Ya Gotta Believe: Will the New York Mets surprise in 2013?

New York Mets third baseman David Wright gets ready or BP.
With a solid lineup from top to bottom, the New York Mets may not have to rely solely on David Wright’s bat in 2013. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Hello baseball fans, and happy Daylight Savings! With every lengthening day, we get closer to opening day, when everyone’s in first place and hope abounds for … well, most.

In last year’s inaugural Ya Gotta Believe piece, I discussed what the New York Mets needed to do to secure a solid 2013. In my NL East preview, I predicted they’d come in second in the division. How, you ask? Well, see below. Terry Collins, I hope you’re reading this …

First, I feel good about the offense. The New York Mets were great at scoring with two outs last year. This year, they’ll continue that clutch-hitting trend, and improve their early-inning hitting to become one of the best offenses in the National League. They have many components of a dangerous offense: prodigious power in Ike Davis and Lucas Duda; a patient, two-out situational hitter in Ruben Tejada; exuberant speedsters in Jordanny Valdespin and Kirk Nieuwenhuis; a solid all-around hitter (when he’s hitting like himself, which I’ll address below) in David Wright; a gap-to-gap high-average hitter in Daniel Murphy; a good-hitting young catcher in Travis d’Arnaud … and a whole mess of lefties. Now, let’s go through the lineup and positions.

The New York Mets’ two biggest question marks are center field and the leadoff position, which will likely be the same person. Last year, it seemed like Nieuwenhuis was the guy being groomed for both positions. The thing is, he just doesn’t have the best eye at the plate, which means he won’t be on base enough to set up what looks like a potent lineup.

Valdespin has showed some interesting signs; he’s playing the outfield pretty well for a converted infielder, and he certainly has the speed you need in both center and leadoff. Unfortunately, he also seems to have a problem with the table-setter’s approach. Valdespin is an aggressive, get-after-it kind of player, which makes him a potential big-league threat when you consider his speed, occasional power and fearlessness in clutch situations. The thing is, unless you’re Jose Reyes or Rickey Henderson or a short list of other guys, his natural aggressiveness at the plate will hurt him in the long run as a leadoff hitter. He’s still young, and maybe he can learn to modify his approach, but for now, I see him as a dangerous sixth or seventh hitter with speed and power. Of course, the six and seven spots are already taken, in my estimation — but more on that later.

The person who deserves a shot to start in center and lead-off is Collin Cowgill. He isn’t tall and he wasn’t highly drafted, but he plays defense and has speed and athleticism. If he can work counts, hit for a decent average and present threat potential at the top of the order, then he’ll be worth a starting position, especially because his defense is so solid.

The number two hitter, to me, is second baseman Daniel Murphy. I wanted to say Tejada, I really, really did. I think he’s going to hit for a high average again, I think he’s going to hit in the clutch again and I just generally like the kid. But seriously, if I’m going to describe him as Olderud-esque, how could I not say Murphy belongs at the top of the order? Here’s the thing about Murphy: He’s a lefty, he’s quicker than people realize, he’s smart and has a good eye, and he has a little bit of power in the gaps. As a lefty with a good situational approach, his outs will be productive. And if he shoots a gap, Cowgill will score from wherever he is. I think he’ll perennially hit over .285, and in his best years, he’ll top .300. And with a certain gap-to-gap veteran hitting behind him, he’ll be harder to pitch around. Which brings me to the three hole, where I’ve got …

… David Wright. Now, people who know me personally may recall I’ve advocated for trading him in the past. I think he didn’t deserve at least one of his Gold Gloves (ironically, I think he got hosed last year), and Carlos Delgado saved him from a dozen errors a season in his early years. His propensity to get blazing hot for two weeks, followed by a month of infuriating strikeouts and warning-track floaters, has made me angry more times than I can count. I like him, but I’ve said multiple times he doesn’t have the personality to be the leader people hoped for. Having said that, when he puts it together, he’s still one of the best third basemen in baseball, especially at the plate.

Wright’s problems usually start when he tries to hit for power and/or carry the team. He pulls out his front shoulder, he stops using the opposite field, and he looks a little too much like Jeromy Burnitz‘s bad days for my taste. But when he stays behind the ball and hits line drives, he’s a monster. Streaky plate approach notwithstanding, he is a smart player. He’s also extremely strong, pretty fast and, in many ways, a perfect number-three hitter. If Wright can hit in the .290 range, with about 15 home runs and a whooole mess of doubles, then he’s going to top 100 RBIs and anchor a strong offense. And with Ike back at first, he might win another Gold Glove. With that, let’s get to Ike.

New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis connects with a pitch.
Ike Davis’ return should boost run production for the New York Mets. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Ike Davis is an enigma. Coming back from the awful double-whammy of Valley Fever and an obliterated ankle, he showed a regressed plate approach in 2012. He pouted at questionable calls, which seemed to increase the number of questionable calls against him. (Don’t get me started on the fundamental silliness of the “rookie strike zone,” but I digress.)

He pulled his front shoulder out. He swung at total nonsense, and he didn’t seem to learn from at-bat to at-bat. At one point, he faced the highest proportion of breaking pitches in baseball, but he still seemed to sit on fastballs almost constantly. He was frustrating and seemed frustrated. And yet he hit 20 dingers and put up decent power numbers for a cleanup hitter. Which reinforces the idea that if he modifies his approach just a little — I’m not saying he even needs to go above .270 here, I’m just saying he needs to stop swinging at every dang thing and screwfacing the umps in every at-bat — then he could put up some seriously silly numbers. Because he’s got some seriously silly power. This kid has balls fly out of Citi Field when he doesn’t even seem to cover half the ball. Moreover, he’s a very good defensive first baseman, and his range and reach makes the infield better and gives the pitching staff more margin for error.

