New York Mets
The Phillies rule the division. The Braves are loaded with pitching. The Marlins spent big in the winter. And the Nationals have dynamic young stars. The Mets? They’ll show up — as long as they keep getting loans to keep the business up and running, anyway. There’s little reason for optimism at Citi Field, where attendance is slipping fast and only blind loyalists expect the Mets to avoid the basement of the National League East.
For all of their injury woes, the Mets somehow had five starters make at least 25 starts apiece last season, which is often a predictor of success. Problem was, their five were decidedly mediocre, going 50–55, with only one starter, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, posting an ERA below 4.40. Four of the five will return this season, with ace Johan Santana taking the place of Chris Capuano, a one-year fill-in who led the team in strikeouts and then signed with the Dodgers. Serious shoulder surgery limited Santana to only two starts for Class A St. Lucie last season, and the Mets are cautiously hopeful that he will be ready for Opening Day. That may be asking too much, but it seems at least as likely as Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey all rising from back- to front-end kind of starters. Gee, Niese and Pelfrey struggled on the road, and they could be exposed this season, with outfield fences now normalized at Citi Field. Dickey, improbably, is the old reliable, finishing the season with 12 quality starts in a row. At $4.25 million this season, Dickey is doubly rare for the Mets: a good player, and an actual bargain.
The Mets needed a bullpen makeover after their 2011 group posted a 4.33 ERA to rank 28th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the Astros and the Twins. So in a market rich with closers, the Mets decided it was wiser to spread their limited funds on multiple arms rather than one big name for the ninth inning. To that end, they signed Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco while trading for Ramon Ramirez, all on the same night at the winter meetings. Rauch and Ramirez (one of the most underrated and reliable relievers of the last few years) should be capable setup men for Francisco, who cost $12 million over two years after a dominant second half with Toronto. Francisco is a hard thrower, combining a splitter with a fastball that averages more than 94 miles per hour. He has 368 career strikeouts in 334 career innings. Holdovers Manny Acosta and Bobby Parnell offer depth in the middle innings. Tim Byrdak, a useful lefty, will miss the first month with a tron meniscus. D.J. Carrasco and Pedro Beato offer depth.
The Mets made little effort to retain Jose Reyes, understanding that they could never match the motivated, cash-rich Miami Marlins. So Reyes moved on, for six years and $106 million, leaving the Mets with Ruben Tejada in his place. As backup plans go, it’s not too bad — Tejada is only 22 and had a .360 on-base percentage while accumulating 376 plate appearances last season. At second base, the Mets want Daniel Murphy’s bat in the lineup and will do all they can to make the position feel natural to him. Last spring, Murphy hop-scotched around the infield and did not have a set position. “This spring going in,” manager Terry Collins says, “if we concentrate and say, ‘Hey, look, you’re going to get the majority of your playing time at second base,’ I think you’re going to see a little bit more comfort when he takes the field.”
Owner Fred Wilpon stung David Wright early last season by telling The New Yorker that Wright was not a superstar. It was a rude thing to say about the team’s marquee player, who never seems to turn down a charity appearance on behalf of the team — but it was pretty much accurate. Before the Mets moved to Citi Field, Wright had four consecutive seasons with an OPS of .912 or better. In the three years at their new home, his highest OPS is .856. The Mets have brought in the fences this season, which could help Wright rediscover his opposite-field stroke, and they have to hope he moves better in the field after missing time last season with a stress fracture in his back. First baseman Ike Davis never played after May 10 because of a serious ankle injury, but he should be back and ready to resume his career as one of baseball’s top young first basemen. He lacks the power of slugging first basemen like Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira, but at 25, Davis’ career arc is headed in the right direction.
In hindsight, the Mets’ four-year, $66 million contract for Jason Bay seems quite foolish, as his two Mets seasons have been disastrous. The Mets need Bay to be the offensive threat he once was, and maybe, with the smaller dimensions at home this season, he can again be the run producer a legitimate corner outfield should be. Bay has been adequate in left field, and the Mets believe they’ve improved defensively in center field with the addition of Andres Torres from the Giants. Torres helped the Giants win the 2010 World Series, but that seems like an aberration in an otherwise ordinary career. Right fielder Lucas Duda thrived after the trade of Carlos Beltran, hitting .315 with a .919 OPS over the final two months of the season. Duda is big and burly, but his bat earns him a spot in the lineup, and with Davis back at first base, right field is the best place to put him.
