New York Mets preview: On the verge, but questions linger
After a 2013 season in which they finished third in the NL East and showed promise, the New York Mets made moves to address their needs. They signed coveted outfielder Curtis Granderson, adding power to the lineup and a respected veteran to the clubhouse. They added Chris Young, an underachieving reclamation project who plays strong defense and has speed and power. They signed veteran ace Bartolo Colon, coming off of one of his strongest seasons at age 40. The Mets have intriguing young talent at a few positions, and a staff full of promising young arms. If they play their hand well, 2014 could be a breakthrough season. But questions linger.
The Mets upgraded at the cleanup spot with Granderson, a lefty who’s proven he can produce in a pitcher’s park. Granderson also provides offense from the corner outfield, where the Mets were looking for a long-term option. In David Wright, the Mets have one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball. Standout catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud is benefiting from the legendary Mike Piazza‘s tutelage at training camp. Daniel Murphy, a line-drive hitting lefty with moderate power, has established himself as a hitter while working hard to become a decent second baseman.
The Mets’ main concerns are weakness at shortstop and logjams at other positions. It looks like Ruben Tejada will begin the season at short, though his play this spring has been uninspiring; if he continues to regress, he might be replaced by Wilmer Flores. Flores is a promising young hitter who began his career as a shortstop but has moved positions due to questions about his range. The Mets are considering moving him back to short, but only if it won’t make him a liability.
At first base, the Mets are looking for power to protect Granderson and Wright in the lineup. Ike Davis, once a highly touted slugger, has battled through astounding slumps and physical setbacks. Lucas Duda struggled at times last season, as he was tasked to play the outfield, where he was seriously overmatched. When he plays his natural position, he tends to relax and flourish at the plate. More and more people (myself included) are considering him as the primary option at first.
The outfield logjam is particularly interesting. Juan Lagares is a fantastic center fielder with speed, range and good instincts. Despite not playing every day until well into 2013, he nearly led the National League in outfield assists. Unfortunately, his hitting was spotty in 2013, especially at the top of the order, where the Mets are looking for a steady presence. Last year’s National League leader in stolen bases, Eric Young Jr. has energized the Mets from the leadoff position. He combines blazing speed with constant hustle, and the Mets are more dynamic with him setting the tone. Manager Terry Collins has publicly implied that Eric Young Jr. is his preference as the Mets’ leadoff hitter. Unfortunately, he’s also a mediocre outfielder who has a weak arm and sometimes gets bad jumps on the ball. Meanwhile, Chris Young has been promised a shot at an everyday role, but he’s underperformed for much of his career and the Mets are gambling on his upside. He’s being considered as a leadoff candidate as well, because of his speed and the fact that he’s done it before. Waiting in the wings is Matt den Dekker, a speedy 26-year-old with power who was supposed to have first dibs at center field before breaking his wrist last spring. Like Lagares, his outfield defense is highly regarded but he sometimes struggles at the plate.
Lagares is currently batting .353 in Grapefruit League play, and if he continues to hit well, the center field situation should go from conundrum to no-brainer. Davis and Duda have both homered this spring, but both are dealing with leg injuries and might begin the season on the disabled list. At the moment, Davis is the one slightly more hampered; he’s battling two tight calves, and is having trouble with his mobility. Duda is dealing with stiffness in his left leg. If neither are able to begin the season, Flores might be moved to first base to get his bat in the lineup. Josh Satin, a steady-hitting righty with a fairly average glove, is another option at first if neither of the big lefties can play.
Despite losing ace Matt Harvey to Tommy John surgery, the Mets’ starting pitching looks good. Zack Wheeler is a hard-throwing righty who was once more highly regarded than Harvey. After recently being set back by arm trouble, lefty Jonathon Niese came back with a clean MRI and is scheduled to be the opening day starter. Bartolo Colon has been an ace before, and is a savvy strike-thrower who locates multiple versions of his fastball. In Dillon Gee, the Mets have as strong a fourth starter as many teams have a third. The fifth position is up for grabs, but all of the players under consideration — veterans Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lannan, or youngster Jenrry Mejia — look like safe options for the back of the rotation.
The Mets bullpen has gone from a source of constant frustration to looking fairly solid. Mejia, if he isn’t the fifth starter, will be a strong option for middle relief. Closer Bobby Parnell seems to be recovering well from neck surgery, which is good news for the Mets because he’s emerging as one of the National League’s better closers. Vic Black, acquired via trade last year, is a young fireballer who can close if Parnell isn’t ready. Jeurys Familia is in line to be the setup man. The Mets also picked up veteran relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde in the off season.
Opening day lineup
Assuming Lagares continues to show improvement at the plate, a few questions should be answered as of opening day. Here’s how the lineup should look if Lagares hangs on to center field and Tejada remains the incumbent at short.
1. Chris Young, RF
2. Daniel Murphy, 2B
3. David Wright, 3B
4. Curtis Granderson, LF
5. Lucas Duda, 1B
6. Travis d’Arnaud, C
7. Juan Lagares, CF
8. Ruben Tejada, SS
Starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard continues to impress pretty much everyone. He’s got lights-out velocity and excellent control, and his apparent ability to take things in stride bodes well for his transition to the major leagues. He’ll almost certainly join the roster in 2014 at some point.
Though he’s still very early in his minor league career, first baseman Dominic Smith is an exciting prospect. He’s got a smooth swing and natural power, and he’s an excellent fielder as well. He seems like he could be a Will Clark type of player, only with a mellower disposition.
Starting pitcher Rafael Montero is a candidate to make the 2014 roster. He’s got a diverse arsenal and good control, and he threw over 150 innings last season.
The Mets have assembled a few winning ingredients: pitching, prospects, veteran leadership and bona-fide superstars. The National League East is still a division in flux, but it’s also a division with lots of talent. Depending on how they address their remaining needs, the Mets could finish anywhere from second to fourth place. It seems likely they will stay in the wild card race as a dark horse, but they’re still a few moves from being a serious contender.