2011 pre-season preview: NL East – New York Mets

Mets 3B David Wright

New York Mets (2010 record: 79-83)

The NY Mets had what is widely considered to be the worst off-season among all of Major League Baseball’s thirty clubs… maybe it was a case of “lesson learned”.

Like their cross-town rivals, the Metropolitans have tried to buy a contending team over the last several years. They have handed out large, multi-year contracts to the likes of Jason Bay, Pedro Martinez and Francisco Rodriguez… they have traded for high-priced talent like Johan Santana… and they have lavished big-money contracts on their own impending free agents. Yet they have never reaped benefits consistent with what they have spent in their extravagant shopping sprees… Jason Bay (LF), Angel Pagan (CF) and Carlos Beltran (RF)

To the contrary, over the last half-dozen years the baseball gods appear to have “had it in” for the franchise. They lost the Game 7 of the 2006 ALCS, imploded during unprecedented collapses in 2007 and 2008, and have now suffered from the effects of the Madoff Ponzi Scheme (though it remains unclear whether they are victims of the scheme or somehow duplicitous in the matter).

Ownership is trying to turn the page, but it seems unlikely that will happen until control of the team falls to someone else. Still, Fred Wilpon brought in well-respected executives Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta and JP Ricciardi in an effort to usher in a new day in Flushing. For now, the formula includes belt tightening and waiting until the big-money contracts that were handed out to declining stars lapse, and money is freed up to start the re-building process anew. That process will be complicated by the shoulder injury and surgery currently being rehabilitated by LHP Johan Santana, but it is underway nonetheless.

Notable additions: RHP D.J. Carrasco, C Ronny Paulino

Notable subtractions: LHP Pedro Feliciano, LHP Hisanori Takahashi

The offense:

Catcher: Josh Thole

Infield: Ike Davis (1B), Luis Castillo (2B), Jose Reyes (SS) and David Wright (3B)

Outfield: Jason Bay (LF), Angel Pagan (CF) and Carlos Beltran (RF)

The Mets offense finished 13th (of 16 teams) in the National League in runs scored in 2010. It seems illogical that a lineup containing the likes of Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright could be so incompetent… but the fact of the matter is that age and injury have started to dull their talents and take a toll on their performance.

The lineup will need bounce-back seasons from at least three of its four star players to even approach league-average. Bay (.259, 6 HR and 47 RBI) was a huge disappointment in his first year after arriving from Boston on a 4-year, $66 million deal. It was the worst year of his career – a season made even worse when he suffered a concussion in July.

Beltran played just 64 games last season due to knee problems, hitting just .255, with 7 home runs and 27 rbi – the knee issues will force him to move from center field to right field in 2011. Reyes, still just 27 years old, continued his battles with a variety of health issues and injuries that have limited his playing time during the last two years. He will be a free agent at the end of the year and, with expectations the club will not be very good this season, there has been ample speculation he won’t be in a Mets uniform after the trading deadline.

Wright, who struggled throughout 2009, had a nice comeback campaign last year, belting 29 homers and knocking in 103 runs. As with Reyes, there has been discussion that he could be traded – if only because he is the one player on the current team who could bring back the quality and quantity of prospects needed to help rebuild the team.

First baseman Ike Davis appears to be settled in as a cornerstone of the Mets future after hitting .264, with 19 HR, and displaying an excellent glove in the infield (he led all NL 1B in UZR rating).

Angel Pagan stepped in for the injured Beltran and hit .290 with 37 stolen bases, but his performance fell off dramatically during the second half of the season leaving as many questions unanswered as answered… regardless, he will be the starting center fielder for the club in 2011. Veteran Luis Castillo is a black hole on offense and could easily be overtaken at second base by Daniel Murphy, a former first baseman who missed all of last year with a knee injury. Similarly, youngster Josh Thole provides very little in the way of offensive production… while some pundits describe him as their “catcher-of-the-future”, my guess is that he is a just a place holder until something better comes along.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: RHP Mike Pelfrey, RHP RA Dickey, LHP Jonathan Niese, RHP Chris Young, LHP Chris Capuano

Closer: RHP Francisco Rodriguez

The rotation was dealt a significant blow last summer when staff ace Johan Santana suffered an injury to the anterior capsule in his left shoulder and had to undergo season-ending surgery. Even if he returns in 2011, and that is a BIG “if”, he will likely be ineffectual as he attempts to regain his strength.

