By: Brian Mangan
Let me begin with my shocking premise: I believe the Mets are going to be pretty good this year. Now when I say good, I don’t mean that they will win 95 games and contend for the pennant – I mean that I believe they will be above .500 (84 or 85 wins to be exact). This might not sound like a lot, but 84 wins is about nine wins more than predicted by the advanced forecasting systems used by Fangraphs and, more importantly, by the rarely-wrong Las Vegas oddsmakers.
I know that this might sound like the stir-crazy, cold-induced idea of a long-suffering Mets fan, or the unbridled optimism of a younger fan, but I promise you that it is not. I am no Mets apologist. I have criticized the Mets for free agent signings (Jason Bay, Luis Castillo, Chris Young), I have complained of their lack of strategy and vision as to their place on the success cycle, and I have been properly pessimistic about their chances the last few years. I thought the Mets were foolish to pretend that they could contend in 2010 with all the uncertainty surrounding their roster.
This year, however, is different. With players like Curtis Granderson, Jenrry Mejia, Noah Syndergaard, Wilmer Flores, Travis D’Arnaud, Chris Young, Dillon Gee, Rafael Montero and Jeurys Familia in the wings and waiting to contribute, the roster stands to has opportunities to exceed expectations from top to bottom.
Every team goes into Spring Training with a huge list of questions: Will “Superstar X” come back from their injury? Will the big time prospect be ready for the Show? Was a late-season swoon by the ace just a temporary blip, or the beginning of the end?
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However, as I take a look at the current Mets’ squad and the major questions that are currently presented to them, I have noticed one common theme or thread tying them all together: nobody is expecting the good outcome in any of them. Fans and writers seem resigned to assume that the worst-case scenario for each of these questions is the most likely scenario, doing so in some cases because, well, it’s the Mets. The talent on this Mets’ roster is being overlooked.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at other squads around the league. The Yankees want to know if Carlos Beltran will hold up, whether Michael Pineda and Mark Teixiera can come back healthy, and if CC Sabathia’s decline will continue. Each of these issues could go either way, and the Yankees need positive outcomes from at least some of them in order to contend. How about the Braves? BJ Upton is still a starter there, can he hit this year? What will Jason Heyward give them? How will their rotation shape up in light of the issues with Beachy and Medlen and Minor?
[FN1] Even prior incarnations of the Mets had questions that could resolve either way. In 2010, the Mets were attempting to rebound from an injury-plagued 2009 season that saw them miss the playoffs by one game. However, that squad had a number of uncertainties that could have turned out either good or bad (e.g. Johan Santana’s health, Jose Reyes’ health, Carlos Beltran’s knee surgery, the usefulness of Oliver Perez and Gary Mathews Jr). Other versions of the Mets depended heavily on a bounce back from a player or players or long shot reclamation projects that were no better than coin flips.
Each of those teams, including the 2010 Mets, are better on paper than the 2014 Mets, but when we look at their range of expected outcomes, the answers to those questions could cause them to deviate in either direction. This is not the case with these Mets, because for nearly every question mark the team has, talent evaluators seem to have assumed the worst.
[FN2] Of course, much of this pessimism is a function of the environment the Mets have put themselves in. Several consecutive years of failure on the field and half a decade of embarrassment both off the field will do that to a fan base and to the local media.
The beautiful thing about the game, is that none of that matters. Earl Weaver once famously said that “momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher,” and he is absolutely right. No matter the attitude, no matter the narrative, at the end of the day, the game is played on the field. I can guarantee you that Ruben Tejada, and Ike Davis, and Noah Syndergaard – professionals who not only want to win, but want to succeed and have long, lucrative careers – are not going to let their on-field performance be affected by the fact that us fans feel like Charlie Brown.
So, back to the projections. How bad do people expect the Mets to be? Well… bad. Fangraphs project the Mets to be the 7th worst team in the major leagues. Even worse, Las Vegas odds-makers have the Mets as tied for the third-worst team in baseball, with 80/1 odds of winning the World Series, and dead last among National League teams. The over-under for Mets wins this season has been placed at 73.5 … even worse than last year.
