It could be a poetic story, depending on the ending. The New York Mets' 2014 season effectively ended on August 24th, 2013. Matt Harvey made what would be his final start of the year, a 6 2/3-inning losing effort to the Tigers. Harvey was placed on the disabled list two days later, then had Tommy John surgery two months later. The Mets bumbled their way through the 2014 season, finishing in second place with a 79-83 record. While they remained within striking distance for most of the first half, they never truly threatened the Washington Nationals for the NL East crown.
There doesn't look to be much change in the NL East pecking order in 2015 -- Washington is still the most talented team in the division by a wide margin -- but optimism is abound in Mets camp. Harvey is back, and there are a bevy of pitching prospects in his wake. The team is in the envious position of using proven starters Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee, and Jon Niese as trade bait in order to make room for younger arms like Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Rafael Montero.
The offense is another story, though. David Wright and Curtis Granderson are both coming off the worst seasons of their respective careers, and there are more questions than answers throughout the lineup. New addition Michael Cuddyer should help beef up the middle of the order, while young players like Travis d'Arnaud and Wilmer Flores are expected to improve. The belief is that the Mets only need a league average offense to help their excellent pitching, which only requires a modest improvement from the unit that finished eighth in the National League in runs scored in 2014.
On March 6th, more than 16 months after his surgery, Matt Harvey took the mound for the Mets. His opponent? The same Tigers he last faced in 2013. Can Harvey pick up where he left off and lead the Mets back to the playoffs? Or will his supporting cast falter, leaving the Mets in limbo for yet another season?
Manager: Terry Collins (5th season)
2014 record: 79-83
SB Nation blog: Amazin' Avenue
Once again, the Mets' lineup will revolve around what David Wright can do in the middle of the batting order. Wright played through a left shoulder injury that sapped his power in 2014, resulting in just eight home runs and a career-worst .698 OPS. He was still above average defensively, but his lengthy injury history is concerning, especially now that he's 32 years old. It's just anecdotal evidence, but Wright's massive home run from last weekend suggests that he's healthier than last season.
Wilmer Flores hit a three-run bomb of his own earlier in the week, and the Mets are hoping he can do that consistently as the team's starting shortstop this season. Scouting reports have not been kind about Flores' glove at short, so he will need to improve on last year's .664 OPS to keep his job. To his credit, he hit .267/.302/.489 with four home runs last September. Second baseman Daniel Murphy made his first All-Star appearance last year, hitting .289/.332/.403 with 48 extra base hits and 13 stolen bases, but his defense also leaves something to be desired. First baseman Lucas Duda played in his first spring training game over the weekend after recovering from a rib injury. The 29-year-old lefty hit .253/.349/.481 with 30 home runs and 92 RBI last year.
Duda's .516 OPS against left-handed batters will probably result in outfielder Michael Cuddyer spending a fair amount of time at first base. Cuddyer hit .332/.376/.579 in an injury-plagued season with the Colorado Rockies last season, his second straight year above the .330 mark. He will probably hit closer to his career .279/.347/.466 line in New York, but this is plenty good enough for a Mets team that had one starter (Duda) with an .800 OPS last season.
Center fielder Juan Lagares hit a surprising .281/.321/.382 last season, a major improvement over 2013's .633 OPS. Arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball, any extra value from Lagares' bat is a major plus. Curtis Granderson will be the Mets' right fielder for better or worse this year, but it's hard to be much worse than he was in 2014. Granderson hit .227/.326/.388 last season, his lowest OPS and WAR total of his career. There isn't much behind Granderson if he falters, as veterans John Mayberry and Kirk Nieuwenhuis have limited upside. Mayberry is a pinch-hitting specialist who will probably start against left-handers when Cuddyer slides to first base.
The Mets have placed a lot of expectations on catcher Travis d'Arnaud, and a solid 2014 season only sent those expectations higher. d'Arnaud hit .242/.302/.416 with 13 home runs in 421 plate appearances, but he didn't really take off until a mid-season demotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. He hit .272/.319/.486 after getting recalled in late June, including a .903 OPS in September. d'Arnaud had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow during the offseason, leading some to consider him a breakout candidate on both sides of the ball in 2015. Backup catcher Anthony Recker will eventually be chased out of town by prospect Kevin Plawecki, but the young backstop only has one season above A-ball under his belt and is hitting below the Mendoza line this spring.
Matt Harvey was ready to get back on the mound last season after having Tommy John surgery in October of 2013, but the Mets decided to play things safe with their ace. Harvey allowed a 2.27 ERA and 2.01 FIP in 178 1/3 innings in 2013, and was one of the favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award before he was shut down. Harvey's fastball has already been working in the high-90s this spring, and he looked like his former dominant self in his outing against the Tigers. While Harvey is finally healthy, Zack Wheeler is not. The 24-year-old right-hander had an MRI of his elbow this weekend and was scratched from his scheduled start. He apparently pitched through some elbow soreness last season, but it did not affect him. Wheeler allowed a 3.54 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 185 1/3 innings. His command is still a bit spotty at times, but he struck out over a batter per inning.