With Santana unavailable for the season, Mike Pelfrey will step into the breach atop the rotation. The right-hander became more a pitcher and less of a thrower last season, and the change met with positive results as he won 15 games and posted a 3.66 ERA. That said, he really isn’t a No. 1 starter – he allows more than a hit per inning pitched and has a pedestrian strikeout rate.

Dickey, a knuckleballer, was a revelation last season, winning 11 games and posting a team-best 2.84 ERA and a 1.187 WHIP, but questions remain about his reliability. While he could win a lot of games, can you really trust a guy who doesn’t know where the ball is going when he lets go of it?

Niese had a solid first half last year, but wore down as the season went on – he posted a 4.82 ERA in the second half (7.11 in five September starts)… according to published reports he has worked on his conditioning this off-season in the hope of staying strong throughout the summer. The thing about Niese is this: when I interviewed several members of the Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A) a couple of years ago, quite a few of them told me that he was the toughest pitcher they had ever faced – by far. So I have a feeling he has just started scratching the surface.

The Mets hope that Chris Young is healthy enough to take a regular turn in the rotation, after being limited to a total of 18 starts over the last two seasons (4 GS in 2010). He was 27-19 from 2006-08 in Petco Park in San Diego, and would likely enjoy similar success at Citi Field if he can stay on the field.

The last spot in the rotation will likely go to Capuano, who was listed as one of my ten fantasy baseball sleepers this year. After two years of inactivity, he returned to action in June of last year, and then rejoined the rotation at the end of August. He went 2-2, 2.91, in six starts at the end of the season and should enjoy pitching at Citi Field much more than at Miller Park.

The Mets tried to void the remaining guarantee on Rodriguez’ contract after he tore a ligament in his right thumb while assaulting his children’s grandfather at Citi Field at the end of August. The effort failed and they are now stuck with him. It is widely expected that, if they don’t contend, though, they will scale back his role towards the end of the season so he does not reach the 55 games-finished threshold needed to kick in his 2012 option.

Prediction for 2011: 4th place (75-87)

The heart of the offense has more questions than answers at this point, and when the club falls out of contention it is possible that two or three of the key veterans could be traded for the prospects that will be needed to start re-building a farm system bereft of high-end prospects.

The impact of Santana’s loss cannot be overstated – his injury leaves the rotation without an ace and will impact the rest of the rotation and the bullpen. Dickey, Young and / or Capuano are unknown commodities entering the season – they are all high risk with moderate reward. K-Rod is another guy who could end up on the trade block by mid-July. I see 75 wins as a best-case projection and believe they could even fall to fifth place. It’s going to be an ugly year in Queens.


Top prospect Jenrry Mejia

Top Five Prospects:

1. Jenrry Mejia, RHP
2. Wilmer Flores, SS
3. Matt Harvey, RHP
4. Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF
5. Cesar Puello, OF

Mejia signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in April of 2007, and three years later he made the Mets’ Opening Day roster as a member of their bullpen. At the tender age of 20, he was the youngest player in the major leagues, but his inexperience was obvious and he was optioned to Double-A in June. Shoulder issues had him in and out of uniform the rest of the year, as he played at four different minor league levels as well as the big leagues.

He features a mid-90s “plus” fastball that consistently induces ground balls thanks to a late cutting action… it rates a “70” on the scouts’ 20-80 scale. He features a decent mid-to-high 80’s changeup that dips like a splitter. His 12-to-6 curveball is inconsistent but can be a “plus” pitch at times.

The Mets want to develop him as a front-of-the-rotation starter, but he will need to work hard to improve the consistency of his mechanics and his durability. If he struggles, they have the luxury of moving him to the bullpen, where he could develop into a dominant force at the end of games.

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