[FN3] Before getting into the details, I acknowledge that projections are just that, projections. Anything can happen in real life. Every year, hundreds of major leaguers get injured, play through injury, suddenly get old, or pull a 2013 Chris Davis. But those are issues that apply to all major league teams equally, or cannot be predicted, and random uncalculable chance isn’t a part of these calculcations.
Ultimately, this forecast, that the Mets will be “good” is one that I cannot avoid making. This is not merely “I think Ike Davis is going to be good this season,” but rather, this is the result I come to when I look at the roster from top to bottom. Nor is it just a look at WAR calculations, because any jabroni could just add up projected numbers. Without further adieu, here are the three reasons why the Mets will beat the projections and shock the pessimists:
i. The Mets’ sinkholes at first base and shortstop can only improve or, at worst, remain the same.
ii. The Mets’ pitching is better and deeper than people realize.
iii. The rest of the Mets’ position players have no regression candidates, only players that can surprise.
i. First Base and Shortstop Cannot Be Worse, but Could Improve
It would not be an understatement to say that the first base situation last year was a disaster. Ike Davis was worth -0.1 WAR. Lucas Duda, despite his positive offensive contributions, posted 0.2 WAR.
This situation cannot, and will not, repeat itself. If Davis plays better, he’s our first baseman for the year. If Ike plays worse, Duda is our first baseman, where we know he can contribute some positive value. Granted, Davis will be provided some slack to fail with, which will cost the Mets some runs should he end up being terrible, but it would be absurd to think that the Mets can’t get 1 or 2 WAR from first base at a minimum. Also helping at first is the existence of a legitimate platoon partner in Josh Satin. Satin may not be as good as he was last season but he’s young enough to retain his value, and will provide adequate production against left-handed pitching.
Shortstop. Oh, shortstop. There is no sugar coating it, Ruben Tejada was bad last season, posting -0.3 WAR. He was an unmitigated disaster, and has struggled this spring as well. But at the end of the day, Tejada is a player that posted 1.6 WAR and 1.8 WAR at the tender ages of 22 and 23. The odds that Tejada will be scratch or better are huge. In the event that Tejada is worse again, it looks like Omar Quintanilla is the backup for now. There is not a lot of reason to be optimistic here, but there is no reason to be pessimistic either.
As down-in-the-dumps as people are about first base and shortstop, it’s not going to be worse than last year. The team can improve without substantially addressing these spots, as teams succeed with a weak link or two all the time.
ii. The Pitching Has Depth, and Will Exceed Expectations
Noah Syndergaard, speaking to the press on March 19th, made the following statement: “We’re going to be probably one of the best rotations in baseball.” Blustery, yes, but is it true? I think so. Lets start with the major leaguers.
Dillon Gee posted a 2.74 ERA in the second half of the season last year with great peripherals (53K/15BB) yet nobody expects that his step forward was for real. Second half splits don’t mean all that much, and he may not be a 3.00 ERA pitcher, but at 27 years of age, it is quite possible, if not probable, given his steady creep of improved peripherals, that he is indeed a better pitcher than his career ERA would attest. Over the last two seasons, Gee has posted xFIP of 3.54 and 4.00, but Steamer projects him to a 4.31 ERA. If Gee can give the Mets 200 innings of 3.40-3.60 ERA pitching this year, he’ll be a huge asset. He may not be flashy but he can be good.
