As a lifelong Mets fan, I know it’s foolish to ever advise Mets fans to get their hopes up. I’ve lived through Game Seven of the NLCS in 2006, the collapses in both 2007 and 2008, and the abomination that was the 2015 World Series—though, to be fair, it was a miracle that the Mets even made it to the Fall Classic in ’15.
With that being said, I think now is the time to get excited about this team. Yes, the hitting and bullpen need work. Yes, the Braves are chock-full of talent with a lot of money to spend in free agency. But the NL East, despite the Braves’ success in 2018, remains wide open—every team has holes to fill (or, in the case of the Marlins, a lot of holes to fill), and there’s no reason that the Mets can’t come out on top of the NL East in 2019.
I know what you’re thinking. “Max,” you say, “you’re just being another delusional Mets fan!”
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
The Mets offense was 5% below league average in 2018 with a 95 wRC+. That is not very good. That mark was 18th in all of baseball—relatively middle of the pack but definitely not anything to write home about. The positive takeaway here is that people perceived the Mets’ offense to be much worse than 18th in the league last year. Again, I’m not suggesting that an offense that finished 18th in the league in wRC+ is anything to be proud of, but this was not a bottom-five offense in 2018. So already, the reality is a little bit better than the perception.
“But Max,” you say, “they were awful with runners in scoring position!” Yes and no. The Mets hit .245 with RISP, which is bad. The “good” news is that they were even worse when there was nobody in scoring position, hitting just .234. This is yet another mark that I don’t expect people to be proud of—quite the opposite, in fact—but the fact that the Mets couldn’t drive anyone in with runners in scoring position isn’t any more true than the fact that they couldn’t hit in general. It wasn’t clutch hitting that was the issue last year, it was just plain old hitting.
None of this is too inspiring, especially considering that I started this post by saying that now is the time for fans to get excited about this team. There is good news, though: Brodie Van Wagenen is in town to save the day.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t know a whole lot about Van Wagenen, but he’s said all the right things to the media so far. Until I have a concrete body of work to evaluate (read: some trades or free agent signings), I’m going to hold off on judging him.
What we do have to evaluate is the current roster. And that roster doesn’t look too shabby. Without any moves in free agency, this is what the regular defensive alignment will look like:
C Kevin Plawecki
1B Peter Alonso
2B Jeff McNeil
3B Todd Frazier
SS Amed Rosario
LF Michael Conforto
CF Brandon Nimmo
RF Jay Bruce
The Mets clearly need to go out and acquire a catcher and perhaps a bat for the other half of the platoon with Jay Bruce—someone like Steve Pearce would fit that role perfectly—but that lineup is respectable. I’d like to see them go after Yasmani Grandal, but I don’t know that ownership will be willing to commit that much money to a catcher. At the very least, a catcher who plays good defense and calls a good game like Martin Maldonado, for instance, would be a very good target for this team.
Dominic Smith will likely be the starting first baseman until Saturday, April 13th, 2019. Why that specific date? Because that is the 17th day of the season and if Peter Alonso is given the call on or after that date, the Mets will secure an extra year of his services before he becomes a free agent. Is this a shady practice that prevents players from maximizing their potential earnings? Absolutely, but it is a savvy move by owners and GMs alike to attempt to save money. Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuna Jr. are the most recent examples of players who have had their service time manipulated as described above and we are likely to see it happen again in 2019 with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays and Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox. There’s no reason that Alonso, who has shown that he can do it all in the minor leagues, will not get the same treatment as the aforementioned Guerrero and Jimenez.
Aside from Alonso, the Mets will be getting defensive stalwart Juan Lagares back to roam the outfield in the late innings and T.J. Rivera should return as a solid utility man/bench bat. It’s fairly likely that the Mets non-tender Wilmer Flores and Travis d’Arnaud, but it is not a foregone conclusion in either case so those two names will be ones to watch in the early stages of the offseason. Regardless of if Flores and d’Arnaud are back next season, though, this offense has a very solid core and can become an above-average unit with a few additions.
And, of course, we have the starting pitchers. It only took me 800+ words to get to them, but they are the standouts of this roster. Jacob deGrom had an ERA- of 45 in 2018 (meaning he was more than twice as good as the league average pitcher), which is tied for the 9th-best mark of any pitcher since World War II. ERA-, just as a note, is similar to wRC+ in that it scales a pitcher’s aggregate performance to the league average; each point below 100 is one percentage point better than league average (for more on ERA-, click here). I would be shocked if Van Wagenen didn’t prioritize a contract extension with deGrom this offseason.
