With the Mets Having Gone From Pretenders to Contenders, the Focus Must Shift to the Present

By: Brian Mangan

It seems like everything is going the Mets way right now, especially after Monday night’s victory, when Mets’ second baseman Daniel Murphy busted out of a year-long slump with a game-winning three-run home run against the division rival Marlins. The Mets’ white-hot start has them seated comfortably at the top of the National League East at 15-6, one of the best starts in franchise history. Even better, is that this devastation has been wrought almost exclusively against NL East opponents, against whom the Mets are 14-4. As a result, the Mets have a 4.5 game lead in the division, while the preseason favorites, the Washington Nationals, languish in last place at 8-13, a whopping 7 games behind.

This start has changed everything for the Mets. Whereas they once were in a pack of “playoff hopefuls” who seemed destined to be battling for the Wild Card, the Mets’ now possess a better than 50% chance of making the playoffs. Indeed, depending on which source you prefer, the Mets may even have the best chance of any team at winning the division. Both Baseball Prospectus (Walendin, Apr. 28) and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS (Szymborski, Apr. 26) have the Mets projected to finish with the best record in the NL East. Fangraphs has slowly increased the Mets odds of taking the division from 7.1% on Opening Day to 32.7% today, while their overall odds of making the playoffs are now a healthy 53.9%.

Amazingly, the Mets have done all this without adding a player, or without any player far exceeding expectations. In fact, they have done so while losing their best player (David Wright) a budding All Star catcher (Travis d’Arnaud) and their projected #3 starter (Zack Wheeler) to injury. But regardless of what you think about the Mets true talent level — they may still be the .500 team they were projected to be in the preseason — their torrid 15-6 start is already “in the bank,” and cannot be taken away.

As the Mets change focus from “playoff hopefuls” to actual contenders, the priorities and challenges faced by the team change slightly. No longer can the Mets remain in a wait-and-see mode with struggling veterans, especially when the farm system is figuratively bursting at the teams with major league ready talent. No longer can the Mets play service-time games with prospects in an effort to secure victories in the 2019 season. The Mets must begin to look toward promoting some of their brightest stars now, so that the major league team has a puncher’s chance of capitalizing on their immense potential. Already, the team has shown a willingness to do this, promoting Kevin Plawecki to start every day when d’Arnaud was injured, but there are three other players performing well who deserve a chance to make the big league roster soon.

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The strongest case is for Dilson Herrera, who experienced a meteoric rise in 2014, beginning his year in Single-A and ending it with a successful cup of coffee in the major leagues. This year, he has been even better in Triple-A Las Vegas, where he is hitting a blistering .373/.407/.507 in his first 75 at bats (his 2-for-5 last night actually worsened his OPS). Las Vegas is located in a hitter-friendly league, of course, but Herrera is third in the league in hits and tied for third in runs. It is also worth noting that he only turned 21 on March 3rd.

So what is there to do with Herrera, who ranked #4 in the Mets system according to Baseball America and #6 according to Baseball Prospectus? He is currently blocked at the major league level by the incumbent second baseman and 2014 All Star Daniel Murphy.

Herrera, who is right-handed, would make a great platoon partner for Murphy down the stretch and/or in the playoffs. He is batting .533 against lefties this season (in 34 plate appearances), following up in a 2014 campaign where he hit .339 against them. Murphy, who has a 672 OPS against lefties and a 774 OPS against righties in his career, would greatly benefit from being on the long side of a platoon.

Platooning an established veteran like Murphy might be unpopular, but if the Mets are serious about making a run this season, they will need to improve the roster, either via a big move or on the margins. An upgrade at second base defensively and against left-handed pitching will most certainly do that.

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Both Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz have had strong starts in Triple-A this year, and both are coming off season-defining performances. Matz took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his last start, and owns a 2.01 ERA and 1.12 WHIP on the season. Syndergaard pitched his first-ever complete game on Monday night, striking out nine and allowing only two baserunners, and owns a 2.45 ERA and 1.16 WHIP on the season.

For Matz, this strong performance is the continuation of a 2014 season where he dominated Single-A and Double-A to the tune of a combined 2.24 ERA and 8.4 K/9. As a left-hander with a fastball topping out at 95 mph, the potential is immense, and obvious. Matz has earned his status as the Mets #2 prospect.

The Mets #1 prospect status, however, rightly belongs to Noah Syndergaard. Some of the bloom is off the rose, thanks to some early struggles in Triple-A last season and some highly-publicized incidents this Spring, but Syndergaard is still only 22 years old and is considered a Top 10 Prospect in all of baseball. What most people don’t know about Syndergaard is that he really righted the ship last season, posting a sparkling 3.54 ERA with a 10.7 K/9 in the second half last year in this hitter-friendly league.

Too many people in the media, on the internet, and in comments, have been arguing “Syndergaard versus Matz” over the last couple of months. They’re both excellent prospects, and we are lucky to have them — the question is what to do with them. Jon Niese and Dillon Gee appear to have pitched well enough keep a tenuous grasp on their spots in the rotation for now, as Niese carries a 2.74 ERA and 4.86 FIP, while Gee carries a 4.26 ERA and 3.79 FIP. Nonetheless, the Mets will have to find innings for Matz and Syndergaard (as well as Rafael Montero) as the season progresses.

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The Mets have been both lucky and good to jump out to this 15-6 start. A long rebuilding process spearheaded by Sandy Alderson and co. has led to a modest major league team with the “capacity” to win 90 games, along with a bountiful minor league system ready to contribute through call-ups (Plawecki, Eric Campbell, Hansel Robles) or trades (Alex Torres).

Running a Major League franchise involves a constant weighing of present versus future. By calling up prospects early, you begin their arbitration clock and hasten their free agency. You may also be stunting their development if you call them up to play part time, when they could be honing their craft every day in the minor leagues.

Nonetheless, success in the Major Leagues is ephemeral — ask the Washington Nationals — it can slide through your grasp in an instant. When a team is staked to a big start like the Mets have been, it behooves the franchise as a whole to re-evaluate its priorities and strike the proper balance between present and future.

For now, there is no urgency to call up Herrera, Syndergaard, or Matz, as there was with Plawecki. But is will be very interesting to see what Sandy Alderson and company do in May, or June, if our youngsters continue to excel.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City.