Bartolo Colon is not going to be as good as he was in 2013, and he will likely not be as good as he was in 2012. The question is how good will he be? Over the last two seasons has posted an ERA of 2.99 over 342.2 innings. Although he outperformed his peripherals last year ( 3.23 FIP) he was very good. Although he leaves the friendly confines of Oakland, Citi Field is also a friendly stadium for fly ball pitchers and the Mets’ outfield defense of Young-Lagares-Granderson should be quite good. Steamer projects Colon for a 3.96 ERA – this sounds about right, but he’s much more likely to beat that projection than miss it,
Nobody expects anything from Jon Niese, and perhaps for good reason. He’s never reached 200 innings, and he’s already dealing with arm trouble this spring. Nonetheless, Niese was a sleeper last year for a reason, as his steadily improving peripherals and age pointed to a possible 2013 breakout. That 2013 breakout obviously never took place, but after coming off the disabled list last year, Niese posted a 3.00 ERA over 66 innings with a great 56K/15BB ratio. Should Niese be healthy, he may be a pleasant surprise for the team this year. From 2010 to 2012 he posted WARs of 1.7, 2.4 and 2.2. Should he merely replicate his 2012 season, he would exceed his projections (of a miniscule 1.1 WAR) by a substantial amount.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was not good last season and, accordingly, people expect him to underwhelm again. However, with expectations already low for Dice-K, he really only has one way to go – up. Dice-K is only 33 years old, and in his career has posted individual season WARs of 3.8 and 3.4, as well as a WAR of 2.5 as recently as 2010. He posted a good ERA in his final four starts last season with good peripherals, so it may very well be that Matsuzaka has a little left in the tank for us. It wouldn’t take much for him to exceed expectations, as he is projected by Steamer for a 4.59 ERA and 0.1 WAR.
(You may be wondering why I haven’t discussed Zack Wheeler. Wheeler is an interesting case. Although I’ve never been a huge Wheeler fan (always thought that Harvey should have been the #1 prospect in the system when both were in the minors, and thought that Syndergaard should have been the #1 prospect in the system last year) there is clearly an enormous value in him. In some ways, Wheeler, given his present track record of health, is the safest projection of the starters penciled into the Met rotation. Steamer projects Wheeler for a 4.31 ERA, which sounds harsh after his 3.42 ERA last season. However Wheeler outperformed his peripherals last year by a good deal, with his FIP totaling 4.17. I would project a moderate step forward for Wheeler in season 2, and expect him to post a FIP of around 3.90. If he ends up around there or outperforms it (as young pitchers with great fastballs often do) then he will end up closer to 2 WAR than the 0.9 WAR that Steamer projects him for. However, there is not enormous upside in Wheeler, and we need only hope that he meet projections.)
I do not expect each of the four pitchers above to exceed their expectations – but it is clear that with expectations at a rock bottom, that they can only surprise us in a good way. It is not completely implausible that Gee takes a small step forward and that Niese gives us a decent healthy season, is it? Even if none of them did, and they merely plodded along with their conservative projections, we already know what the probable floor is for these four. The rest of the pitching staff, however, provides their own reason for optimism.
There are four more arms in the Mets organization that are both special and ready. It is these four players who provide me with most of my confidence that the Mets pitching this year will not merely be good, but great, and will be one of the strongest staffs in the league.
Mejia, Montero, Syndergaard, and Familia.
You can’t swing a dead cat in the Mets’ spring training facility and not hit one of the Mets high-upside young arms. Unlike in years past when fans tried to generate enthusiasm for fringier players (for instance, Eddie Kunz, a 20 year old Mejia, Yusmeiro Petit, and the list goes on) these players are ready and are banging down the door. One of the keys to success in the major leagues is to not only have a talented pitching staff, but also a deep pitching staff. The Mets do, to a degree that I do not believe I have ever seen.
Rafael Montero. People mention Montero in the same breath as Syndergaard, but unfortunately it is usually only as an afterthought. This is not fair to Montero, who has established himself as a legitimate prospect in his own right. Montero posted a 2.13 ERA in St. Lucie (A-ball), a 2.43 ERA in Binghamton (AA) and a 3.05 ERA in Las Vegas (AAA). That 3.05 ERA in Las Vegas, it should be noted, is significantly better than the 3.93 posted by Zack Wheeler in approximately the same number of innings.
Wheeler is as good of a prospect as Montero, according to scouts, but eventually, Montero needs to get his due. His 78-25 K-BB ratio at Triple-A shows he’s got the skills to succeed at higher levels, and he’s only 23 years old this year. It has been a very long time since the Mets had a prospect of Montero’s caliber this far down the depth chart – Montero is no higher than the third option on the farm, depending on how the situation shakes out with Mejia, Lannan, and Matsuzaka this spring. Steamer projects Montero to pitch to a 3.95 ERA in the big leagues right now. That’s huge. (Oliver projects 3.19, ZiPS projects 3.76). He’s a year or two away from being a major factor, but having a pitcher like Montero in the wings right now assures that the Mets won’t be throwing games away should there be an injury in the rotation.