If Ike finishes his resurgence, he’ll be an All-Star and the New York Mets will score a lot of runs. And he’ll also face a higher proportion of fastballs, which he loves so very much, because he’ll be protected in the lineup by …

… Lucas Duda. The big lefty is still learning the outfield, and the move to left field will mean he has less ground to cover. He’ll be serviceable out there, and with Cowgill next to him, we won’t have a ton to worry about. We can always bring in Mike Baxter as a defensive replacement anyway, which I’ll cover when I get to our bench. But for now, let’s discuss Duda as our number-five hitter.

Duda is a seriously strong cat. When he gets a good piece of the ball, it really jumps out of the park. Believe it or not, his raw power might not be that far behind that of Davis! Moreover, Duda has shown he’s able to hit situationally: serve it up the middle or the other way with a runner on second, pull the ball when advancing the runner is needed or get some air under it for a sac fly. I like him as a hitter. I hope he continues to evolve, and if he does, then we’ll have one of the best lefty-lefty middle-order combos in baseball. And before people start squawking about the lefty-righty-lefty thing, which I  still think is overrated, let’s just get right to Duda’s lineup protection, which is an up and coming catcher with a solid right-handed bat. That would be…

… Travis d’Arnaud. The kid’s big, his idol is Mike Piazza and he seems to be a bona-fide hitter. He might not replicate Piazza’s numbers, but he does have power, he seems to be able to hit for average, and as a dangerous righty, he’ll provide some coverage for the lefties in front of him. Moreover, he’s a solid defensive catcher — and he already seems to call a good game, present a good target and manage his position with authority. He’s a presence out there, which really matters behind the plate — especially with the younger pitchers. If he can stay healthy, I think he might even migrate further up in the order. Perhaps he can hit in the fifth spot, with Duda behind him. Either way, the middle of the order will have a nice anchor behind it, in the form of a solid and versatile veteran righty …

… Marlon Byrd. Byrd is well traveled, and has had success with both winning and losing teams. He’s a solid right fielder, a solid middle-order hitter, a righty with some power and a veteran presence in a clubhouse with a lot of youth. I think his tangibles and intangibles will go a long way toward centering the entire team, and depending on how things shake out in front of him, he could hit a lot of doubles at home and some homers on the road, and wind up with 70-ish RBIs from the seventh spot. Not bad, especially hitting in front of a smart, dependable, clutch young man like …

… Ruben Tejada. I love this kid. He took over for a superstar, in New York City, and proceeded to play smoothly in almost every aspect of the game. And he hit .300. He’s got a good eye, he can hit with two strikes, he’s good in the clutch and you don’t want to pitch around people to get to him. A great number-eight hitter, and a hell of a good shortstop, even if he isn’t as flashy as his predecessor.

As for the New York Mets bench, we have the aforementioned Valdespin, who’s already demonstrated a knack for late-game heroics. We have Nieuwenhuis and Baxter, speedy guys who can be used as defensive replacements and pinch runners. There’s Justin Turner, who’s underrated in every facet of the game and seems like an emerging Mark DeRosa/Emilio Bonifacio type of utility infielder. The New York Mets defense will be solid, the lineup will be balanced with power and speed, and if they remember to hit situationally and not concern themselves with the home run (this includes Davis and Duda), they will produce a heck of a lot of runs.

So, let’s say the New York Mets do score a lot of runs. Will it matter? In recent years, one big problem has been the Amazins’ frustrating bullpen. No matter who we bring in, they always seem to get blown up just after we retake the lead. Along with leadoff/center field, the bullpen is the New York Mets’ major wild card. I think that this year, with a more consistent offense and stronger starting pitching, the bullpen will have less literal and figurative pressure on it, and I think they’ll respond. If Bobby Parnell can pitch like a pitcher and not just a hard thrower, the New York Mets could have some success shortening games with a strong crew of relievers. Which brings us to the last piece of the puzzle: the starting staff.

Johan Santana warms up for the New York Mets
A full season from Johan Santana would boost the Mets’ chances. (USA Today Sports)

Johan Santana, I believe, will have a strong comeback year. He might not have the dominant numbers from previous seasons, but he will re-emerge as the New York Mets’ staff leader, ace and bulldog. And he won’t have to kill his arm to do it, as the other four starters won’t kill the bullpen by getting dive-bombed in their first four innings. Toward this end, Shaun Marcum is a great addition — a steady veteran who’s gotten good results, year after year, in hitter’s ballparks. Zack Wheeler seems like the real deal, and I think the New York Mets will take a chance and bring him up to pitch out of the back-end of the order; Jonathon Niese is another guy who seems poised to continue his evolution as a starter, and will put out mostly quality starts and battle in pressure situations. Add Matt Harvey, yet another promising young arm, and you have a decent starting rotation that will keep the New York Mets in games and eat up innings while the potent offense allows more wiggle room than they’re used to in early innings.

The New York Mets don’t jump off the page in any one respect, but good teams don’t necessarily have to. Their rotation combines promising young stars and strong veteran leadership; their lineup combines speed and power, and their clubhouse combines youth and experience. Their defense is as solid as it’s been in years. They do have a few wild cards, but they also have the makings of this year’s National League “cinderella story.” Ya gotta believe.

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