Standing in the way of some of the Mets' highly regarded prospects are veteran starters Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon. Niese has struggled with shoulder injuries over the past couple seasons, but has still compiled a 3.54 ERA in 330 2/3 innings. His velocity has returned to pre-2013 levels this spring, but it's hard to see his numbers getting much better than the mid-rotation production he provided in 2014. Colon's ERA rose to 4.09 last season, but he was able to pitch 202 1/3 innings as a 41-year-old. Now in the last year of his contract, Colon will be looking to ward off Father Time for six more months. He should put up another stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio, but his ability to generate weak contact will determine how effective he truly is.
Jacob deGrom was one of the more amazing stories of the 2014, coming out of nowhere to dominate the National League and win the Rookie of the Year Award. deGrom had just two outings with more than three earned runs allowed, resulting in a 2.69 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 140 1/3 innings. He also upped his strikeout rate from his minor league days, whiffing over a batter per inning. It will be interesting to see if deGrom can repeat his success in 2015, though it's worth there are no red flags from his 2014 numbers.
The Mets have a solid core of relievers that helped them compile a 3.14 ERA last season, fourth in the National League. However, high walk and home run rates led to a 3.84 FIP, 3.72 xFIP, and an MLB-worst -1.6 fWAR. Closer Jenrry Mejia posted a 2.72 ERA and 2.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio after moving to the bullpen last year, but he is coming off sports hernia surgery this offseason. Former closer Bobby Parnell may also be in the conversation for save opportunities, but he has yet to pitch in a Grapefruit League game after having Tommy John surgery last April. Right-handers Jeurys Familia and Vic Black had solid rookie seasons in 2014. Black recently underwent a shoulder MRI that revealed no structural damage. Dillon Gee may also see time out of the bullpen, but the transition doesn't seem to be going well. Left-hander Josh Edgin will undergo Tommy John surgery, but Rule 5 acquisition Sean Gilmartin held lefties to a .454 OPS in the minors last year.
Down on the farm
The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have drawn most of the prospect-related headlines over the past couple years, but the Mets possess one of the most top-heavy farm systems in the game. Top prospect Noah Syndergaard is another potential ace in the making, while five others -- Steven Matz, Brandon Nimmo, Amed Rosario, Kevin Plawecki, and Dilson Herrera -- joined him on Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospects list. Rafael Montero fell off top 100 lists after struggling with his command in 2014, but he allowed just two earned runs in his final three MLB starts of the season. Shortstop Matt Reynolds isn't as highly regarded as others, but he hit .343/.405/.454 in the minors last season and is currently enjoying a monster spring. Given the Mets' track record with other unheralded young players like Jacob deGrom and Juan Lagares, Reynolds could be one to watch.
Player to watch: Juan Lagares
All eyes will be on the Mets' vaunted pitching staff this season, but their next star may actually be stationed in center field. Amazin' Avenue is particularly excited about a short stretch in August and September that hints at what Lagares might be capable of.
Lagares turned in a solid offensive season in 2014, bringing his batting average up to .281, stealing 13 bases, and raising his OPS to a respectable .703. His 5.5 bWAR ranked seventh among all National League position players and his defense earned him his first Gold Glove Award. Moreover, a small 20-game stretch from August 22 through September 12 hinted that a major evolution of Lagares's game may be coming.
During that time, Lagares posted a .321/.353/.436 (.789 OPS) batting line, scored 11 runs, hit two home runs, drove in 13 runs, and stole nine bases. The nine stolen bases over that (admittedly small) sample of games is especially notable and opened a lot of eyes.
Lagares put up 3.8 fWAR last season as a league average hitter, and an uptick in stolen base totals alone during a healthy season (he only played 116 games in 2014) could result in a five-win season. His low walk rate will suppress his offensive upside, but tacking on a little more average and power to his elite defense could make Lagares into one of the best all-around center fielders in the game.
The Mets have the pitching talent to rival just about any club in baseball, but their offense will need to remain remarkably healthy to contend in 2015. Both David Wright and Michael Cuddyer are in their 30s and coming off injury-plagued seasons, while Curtis Granderson potentially wishes he had an injury to blame for his poor numbers. Daniel Murphy is a solid contributor, but the club will need more from young players like d'Arnaud and Flores to improve on last season's offensive output.
That said, even a below average offense could get the job done if this pitching staff plays up to its potential. We have already seen ace-level production from Harvey and deGrom in spurts, and Wheeler is a good bet to improve if he can stay healthy. With so much young talent waiting in the wings, the Mets have a competitive window that is just beginning to open. However, 2015 might be their best chance to take advantage of their aging offensive stars and make a push for the postseason. Will it happen? I think they will eventually fall just short, but still finish with their first winning record of the Terry Collins era.