 Quality Starts and his 2.39 K/BB ratio was the best of his career. Even though he struggled after the trade, Washburn had a strong year with a 3.68 ERA. Overall, Washburn has been fairly durable. He has appeared in 28 or more games in eight of his last nine seasons and made 25 starts in the other.

Negatives

While Washburn was enjoying a banner season with the Mariners, two red flags stand out. First, Washburn benefitted from an outstanding outfield defense in Seattle. With a 27.1 UZR/150, Franklin Gutierrez posted the third best fielding mark among outfielders in the majors. At 11.3, Ichiro Suzuki ranked 12th. The Mariners did not have a full-time LF due to injuries but four players logged 30 or more games in LF and each of them had double-digit UZR/150 rates, ranging from Ryan Langerhans (30 games, 16.9 UZR/150) to Endy Chavez (40 and 23.4).

Contrast that to what Washburn would be pitching in front of with the Mets. Jason Bay had a -11.2 UZR/150 in LF, Carlos Beltran had a -8.5 in CF and Jeff Francoeur had a -5.9 in RF. Now, there are questions about each of these numbers. Bay played in Fenway Park, which is a notoriously difficult place to play LF. Beltran, normally a fine defensive outfielder, was hurt and playing his first year in his new park. Two years previously, Francoeur was a good defensive outfielder. It would not be a surprise to see all three Mets OFers post better defensive numbers this year. Still, there is no way they are going to be remotely as good as the Seattle OF. This is especially important to Washburn, who is a fly ball pitcher. Last year he had a GB/FB ratio of 0.88, which was the eighth-lowest mark in the majors.

And while the Mariners defense was good, Washburn further cashed in last year while in Seattle by being lucky. While his ERA in Seattle was 2.64, his FIP was 3.80 and his xFIP, which normalizes his HR rate, had him at 4.50 for his time in the AL West. His BABIP was .249 (most pitchers fall in the .290-.310 range) and he stranded 75.4 percent of his baserunners (normal is around 70%). Finally, as xFIP showed, Washburn was very lucky with HR allowed in Seattle. He had a 6.4 percent HR/FB rate. Most SP have a HR/FB rate of 11-12 percent.

And we saw how things changed once Washburn was traded. His ERA ballooned to 7.33, his BABIP rose to .280, his strand rate fell to 65.1 percent and his HR/FB rocketed to 18.5 percent. One could argue that he was as unlucky in his brief time in Detroit as he was lucky in his time in Seattle. But that only reinforces the point that he was lucky the first part of the season. Both FIP and xFIP look to remove luck from a pitcher’s ERA. Washburn finished the year with a 4.58 FIP and a 4.73 xFIP.

And while Washburn has racked up a fair number of starts/games over the years, he has not necessarily given innings. Only twice in those nine seasons as he topped the 200-IP mark. He has averaged 182.2 IP over the past nine years, which is good, but hardly great. The Mets have a hole for their #2 SP. Ideally, their second-best pitcher would throw more innings than that.

Outlook

Washburn is a fly ball pitcher who depends on his outfield to help put up good numbers. With the Mets, he is unlikely to receive anything close to the level of defensive support that he received last year in Seattle. Also, he is unlikely to be as lucky as he was last year. Washburn could see a bump in his numbers moving from the AL to the NL with no longer having to face designated hitters. But his realistic upside seems to be league-average pitcher, while his likely performance is an ERA closer to his 4.58 FIP of a year ago. It makes no sense for the Mets to actively purse a 35-year-old pitcher who relies on his defense, especially if it is for a contract longer than one year at minimal dollars.