So deGrom is a stud. We knew that already. What we didn’t know, at least prior to this year, is that Zack Wheeler can also be a staff ace. Wheeler was 16th among all qualified MLB pitchers in 2018 with 4.1 fWAR and his 3.31 ERA was 18th-best out of 140 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. He set career-bests in ERA, K/BB, WHIP, and HR/9.
And let us not forget Thor himself, Noah Syndergaard. Thor didn’t put up a career-best year like deGrom or Wheeler, but he was still excellent. In just 154.1 innings pitched, which wasn’t enough to qualify for the ERA title, he posted 4.2 fWAR, a 3.03 ERA, 1.212 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, and threw two complete games, tied for the most in baseball in 2018.
The Mets have three bonafide aces on their hands. If all three can stay healthy for the entire season, it’s unlikely that there will be a better pitching staff in all of baseball. Steven Matz, who had a 3.97 ERA in 2018, will enter the season as the #4 starter for the Mets—a great sign considering that Matz could likely be a three starter on a handful of teams. The five spot in the rotation is still up for grabs but it looks like the Mets are going to stick with Jason Vargas, who is still under contract for $8 million this year. Vargas was pitiful in the first half of 2018 (8.60 ERA in 37.2 innings pitched) but figured things out in the second half, when he threw 54.1 innings of 3.81 ERA ball. I’m not expecting Vargas to keep his ERA below 4.00 in 2018, but around 160 innings and a 4.50 ERA would be quite acceptable for a fifth starter.
Keep in mind that on the heels of Vargas’ second-half success, the call-up of Jeff McNeil, and the ridiculous play of Jacob deGrom, the Mets actually tied the Braves for the best record in the NL East at 38-30 in the second half. If you expand that to the last three months of the season (which includes the first two weeks of July), then the Mets were the best team, record-wise, in the NL East from July 1st forward at 47-35.
The main problem this team will have to address in the offseason is the bullpen. Fortunately, there are plenty of good relievers on the market so nothing is stopping the Mets from going out and making a big splash in the coming months. As it stands now, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, and Anthony Swarzak will be the three main arms out of the bullpen—a very solid 1-2-3 punch. Daniel Zamora should be able to step in and fill the role left open by the departure of Jerry Blevins. None of the remaining relievers on the projected 25-man roster inspire confidence but I’m hoping that at least one of the ten or so replacement-level relievers on the 40-man roster (Tyler Bashlor, Gerson Bautista, Drew Gagnon, Eric Hanhold, Tim Peterson, Jacob Rhame, Paul Sewald, Drew Smith, and Bobby Wahl plus the two swingmen, Chris Flexen and Corey Oswalt) can develop into an effective relief pitcher at the MLB level.
I’d love to see the Mets target one of Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, or Adam Ottavino, but, I don’t know that management would be willing to shell out the type of money that excellent relief pitchers are currently commanding on the open market. Of the available free agents, Andrew Miller might be a good name to target considering that he is coming off a down year. Incurring the injury risk that Miller brings might be worth it if the Mets are able to secure his services on a team-friendly contract and hope for a bounce back.
In a similar vein to Miller, the Mets could try to get bounce-back performances from guys like Brad Brach or Cody Allen. In the end, though, I think Mets fans should be content if the team is able to sign two of the middle-tier relief guys like Kelvin Herrera and Joe Kelly, for example.
A Fangraphs article published on Friday estimates that the Mets will only have about $20 million in payroll flexibility, and I’m fairly certain that ownership will want the new general manager to stay under the luxury tax threshold, so all of the above suggestions may not be feasible given the team’s current financial commitments.
A catcher should certainly be the first priority and a defense-first catcher like Maldonado should cost the club no more than $5 million in 2019. That leaves the team $15 million to go out and either acquire a top-flight reliever or split that $15 million up between a reliever and a platoon bat like the aforementioned Pearce. Regardless of how the Mets allocate the $20 million, that money can clearly fill at least two of the most glaring holes the team is looking at right now.
Despite what Mike Francesa might have you think, this is a team that, with a few fixes, can certainly contend for the NL East in 2019. Part of that is due to the fact that the NL East is the weakest division in the National League right now and may very well be the weakest in all of baseball, rivaled only by the AL Central. And even if the Mets are taking advantage of a weak division, an NL East pennant is an NL East pennant.
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