Jeurys Familia. I have been higher on Familia than most over the last couple of years. I remain high on him, though today as a reliever rather than a starter.
Familia is a big boy, with a big fastball, and a big slider. But don’t take my word for it, here’s what MLB.com said this spring: “With his 95-96 mph velocity on his four-seam and sinking fastball, Familia has the pitch that can miss bats and induce highly desirable strikeouts when they are needed the most. Once the hitter is set up with the heater, his 82-83 mph slider buckles knees and has the hitter swinging at air.”
Familia, like Montero, has been overshadowed by brighter prospects, but has performed well throughout the system at a very young age. Most impressive was his performance at Double-A at the age of 21, posting a 3.49 ERA and 9.86 K/9 over 87 innings. Familia struggled somewhat in Triple-A but the strikeouts remained, indicating that although it’s not time to give up on him, he’s ready to be an ace reliever at the major league level. Small sample size warning, but Familia dominated in the Arizona Fall League and has looked good this spring already (6ip, 2h, 0er, 1bb, 5k) so I’m excited to see if he is ready.
Jenrry Mejia. Much has already been written about Mejia, who posted a 2.70 ERA over 27 electric innings. He’s ready, and he will either be in the bullpen or in Las Vegas. Either way, he’s ready (with a new slider?) with a great strikeout rate and great ground ball rate.
Noah Syndergaard. I love Syndergaard, and I wish that I had been able to write about him sooner. The moment we traded Dickey, I knew that Syndergaard was going to be a stud – the size, the stats, the scouting all point toward a player who wants to be, and can be, a dominating force in the league. “Thor”, as he is called (or “Drago” by others), posted a 3.11 ERA in Single-A and a 3.00 ERA in Double-A with great peripherals at the tender age of 20. He is miles ahead of where Harvey and Wheeler were at their own personal stages of their development (Harvey was in college, Wheeler was posting a 5.83 BB/9 in Low-A). He also tweeted at me once:
The Rest. We would be remiss if we failed to mention less sexy options who are also ready to contribute. Jake DeGrom is a fan favorite who may be ready this year (Steamer projects a useful 3,93 FIP), and Vic Black who posted K/9 of 12.75 and 12.15 in Double and Triple-A in the last two seasons and may be able to bring that strikeout potential to Flushing in 2014 (LaTroy Hawkins said Black has a “magical arm“). My favorite not-sexy player is Carlos Torres, who I believe will be positioned as the swingman this year but may be the best option to set up and close after Parnell. Torres was phenomenal in relief last year, posting a 1.47 ERA with strong peripherals. He’s been good again in spring with a 8-1 K-BB ratio.
You may not realize it, but seasons are often made or destroyed on the margins, not in the forefront. The performance of players like Torres, Familia, and Black will be huge determinants of the Mets’ season.
iii. Young, D’Arnaud, Granderson and Flores Can Only Exceed Expectations
The last open questions for the 2014 Mets pertain to the four players listed above. Just like with the players discussed in the prior sections, an impartial look at the facts demonstrates that these players can only surpass the expectations that we have of them this year.
Travis d’Arnaud. I am not a huge d’Arnaud fan, but his track record in the minors is undeniable. If d’Arnaud is healthy, there is little question that he will hit. D’Arnaud has posted a 906 OPS in Double-A (451ab) and a 990 OPS in Triple-A (335ab). Much of his success was in Las Vegas (1041 OPS) but his track record of hitting is long and successful. Nonetheless, Steamer projects d’Arnaud to hit only .242/.300/.400. This is just too low. Fangraphs projection is 2.0 WAR, but the fans like d’Arnaud for 3.8 WAR. I am skeptical about his ability to stay healthy all season, but even if d’Arnaud hits .267/.339/.425, which is the fans’ projection, and tallies 400 plate appearances, he will be worth three wins. In either scenario, it is highly unlikely that d’Arnaud will underperform the pessimistic Fangraphs projection.