Josh Thole was born Oct. 28, 1986, in Breese, Ill. That same day, in New York City, an estimated 2.2 million people lined the streets of Manhattan for a ticker-tape parade, exulting in the glory of the Mets’ World Series championship. Thole would love to be behind the plate the next time the Mets win a title, and at his age, he could have staying power. He held his own in 2011, with a .268 average and 40 runs batted in over 114 games as the Mets’ primary catcher. But while Thole caught 44 percent of potential base-stealers in 2010, that figure dropped to 21 percent with more exposure last season. Thole, who was mostly a first baseman early in his minor league career, also led the league in passed balls (16) and admitted to a lack of confidence on defense. Yet with no viable starter ready to supplant him in the system, the Mets will continue to trust in Thole and dream big dreams.
The Mets have little reason to spend money on their bench, which seems likely to be filled by fringe major leaguers and prospects or non-roster invitees who make a good impression in Port St. Lucie this spring. Justin Turner could see some playing time at second base, although Ronny Cedeno will be the primary middle infielder off the bench. Scott Hairston is a valuable pinch-hitter with some pop who can play multiple positions. Mike Baxter will get some opportunities to pinch-hit.
The Mets might not win many games, but it won’t be for lack of effort. Collins demands it, and his team displayed plenty of grit to even flirt with .500 last season. General manager Sandy Alderson and a sharp baseball operations staff will try to give Collins pieces to keep the team respectable enough to get the fans back. The Wilpons continue to seek investors while maintaining majority control of a franchise that incurred $70 million in losses last year.
Until the Mets completely settle their shaky finances, they will continue to avoid pricey additions, making the development of their mediocre farm system critically important. The upside is that their prospects should have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves, as Davis and Duda have done in recent seasons. But there’s hardly enough star power to make the Mets a playoff contender. The Mets already squandered the Reyes era without reaching the World Series. Wright is a proud company man, but at this point he seems to be lingering by the exit.
CF Andres Torres (S)
Profiles as a classic fourth outfielder who overachieved in 2010, but Mets will see if he’s more.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
Will work extensively on the fundamentals of second base, to keep bat in lineup and avoid further injury.
3B David Wright (R)
If traded, his option for 2013 is voided and he can be a free agent after the 2012 season.
RF Lucas Duda (L)
Must get really tired of opposing PA announcers playing “Camptown Races” when he bats.
LF Jason Bay (R)
His 18 homers in two Mets seasons are half the total he hit for Boston in 2009.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Had 20 RBIs in month of April, one of only 12 Mets ever to do so.
C Josh Thole (L)
After a slow start, hit .299 from May 26 through the end of last season.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
If he can maintain his .360 OBP from 2011, he could rise to the top of the order.
UT Scott Hairston (R)
Can play second base or any outfield spot and provides some pop — hit seven HRs in 132 ABs in 2011.
2B Justin Turner (R)
Hit .350 (35-for-100) with runners in scoring position last season.
C Mike Nickeas (R)
Didn’t hit much at Class AAA, but manager Terry Collins likes his defense and attitude.
IF Ronny Cedeno
A .246 career hitter, but a solid defender at both short and second.
1B/OF Mike Baxter
Queens native has played in 709 minor league games, 31 games in the majors.
LH Johan Santana
After a year lost to shoulder surgery, how close can he be to the ace of old?
RH R.A. Dickey
Knuckleballer took a while to establish himself, but has many good years ahead.
RH Mike Pelfrey
Handed the Opening Day starting job last season — and proved he’s not an ace.
LH Jonathon Niese
Intercostal strain ended a promising season in August; can he move beyond a .500 pitcher?
RH Dillon Gee
Opponents’ batting average went up every month from June through September.
RH Frank Francisco (Closer)
New closer’s ERA was 5.92 at the All-Star break in 2011, but 1.37 thereafter.
RH D.J. Carrasco
Had a September to forget, allowing 21 hits in only seven innings.
LH Tim Byrdak
Across 415 career games, lefties are hitting just .206 off the former Rice Owl, but a torn meniscus will keep him out for a month or so.
RH Pedro Beato
Rule 5 pick started his MLB career with streak of 18.2 innings without allowing an earned run. Likely to start the season on the DL.
RH Bobby Parnell
Flamethrower averaged more than a strikeout per inning for first time in career.
RH Manny Acosta
Has a 3.22 ERA in 85 games for the Mets last two seasons, with more strikeouts than innings.
RH Ramon Ramirez
Of the six pitchers with at least 275 appearances since 2008, Ramirez has the lowest ERA, at 2.77.
RH Jon Rauch
Physically imposing at 6'10", 290 pounds, but fastball averaged just 89.5 MPH last season.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals