While it seems like the Washington Nationals went wire-to-wire en route to winning the National League East last season, the New York Mets were tied for first place as late as June 4th and were just 2.5 games back as the calendar turned to July. After that? Well, it got ugly. The Mets were 31-52 over the last three months of the season, falling 24 games behind the Nationals by season's end. The Mets spent their offseason building for the future by trading 38 year old R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays for prospects and signing David Wright to an eight-year, $138 million contract extension.
Manager: Terry Collins (3rd year)
2012 record: 74-88, 4th in NL East
SB Nation blog: Amazin' Avenue
Other Mets coverage: MetsBlog
Series vs. Tigers: August 23-25 @ Citi Field
Before injuring his quad in May of 2012, shortstop Ruben Tejada was hitting .305/.362/.400. He returned in late June and continued to hit well, but his overall numbers took a dive when he hit just .266/.310/.294 in September and October. Just 23 years old, Tejada looks like he could turn out to be an above average shortstop if he takes a few more walks. Middle infield counterpart Daniel Murphy has similar walk numbers with slightly better power, but his glove is awful.
Hitting behind the two walk-less wonders will be David Wright, American hero of the World Baseball Classic. Wright rebounded from a rough 2011 year by hitting .306/.391/.492 in 2012 with 21 home runs and 93 RBI. His .186 ISO didn't get back to the .200+ level he consistently lived in prior to 2011, however. First baseman Ike Davis rounds out the infield, likely hitting behind Wright as he did for much of 2012. Davis had a rough go last season, but still hit 32 home runs despite an abysmal .246 BABIP. Expect a bounce-back season from him.
If it seems weird that the infielders are hogging the top four spots in the lineup, it's because the Mets' outfield is pretty awful. Their fans are cautiously optimistic, but let's be honest: they are like that about everything. Lucas Duda hit .239/.329/.389 in 2012 with 15 home runs. He will probably be the Mets' #5 hitter. The last time a team had a #5 hitter with an OPS that low and still won their division was... wait, bad example.
Beyond that, the lineup is a mess. Mike Baxter will probably be the starting right fielder. He would be a platoon guy on most rosters. Either Collin Cowgill or Kirk "Spellcheck" Nieuwenhuis will start in center field on most days, though there is a push to bring up minor leaguer Matt den Dekker if he can cut down on the strikeouts. Jordany Valdespin will compete for playing time as long as he has recovered from this traumatic experience. Ditto for utility man Justin Turner, minus the nutshot thing.
Things get a bit more interesting behind the plate, however. John Buck will likely get the lion's share of playing time to start the season, but it won't take long before Travis d'Arnaud -- the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey deal -- is called up to the majors. d'Arnaud will probably be kept in the minors long enough to keep his arbitration clock on hold for another year. After hitting .333/.380/.595 in Triple-A Las Vegas last season, I think it's time he got a shot at major league pitching.
With R.A. Dickey now pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, the "staff ace" burden has been passed back to Johan Santana. The former Twin returned from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season, but didn't pitch particularly well. Santana amassed a 6-9 record and 4.85 ERA/4.09 FIP/4.02 xFIP in 117 innings -- including the first no-hitter in Mets franchise history on June 1st -- before succumbing to another shoulder injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Left-hander Jonathon Niese quietly had an excellent season in 2012, winning 13 games with a 3.40 ERA. While he wasn't quite as good as his Cy Young award-winning teammate, this didn't stop the Toronto Blue Jays from inquiring about the 26 year old lefty when the two teams made their deal this offseason. The Mets made the right move by parting with Dickey; Niese is under a very team-friendly deal through the 2018 season.
Dillon Gee also saw his 2012 season end early thanks to a shoulder injury, but seems to be feeling no ill effects this spring. Through seven innings, Gee has allowed just one run on four hits. Gee had a solid 4.10 ERA/3.71 FIP/3.54 xFIP last year in 109 2/3 innings.
Shaun Marcum signed with the Mets as a free agent after an injury-plagued 2012 season with the Milwaukee Brewers. His $4 million contract will give him more chances to make the rotation than prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, though this may not matter if Santana can't get healthy. If Marcum can put together a solid season, he may land himself one last payday with a multi-year deal next offseason.
Harvey and Wheeler are a pair of right-handed prospects with a lot of upside. Harvey made his major league debut last season in show-stopping fashion, striking out 11 hitters in just 5 1/3 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 26th. With a changeup like this, I'm not surprised. Wheeler finished last year by striking out 31 hitters in 33 innings at Triple-A Buffalo, though his increasing walk rate has some fans a little concerned.
Bobby Parnell was the only Mets reliever who wasn't completely awful last year, posting a 2.49 ERA in 68 2/3 innings. He will likely be the closer to start the year after finishing 2012 in the same role. Other than that, it's really anyone's guess where people end up in this bullpen.
Spring Training storylines
The only real story coming out of Mets camp is whether Johan Santana will be ready to pitch at the start of the regular season. Considering he still hasn't pitched in a game yet, there's a good chance that Santana spends a couple weeks on the disabled list to start the season. Jonathon Niese is currently expected to make the Opening Day start against the San Diego Padres. If Santana hits the DL, both Harvey and Wheeler should be expected to start the year in New York.
It is possible that their fates may have already been determined, but don't tell that to youngsters like Travis d'Arnaud and Matt den Dekker. Both players have been performing well in limited Spring Training action; d'Arnaud is hitting a healthy .261/.333/.348 in 23 at bats and den Dekker has a home run and two stolen bases in 11 games. While the organization may be tempted to bring these players north with the big league club, it seems like most fans are hoping to see the young talent in this organization stay in the minors for a little while -- in d'Arnaud's case, we're only talking a month -- for cost-control reasons.
Player to watch: Matt Harvey
Zack Wheeler might have the more gifted arm of the two, but Harvey is the more polished pitching product at this point. With a legitimate four-pitch arsenal, Harvey has ace potential. His fastball averaged 94.6 miles per hour last year and you already saw the excellent fading action on his changeup if you clicked the Fangraphs link above. He needs to avoid pitching up in the zone as much as he did in 2012, as I would expect that gaudy strikeout rate to come down a bit.
The Mets should spend most of the season battling the Miami Marlins for 4th place in the division unless something goes horribly wrong with any of the contenders. However, don't expect them to stay there for long. If the young prospects in the organization can reach their potential -- which is easier said than done, as always -- the Mets could begin to challenge the upper echelon of their division as early as 2014.