Curtis Granderson and Chris Young. We looked in depth at Granderson and Young when they were signed, noting when Young was signed that we liked the signing, but we didn’t understand why the Mets were doing it given the fact that the team doesn’t appear to be able to contend. We wrote “notwithstanding the above analysis, I just don’t get it. From a business perspective, Chris Young for only one year and a significant portion of our offseason budget doesn’t fit into the bigger picture.”
Two major signings later (Colon and Granderson) and we have our answer: the Mets decided that they were going to take a shot at relevance this season.
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In that context, the Young signing looks better. As we pointed out, he is a potential 2 WAR player if he can hit some and he plays the defense that we know he is capable of. Indeed, Steamer projects Young for 2.4 WAR, a figure they reached while projecting him to hit only .218. Should Young be able to hit closer to his career average of .235 (not asking a lot, really) then he may push into 3 WAR territory, essentially replacing Marlon Byrd’s production from last year.
With regard to Granderson, we opined on that signing that we did not like it in the long run at all, although we did note that it was a signing with significant upside. Granderson posted 1.4 WAR in only 61 games last year, a 3 WAR pace, and missed time only due to the flukiest of injuries. Granderson also is only two years removed from a 6.7 WAR performance, and will be asked to play a corner outfield position, where, as a career centerfielder, he should be far above average.
Together, Granderson and Young have established floors for their performance with the ability to exceed them (Granderson is projected for only 1.3 WAR by Steamer, but 3.7 WAR(!!) by the fans).
Wilmer Flores. Wilmer Flores was born in 1991. Let that sink in for a moment.
He will be playing this season split between 22 and 23 years old, yet made it to the big leagues last year on the strength of a .321/.357/.531 line in 463 plate appearances in Triple-A Las Vegas. There is no question that he can hit – the question is when he will hit, and where he will play.
Forecast systems are down on Flores, projecting somewhere between a .248 and .263 average and around a 700 OPS. Fans think he will outpace those numbers, and so do I. Whether Flores can stick at shortstop is not really the point – Flores can hit, and we have not had a competent middle-infield backup in half a decade. Flores can play third and second, and may even be able to pitch in at first base. The primary takeaway from this is that the talent is there. Either he will be a non-factor, or he will contribute positively where nobody is expecting him to.
There are a number of other players who are either ready to contribute or will be playing full seasons like Juan Lagares, Cesar Puello, Jack Leathersich, and others who we may not hear about all year but who may contribute. This is not the Mets of the last few years, hoping against hope that a guy like Matt Den Dekker might defy all expectations and learn to hit a little. These guys are real players.
When you have this many questions that might resolve in your favor, you don’t need ALL of them in order to make a significant stride forward. Take a look at Fangraphs projections for the Mets:
Fangraphs is fairly pessimistic on Gee, Mejia, the bullpen, Lagares and even Granderson. They’re even pessimistic on Wright, who has been worth 7.4 WAR and 5.9 WAR each of the last two seasons.
Obviously, anything can happen in 2014, but I expect that for the Mets will beat the 74-win projections that they have been saddled with. Gone are the days of Justin Turner and Mike Baxter, and Lucas Duda in the outfield, and Frank Francisco the closer, Josh Thole’s 584 OPS at catcher, and Chris Schwinden and Pat Misch as the best option for fill-in starts.
These Mets might lack for superstars, and sure miss Matt Harvey, but the roster is brimming with young talent that is ready to take a step forward. I am not banking on a huge step forward from Wheeler; I don’t expect Colon to come close to replicating 2013; I don’t expect that Ike Davis will return to form and hit 30 home runs (even though he did that just one season ago, 2012); I don’t expect that Curtis Granderson will bat .250 and hit 40 home runs. Nonetheless, there are so many places in which the Mets can make an incremental, or even a significant, step forward, that those things are not necessary.
I, like most, expect that 2015 will be the first season that the Mets contend, but dreams of a winning season, even a season approaching 90 wins, are not that unrealistic.
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Brian Mangan is a lifelong Mets fan who grew up in Flushing. He is a former Mets season ticket holder, and would never miss a Wednesday night Pepsi Picnic Area game.
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