As a New York Mets fan, one can often feel like something of a punching bag. First of all, we live in close proximity to the Yankees, the closest thing baseball’s had to a dynasty in a generation. Secondly, the Wilpons. Third, the epic collapse. Fourth, getting clowned by the Bernie Madoff scheme. Fifth … well, you get it.
In light of the above, it’s easy to forget that the Mets are only a handful of years from being one out — and one Yadier (bleeping) Molina home run — from the World Series. Jimmy Rollins chirped to the world that we (and by “we,” I henceforth loosely mean the Mets) had no heart, and it worked — to the tune of one of the most embarrassing season-ending collapses in major league history. That was right before a string of injuries, bad luck and bad contracts doomed the Mets to several years of frustrating mediocrity that many speak of as if it’s been decades-long … to which I reply, have you seen the Pirates’ past couple of decades? Then again, the Pirates have stuck around late enough in the season that they almost seem clear of their running-joke status, and even the Orioles are finally getting out of their own way, so let’s just get back to the Mets.
In order to break through the water-treading mediocrity that has bedeviled them in recent seasons, the Mets need only make a few moves. That’s right — they really aren’t that far! Preposterous, you say? Well, here are five things that can have them contending seriously in 2013.
1. Send Jason Bay back to the American League
Look, I have nothing against Jason Bay. He came here with excessive hype, having flourished in hitters parks and under the radar. But that’s the thing. While Shea Stadium and Citi Field have killed the power numbers of bigger sluggers than Bay, and even dampened the numbers of guys like Mike Piazza, it’s also the case that Shea and Citi have exposed previously-thought-to-be-power-hitters like Bay for what they are: gap-to-gap line-drive hitters with warning-track power. Bay hit for power in Boston, because if he got under it a bit, it left the yard or banged off the Green Monster. Even his line-drive floaters were doubles in Fenway, and moreover, he played in the AL East, which is chock-full of hitter-friendly parks. You might retort that he hit well in Pittsburgh, leading me to the second part of my point, which is, in Pittsburgh, he was basically off the grid. Not much pressure there, playing for a perennial bottom-feeder, while there’s tons of pressure playing for an East Coast team, on the cusp of contending, that pins their hopes on your cleanup prowess. And then, during his time here, Bay’s been concussed twice and has broken his ribs — mostly while hustling on defense (though, to be fair, he is quite a good defender) to make up for his disappointments at the plate. He’s swung big and long, and swung at a lot of junk, and spiraled. He’s become, at a less-than-advanced age, a shell of himself — but I think that with a new start he can be effective somewhere. Somewhere where he can bat fifth or sixth, hit a lot of doubles and drive in runs, throw out base runners and not kill his career trying to make up for a bad impression. We can trade low for him, maybe get a serviceable relief pitcher and clear room for move number two …
2. Make Mike Baxter and Jordany Valdespin the core of the outfield
Mike Baxter has good speed and hustle; he gets a good jump on the ball, and he plays a good left field. He’s got a steady bat and nice athleticism, and the makings of a solid overall hitter. Jordany Valdespin is fast, energetic and strong, and he looks like still might fill out a bit. He and Baxter could make a nice one-two punch at the top of the order, as long as Valdespin keeps his batting average high enough to hit from the two-hole. Neither would have to be slap-happy about stealing bases, either; having two fast, aggressive athletes at the top of the order puts plenty of pressure on a defense. David Wright is a legitimate number-three hitter, and with that sort of athleticism on the bases, Wright could stick to being the kind of hitter he is at his best: line-drive dominant, with 15-20 home run power. Daniel Murphy would be a dream in the five spot, as a lefty doubles machine who makes good contact and rarely makes a bad out. We’d just need a good cleanup bat between them, which brings me to my next point …
3. Sell high on Ike Davis, and groom Lucas Duda as a cleanup hitter
I was all about Ike Davis after his rookie year — embarrassingly so, in retrospect — and I still think he has ridiculously high potential. A kid who can hit 20 home runs by August, despite a whiny temperament at the plate and a backyard-home-run-derby swing and oft-infuriating pitch selection? With Citi Field as a home park? That’s a kid with upside. If he hit in a dinger-happy bandbox like Cincinnati or Baltimore, his ludicrous hacking could net him even more home runs — and mask his flaws as a hitter. Basically, Ike seems on his way to becoming Carlos Pena: threatening, potentially valuable, but more suited to a hitter’s park or an AL lineup. Ike’s also got a nice glove at first base, which could add to his market value and maybe get us another top-of-the-rotation starter. As for Lucas Duda, he showed real promise last year: an ability to hit different kinds of pitches, an ability to hit situationally and to left field, and absurd natural power. He’s still a work in progress on defense in right field, but if Baxter or Valdespin can blossom in center, the two will give him plenty of outfield protection. He’s definitely got the kind of arm you like to see in right field. If he can settle in, then the outfield would be set; we could leave Murphy at second base, where he’s gotten considerably smoother, and…
4. Pick up a centering clubhouse presence at first base
One thing I believe about the strong Mets teams of the mid-2000s: They were largely held together by Carlos Delgado. Not just because of his prodigious bat and underrated defense, but because of his calm and commanding aura of leadership. The Mets need a leader, and the closest they’ve had to one since Delgado’s absence has been Johan Santana. I’m not one to discount the leadership value of an ace, but a leader, especially of young and energetic talent, is more of a presence from within the everyday lineup. The Mets need one of those guys — and because we have bats, he needn’t be a whopper like Delgado. He can be a solid veteran presence with a good professional bat, like what Aubrey Huff was for the Giants, or he can be an underrated middle-order stalwart like Paul Konerko, who people still forget to talk about when discussing the best first basemen in the majors. But we need a centering presence, with the kind of inner calm that prevents losing streaks from turning into swoons. We have youthful scrappiness and athleticism, and neither Reyes (too hyperactive and self-contained, despite the correlations between his performance and the Mets’ successes — also too injury-prone) nor Wright (not vocal enough, and seems to press a bit from time to time) ever grew into the clubhouse leaders we had hoped they’d become. We need a good, solid, talk-to-the-young-cats type of cornerstone, and I believe they’re out there to be had. And then we need to …
5. Stop over-platooning and let the lineup settle
I’ve never been a fan of managers who change the lineup too much from night to night. I get the value of platooning at, say, one position where the players are clearly complementary, but I also believe there’s some value in knowing where you stand, as a player and in the lineup. It is possible for lefties to hit lefties, and righties to hit righties; sometimes, you just have to trust your guy to get a hit. How is Duda going to improve against left-handed pitching when not only does he not get much practice, but the team displays no confidence in his ability to do so? Scott Hairston, a righty, is a guy who can play multiple infield and outfield positions and hit with game-changing power off the bench; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, an athletic lefty with speed and occasional power, can play every outfield position and provide lefty pop in the late innings. We can keep Ronny Cedeno as a backup middle infielder, and that’s not too bad of a bench. With the current Met players, I think we have a solid one-two punch to lead off (Baxter and Valdespin), a bona-fide three hitter (Wright), a viable four-five hitter (Duda), and a patient, quick and smart .300 hitter who can back up the order nicely (Ruben Tejada). Kelly Shoppach is a solid-hitting catcher, and I believe Josh Thole can rediscover the promising slap-hitter who emerged earlier in his career. Add a veteran presence at first base, with decent enough power to hit fifth or sixth, and that’s a darn good lineup. Dickey and Harvey are a good one-two pitching punch. Get another starting pitcher, from the minor leagues or via a Davis and/or Bay trade, and we have a solid rotation with Young and Niese in the middle and Santana drawing mismatches at or near the back end. Then, maybe our bullpen can relax, get some occasional mental and physical rest, and perform to their abilities — Jon Rauch, Bobby Parnell and some of our other guys do have stuff. Just a few moves, and voilà! A contender. A darn good team, actually.
Ya gotta believe.